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Growing Up, Growing Out, Growing In

Dear reader, please be aware that there is mention of sexual assault, suicide, mental health and a few other topics like this. Please take care of yourself while you read!

I was prompted recently to write a little bit more personally about my experience.

Of course, when you stand in the middle of your life, knee deep in mundane events, somewhere between a Wednesday and a Thursday, you never really think you have much of a story. But, I think it’s fair to say we all do. That I do, too.

I reflect on this story of mine every day without really paying it much attention. It’s brought into focus every now and then when I realize that I feel different than I felt two minutes ago, or that I know something about myself more intimately than I ever thought I could ten years ago. Even as I write this though, in the back of my mind, I hear that little voice saying, ‘well that’s just growing up’. Of course it is. Of course it is.

And why can’t that be enough?

Sometime ago, I was growing up in a rural farm town called Orono in Southern Ontario, about an hour outside of Toronto. There is one main street, called Main Street, and I didn’t live there. Even on the outskirts, I was on the outskirts. And that’s quite frankly how I liked it. My mom was always encouraging of me to find ways to be able to entertain myself, to make sure that no matter where I was or who I was with, I would be comfortable on my own. So, I really liked our quiet street across from the cow farm. A big red barn, sprawling hills, a few horses and donkeys for me to obsess over. I remember no more satisfying thing as a child than taking my own town horses out into the yard and seeing their little hoofprints in the dirt, like I actually had control over something in the real world. Maybe better yet, that I was creating my own real world. I spun stories every chance I could. I was always talking to myself, always coming up with some multitiered world in which my toys, my people as I called them, could exist. Love stories, loss stories, family stories, magical stories, you name it, I lived it through them in my little world. There were some stories that didn’t get lived though, I can say that honestly. The girl always ended up with the boy, and the boys and girls were always just that – boys and girls.

I was lucky to be raised by the parents I was, for many reasons. One such reason was that we weren’t prejudiced against anyone. We didn’t follow any one particular religion, we really didn’t spend a lot of time with other people, but we were kind. I knew that. I knew that people looked different than me. That was never something lost on me. I remember learning about Indigenous culture in school when I was little, learning about the people who lived on Turtle Island. I learned about my own family, people who travelled here for work, for the Prairies and the farms. My family, on all but one branch, has been here since long before Canada was called that. My family are the original colonizers and settlers. I knew what that meant, but, I don’t really think we talked about it with the potency it deserves given the state of equity in Canada today.

And so you go about life. You know your body looks a little weird, people tease you all the time, they shove against fences, they make fun of you, they make you do their dirty work. You gladly accept this position in their posse though because at least then, you belong. So you aren’t always on the outskirts. I was a strange kid. (I still am). I bet the other kids were strange too, but they seemed to get on alright. I tried being nice, I tried being mean, I tried being weird. The best was to be quiet, not too quiet, a bit funny if I could, and to just do really well in school so that at least the teachers like you. It was also best to let other kids copy your work if you needed that. I actually got in trouble in high school once for not letting someone look at my homework so they could get ahead after a missed day.

I don’t think I really experimented with what it could mean to just be myself until high school, which looking back on it, I think I did become a sort of leader or at least glue for a few folks who really didn’t have anywhere they fit in. I didn’t know it at the time, there were still people who would look down on me, scoff at me, badger me for the type of music I liked or the things I knew too much about. I was never cool, I was never popular, and I was never comfortable with the fact that that might be okay.

I think a lot of us weird folk growing up skip right to resignation and indifference before truly learning to be compassionate for the people we truly are. I think we’re at war with ourselves for quite awhile as a result.

I did find a guy for this girl to end up with in high school. We had so much fun. I cherish every bit of that relationship, and still to this day often wonder what I missed about it that was so wrong, why the people I loved thought it needed to end. Likely they’re right, I would have fought harder for it than he would have, would have continued to be nice and appease rather than receive what I deserved, love wise. But surely, even just reading this, you don’t think I’d seriously think that was a problem?

