Stephen Denekamp

Stephen Denekamp


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Stephen Denekamp: I'm Stephen. I'm gay and I grew up in Auckland with three younger sisters.

When I was young we went to church quite a lot, from about the age I was five, and so I always kind of had a lot of those values instilled in me as I was growing up. Some of them are really, really good values, like the whole thing around being fair and that stuff.

But also, I don't know how you take it onboard, but they say that that age period is the imprint period, and so there was stuff around, for example, if there was something gay on TV my mother would do this shake of her head thing - the disapproving shake of the head that mothers do really well. And so I was just picking up those kinds of things, and I think I also picked up that there was right and there was wrong. There was that kind of whole church-type thing.

Gareth: When your mother shook her head, did she shake it at any things other than gay people?

Stephen: Probably. I don't remember specifically, I just do specifically remember that when there was something queer related on the news that there would be that kind of disapproving nod that I'd see. So I picked up that this was something that wasn't good, even though I didn't understand it at all. It was just not something that was allowed or appropriate.

Gareth: And so how did you feel when you saw your mum do that nod?

Stephen: At the time it didn't matter because I wasn't identifying as gay. I hadn't even probably gone through puberty at that stage. It was just taking it onboard that that thing was bad, which of course meant that when I realized I was gay I already had this association that I was something that was bad, or something that wasn't good.

It wasn't until I was 13 that I kind of put two-and-two together that this word gay was something that I was, and that it was a really negative thing. So this one part of myself, this being gay, I really, really didn't like - l hated it - and I did what we always got told in school never to do, which was bottle up your feelings. And so I just tried to ignore that part of myself hoping that it would go away, and of course it didn't because it was an integral part of who I was, and so I just grew to hate it more and more and more.

And what began to happen is that at some point, suddenly that hatred of that one thing turned into a hatred of everything about myself. I thought that it was me that was bad and evil and disgusting, and I thought that I shouldn't actually be here or shouldn't be alive. So I've got several years at high school where I'm just feeling crap about who I am.

Gareth: Was there any other kind of contributing factors that made you feel bad about the word gay or about being gay?

Stephen: I think, especially when you hit high school, there's the gay jokes that are said around, and even my group of really supportive friends would laugh at gay jokes. It's just kind of around everywhere, and I really started to notice that at that age, because I'm really quite hypersensitive to it, and it's all coming up in those teenage years. So it just kind of all compounded.

And then it got to a point, after so many years of hating myself, where everything kind of ramped up, and then I started to have suicidal thoughts, I started to have dreams around dying or killing myself, and it just got really bad. I remember feeling quite sick at the time, because I guess it's not a place where any human should really be.

And it was at that point that I finally told someone. It was a friend from school who I was just chatting with online, and he just did the normal: How's it going? And rather than doing the normal: I'm fine, I'm good, or just those whatever comments, I said, "I'm feeling crap." And he got really interested into what was wrong and started asking me all these questions, and for the first time I finally told someone that I was feeling crap, that I was depressed, and also I came out that I was gay. And he was really supportive, which is really cool, and he really encouraged me to go talk to some of my closest friends, and also to go see the school guidance counselor because he was really worried about the fact that I was so depressed and having suicidal thoughts. And so I did.

I wrote a letter to my closest friend, because I just couldn't tell him, so I wrote it all fully out and handed it to him, and after he'd read it he said, "Do you feel better now?" And I was just so relieved. I think every friend I started to tell, it felt like a big weight coming off, because it was just the release of lots of pent-up emotion going out.

And then my small group of friends that knew, they all very much pushed me to go see the guidance counselor, not because I was gay but because they were really worried about my mental state at the time around being suicidal. So I went to the school guidance counselor, and I remember I went into the office and sat down and she was like, "What do you want to chat about?" And I told her I've got depression, and she almost had this kind of, well okay, let's chat about it, and then almost like: I'll decide whether you've got depression or not. I don't know if she's had someone come in and say this is what I had. And so we talked about what was going on, and she was like, "Yeah, I agree, you do have depression."

And I think for me, though, as great as that was to be sharing that, I was still getting worse. I think it was almost like Macbeth syndrome in that I was in so deep that to go back was just too much effort, I'd felt down for so long. Most people have good days with the occasional bad day. I had bad days with the occasional good day, and that was the difference.

And then at one point I remember doing a speech in English and the topic was "Teenagers have never had it better," and because of how I was feeling I turned it around and said, "Teenagers have never had it worse," and partway through my speech I got a pair of scissors and I cut my arm in front of the class. It was actually written in the speech; I wrote it the night before. I don't know what I was thinking. Looking back on it now I can't imagine how someone could do that, but I think it was very much a cry for help. And as you can imagine, that freaked out the whole class when they started to realize that it wasn't just symbolic - it actually happened.

