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The Varied Mental and Emotional States of Queer Caregivers in Rural America: A Case Study

I thought this was going to be an adventure.

My middle class upbringing and a childhood reading silly, nonsense books had prepared me to see everything as an adventure. To take every new day and squeeze the life lesson out of it, to remember that I was my own best friend, and that my duty was to remain optimistic. But after two and a half months of this my sleeping schedule is incoherent, I spend most of my days in a thick and stupefying boredom, and the stress is causing me to have small, discrete auditory hallucinations.

At the end of September my Grandmother was hospitalized. She had a fall in the middle of the night and the social worker informed my father that she would need to have someone stay with her or she would be placed in a nursing home. My father sat down and somberly asked me if I would stay with his mother. So I moved to a little town with a population numbering in the dozens. I began learning about medical equipment and how to cook short order. I started running a household.

Huzzah! Queer grandson to the rescue! He’s not pumping out grandkids, might as well make himself useful. For the first time in almost a decade, I am living with a person who doesn’t know I’m gay. Not only am I closeted, I am closeted to my Grandmother, who I haven’t really seen since I was a teenager. The image she has of me isn’t just “not gay,” it is so infantilized that collaborating with it is humiliating. Like, just let me wear the curly wig and the sailor suit and hold the oversized, novelty lollipop so I will never again have to listen to (and pretend to agree with!) your theories on sex before marriage, recreational drug use, and just what went wrong with America.

So I have gone underground. My personality has been replaced with an answering machine message I recorded when I was a child. I greet delivery men, I am cordial, I have manners, I don’t curse, I’m never messy, I am the calm, unflappable one, not a hair out of place, made even more perfect by the blur and chaos that is my little brother. I am the boy with the thorn in his side, the boy with the secret, who imagines he can outrun destiny by being everything to everyone. And even though I have created a fully integrated queer identity and conquered internalized homophobia, I am being asked to step into a role I last inhabited when I was still trying to awkwardly shoehorn women into my sexual fantasies. Before the disco ball dropped and I just couldn’t do it anymore.

What I really wanted was to find a job, and live anywhere but here. I wanted to start living the life of a “Queer In The Big City.” I was going to immerse myself in a community of artists and layabouts, I was going to finally begin living my life. And earlier this year I lived in Austin for two months. People would take me out and buy me drinks because I was entertaining. I developed a taste for vegan food and rode a bike. It was like living in the movie Chocolat except everyone was Johnny Depp.

But no. No big city lights for me. And, FINE PRINT: utter, utter celibacy. A celibacy so complete and frustrating that I am carrying around Foreigner’s “Feels Like The First Time” on my iPod and an ambitious number of condoms. Because if I’m going to go to the trouble of dealing with societal stigma, integrating my personality around my sexual orientation, loving the inner me, and then stuffing all that mental and emotional progress down to play a part I wrote for myself so I would never have to make any of that progress, at the very least there is going to be sex.

I remain optimistic.

20 Comments

  1. Melusin wrote:

    *hugs* if you want them. (disclaimer- I don’t mean to appropriate things)

    My queer husband and I have just separated, and are currently at our respective parents, and dealing with old family acquaintances and friends. Who either don’t believe we’re queer (parents) or don’t know. Fortunately, we’re both from a capital city and do have an external support network that does know.

    But it’s really hard, going from confident and independent, to still relatively independent but constantly being reminded of how wrong you are about things, or that you’re doing the wrong thing.

    I’m here because I can’t really be on my own in our (my and my husband’s) flat while mentally and physically ill, and it’s a temporary measure. Boy is similar, he was seriously unwell before going home. But when at my parents I’m not quite a caregiver, but constantly have to defer to my mum’s neuroses, and my family’s inability to deal with the fact that I’m loud and messy.

    I’m trying to write coursework, and my dad keeps on asking if it’s in yet. That attitude from both my parents was what made me drop out of A-levels and my first university course. Combined with the idea that I’m young and naive, and all my worries are really in my head.

