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‘O Superman!’: Growing Up Gay and Discovering Codependence

Growing Up Gay in the 1980s and Discovering Codependence with Simon Marks

Simon Marks is a drama therapist and addiction therapist, specialising in LGBTQ mental health, chemsex and trauma reduction. He also runs the free gay men’s community discussion group A Change Of Scene. In this blog, Simon shares his story about growing up gay in 1980s Britain, the era of Section 28 that banned the ‘teaching’ of homosexuality in schools. Faced with homophobic tabloid headlines and constant bullying at school, addiction became a way to cope, until Simon came into recovery and discovered the life-changing therapeutic work of Pia Mellody.

Simon’s new workshop Discovering Codependence for gay, bisexual, and queer men, is supported by Help Me Stop London, running throughout July 2022. For more details on this or Simon’s work in trauma reduction, please email or visit The Practice website.

Simon writes: ‘When I was a kid in the 80’s, I was obsessed with Superman. I don’t mean that I was into the comics. Or that I charged round the playground as the Man of Steel fighting my enemies He-Man and The Hulk. I mean I was obsessed with Christopher Reeve. For my eighth birthday, I was given a VHS of Superman. I was ecstatic. It meant I could watch and re-watch close-ups of Christopher Reeve’s blue eyes and chiselled jawline. I could watch my hero fly up to save Lois Lane falling from a building, over and over. You see, I didn’t want to be Superman; I wanted to be rescued by him. I didn’t know why he gave me butterflies in my stomach or why I felt so jealous of Lois Lane. But leaving my bedroom window open at night, so he could swoop into save me, felt the most natural thing in the world.

‘I knew I was gay by the time I was eight – but the prospect terrified me. Gay men were dying of AIDS and were ‘swirling in a cesspit of their own making’, according to one Tory MP. The Sun reported on the national outcry and disgust of Colin and Barry’s kiss on EastEnders – re-naming the soap EastBenders. And Margaret Thatcher introduced Section 28 – the local government act to ban the ‘teaching’ of homosexuality in schools. It wasn’t a great time to be gay. To say I was bullied at school was an understatement. Every day, I heard ‘Poof’. ‘Faggot’. ‘Arse-bandit’. ‘Fudge Packer’. I got pushed, kicked, spat-on and ignored by my peers. Around that time, I started putting on weight. Looking at photos of me between the ages of eight to ten is quite shocking. I easily gained two stone. At home I was forced to hide my sexuality. I was terrified I might be disowned. My parents had no idea how severely I was being bullied. How could I tell them even if I wanted to. I was eight years old. “Daddy, I have funny feelings when I look at boys.”

‘Born into my parents’ divorce, I was the youngest, with three older sisters. I was mum’s hero; I could do no wrong. And dad’s protégé – but could never live up to his expectations. Mum worked full time to provide for us. Dad was barely around. Home was chaotic, overwhelming, and confusing. My sisters and I could pretty much do what we wanted when we wanted. I was a latchkey kid, coming home on my own and helping myself to the fridge, gorging on biscuits and sweets, while I’d watch Superman over and over. Fantasy was far better than my painful reality.

‘In my final year of primary school, my headteacher outed me to my parents and the entire school. He told me that homosexuals were an abomination and died alone. I was ten years old, and my world fell apart. In secondary school, the bullying worsened. I stole money to buy sweets – and friendships. By sixteen, I weighed 16 stone – I’m only 5 foot 6 tall. By eighteen, I started drinking. At nineteen, I was doing drugs. In my twenties I discovered extreme dieting and over-exercise (who knew speed could make me lose weight?!) I formed toxic friendships that were obsessive and enmeshed; trying to control them or allowing them to control me. Relationships baffled me. Sex terrified me. People frightened me. I didn’t want to live, but I didn’t want to die either. For the next decade, I drank, smoked, drugged, overate, starved, fucked, argued, raged, resented, and isolated. On repeat. Over and over, just like my Superman video.

‘Then aged thirty, I rock bottomed and found recovery. Here, my story isn’t that different from anyone else’s. I got sober, got a sponsor, worked my steps, and got well. Recovery – and the people I met there, saved my life. I dealt with my alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorder, and sex and love addiction. I still do meetings. I still have a sponsor.

‘But for the first five years of sobriety, deep down, I felt like there was still something wrong with me. I felt overly sensitive, hyper vigilant, avoidant of intimate relationships and discovered a core sense of shame. I thought it was guilt at first. But guilt is experienced as something I’ve done wrong. Shame is when I feel I am something wrong.

‘As a gay child, shame was heaped onto me; from society, religion, education; government and the media. I was drowning in shame. My eight-year-old limbic brain was in a constant survival mode of flight, fight, freeze and fawn. Nowhere felt safe, so of course I wanted to be rescued. Who wouldn’t? LGBTQ people grow up with this kind of trauma because the world is set up for straight people and binary gender roles. So, fearing rejection, we hide ourselves in the closet, in a constant state of hyper-vigilance. Like anyone experiencing trauma, we self-soothe. This kind of shame bind, however, is uniquely experienced by LGBTQ children. This is why there are disproportionately high numbers of LGBTQ people experiencing poor mental health, addiction, and early death – it’s due to the collective negative experiences we have growing up, as outlined in the book Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd.

