Growing up in Survival Mode by Wentworth Miller

“I’ve had a complicated relationship with that word, ‘community.’ I’ve been slow to embrace it. I’ve been hesitant. I’ve been doubtful. For many years I could not or would not accept that there was anything in that word for someone like me. Like connection and support, strength, warmth. And there are reasons for that.

I wasn’t born in this country. I didn’t grow up in any one particular religion. I have a mixed-race background, and I’m gay. Really, it’s just your typical all-American boy next door. It has been natural to see myself as an individual. It’s been a challenge to imagine that self as part of something larger. Like many of you here tonight, I grew up in what I would call survival mode.

When you’re in survival mode, your focus is on getting through the day in one piece, and when you’re in that mode at 5, at 10, at 15, there isn’t a lot of space for words like ‘community,’ for words like ‘us’ and ‘we.’  There’s only space for ‘I’ and ‘me.’ In fact, words like ‘us’ and ‘we’ not only sounded foreign to me at 5 and 10 and 15, they sounded like a lie. Because if ‘us’ and ‘we’ really existed, if there was really someone out there watching and listening and caring, then I would have been rescued by now.

The first time that I tried to kill myself, I was 15. I waited until my family went away for the weekend and I was alone in the house and I swallowed a bottle of pills.  I don’t remember what happened over the next couple of days, but I’m pretty sure come Monday morning I was on the bus back to school, pretending everything was fine. 

And when someone asked me if that was a cry for help, I say NO. Because I told no one. 
You only cry for help if you believe there’s help to cry for. And I didn’t. I wanted out. I wanted gone. At 15.

‘I am me’ can be a lonely place, and it will only get you so far.

That feeling of being singular and different and alone carried over into my 20s and into my 30s. When I was 33, I started working on a TV show that was successful not only here in the States, but also abroad, which meant over the next 4 years, I was traveling to Asia, to the Middle East, to Europe, and everywhere in between, and in that time, I gave thousands of interviews.

I had multiple opportunities to speak my truth, which is that I was gay, but I chose not to. I was out privately to family and friends, to the people I’d learned to trust over time, but professionally, publicly I was not. Asked to choose between being out of integrity and out of the closet, I chose the former. I chose to lie, I chose to dissemble, because when I thought about the possibility of coming out, about how that might impact me and the career I’d worked so hard for, I was filled with fear.

Fear and anger and a stubborn resistance that had built up over many years. 

When I thought about that kid somewhere out there who might be inspired or moved by me taking a stand and speaking my truth, my mental response was consistently, ‘No, thank you.’  I thought, I’ve spent over a decade building this career, alone, by myself, and from a certain point of view, it’s all I have.  But now I’m supposed to put that at risk to be a role model, to someone I’ve never met, who I’m not even sure exists. That didn’t make any sense to me.  That did not resonate… at the time.”

Wentworth Miller

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