    (when I had my piece on acquiring male privilege up here, and my mum read it, she told me that I was entirely wrong that women faced street harassment and “if I had a son I’d be more worried about him”. I still haven’t forgiven her

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  2. the rejectionist wrote:

    OH DEAR HEART I AM GETTING ON A PLANE RIGHT NOW JUST YOU HOLD ON P.S. I’M BRINGING YOU A LACROSSE TEAM

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  3. Garland Grey wrote:

    @Melusin: Hugs are always appreciated. I loved your piece during Visions of Manliness Week, thank you for sharing your experience. It helps more than you know. It sort of legitimizes my feelings in my own head, if you know what I mean.

    @Rej: JESUS H, REJ, how on earth did you know? I just said to myself not 5 minutes ago “Self, I could fuck my way through a Lacrosse Team right now.” Oh Rej, your love is like a shadow on me all of the time.

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  4. tylrjm wrote:

    Hang in there! I can at least somewhat relate, myself. I’m not out to any of my family, and it really sucks. And my Grandfather just recently died of cancer, so I feel like now might not be the ideal time.

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  5. ozymandias wrote:

    I don’t have much to offer besides
    hugs and sympathy.

    If I could, I would bring you the entire gay male population of my college. Depending on your position on endless Star Wars debates and strange hair colors, this may or may not be a good thing.

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  6. k not k wrote:

    Oh Garland. I wish you strength in this difficult time.

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  7. Mazarine wrote:

    Once you’re done taking care of your grandmother,

    Come back to Austin and come dance with me on TuezGays!

    It will be so fun!

    Mazarine

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  8. Sooz wrote:

    I am not sure it is possible to be under the same roof as people who saw you when you were wee and stupid without someone trying to step back into The Familiar Roles, even if you are grown and paying taxes and all.

    I cannot even imagine a number high enough to represent how much worse it is when you also have to be in the closet all the time on top of that. D:

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 4:21 pm | Permalink
  9. Juliet wrote:

    I am fortunate enough to have a grandfather who, though 90, southern, and conservative, didn’t ostracize me when I came out (he’s pretty nonjudgmental). However, he still refers to me as boy names and calls me his “grandson” and I just don’t have the heart to remind him who I am now. It’s particularly awkward when I’m with him in the hospital or driving him around, and when he makes small talk to nurses and others, I’m his “grandson” who looks and speaks like a woman. Either they think he’s senile/daffy on painkillers, or I’m awkwardly outed. Neither of those is a good place to be, especially in East Tennessee.

    I’m just really fortunate that I *can* be out and so rarely ever have to go back. I’m so sorry that that’s where your life has put you (again). It sounds like you’re doing one hell of a service that won’t ever be recognized or acknowledged for what it is. For what it’s worth, I admire your strength and willingness to help others. And I wish it didn’t come at such a high cost to yourself.

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Permalink
  10. AnthroK8 wrote:

    If I could, I would send you a busload of massuers to help work out the knots after you finish with the lacrosse team.

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  11. Nora wrote:

    I am so sorry! Can we donate to your porn fund? For the meantime?

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 6:58 pm | Permalink
  12. Jenny North wrote:

    Oh man, Garland. You are so strong! I hope you get to use those condoms!

    I’ve found myself trapped & forcibly closeted with family in Alberta far more often than I’d like in the past couple of years, and I’ve always tried to remember this Jeanette Winterson passage from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – it comforts me if only by making me feel less alone & crazy for feeling fucked up in retrograde land, and I hope it does the same for you: “Going back after a long time will make you mad, because the people you left behind do not like to think of you as changed, will treat you as they always did, accuse you of being indifferent, when you are only different.”

    Big hugs to you…. and busloads of sexiness. You deserve it.

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Permalink
  13. Graphite wrote:

    Oh, Garland, hang in there *e-hugs*. I’ve been a caregiver to both grandparents with my mother, and am only now about to get out of my parental home, having stayed in my mother’s house far too long to help out with my grandfather. The desire to live as a full-time agnostic finally drove me to decide that only being able to help on some days has got to be better than grudgingly going along with Orthodoxy, being guilted for every political or religious difference, and being told my boyfriend isn’t worthy because he’s not of our religious group.

    Friday, December 10, 2010 at 5:39 am | Permalink
  14. Samantha B. wrote:

    I’m a heterosexual woman with pretty open minded grandmothers- given they are respectively mentally ill and personality disordered they tend to be fairly open to diversity. So I really can’t speak to some of what you’re talking about here. (Though I’d like to express my support and give out virtual hugs!)