What I did think was a problem was going back to being unwanted. Now, it wasn’t just popular girls you wanted to like you. It was guys. It was the status achieved by being wantable enough to be fucked. I’m sorry that’d crude but that’s what it was in my head. I really didn’t have any compassion for who I was. For the little girl who wanted to see hoofprints in the mud. Who loved her romance stories so badly and wanted one for herself…no, I just saw that I was once again marked deficient because I was on the outskirts of something. I was not normal enough, hot enough, sexy enough, whatever enough to be wanted, even by that guy who loved me. By the way, we broke up before I went to university, me and that guy I loved.

Let me just pause here because I haven’t even told you about the French Horn yet. The fact that I am a musician. That was the thing I got into when I was 11. I was very good. I still am, if you ask anyone other than me. I’m not really surprised to see that I don’t think I’m good at it as I write this now. I didn’t think I was good, period, when I was 11. I was fighting for my right to that claim.

I was fighting for that right mighty hard when I went to university. No one really talks about how young you are when you go to school. The problem is when we are young and constructing the world around us, college kids are old. So, we think they are when we become one. I was eighteen, nineteen beginning university. I was a child. I didn’t know that. I thought I had to be grown up, strong.

I found someone who seemed to like me. I found two men, actually. One was my horn teacher. He was interested in my talent. This was a massive deal. Life altering. Someone of note from the big city had his eye on my talent? I was worth something after all then.

I eventually got noticed by some of the guys who lived in my residence with me. One was bringing a few girls into his room to cuddle behind the others backs, we all put an end to that soon. Another was extremely fun to kiss, drunkenly (a new experience also). Another came around, started by mocking me, teasing me (very familiar territory)…but would you believe it, also thought me wantable enough to sleep with. So I did. I slept with him over and over. I think the first time I wanted it. I think most times after that, I convinced myself I wanted it. That it would make me better. More likeable. Maybe it wasn’t that I would be likeable but, I could avoid the agonizing proof that I was dislikeable. So, I kept going back. I remember always asking can we just cuddle tonight? But that’s not a very good fuck buddy of me, I have to admit. I let myself get walked over, never once fully said no. It’s too bad he didn’t know my weak nos were actually very important. I feel bad for it all around, like I said.

I struggled with this thing they call people pleasing all through university. I stopped having sex with people after things ended with this guy. But, the French Horn did take over my entire life instead. There was the place I was most important. The thing was, like I said, I was (am) actually very good at it. The stakes go up when it gets like that. People are harder on you. And I am very good at fitting the mould. I showed up with a smile, with seriousness, every single lesson, never once showing the cracking that was going on inside me. Not showing the tears, the self loathing, the despair. I know I did this because since I spoke with my teacher after the fact, he had no clue that any of this was going on. I’m too good at hiding how I feel, maybe even who I am, for the sake of being wantable. Of not being repulsive. Of being liked. There was nothing I wouldn't do to be good enough at that instrument. I would play horn for up to eight hours every day. I’d be at the school for up to eighteen hours. It was my everything. It was an identity I could cling to, I am a good horn player. I've since learned this relationship I had with it was verging on a process addiction.

But the thing is, identities like that? They don’t fucking stick. Because if you believe that what’s inside you is wrong in the first place, no band aid identities are going to really make you feel strong.

I think some of my people pleasing comes from how I behave around my parents. Maybe you’re the same. I became a very good liar in high pressure situations because I played the docile one. The balm over the tension, over the passive aggressive, over the outbursts. I don’t blame my family, I think I just adapted too well. I am genuinely a chameleon, I know this about myself now. I can take pretty much any shade needed of me to smooth things over, to appease people.

Except I can’t read their minds, so surely I get it wrong and over compensate sometimes. That’s probably what I did in music school. Oh well. Like I said, I was a child. I was still learning that the world, as real as it seems? Is all kind of make believe. You get to take from it what you want to see. You get to choose how you show up in it. Not your environment.

I ended up "breaking" in my fourth year. (Therapists are taught not to tell people they're broken, but I don't think it's fair to me to say what happened to me wasn't breaking. It was awful, and I don't want to say it was anything but that). Before fourth year began, I left my teacher’s studio, sort of at his request, sort of a normal thing for his students to do anyways. Got accepted to a big summer music program…this is important but not for the reasons I thought it would be. How fun is that?

