[TW: depression, suicide] Reader question: when being in the closet kills

I received this last night. I really don’t want to turn into an advice column, but this is another question that mirrors many I’ve received in the past, so I’ll do my best to answer it.

Hi Salaam!

So I’m a 20 year old queer muslim male, currently in college. I’m realized I was queer when I was around 14 or 15 years old. I’m not out anyone at all in my life. However over the past couple of years since starting college, keeping my queerness a secret has been taking quite the toll on my mental health. My anxiety and depression associated with my secret are at an all time high, and I feel worse than I ever have. My situation now is that mom and dad have now both noticed over the past year how depressed and anxious I have been. They can tell I’m much more reclusive and not as happy as I used to be. I guess I couldn’t hide it forever. Anyways, so just last night, my parents confronted me directly about why I’m so depressed. They walked into my bedroom and just asked me what was going on. I was sitting in front of them, crying uncontrollably and I just can’t tell them why I’m so sad. So at this point, my parents now know that I’m depressed and suicidal, but have no idea why, and I refused to tell them when they asked me. They’re really concerned about me and they’re coming from a very loving place and they now want me to go see a therapist to try to work things out. I come from a practicing Muslim Sunni Arab household and I’m practicing myself, my parents aren’t super conservative,and generally make a good distinction between cultural and religious practices, but they’re conservative enough to not accept LGBT people, at least that’s what it seems. But given that they know I’m in such a terrible mental health situation, would they maybe accept my queerness? I don’t know.  
So yeah, I just don’t know what to do right now because my parents know my mental health is terrible, and I refuse to tell them what’s going on. Any thoughts on how I could approach this situation?

For pretty obvious reasons, this reader also wanted to remain anonymous.

I want to preface this by saying that I am not a doctor and that if you’re having thoughts of suicide, you need to see a health professional. I’m a blogger on the internet, not a psychiatrist or a counsellor. Everything I suggest you do should be done in conjunction with a treatment programme devised for you by a pro. This isn’t as daunting a prospect as you think – if you’re in college, you likely have access to free or very cheap counselling services, and there are therapists that charge on a sliding scale in a lot of cities, particularly bigger ones. Therapists are bound by patient confidentiality. They’re not going to tell your parents or anyone else that you’re queer. I recommend that you find one ASAP and schedule an appointment.

Now, onto other things.

I don’t say this often because I’m not generally in favour of outing yourself if you aren’t assured of a positive reaction, but it might be time to tell your parents.

You’re worried that your parents are too conservative to accept you. That might be true. Maybe they’ll react terribly. Maybe they’ll kick you out or cut you off. Maybe they’ll try to get you to pray it away. Those would all be awful scenarios, and if you honestly think that they’re the most likely, then you can keep this between me, you and your soon-to-be-therapist and maybe you’ll be fine. But it sounds like your parents are pretty good people. You’ve said you think they’re coming from a loving place and that they’re worried about you. Maybe – just maybe – it means that if you come out to them, their first instinct will be to help.

Coming out to my own mother wasn’t easy. I had no way of knowing how she would react. I had to trust that she would continue to accept me for who I was even once she knew everything about me. It was dicey at first. It took her a long while to get used to the idea. I’m not sure she’ll ever really be thrilled about it. But she loves me and supports me, and it’s a huge weight off my shoulders knowing I can rely on her now. I could never have had that assurance if I’d never come out.

Your parents aren’t my mother, and maybe they won’t react the same way. There are a few ways this could go:
  1. The worst case scenario – they cut you off, disown you, never want to speak to you again. This seems unlikely based on your description of them. Even some more conservative religious types listen to love over judgement sometimes. But that doesn’t mean this can’t happen.
  2. Slightly-less-worse-case-scenario – they don’t disown you, but they decide your depression would disappear if you just prayed the gay away somehow. I have a couple of family members like this, and I avoid them at all costs.
  3. A liveable scenario – they’re not thrilled, but they try to support you anyway. They help you seek therapy for your depression and try not to make it all about how if you were straight, you wouldn’t be so upset. I would like to believe your parents are capable of this, but you know them better than I do.
  4. A really good scenario – they’re supportive, they tell you they love you no matter what, and they help you seek treatment. In an ideal world, all parents would be like this, right?

Only you know which of these scenarios is more likely. I hope it’s #3 or #4, but obviously I can’t say for sure.

If you do decide to come out to them, you can always test the water first. Bring up gay rights issues and see how they react. Decide if you could deal with that level of scrutiny or judgement directed at you. If you mention anti-gay laws in Uganda and they say they hope everyone there gets the death penalty, it’s probably not safe to come out. If you mention statistics about gay people being beaten and murdered and they’re horrified, maybe things might not be as bad as they could be. Find a time when you can sit them down and tell them what’s going on with you. Usually I’d suggest that you bring a friend, but you’re not out to anyone, so that’ll be tough. Maybe establish a connection with a therapist first, then invite your parents along to a group session. If nothing else, they’re much less likely to become violent if there are witnesses. (I hate that I have to talk about these things as though there’s always potential for violence, but we all know there is.)

If you don’t decide to come out to your parents, I think you’re still going to have to come out to someone. Definitely your new therapist (I really can’t stress how important it is that you find one), and at least one friend or family member you can trust. This is not a burden you can carry by yourself. It’s eating at you every day and endangering your life. You need at least one ally in your everyday life so that you don’t have to do this all alone. We are not solitary creatures, we humans. We need love, support and community. Those things are sorely lacking in your life right now. Consider joining a campus LGBT solidarity group – you don’t have to be queer to be in one, so this won’t necessarily out you – and see if you can’t find some friends who’ll empathise with you and support you.

Mental illness is such an ugly, unbearable thing. You are not weak or childish or in some way defective for being unable to handle it on your own. I remember being roughly your age and sitting in my doctor’s office, just talking about how I was. He told me, “I think that if you don’t get help, if you don’t get out of the situation you’re in, it’s going to crush your soul.” He was talking mostly about my abusive father, but he was right. Some things a human being simply cannot tolerate forever. I implore you to find a counsellor, doctor or psychologist. I promise that there are some available to you. Your parents may even help you seek treatment, even if you don’t come out to them, given how worried they are about you and how much they want to help. Take advantage of the services available to you as a college student – they won’t be free forever, and you should use them while they are. Find that one person who will offer you a safe, non-judgmental space where you can finally be yourself.

Whether or not you decide to come out to your parents, I really hope things work out for you. Remember that you are never alone. Allah’s blessings be with you, wherever your path may lead.