And that got me sent to the guidance counselor again, of course, and she took that very, very serious, so she, with my parents, organized me to go see a psychiatrist to start really dealing with what was going on.

So I started talking with the psychiatrist and she gave me a book around depression, which was really cool because it was the first time I was reading about what depression was, and that's when I started to really make that disconnect that depression is not who I am, it's something that I'm experiencing. And so that was really helpful.

And also because I was down so bad, it felt like too much work to get any better, so they put me on antidepressants, which I was on for about 6 months to a year, and what they did was just picked me up enough so that I actually wanted to try, because to get better from where I was felt like a lot of work.

And part of that process was also about finally coming out to my parents. So I told mum and dad, actually with the psychiatrist. I was so freaked out. It was the most nerve wracking thing I've ever done, and it was also a relief because the whole thing was this built-up secret that I had, and I just kind of let that go right then and there.

And mum and dad were... Well, mum was not too happy about it because I think it really challenged a lot of her beliefs, as well. They both said, "You're our son; we still love you," but there was still the but-we-don't-want-you-to-be-gay type of atmosphere. My dad was more collected because he's a doctor, so I guess he kind of understood the mental health side of things.

But at least it was out at that point. And also by that point the entire school knew - like, everyone. I don't know quite how it came out, but after that incident just rumors went, and at that point I just wasn't going to deny it. If someone asked me I just said yes, so the whole school found out, like any good school gossip. And the great thing at my school was that that didn't change anything. Everyone was still friends. I didn't have any of that disconnect in friends. Nothing externally bad happened, really, it was just the whole negative self-talk I had and the beating myself up that was the main issue.

And I suppose next was that my sisters found out. One of my sisters was at the same high school I was at, at the time, so she just found out through the grapevine, and that was cool.

Then another sister who's about five years younger than me, I told her, and she was just like, so? That was her reaction, like, okay, yeah, mm-hmm, like it was such a non-issue.

And then I told my youngest sister who's seven years younger than me, and we have this really cute relationship because I'm actually quite the big brother to her, and she's my little sister, and I told her and she... I'm trying to remember back to what she said. It was something like, oh, that's a shame, because she really quite liked the guy that I was dating at the time and of course that meant that he was gay, so now he was off limits. So yeah, that was really cool. It was really, really supportive.

And what kind of happened for me after that is I was gradually getting back to a normal level, like gradually coming out of depression, and that's like an interesting journey in itself.

I know my parents had to have their own journey around what being gay was and all that stuff.

And for me, I got really into doing any sort of personal development work, so obviously I did a lot with reading around depression and stuff. I got involved in Rainbow Youth. I went along to some of their support groups, which is really cool to be chatting with people who had had similar experiences or completely different experiences. And I did volunteer work where I went into schools and shared my story, and to me, as wonderful as that was for the work that it was doing for the community, really it was actually healing myself. Every time I would sit in front of a class and share my story there would be healing going on.

And I remember when I first shared it, the person - because we always had co-runners - who was running it with me, afterwards she said, "You know, it would be cool if you could kind of be a bit happy when you share your story," because apparently it came across very, very depressed, which was great, but it really got like every time I shared it I guess I saw it from a different perspective and how it allowed me to grow, and kind of the good side of it, which there kind of is with everything. So that raised me up again, and everything in my life since then has just been about changing how I see the world, to the point where I am now that I get to choose how I feel, and so depression just isn't even on the radar any more.

Gareth: When you say you get to choose how you feel, how do you do that?

Stephen: Well it's my belief that we all choose what we do. So to me, if I was to do depression now, it would be I would have to do depression. It used to be that depression was something that I... First it was: depression is me. Then it was: depression is something I have or am experiencing. And now it's like: depression is something you do. Like, if I wanted to feel bad, I know I would have to hold myself a certain way. I'd have to tell myself certain things in my head. And so also, to choose how I want to feel is just a matter of noticing my thoughts.

And it changed from doing really simple things like - I don't know where it was I read it or I heard it - to flirt with yourself in the mirror. I remember reading at the time that you'll feel silly, and I remember doing it and thinking, this is really silly. And simple things like looking yourself in the eye and telling yourself that you love yourself, so I started doing that, and just being silly, like just silly, flirty stuff in the mirror when it's just yourself. And it felt really weird and forced, to the point now where if I look in the mirror, that's my natural reaction, whereas a lot of people look in the mirror and their first reaction is: oh, look how whatever you're looking, or I hate you, or stuff like that. People have so many negative conversations in their head the whole time.

