"He's not like other boys, is he?"

Hi there! My name’s Ewan and I’m 20 years old. I think when it comes to the topic of my experience of bullying and mental health issues, the best place to start is with a quote my year two teacher said to my parents: “He’s not like other boys, is he?”. Perhaps this was my teacher peering into the future where I realised that I was not in fact a boy, but rather a fabulous and fluid being of no determinate gender, although to be honest I doubt that. What it does highlight, however, is how I could never fit in. I was incredibly shy, a bit odd, and struggled to talk to people, let alone make friends, so naturally, I became a bit of a target because I was such an outlier. People would pick on me, make fun of me, as well as push me around and physically hurt me. Yet the reason I never sought out help is because I didn’t know I was being bullied and that they shouldn’t treat me like that. In fact, I thought they were my friends because when they came for me, that was the most attention I’d be getting from my peers. The inability to differentiate between friendly behaviour and bullying carried through into secondary school, so combined with not being able to (and not wanting to) form lasting friendships, I was very alone (I did have some friends over the years, but I never really connected with them, and always ended up drifting away from them). To be clear, I was OK with this loneliness, because I wasn’t ready to interact with people, which in part may have been due to the bullying in primary school, but a large part of it was that talking to and hanging out with people made me incredibly uncomfortable (and to a good extent still does). But it did mean that I didn’t learn about healthy relationships with people until later when I finally started finding people (when I was around 14) that I liked and got along with. I credit them with opening my eyes to a) how friendships should be and b) how useful and validating it is to have friends. It was particularly helpful for me because I had surrounded myself with people who were all queer, or at least would later realise that they too were queer, which was the perfect environment for me to come to understand one of the things that made me feel like an outsider: my gayness.

It had never registered with me that the reason I was so drawn to Matthew Baynton’s portrayal of Dick Turpin in Horrible Histories was that I had a crush on him (the EYELINER! if you know you know oh my god), and suddenly things started clicking into place and I began to understand myself more and feel like less of an outsider (or perhaps more accurately, still an outsider, but with a community). By realising I was gay, it unleashed such a power in me and a confidence that had pretty much never been seen from me before. Yet, of course, as is unfortunately almost inevitable, it meant the target on my back got a new lick of paint, and homophobic comments and behaviours followed me wherever I went. Thankfully for me, it never got too serious, with a lot of the stuff being subtle and under the radar (lots of comments in passing), which although is still not in any way OK, I was able to brush it off (in part to me not recognising it as homophobia, but as you may have noticed there’s a bit of a theme of me not realising when something is something in particular, but I’ll get to that later, I’m trying to roughly stick to my chronology of experiences and discoveries :D ), but other people I know weren’t quite so lucky, and queerphobia in schools is a massive issue that desperately needs to be tackled. It’s why I and a couple of friends in sixth form set up an all-years LGBTQ+ club, which, if your school has, I recommend joining, if not, nag your teachers to set one up, because it’s a truly transformative experience for everyone involved.

Now, I wish I could say that school was the only place where I experienced bullying/ people just being mean, cruel, and manipulative in general, because that would make life so much simpler, but it’s not the case. This is also where it gets trickier for me to write this because I will be going into stuff that I’m still dealing with to this day (of course the bullying when I was younger has stayed with me, but this is all more recent in my mind). The first thing I’ll talk about is the other side to realising my sexuality. As I learned more about being gay, having my first boyfriend in particular, I came to realise and feel the pressure gay men are under to be having sex (it’s not that he pressured me into having sex, more just his surprise that I hadn’t done anything yet, and that he’d done so much already, as had other gay people in my year). Because it took me so long to realise, I wanted to make up for lost time, and I dived in headfirst, so after me and my boyfriend broke up, I went onto Grindr, aged 15. Before I carry on, I just want to say that if you’re on it and younger than 18, I highly recommend you delete it, there’s an age limit on it for a reason. And if you don’t know what it is, that’s probably for the best.               

Desperate to please some imaginary “ideal gay” I’d created in my head, I talked to strangers, sharing pictures and videos, even meeting someone, and I did this for months until I finally realised what was happening, panicked, and got rid of everything. Believe me when I tell you I have glossed over a lot of the details here, but even after 5 years I’m not quite ready to publicly delve into that yet. It goes to show that the community that saves you can also be the one that breaks you, so be careful. At the time, very few people knew what I was doing, probably due to a nice combination of my everlasting communication issues and something deep down knowing that it was something I shouldn’t be doing, but I look back and I long to have told someone, so please, if you’re going through something similar, talk to someone.

The second thing I want to talk about, which has perhaps had the greatest impact on me and my mental health, is being physically attacked, the first time by a group of people, the second time by an individual, both metres from my home. I don’t know if either/ both of them were hate-motivated, and I don’t know if I want to know, or what difference it makes, but what matters is that they happened. Before the first attack, my confidence had been steadily growing, especially since cutting off the source of the online sexual abuse, and I was getting to a point where I was starting to feel comfortable in myself and my surroundings. Then bam, all that went out the window and I was back to square one, so I had to build myself back up week after week until I got to a point where I thought was alright until around 6 months after the first one, the second one happened, and that one broke me. Afterwards, the prospect of leaving the house brought nothing but fear, I would have panic attacks on the way to sixth form and be paranoid that people were following me on the way back home. This lasted for years, and even now, 4 years later, I’m constantly in a state of hypervigilance whenever I’m out and about. And yet despite all this, despite being scared to literally step foot outside, I didn’t tell anyone until much later. I didn’t understand how I was feeling (story of my life amiright :D?), let alone want to talk to someone about it. Well, that is until I met Tom, who is perhaps the most brilliant and radiant person I’ve ever met and will ever meet. We started talking, then we started going on dates and then one thing led to another, and we became a couple (and still going strong!). Over time I revealed more about what happened to me and he pushed me to tell my parents, and then from there, I was able to get professional help, talk through my issues and develop strategies to deal with issues that may arise. Therapy also helped me find some answers that I’d been looking for the reason I never felt right describing myself as a boy was because that I am in fact genderfluid! And the likely culprit for me not understanding my/ other people’s feelings particularly well, nor having the social and communicative understanding that seems to come so easily to other people (amongst an assortment of other things, I have a detailed and thorough list), is that I’m probably autistic (no formal diagnosis yet, hence the probably, but I think it’s highly likely).

So yeah, that’s me! It’s been a journey, but hopefully, if there’s anyone out there who’s reading this who’s going through/ gone through something similar, whether it be one sentence or the whole text, then you’ll know that you’re not alone. I have two bits of advice: firstly, whatever it is, no matter how small you think it might be, tell someone. Although I’m better than I was, I still struggle with my mental health regularly and talking to someone that you trust makes it all the easier to deal with. They can help you get the help and support you need. Secondly, do things that you love! Art has been a lifelong love of mine, and I’m lucky enough to be doing a degree in it now, but even if I wasn’t paying stupid amounts of money to study it, it gives me the space to express myself and vent my frustrations, and along with things like makeup and drag, they enable me to be me, so take whatever you’re passionate about (as long as it doesn’t harm you or anyone else), and run with it! You’ve got this