Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Drawing the line

When I was in the sixth form, I had a friend two years younger than me, who I'll name BJ (simply by virtue of the fact that they are his initials reversed; I could have called him James Blunt, Jason Bourne or Justin Bieber, but those would have attracted the wrong sort of traffic). Most of the sixth form (not to mention his own year) saw him as a bit of a rarity: a little oddball who didn't really fit into any box, even "outsider". He worked incredibly hard, has very few friends who weren't older than him and regularly attended Christian Union, being the only attendee still in uniform - everyone else who went was in the sixth form. Most people went to argue.

I liked BJ, although I wouldn't have called him a close friend. I knew there was something unnerving about him - he was clean, fresh-faced and well-intentioned, but had difficulty making friends (I saw a lot of myself in him for those reasons); he was close to Lightsinthesky (they met at the short-lived drama club) and thus myself and Einstein too. It was when he was at my house that he asked me a personal question.

"What is it?" I asked, pausing in the act of putting a The Big Knights VHS into the VCR.

He asked me if I'd ever lost anyone close to me. Coincidentally, I had; my mum's best friend (I always called her "auntie", even thought she was no blood relation) had died recently. BJ, it turned out, had suffered something a little worse than this - his uncle had died, leaving him without a permanent male figure in his life. he also told me that his mother had run away from an abusive husband - BJ's father - taking BJ and (I believe) a little sister with her. I felt sorry for him, but also slightly weirded out - why was he telling me all this? I have a good ear for troubles, but I had a lot of my own at the time, and they were well-publicised. Why was BJ confiding in this damaged, questioning, chronically depressed 17-year-old with a massive lack of confidence?

I sensed initially that he was attempting to project the dominant male rĂ´le onto me, and as much as I liked him, I couldn't accept that sort of responsibility. We talked for a while, and eventually the subject turned to sex. Here BJ was incredibly inexperienced - as was I, but at least I knew what I was talking about. He didn't seem to have much of a clue, and the more he talked, the more frustrated he seemed to get. Towards the end of the conversation, he started to talk about the male side of things more, and I got more of a sense of what was going on.

BJ asked if he could show me his penis. I agreed because I didn't know what else to say. He showed me. It looked like, well, a penis. He put it away and then went home. I thought little of the matter, until I got three text messages from him later that day. He texted like he talked, with a stutter (he actually wrote "I - I..." before sentences), admitting halfway through that he thought he may be developing sexual feelings for me - which I'd worked out by then.

I suggested, helpfully, that he might be gay - which he thought was wrong. He also had a crush on a girl in his year, and when he pointed this out to me, I replied with, "maybe you're just bisexual." This possibility clearly hadn't crossed his mind. I was convinced, personally, that he was gay, and that this crush - I knew the girl too - was passing. BJ would eventually divine his own sexuality, although his staunch Christian views would cause problems for him - my Christian views had no problem with his possibly being gay... but that's the flexibility of religion for you.

Flustering, BJ texted me some ideas he'd had about how to "get it out of his system" - although all of them seemed like bad ideas to me. I was too kind to mention the fact that I thought trying to "cure" yourself of homosexual tendencies was abhorrent, but I didn't take too kindly to his plan to watch gay porn in order to be disgusted by it ("but I wouldn't know where to get any!"), mostly because I thought he would be fascinated by it and that may have confused him a little more. He agreed to step back and think about it until anything else happened.

A few weeks later and I found myself demonstrating how to use the Internet to BJ, who didn't have the Internet at home and had barely touched a computer before. I had a framed picture of Soldiergirl by my desk at the time, a heap of anti-live food leaflets next to the monitor and a load of soft porn on the hard drive, although BJ didn't know this. I didn't think soft porn would be his cup of tea. We were talking online to a couple of my friends, when (completely out of the blue) BJ asked if he could see my penis erect - to which I, politely but firmly, said no.

I wasn't comfortable with showing someone else my erect penis - and it wouldn't have been fair on me, or Soldiergirl. However, I also told him that it wouldn't have been fair on him either. It was becoming clearer to me that he wanted more, and that if I gave him a sign of such, he may have expected more. The last thing I wanted was a developing gay relationship, and to be honest, I didn't think he needed one at that point either. I didn't mention it to him ever again, and he never pressed the matter at any point in the future.

However, every time I saw him at school afterwards, he seemed more knowing - slightly more confident and self-assured. Not to any massive degree, but somehow more so. What had happened? I wondered to myself if he had done the soul-searching that he said he would. Was he more comfortable with his sexuality, or did he just shift his focus onto other efforts, like his studies, which (as the grapevine told me) had redoubled - which was remarkable, considering what he'd already done.

I like to think that, maybe in some small way, by drawing the line when I did, but remaining friendly and open, I helped BJ gain some more confidence and assurance in himself as a person. Quite a good job for someone who had no love for himself at all, really.

You may be wondering what happened to BJ. I didn't see him too much after I left school. However, the last I heard from him was that he went to UCL with a student grant. He had a steady boyfriend and was an active member of the university's LGBT society, even being president at one point. Bearing that in mind, I think it's a fair assumption that BJ got his happy ending after all.


Sati said...

At first read I was mesmerised by the idea that sixth form could be cliquey, but then I read again and saw that he was younger. Yeah, 15-year-olds can be unspeakably uninviting to kids who are that bit different. *sighs*

I'm really glad to see the story (or your part of it) ended happily - I was reading with trepidation, expecting a suicide any moment. Too many years as a crisis worker, I guess. I do think you have to draw lines (with anyone) whether that's saying, "no, you can't see my penis" or "no, I won't talk to you about your problems right now, it's 4.30am and I have an eight o'clock meeting" or "no, it's not okay to drop by my home unannounced". It's hard to do when you know people are hurting, particularly when you're naturally compassionate (as you seem to be) but you're probably right that it helps them to move forward, if you do it firmly but kindly. Depression is such a tangled ball anyway, and it's hard for depressed people - kids in particular, but anyone really - to know what to do with themselves and which route to take when it feels like you're in the middle of Alice in Wonderland, with all roads leading you right back here and nothing having any real structure. And I generally think - although many disagree with me - that allowing your depressed friends free rein to say and do whatever they feel like is as harmful as insisting they adhere to a rigid set of rules with no flexibility whatsoever.

So the opinion of this (strange) girl, for what it's worth, is that you did the kid a favour. You were candid, non-judgemental and tried to give him hints on where to turn to get the answers he needed, and you did it without allowing you to be pressured into a situation you felt really uncomfortable with. Would that all teens could cope with an awkward situation so cleanly and nicely. :)

Innocent Loverboy said...

Sixth form is incredibly cliquey. Whether you like it or not, the last two years of school are incredibly cruel in many ways, and the whole clique thing happens, almost by default. I was placed into the "bully this person" box the second I arrived in nursery school, so I had very little hope. By the time I got to the sixth form, nobody really disliked me - but I was still never really a popular kid. Still, I had friends - some.

Thanks for saying that I seem to be naturally compassionate - I try to be. There have been times that I've had a 'phonecall in the middle of the night and I've had to battle my way through the fog of sleep in order to talk people through their problems, but if it ends up with them feeling better (or not jumping off the pier, etc.), then I think it's worthwhile. Some people think I'm a bit of a pushover (47 once said that I'm sometimes too nice, almost without an opinion, in some cases), but I just try to see myself as helpful. If I finish last because of this, then so be it!

In BJ's case, although I would have helped him up to a point, there were some things at which I would have drawn the line - "no, you can't see my penis" being one of them. I also didn't go with him to see Attack of the Clones, partially because I'd already seen it, but also because I didn't want to be alone with him in a dark cinema. Paranoid, maybe? Yes. But I'm not sure how he would have taken it. I tried to stay friends while taking a step back and I think I managed to do that OK.

I myself had depression for an unbearably long time (well, any period of time with depression is too long, but it lasted with years for me), so I knew how it felt. BJ didn't have depression as such - he wasn't exactly there yet - but I didn't want to start him down that path, as that could have ended - as you say - incredibly badly. By coincidence, around that time, my year group put on a harrowing play about a young gay man hanging himself, highly effective but not exactly the sort of thing I wanted to see right then.

I'm glad it ended up the way it did, with another proud gay man out there, a successful student going on to study rightfully deserving, and me not having done anything wrong, even if it did take me years to write about this stuff!