by Thomas Whitfield, M.A.
Last Saturday evening I ruined my entire night with past fears and anxieties haunting me. A couple of friends of mine had invited my boyfriend and me to join their group of approximately 20 friends for an evening in Tarrytown (approximately 45 minutes north of NYC). Plan for the evening included dinner, drinks, and a walk through a haunted attraction that takes place in the city annually. We were unable to join them for dinner, but made it in time for drinks and the walk.
There are a couple things you should know. 1.) I grew up in a small town in Michigan, one where it is not seen as okay to be gay. In 2003, after graduating high school, I left aforementioned small town and moved to New York City. Over time, the daily reminders of being different (e.g. being yelled “faggot” in the hallways, having food thrown at me in the lunch room, and slurs scribbled across my locker), seemed to fade away. 2.) Tarrytown, like most other places, is not New York City. This is not to say it is “dangerous” or they are “unaccepting,” but it does absolutely feel more like a small town than a rolling metropolis. 3.) The group of people we were meeting up with consisted of all gay men in their late 20′s and 30′s.
We met at a small Irish pub in the middle of town. Aside from our group of 20 in the back, the bar was filled with locals. Thinking nothing of it, my friends behaved like themselves. They held hands, kissed periodically, and acted the way couples do- they showed affection. There were moments where I noticed the locals watching us, making gestures to each other, and sometimes whispering. My head screamed “They must be talking about us! We are unsafe here! We need to leave.” 4.), which I neglected to mention above, I’m not a mind reader nor do I have superhero hearing. I have no idea what these people were or were not saying or thinking about us.
Once at the haunted attraction the group I was with grew increasingly loud and was clearly having fun. Again, doing the things that people do when they are out celebrating Halloween. My awareness of everyone around us intensified. I felt fear in my body, my heart racing, my hands sweaty, and I became quiet (something I rarely do). My head was spinning, “Everyone here knows you’re gay. They know you’re with this group and that’s not okay. You’re not safe here. Someone is going to say something. You might get attacked. You’re not safe here. YOU’RE NOT SAFE HERE!” I drew my black hoodie up over my head, hiding my face and literally hiding myself. Once in the haunted walk, I was fine. My friends were not acting any differently than they had before but my thoughts stopped, being separate from people in line allowed me to feel safe, to be less afraid.
After the attraction, we all walked as a group back to the train station to head back into NYC. As we walked, people stopped at stores, sang, danced, chatted, again, the usual things people do. Every time we stopped, my thoughts went back to us not being safe. These thoughts continued while we waited at the train station, while we rode the train, and then something magical happened. We entered Grand Central Station and all of my anxiety and fears melted away. My thoughts said, “It’s ok, you’re back in the city. You’re safe. This group can be as loud as they want, say whatever they want, do whatever they want. You’re safe, and everything is fine.”
I felt safe. But nothing had changed. I was still with a large group of gay men, we were all behaving exactly the same, we were in a different city, but the only thing that had changed was my thoughts. My thoughts, constantly telling me that I was “unsafe” were entirely my own and driving my anxiety up. My thoughts ruined my entire night. I was afraid someone was going to yell “faggot”, or physically attack us. Even if these things did happen, no amount of me feeding into my fears and anxieties was going to stop it from happening, or make it happen.
I did not practice REBT while I was on this excursion. My anxiety was too high and I didn’t even realize what was going on in my head until it was over. What I did learn though, is that I do still carry things with me from my past, and sometimes they lead me to think I’m unsafe, even when I’m not. According to REBT, the roads I’m avoiding traveling down are the ones I need to. I need to ask myself, “So, what does it mean if everyone there knew you were gay?”, “What’s wrong with them knowing it”, “What if someone did call you a faggot?” By addressing these questions, and practicing rational beliefs, I’d like to be able to manage hanging out with anyone I want, anywhere I want, and still feel safe.