And I remember with all the stuff that I was doing, I remember one time feeling, God, I've been so happy the last few weeks, and I thought back, oh, that's because the voice in my head has shut up, or when it's talking it's coming in with positive things. And I'm at the point now, having practiced that, where when something negative does come up I just kind of ask a different question and flip it around so it can never get to where it was before.

Gareth: That obviously takes a lot of personal insight and energy, I guess, doesn't it?

Stephen: Yeah it does. I think it can take a lot of energy to have to actually look at yourself, but for me it's also been a really fun journey and really eye opening and kind of the point of life, really, if I was going to get all deep and spiritual about it.

Gareth: So to you what is the point of life?

Stephen: The point of life is to kind of choose to be the next highest version of that vision that you have about yourself. Like, people have a vision of what they're like, what their highest version of them is, and it's about being the next level of that. And then once you're that, the next level of that, so that you really experience life, and doing whatever you feel you need to do. And that would pretty much be it - and having fun along the way.

Gareth: So how does that play out in a day-to-day sense?

Stephen: In a day-to-day sense, I think for me the big thing is that I'm just so relaxed with life now. Stuff just doesn't bother me. Yeah, I still have emotions so I still have the good stuff and the bad stuff, but it's in terms of choosing to be who I want to be. For me, at the moment it's about finding what I'm really passionate about and doing that, and knowing that if I'm doing stuff that I'm not really passionate about that I'm choosing to do that and I know it's not going to give me the huge sense of fulfillment that I'm after, which is cool as long as I'm aware of that rather than just blindly going through and sitting in front of the TV for five hours, not realizing that I'm sitting in front of the TV for five hours.

Gareth: Can you talk to me about, when you were visiting schools, how the students reacted to you?

Stephen: Yeah, doing workshops in high schools is one of the most awesome things I've done. The students - you get various degrees of classes - some who are really well behaved and others who are giggling at everything. But the thing for them is that they really liked it because it was kind of like: I can't believe we're actually talking about this stuff. Maybe it's less so now, but it was stuff that just didn't get talked about in school, like being gay and all the stuff that kind of comes with that, and so here we're talking about it and they had the opportunity to ask the presenters and ask me any questions they wanted, and it could be really personal questions or it could just be general factual information. And that was just a really cool thing to do. And I think with most young people, if you're just sharing your stories and you're hearing what they think, then that's like a really great way to learn.

Gareth: What were some of the most difficult questions?

Stephen: You know, I don't know if there were really any difficult student questions. The ones I loved were the ones that really made me think, which were more when they'd ask me how I felt about something and I'd have to actually go away and go, huh, how did I feel about that? and then come up with a response, which is great for me. Being teenagers, you'll get questions about sex and about first boyfriends and stuff, and they were just great because you just say, "Well, maybe you can ask your Health teacher about those questions next time you learn about sex ed."

I guess if there had to be something that was difficult it was when someone would challenge you with a view of: Well, don't you think it's wrong to be like this? Or, what about adopting that? Or, my religion says this. But none of them were hard because all I had to do is say, well, this is how I feel about it, and that's me. So there's no ever dictating this is how it is, it was just everyone sharing their own view.

Gareth: Just going way, way back to when you were 13-ish, I'm just wondering if you think the depression came on because of external influences like people saying this is wrong, or was it more internal? And if it was internal, where did it come from?

Stephen: In terms of depression, my view around depression ultimately now is that it's always internal. It's always from the thoughts we tell ourselves.

However, having said that, we all are the makeup of what we've grown up as, so I somehow took onboard, when I was younger, the internalization of things. So if there was stuff that was negative I would take it inside, and that's where all the negative stuff came from. So we've got several things: First, I'm taking negative stuff inside, and then growing up learning that it's wrong to be gay, when I put two and two together it was just like my natural reaction was to think I'm this negative thing and then just go and be negative about it.

So sometimes it's an easy solution to say that it's because of this reason that I ended up depressed, but for me it was because I had all those negative conversations with myself. And that's not about blame or anything, but the cool thing with that is that it's about responsibility. If I'm feeling this way because of my negative talk about myself, then that means that I could also feel good about whatever talk I tell myself, so it gives you your personal power back of saying: I can now choose to have a different conversation with myself and therefore be happy.