Before I went off to that summer program though, I met someone else. Someone I liked. I think I loved him, actually. He is one of the kindest souls I’ve ever encountered, and I think I liked him so much because he felt like me. He certainly seemed to think I was good, and it was simple. We didn’t have sex. He stopped before we got very far because he said it felt like it might be forced. I wish I could put his name here and thank him, thank him so many times over for doing that. That was a gift. Because I didn’t know it was forced. I was so disappointed that we stopped (relieved also), but I didn’t know how tense, how tight, how forced my sweet body was in that moment.

I’ll pause for a second from my narrative and let you know that going into the body? Feeling how we actually feel? That doesn’t just come right away. I walked myself into nonconsensual sexual experiences night after night in first year and I didn’t even know it. I didn’t realize it was that until much later, until I noticed the trauma. I didn’t know how to say no. I also bulldozed my nervous system in those horn lessons and performances time and time again. I really do think the people I was encountering in these moments might have listened to me, but I didn’t listen to me. I bulldozed myself, and people were willing to go along with it. That’s their responsibility and I will always give them that. Clearly, at least to the guy I met, it is possible to read my body language enough to know I was in distress. They made the decisions they made in spite of that. That's on them.

But the worst thing that’s accompanied me through pretty much everything? Was me not listening to myself. Me not ever considering that being in love with who I was, was a good idea. That my body, thin, imperfect, hairy, asymmetrical…it is enough.

It’s telling that my story thus far hasn’t included how I’d felt. Growing up, most of the time I was nauseous. I didn’t eat much, I always had aches and pains. I have severe emetophobia (fear of throwing up), so being nauseous every day was a waking nightmare for me. It still is. I was anxious. I cried after school most days. I cried a lot in university too. I didn’t eat much then either. I’d have "granola bar and orange juice days" to stop me from fainting. It wasn’t an eating disorder, it was disordered eating though. Food was last on my to do list. Performing in every sense of the word was my top priority. Make it work. Get through. Be impeccable. Belong.

Anyways, before I went to that orchestral program, the guy I was seeing and I mutually ended it. He wanted to explore polyamory. I wasn’t ready. It got messy, my heart got broken. We made up, but, it wasn't enough. I remember talking to my friend that summer shortly after the end of things with that guy and voicing something to her after all of this that I hadn’t really voiced to anyone before. Maybe it’s time to stop trying to date guys, maybe I could try dating girls.

The internalized homophobia of my experience really can’t be downplayed. Cis and straight people don’t realize that us queer folk have all the same conditioning and subconscious beliefs stored in us too. And it’s not even that it’s all bad things. It’s just that I never knew other possibilities existed. Like I said, the girls always ended up with the guys, that was just the order of events. I didn’t realize really until moving to Toronto that this wasn’t the only way of being. I remember being afraid to be gay. A family member of mine made a comment that I was so similar to their daughter who is a lesbian and I freaked out. I think I internalized that for a really long time. Maybe I just thought that was another way for me to be unlikeable, to be too weird, to not fit the mould. I don’t know. I know that no one ever explicitly told me that being gay was a bad thing, I just…I wanted to be normal so badly. To just be easily likeable so I could relax.

So, I told my friend this. She was so supportive. It felt good to talk about it, to allow the idea to play in my mind. Something new, something different. Something that maybe helped lend some understanding to the ways I felt.

I’ll be honest, the reason I wasn’t putting myself out there and dating was because of the horn and sexual trauma. Well, both those things have trauma associated in my body now actually. Very similar experience. Put your body through, push through, hide how you feel, perform. It really didn’t have much to do with being more attracted to women than men. I’m mostly attracted to men, with a healthy side of being attracted to women. I think I figured that out for real much later though, this was just a stepping stone.

The other thing I’ve realized about coming out, or rather just noticing the parts of myself that were so tucked away in my effort to fit into what I thought I had to be, is that it is so not black and white. I’ve still never been to a pride parade. I just went to my first drag show (it was fun! More of an outgoing event than I usually enjoy though). I’ve never kissed a woman before. I’ve only ever kissed men. I’ve just figured out how I feel about things by sitting with myself. By undoing all the need to hide myself away. By learning that there simply are other ways to feel and be. Some people are born knowing. For some, there is simply no other way. Some people are more outgoing about their identity, no matter what it is. Even in this new possibility I felt like I was on the outskirts yet again.