In a recovery meeting one Sunday afternoon, I was fortunate to meet a gay addiction therapist, David Smallwood, who changed my life. I told him how I felt, and he suggested I read a book called Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody. It was like someone had written my story. David’s own book, Who Says I’m An Addict? helped me – and thousands of others – to discover the truth about addiction. David explained to me that it wasn’t powerlessness alone that was the root of problem, it was my sensitivity too – both a gift and curse. It was born out of codependence from my traumatic past.  I cried in both pain and relief. Finally I had been seen.

‘Codependency is a human condition, an adapted survival response to childhood trauma. It can be experienced as an avoidance of intimacy; enmeshed relationships; compulsive helping; a want to be rescued; or a need to control. Codependents struggle with self-esteem, expressing their wants and needs, maintaining boundaries, owning their reality, or living in moderation. Codependent people tend to be empathic and highly sensitive – although some may think they are not. They might use mood altering substances such as drugs and alcohol, or behaviours including food, shopping, sex, or romantic relationships to change the way they feel. Sometimes these can develop into addictions. They may find it hard break free from toxic relationships. Codependence can ruin lives – and end them.

‘I had no idea I was codependent – or how much trauma and shame I was carrying. When I did, I realised that it wasn’t even mine. Pia Mellody describes trauma as deriving from different forms of abuse; sexual, physical, emotional, spiritual – as well as neglect, abandonment, bullying and scapegoating – essentially any childhood experience coming from a parent, caregiver, culture or society that is less than nurturing.

‘Reframing my own childhood in this way, I was able to start owning my reality growing up in a dysfunctional home. I started to see how my parents were wounded children too; their unresolved trauma had been passed down to me. What’s more, because my sexuality was shamed and rejected by society, of course, I hadn’t learned about how to have healthy relationships. No one had modelled that for me.

‘I grew up believing that no one was coming to help me anytime soon, so I gave up on myself. I took to rescuing others instead. Controlling them made me feel better about myself. Enmeshment helped me feel wanted; my need to be needed. When my needs weren’t met, I turned to my addictions. Even in sobriety I was still re-acting to life – rather than acting on it. This developmental immaturity destroyed any prospect of a healthy or functional adult relationships. I met the world through a child’s eyes because I was still a child, waiting for Superman to rescue me.

‘I asked David if he would help me, and he became my therapist. He introduced me to a powerful healing process of shame reduction, developed by Pia Mellody and her life’s work to help people recover from codependence. The process involves releasing and letting go of carried trauma and healing the wounding that lies beneath. I took part in an intensive shame reduction workshop and over time began to let go of my painful past. Shame, I learned, dies on exposure.

As I worked through my process with David, I was inspired to train as a therapist myself. Now in private practice, I support LGBTQ people into recovery, to help reduce their shame and trauma. It is a privilege to watch people get better in this way. David and I are now friends and colleagues. In the autumn, we will launch the UK’s first LGBTQ Trauma Reduction Programme based on Pia Mellody’s model, which we have been devising together.

‘Through my own healing, I finally discovered the true meaning of recovery; it’s the actual recovery of my long lost eight-year-old who was still there hiding in the dark, waiting to be rescued. When I eventually found him, it suddenly hit me; Superman had finally come! He was me all along.

Discovering Codependence: An Experiential Workshop for Gay, Bisexual and Queer Men

Over four Saturdays in July – 9th, 16th, 23rd and 30th July – this workshop with therapist Simon Marks explores codependency as a human condition, an adapted survival response to childhood trauma. Explore codependence and understand how it affects gay, bi and queer men. Through connection and shared lived experience, the workshop sessions combine psychoeducation, individual and group process, and dramatherapy – to discover what lies at its core. As you identify your own patterns of codependency, you will learn how to detach from unhealthy relationships, negative thinking and unhelpful behaviours. With tools, resources and insight, you’ll be encourage to start making healthier choices for yourself and in your relationships, as you begin to act on life – rather than react to it. For more details on this or Simon’s work in trauma reduction, please email or visit The Practice website.

Discovering Codependence flier - an experiential workshop for gay, bi and queer men, Simon Marks therapist

Simon Marks is a drama therapist and addiction therapist, specialising in LGBTQ mental health, chemsex and trauma reduction. He works in Central London as an individual and group therapist. He also runs the free gay men’s community discussion group A Change Of Scene.

Simon’s new workshop Discovering Codependence for gay, bisexual, and queer men, is supported by Help Me Stop London, running throughout July 2022. For more details on this or Simon’s work in trauma reduction, please email or visit The Practice website.

Who Says I’m An Addict? by David Smallwood is a lifeline for many people. Get your copy here.

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