EVEN in the 21st century, coming out in rural Ireland takes courage, and that’s something that Coolmeen-Cranny native Aaron Kelly has in spades. The 28-year old admits that it wasn’t always the case and that his struggle to accept his sexuality pushed him to the brink in terms of his mental health. It’s been a long road for the West Clare man who is urging others to be true to themselves and to seek support in overcoming mental health challenges and embracing life.
“I suppose I always knew I was gay,” says Aaron. “But I couldn’t always picture myself having a happy life as a gay person. Growing up in Clare and going to a small school, the word ‘gay’ wasn’t really used and if it was, it wasn’t in a nice way.”
Aaron, who is well known in local GAA circles, admits that, for a time, he tried to fit in with what was considered to be the norm in terms of relationships.
“I had girlfriends alright. I think a lot of young gay people will try and go along with what society says is ‘normal’. There are a lot of gay men who will go on hiding and won’t come out for fear of not being accepted.”
But while Aaron knew deep down that he had to be true to himself, the path wasn’t always an easy one and a number of issues took their toll on his mental health.
“I was struggling at school with dyslexia too and wasn’t diagnosed until I was in Secondary. For ages, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t smart enough and bright enough. I couldn’t keep up with the other kids. Then I was getting called ‘lazy’. It all got to me. I felt nobody wanted to talk to me or to spend time with me.”
Fears over a lack of acceptance of his sexuality were another major worry for Aaron.
“In my head, I’d built it up to be a huge thing. I thought it would be a crazy life-changing thing, that my friends and family wouldn’t be able to accept it and that I’d be left on my own.”
As Aaron now realises, it was the stress of bottling up his worries that pushed him into a full-blown mental health crisis.
“I did attempt suicide when I was 17 or 18. Stuff just built up and a voice was telling me the world would be better off if I wasn’t in it.” Fortunately, Aaron managed to tell his mother about his attempt before it was too late.
“I came to my senses and told my mother what I’d done and she got me to hospital in time.”
A key realisation for Aaron in coping with suicidal thoughts, and understanding the devastation he could cause his loved ones, was the impact a family tragedy had on his parents.
“My sister passed away when she was just 18 months. Sarah would be 20 now. I can see how much her death affected my parents, and that made me realise how much it would hurt them if I wasn’t around.”
Aaron admits that talking about the experience isn’t easy: “I do cringe telling people about the suicide attempt, but it is important to tell others. Sometimes a problem can really build up in your head, but when you’re gone, nobody can help you.”
Coming out was another major turning point for Aaron in terms of managing his mental health.
“I suppose I started coming out gradually. I’d tell people and they didn’t think it was a big deal. My mother said she wanted me to be happy and my friends were very sound to me. I was seeing a lad from Dublin for a while and my family were mad about him. That gave me great encouragement.”
But having struggled for so long without support had left Aaron with an anger that he still had to deal with.
“I wasn’t happy in myself and, at home, I was lashing out. I had a huge anger inside me and the slightest thing would send me over the edge. My parents eventually told me that if I didn’t get help and calm down I would have to move out of the house. They were afraid I would hurt myself or my brothers. It was tough love but it worked.”
Finding a counsellor was the start of a healing process for Aaron and gave him the support he needed in managing his anger.
“The first day I met the counsellor, I told her everything. She opened my eyes and she really, really helped me to understand what was going on in my head.”
In Aaron’s case, medication also plays an important role.
“I was against the idea at first,” he admits. “But there’s not shame in it. Out of pure stubbornness I came off it and that wasn’t a good idea. It puts you back to square one. You can get a false sense that you’re okay, but you need to stick with it.”
Today life is hectic for Aaron who works with Enable Ireland and puts his strengths of patience, empathy and resilience into use in practical ways to support children and families with special needs.
Those skills come into play in his role coaching the Cúil Gaels Senior Ladies and the local Mothers and Others team. “It’s great craic and my mother does it as well,” he says.
Sport continues to be a passion and, in particular, a soccer team called the Cork Rebels, whose members come from the LGBT community.
“I travel up and down once a week to play, there’s a huge social aspect.” He’d love to see something similar for gay men in Clare.
“I’d think it would be great to have something like this in the county. I’d love to see gay teams here. It should be encouraged. You make friends for life, you can talk to people. I have friends in Clare, but they mightn’t always get where I’m coming from. The lads in Cork have all been through what I’ve been through.”
Aaron is shy about being seen a role model for young gay men in Clare but hopes that others could benefit from his experience.
“My advice is to talk to people. If you think you can’t talk to your parents, talk to your friends. Sometimes, your mental health plays tricks, and makes you think you’re alone, but there are people you can talk to. Make a contract with two or three friends so that you know you can talk to them when things are tough. Keep active – running is great, you can do it any time. It does give you a lift. There are supports out there. I would say go for it and take those first steps.”
Anyone affected by suicidal thoughts or self-harm can contact Pieta House Midwest on 061-484444. Samaritans in Clare can be reached at 065-6829777.