So, I did go to that summer orchestral program, the one I said that was really important but not for the reasons I thought it would be. We toured Canada, we toured Spain. I got infinitely better at the French Horn than I ever had been.

But, it was most important because, as it turns out, I met my fiancé.

His name is Ryan, he also plays the horn. We were in the section together that summer. I was still fresh off that guy I was in love with, also just fresh on deciding I was going to try dating women. But then I met him. Do you know that feeling when you’re somewhere that you can just put your shoulders down and smile because everything is okay? That’s how it feels to be around him. That’s how it has always felt.

We started hooking up a few weeks after the start of the program. I’m not going to lie, I was still following my pattern of having sex when I didn’t want to. It’s not all sunshine and roses and these patterns don’t just go away because you’re with someone safe. I have trauma that I’m unwinding now that was compounded by those early days with Ryan, and the days before that, and all the days of pushing my boundaries and conforming. I’m healing now, finding what pleasure can mean one day at a time.

We had a beautiful summer together, Ryan and I. I love him so much. It's a newfound comfort to me knowing that through all those years I was struggling, crying, forgetting to eat, bullying myself, being bullied...he was only ever an hour away, growing up, and waiting for me to come around. We share a beautiful life together. It is possible to find someone who you'll love and be loved by, by the way. I had kind of stopped thinking it was real. It is real, though. He and I are real, and we can attest to the fact that it's worth opening your heart up some more no matter how many times it's been hurt.

Still, like I said, I broke in my fourth year. Even being with Ryan, having found the sweetest best friend and lover, I was breaking. I've been anxious my whole life, but I hadn't really been depressed before, not really. I also hadn't been suicidal.

In my fourth year at school, I was auditioning for graduate level programs for horn performance. This consists of preparing audition material on top of everything else you're doing for the last year of your degree, then flying possibly all around the world for auditions you don't know are going to lead anywhere, performing, flying home, and then back to your life as a full time student who performs all the time.

My mom came with me for all the trips (except to New York, I braved that alone). Honestly, the trips with her were some of the best memories I have. I love her, and she helps me feel okay when I'm really not. I'll never forget her fending off the caretaking staff at the hotel in Boston after my New England Conservatory audition. I was having a huge, earth shattering melt down (because I missed an easy note and fixated on how that was going to cost me the acceptance), and they were trying to kick us out. Makes me laugh a little now, but I tell you, I was messed up over that. I got in by the way, with a 40K scholarship.

But it was everything else. I was trying to be amazing. It was putting myself on the line. And it was also everything catching up with me after so many years and so much internalized, unintegrated survival energy. It was also birth control, one of my therapists helped me solve that just in time.

Things with Ryan were okay. I was crumbling more than I was loving though. He is incredibly secure in himself and his attachment. He would just keep telling me it was okay, things were going to be okay, and that he wasn't going anywhere. He was more of an anchor than I realized throughout it all. I was always in pain, always feeling grey, feeling sick, feeling tired. I started feeling hopeless. I remember when I started thinking about dying. Walking on the street, riding on the subway. I didn't want to go through with it, I won't, but it was so sad to just think about dying so much. The intrusive thoughts were paralyzing. Social anxiety was paralyzing. Burning out was paralyzing. I was getting sick, getting so many UTIs, going to the walk in every other week. They know me at Downtown Doctor's in Toronto just by sight now. And all through this, I was kicking ass at the horn. Massive scholarships, lots of admittances. You know though, it's just so not enough. That identity had no bearing on how shit I was feeling in fourth year. None of it was. Not having the guy, not having the music success. I was shattering. Nothing else mattered.

I remember going to see the TSO play the night before my audition for the Glenn Gould School. I was inspired. I went back to the faculty of music building to play, to be inspired, to have some intimacy with my craft. (To prove to myself I was still good enough). I spiraled out. I didn't sound good. And then I just lost it. I had never so strongly considered killing myself up until that night. Which all felt ridiculous because, I had an audition the next day? The juxtaposition of being an artsy fartsy musician who is considering the best way to kill yourself is really wild to live through.