    But I did do hospice for my dying boyfriend at the beginning of this year, and I do have no small amount of awareness about the degree of emotional strain that caregiving can take. It’s fucking awful. And watching someone you regarded with respect- in whatever capacity- become totally infantilized is draining as hell. As a stubbornly, stupidly independent-minded person, it was something really, really hard on me. I just couldn’t stand watching him lose that for himself.

    My admiration for your willingness to do that for someone you have a not uncomplicated relationship with- well, it’s boundless. Take good- very, very good- care of yourself. Hopefully you can keep in mind that you very much have and deserve the admiration of many.

    Friday, December 10, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  15. laura k wrote:

    It might not be much, but I’m thinking of you and sending supportive mental vibes your way. You’ll get through it, and hey, what doesn’t kill you…

    Friday, December 10, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  16. Oliver wrote:

    Ugh. I’m really sorry that you’re having such a lousy time. *hugs* *offers sexual favors*

    I’m a college student, and although it’s different for me because my trips home are theoretically for leisure and always for predetermined amounts of time, it’s still really tough to have to deal with feeling infantilized and sexually frustrated and misunderstood for long stretches of time. The worst part is that it’s so isolating–any one of these things would be manageable on their own, provided that you have some sort of outlet, but, for me at least, having to deal with all of it, all of the time without much contact with my friends eventually just makes me doubt my own sanity.
    It’s like one of those dreams where you find yourself standing naked in your elementary school auditorium being yelled at in a Romance language by an eight-foot-tall duck, and even in your dream you know that something’s very wrong with the picture but you still feel like you’re failing by pissing off the duck. That feeling of panic and isolation and simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility is exactly what going home to that situation feels like for me, and it seems like you’re experiencing something similar. I’m really fucking sorry that you have to deal with it.

    Are you taking care of her indefinitely, or do you see a way out in the near future?

    Friday, December 10, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink
  17. Thumbelina wrote:

    I am sort of pro-nursing home, though I completely understand the desire to stay in one’s home. Just, my mother was in the same situation you are (without the queerness), living with and becoming her mother’s caregiver after a lifetime of a very stressful relationship. When it became too much my grandmother ended up in a nursing home and it was so much better for the mental health of both of them: my grandmother could be cared for by people who didn’t have such complicated emotional relationships with her.

    (I acknowledge that we were privileged in that my dad worked at the nursing home she was in and it was very nearby, so we could still visit her nearly every day.)

    I love your writing, and I hope you’re taking care of yourself as well as your g-ma :)

    Friday, December 10, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  18. Oddrid wrote:

    Oh Garland please take care. I’m so sorry you’re in this position of having to wedge yourself back into the closet for a while. Hopefully it won’t be for long. Oh god that sounds like I want your grandmother to die. THAT’S NOT IT. I just hope some other situation can be worked out so that you don’t have to keep this up for long. :(

    Friday, December 10, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  19. Liz wrote:

    What you totally need here is not just to get laid but to read some of the many volumes of the Cherry Ames series. Once you hit “Visiting Nurse” and “Department Store Nurse” you will be fully qualified to write some kick ass fanfic.

    Friday, December 10, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Permalink
  20. sossajes wrote:

    oh garland, i am so sorry on SO many levels. while i am not a gay guy trying to make a life for himself, i am a woman who doesn’t have kids & isn’t married–on one level i can relate because my extended family doesn’t really see what i do as important, because i don’t have kids (reproduction being the be all and end all of life goals), so my feminist, boundary kicking self retreats to take care of family stuff.

    i don’t want to pry or be intrusive, but you should talk to your folks about how long your family expects you to do this. even a very close family relationship doesn’t mean you need to behave like a tennessee williams character. i really hope you get back to austin soon; one of my platonic soul mates lives there and is so happy, and you deserve to be wicked happy & bought ten trillion drinks.

    on the other hand, taboo-shushed-sex (be quiet so-and-so will hear you!) can be pretty great & passionate, so i hope that works out for you too!

    Saturday, December 11, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink