Yes, I was known as “emotional” – not a desired trait in my adopted homeland of Indonesia, where confrontation is avoided – and when people said they had met me before, I would sometimes parrot the famous quote from Julia Roberts and ask, “Was I nice to you?”.
I could list a number of contributing factors. I was sexually molested by an older boy when I was six, had developed anorexia nervosa by age 11 and then had bulimia most of my teenage years. A sister, two years older than me, had died at age eight, and I also experienced the disruption of moving from my birthplace of South Africa to England, and then to the US at age 14.
And I also knew from an early age that I was gay. I achieved, doing my utmost to win approval and people please, all in an attempt to stave off any negative reactions to me being gay from my family. When we moved to an affluent New York commuter town from my mother’s UK homeland, the teenage me would eagerly await the New York Times Book Section each Sunday, searching for books on LGBT people. My Christmas list at age 15 was for books on Vita Sackville-West and John Cheever, the closeted, self-hating American author.
But when my accidental coming out did happen – I was 21 and had carelessly left out a card from a lover – my parents were shocked. I was told that I was not the son they had raised, and that I should stay on campus during holidays because they did not want my younger brother to become influenced by my homosexuality. I woke up one morning and, bleary-eyed, scanned a mosaic of brochures about STDs on my door.
“Well, that’s your future,” my mother pronounced when I queried her on them. “You may be young and cute now, but there’s nothing sadder than an old faggot.”
My mother, as she said, was a “’50s’ girl”.
I chose to flee, not fight. I pursued a scholarship for travel abroad, and returned to Indonesia, where I had studied on a year-long high school exchange program. Jakarta became the port in my emotional storm, and I decided I would turn my back once and for all on my family. Years passed; I did not see them for seven years, and then for a further 10 years, and then three years, conspicuously absent from all my family’s rites of passage. I salved my pain by comfort eating, gorging on all the foods I had denied myself during my teen years of eating disorders.
I had rejected them before they could reject me again; it became the pattern of behavior in my relationships and friendships. I could not accept criticism or intolerance of my failings, and would summarily dispose of friendships with the ease of a click of the “unfriend” button on Facebook. It was my defense against being hurt, although I was a frustrating and confounding person to know.
Times, and society, changed during these years of estrangement. My parents made overtures to me to move on from the pain of the past, but I steadfastly refused, wearing my wounds as my personal badge of courage. I was filled with recrimination and vitriol, and phone conversations would inevitably end in anger. I sobbed when I saw my second cousin, who is exactly half my age, come out in a YouTube video; and then I was stunned to see the “likes” from all our relatives, including my aging father (perhaps he did no watch the declaration at the end, I joked).
In 2015, my life slowly unraveled. I left the job I had loved – a comfort zone – for the temptation of a tempting paycheck. I sold out, something I never believed I would do, and found myself with an ogre of a supervisor, a woman who put Miranda from The Devil Wears Prada to shame. Suddenly, I could not control the situation I was in – control, after all, is a very fragile sense of power that can slip away at a moment’s notice – and my anxiety increased at her bullying. I backtracked to my former workplace, which I had left very ungraciously when I believed all was going in my favor, and my insecurities increased.
I became desperate and continually on edge, fearing that I was failing and flailing. I self-harmed, trying to slash my wrist and cut the veins in my arms; bloodied, I appealed for help from my managers, one of whom told me that her solution was to pray more and another advised me to contact a psychologist (there is some way to go for recognition of mental health issues in the workplace in Indonesia, I believe, and sensitivity toward them). I pushed people away, including my partner of 16 years, holed up in my apartment and refusing to see anyone, too listless to even wash my face or clean my teeth.
At my lowest ebb, I finally called my mother. She listened as I recounted my fears, my despair. “Just come home if you need to. We’ll take care of you,” she said.
And so, on a December afternoon, I booked a ticket for London, telling no one and setting off on the long journey, eventually arriving bedraggled, with only one carry-on bag, at my parents’ home, 20 hours later. My father opened the door with a gasp. The next day, despairing at what I had done and left behind, I took an overdose of drugs that I had collected around the house and was hospitalized.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression and initially received daily home counselling. It has helped me, but more important is the untiring and unconditional support of my parents. They dealt with my harangues and outbursts, my dredging up of the past at any opportunity, and bore my anxiety and paranoia. They let me be.
I am starting afresh, in a place far removed from the life I led in Indonesia. I have very little contact with Indonesia now, although I think about it every day and talk about my life there at any opportunity (probably to the boredom of my audience, but so be it). Apart from my partner, who helped clear up my personal matters in Jakarta, I have kept in touch with no one; from all the people I was acquainted with over those years, only one – the actress and activist Hannah Al Rashid – wondered what had happened to me and sent me an email asking my whereabouts. I caught up with her recently in London; her kindness and compassion are her true colors.
So I am trying to turn my life around, just as I turned 50 in November. I rise at 5 a.m., take a walk along the seaside and am taking up tennis again. I have also returned to writing, which is cathartic for me, and trying to find editing and translating jobs. I became a vegetarian. I am reconnecting with British society – which I left at the age of 14 for the US – and finding there are many aspects that I like and admire, as well as those that are not to my liking. No society, though, like people, is perfect.
In a way, I am the prodigal son who has finally returned home. It was not under the circumstances I would have wanted, but the love and understanding shown to me by my parents have saved my life.
Writer Bruce Emond lived in Indonesia for more than 25 years. He currently lives in Kent, Britain, with his family.
Got an opinion on this issue? Let’s talk about it in the comments section below.