I can still smell the sweet, musty scent of old perfume clinging to her elegant clothes; the tickley feeling of her long fur coat brushing against my face; her fine, leather high-heel shoes lined up neatly in the shoe rack. My mother’s closet. It was the place I hid when I needed to feel safe. When I was very young, and my parents fought, downstairs, I would run up to my parents’ room and slip into the closet, pulling the door closed behind me. I kept a flashlight hidden in the back. Sometimes, I turned it on. Sometimes, I sat in the dark. When I was in grade school, and the kids at school bullied me or called me names, when I felt myself weird and disconnected, that’s where I ran. It was my secure, perfect little world, where every color and smell and texture was familiar and reminded me of unconditional love.
It was a finite place yet it contained infinite peace. The sounds of the world outside were muffled by tightly packed garments of silk, linen and wool. If my parents were shouting, I couldn’t make out the words. If I fell asleep, when I woke up, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. I might have been sleeping for an hour or for years, and this too seemed mystical and magical to me, because there was always the possibility that I’d been asleep so long that when I emerged, everything would be completely different.
When I got a bit older, of course, that pleasure was no longer available to me. It was OK for a small boy to hide in the closet, but not at all appropriate for a thirteen year old. Which is not to say I outgrew the need or desire for it. I was just more afraid of being humiliated, especially by my father.
In order to recreate that feeling as best I could, I would sneak one of my mother’s silk shirts or casual dresses — something with her scent on it — or perhaps a pair of her shoes, and I would keep them near my bed. At night, I would pull them beside me, and they helped me fall asleep.
One day, when I was about 14, I put on her shirt, just to feel it against my skin, and I become sexually aroused. This confused me and made me feel ashamed and yet, excited me in such a primal way.
As I said, I never outgrew the need for the closet so I found another way to hide in it: by wearing women’s clothing.
There was so much shame involved in this, it colored everything else I did in my life. I hid this deep, important part of myself from everyone, including my wife. I lived in fear that my humiliation would be discovered. The mocking voices of my childhood classmates accusing me of being weird never left my head. Obviously, they were right. I was weird.
I tried so hard to control my need, but the more I resisted, the more obsessed and stressed I became. The more stressed I became, the more I needed it. It was a cycle I could never break. And every time I went back to it, after being “good” for a while, I was filled both with relief and a deep-sense of self-loathing.
This was the core of my life. The rest of it doesn’t matter. Not my job nor my family nor any hobby or interest. They existed outside of me. I played my roles well and nobody ever suspected, I hid myself that perfectly.
My entire life was all about what and how and when I could do it again; about balancing my need with my terror at being unmasked as a pervert. My entire life was a lie. I hid the most important part of myself from everyone and in doing so, sacrificed any hope that anyone would love me for who I truly was.
My life was a never-ending cycle of self-loathing, fear, determination to change, failure, collapse. I suppose the only way to have broken that cycle was to accept myself as I was, for who I was. It didn’t matter if nobody else loved me; more important, I needed to love myself. This is something, I never managed to do. Perhaps if I’d been brave enough to share my secret, I could have found acceptance, but I could not. The shame was too deep. It was a part of my DNA.
It was a secret I took to my grave.