And that doesn't ignore the fact that there are external factors when we're growing up, because that's there. That's putting the most responsibility and the most power, the most empowering part of it, with yourself and back on who you are, because then you can actually do something about it.

Gareth: Can you describe how your parents reacted to you coming out, and also to the depression?

Stephen: My parents reaction to coming out - there were a few things. At first, I think there was actually a bit of relief in that before then we'd been going through this depression thing and I'd had EEG readouts and scans and stuff to find out "what was wrong with our son," and when they found out it was because I was gay it was like, oh, okay, so it's not like he's got some mental blah, blah, blah, or whatever, it was just all around this.

But of course, as soon as that happened it pulled up their own stuff because, especially when I was really young, we were quite into the church. And I don't know much about my parents' history around that, but I know from my mum that it was really challenging. There was kind of this awkwardness around it where I remember once she told me that she thought that I was rejecting women, and so she always had a lot of personal stuff to deal with it.

My dad was very... I don't know, he was almost stoic about the whole thing. I remember once he said, "Well look, I could buy you some porn if you'd like. I could get ones that have girls and guys," like to, I don't know, see if I could explore which way I wanted to go.

At first it was really negative and I'd be very careful. Like, I wouldn't talk about any of my gay friends, and I'd be very careful about bringing anyone over, and there was always this tension. And what was really interesting is that as I guess my parents went through their own journey the tension actually became all mine in the end. We got to the point where my mum was like, "Oh, are you seeing anyone?" And I'd almost freak out, going, oh, do I say something now? It got to the point where they'd obviously dealt with whatever they needed to deal with, and now I needed to deal with [the idea] that actually I can be really open and relaxed with my parents because they're now very accepting of that part.

And I think what my mum put it as later on was that I had asked her - this was partway through their journey - "How do you feel about me being gay?" And she said, "Well, you know, you don't end up with everything you want from your kids, originally," which was a huge movement from before where it was really bad. It was just like more of a disappointment, and I haven't actually asked her, but I think now it's just a non-issue because my partner is treated as just part of the family. Like, he's kind of expected to show up if we have a family thing now. Yeah, I think parents, when you come out, they do go on their own coming out journey just as much as the person who's coming out.

Gareth: What are your thoughts, in more general terms, about mental health issues and lesbian and gay queer communities?

Stephen: I think, to me, it just seems so obvious why there'd be lots of mental health issues in the queer community. If you're looking at any community that is marginalized, and that goes from the negative stuff that gets said about, if you look at when the Civil Union Bill came out and you had all the stuff about both camps arguing, which is great, but if you were a 13 year old kid, going through issues, that just kind of adds to it. It just stands to reason that there are going to be mental health issues, because anyone who has gone under pressure or gets put down, that's going to add to it, depending on their mind state as well.

I have friends who have grown up and have the most amazing mental... like almost a... what do you call it? Almost a psychology of excellence. Like, they've really just got it, and they've had the same growing up as everyone else, pretty much. So it depends how you've grown up to take that onboard, but if you're in a group that gets marginalized and gets put down, where there aren't all the strong role models on TV, or there certainly didn't used to be, then where are you going to look for strength? Unless you have somebody that's there to show you how to do that or you've learned how to do it yourself, which will again be from someone else when you were younger showing you how to do that, then I would guess there's a much higher probability of getting into mental health issues.

Gareth: So, what do you think are some ways that we as a community, or as individuals, can help other people?

Stephen: I think the best thing that anyone can do for helping other people is by allowing them to be who they are, and that's like with everything in life. The more we allow people just to be who they are, regardless of who that is, the more it's just common knowledge that I'll be accepted for who I am anyway. And that's not just around the queer community, that's around everything. If little Johnny wants to go and play whatever sport, then awesome, that's great. If he wants to go do something else, then that's cool as well.

And I think as individuals it's also our responsibility to shine our own light. I know in New Zealand there's a bit of the whole tall poppy syndrome thing, but for me it's that the more you shine your own light, and I don't mean showing off, I just mean fulfilling who you are, you give permission for other people to do the same thing, and it's just about having that supportive environment to do it in that's going to make a difference.

Gareth: Do you think depression will ever come back and visit you?

Stephen: Depression will never be coming back and visiting me because I know who I am. I'm a completely different person now to who I was then. There's still me, but there's just none of that negative self-talk, and I know when I've had really bad days and I'll feel crap, but I know that's just me feeling crap, that's not going to lead to something else, whereas when I was actually getting better initially, there was stuff like that. Like, I'd have a bad day and I could feel myself letting myself be pulled back down again, whereas now it just doesn't go there; it's not a part of who I am any more.

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