In talking with friends and other LGBT people about our experiences growing up queer in a straight world, I've found that it's pretty clear that becoming a well-adjusted citizen has proven more difficult than many of us expected. For each of us, this has manifested in different ways: drug abuse for some, sexual dysfunction for others, problems with emotional intimacy for still others, and for a lucky few like myself, a mix of all three.
Like many people, I plowed through my teens and 20s like nothing mattered, because back then it didn't. The world had done me wrong early on, and I was determined to take it out on myself and anyone who dared get close to me. I burned every bridge I came across, and half a decade later the ashes are still smoldering.
During a recent medical visit to address one of the ongoing long-term side effects of my former addiction, the doctor shamed me for having made the terrible choices that I made early on that I am still paying for now (something that has happened on many occasions over the years). With each "this could have been avoided" or "you should just be grateful you are alive," I felt myself shrinking back into that old bad-seed role that I had inhabited for so many years, and it took days to shake the hopeless feeling of being destined to be seen as who I used to be forever.
A dear friend of mine whom I adore also managed to make it through her addicted years with her life tattered but intact. She spent a few years in prison for drug-related crimes and resurfaced a new woman, clean for the first time since she began using as a kid, and ready to start living the life she had been robbed of by the burden of her addiction. Unfortunately, her new "freedom" comes with a burden that she will not likely shake.
Even after paying for her crimes and making things right with society by doing her time, my sweet friend will always wear the virtual shackles of her former imprisonment. She will not be allowed to vote, it will be difficult for her to find a job and housing or volunteer with charitable organizations that require background checks, and she will always be painfully identified as "criminal" by some, no matter how beautiful her transformation has been in the years since. This begs the question: If society won't acknowledge that a person has learned from his or her mistakes and grown as a result, what's the motivation for any of us to even try?
As upsetting as I find all this judgment to be, I am also part of the problem. Sometimes I will walk past someone on the street whom I knew long ago, and I will instantly sum them up as though no time had passed, like I already know their character based on my experience of them from so many years before. This thinking implies that I am the only person in the world who has grown out of being completely terrible. In reality, chances are pretty good that the miserable people I once knew are not still the same miserable people they were back when we were all being miserable together.
I know as well as anyone that people do change, yet I am often quick to judge, and even quicker to react to others judging me. Knocking this off is front and center in my process of trying to become a better version of myself, but it's a practice that takes work to achieve. Lately, when I get upset about the past showing its face in the present, be it through my own ghosts or my partner's, or with my family, in the roles we have been playing for decades, I try to stay present in the moment and stand still with the feelings as they come, realizing that there is nothing that can be done about the past aside from accepting it.
Like it or not, what's done is done. I cannot alter where I have been, the things I did while I was there or whom I was doing them with, and I would not want to if I could. Society may judge me for the road I took, but I have to respect the journey I have been on, even the parts I cannot bear to look at, for without them I would not be the person I am today. This must be applied to those I love as well, however uncomfortable or painful that may feel in the present; and if this is how I am to treat someone I love, should I not also treat every person I meet this way? Whether we be doctor or patient, prisoner or guard, we are all worthy of new beginnings, however low we may have fallen.