I hadn't told Ryan about the thoughts of dying yet. He just knew I was depressed and stressed.

So, I called a friend who I knew had struggled before. She came, super late at night. We went to the Tims at Bedford and Bloor until like one in the morning. That was another gift. Some people don't do things like that for others. She is one of the kindest souls I've ever met too. We discovered I didn't want to die, not really, I was just agonized.

But it was a wakeup call to me, that this was where I was at. I wasn't okay. And I hadn't been okay for a very long time. I'd pushed my sensitivity so far down below the layers of needing to be good, to be liked, to be worth something to those around me, that I'd frazzled my nervous system and mental capacity to the point of breaking.

I did play that audition the next day, by the way. I did amazing. That teacher of mine, the one with whom I internalized so much of myself and now know the relationship resulted in some trauma? He was on that panel. I didn't balk (for once. I would now if I had to). I was accepted on a full scholarship. Isn't that ironic?

I'd like to say that things got better after that, with all my acceptances. I also started going to therapy around this time. But you know what else happened? COVID-19.

I didn't end up going to any of those prestigious schools I was accepted to, with my massive scholarships. I'm smiling as I type this part. You know why I didn't? Because I didn't want to hurt myself anymore. There were a lot of things that went into the decision. My physical health complaints, my depression, my suicidal headspace, not being able to play in an orchestra if the pandemic went on (which it did), not getting the most out of the education...etc. That was one of the only times Ryan ever gave me outright advice on what I should do. He was scared for me, and if I had been in his position, watching me over that year, I would have said the same thing. So, I deferred my acceptance to NEC for awhile. Then I just pulled the plug altogether.

The summer I waited to make this decision, I had a massive hives outbreak. My body swelled up overnight. I couldn't walk. Couldn't move. Couldn't bear to be touched. It was like this for two weeks. In and out of the hospital, all the while COVID was happening. I knew I wanted Ryan to be my kids dad for a long time, but nothing solidified that more than having him lift me onto hospital gurneys, bravely standing by me as I screamed in pain, lifted me into ice cold baths to try to bring the swelling down. I think he might be an angel in my life, all the times he's been there, quietly steady, no matter what.

At some point between the mental health and the hives, I remember making a pact with myself. I decided that if I was doing something and it was hurting me and my mind ever again? I had to stop. Practicing horn very often resulted in me being cruel to myself. So, I took a step back. Getting hives and recovering from that? I realized I had a lot more I needed to tend to. Not just my brain, but my sweet body as well.

So, I found another way to spend the pandemic. I became a volunteer crisis responder for Kids Help Phone, and then applied to Rhodes Wellness College to become a Professional Counsellor. I'd wanted to do coaching for musicians to help them with their lifestyle and wellbeing (I knew this was needed in a big way after my own experience), but I figured I might as well get the whole diploma.

I can now say that, and staying with Ryan despite my fears and self doubt, was the best decision I ever made.

There is much more to be said about what comes after, but this seems as good a place as any to stop for now. I know it's a hodgepodge story, one about an anxious little girl (who as it happens, isn't really all a girl, I'm also nonbinary), about someone who plays the French Horn, who doubts themselves. Who triumphed anyways, and who now leads a soft, compassionate life full of love with someone who loves her very much, and she loves him. But this is what growing up is made of. It's a collection of short stories and moments in time that we look back on and make decision about. Growing up is the act of riding the story out before we have ever had a chance to look back and say, this was how it went for me. Growing up is not knowing. It's everything being the hardest it will ever get. It's the first time for everything. It's not knowing there are even other horizons possible, and stumbling across them anyways. Growing up is growing out from the dirt you started in and transforming into something you never even thought to imagine you could be.

More than anything, growing up is fucking hard.

It's hard to be a kid in an adult's world.

And we do it somehow.

I'm thinking now as I sit here and try to finish this up that growing up is actually growing in. It's growing into the soul we have, and walking a walk that takes us closer to loving that little one we always were.

Lucy Nesbitt (she/they) is a Counselling Therapist and Registered Therapeutic Counsellor - Candidate based in so called Edmonton on Treaty 6 land.

If you are in mental health distress, please call your local emergency or crisis lines. You can visit for more support options.

Photo by Danielle Sum

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