Ryan O'Connell, Alexandra Grey, Jake Borelli
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Why My Sexuality and MS Are One and the Same

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In April 2007, at 21 years of age and on the verge of graduating from New York University, I finally gained the courage to come out as gay to my best friend, Ian. Two weeks later, my legs buckled while walking, which progressed to vertigo as I sat at my desk. Then came a constant tingling in my arms and legs, a feeling I would fall asleep and wake up with. I didn’t know what was happening to me. 

After a few months of seeing several doctors, and undergoing many tests, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease of the nervous system. An autoimmune disease is one where the body thinks its own cells are invaders and begins to attack itself. 

My body was suppressing its immune system for almost 15 years, and it makes sense that these symptoms and this disease would show itself as soon as I was “free.” 

When I was 7 years old I was enrolled in Vicki Parks Stars of Tomorrow Dance Studio in Southwest Florida. I was attending jazz, tap, and acrobatics class about five times a week. It was my calling to perform. I was the most free, confident, Chad I’d ever been.

One day at the studio, an older female student came up to me with a group of her friends and asked, “Chad, do you look at Playboy or Playgirl?” By that point, I had heard of Playboy magazine, but didn’t quite know what it was. From her tone, however, I knew there must be a “right” answer. I crossed my fingers and said, “Playgirl.” All the girls laughed at me and went back to class. It was the first time I felt ashamed.

Right around this same time at school, kids began making fun of the way I spoke, my hairstyle, my clothing, my handwriting, the group of friends I had (mostly female), and the fact that I studied dance. “You’re such a faggot.” “You look so gay.” “Do you even like girls?” These words would cut deeply on a daily basis. So I changed it all. I quit dancing. I made sure I was only friends with guys who were into sports. I changed my handwriting to a sloppier, less bubbly style. I stopped putting product in my hair. I became best friends with my biggest bully. I, regretfully, threw out a ton of home videos of me as a kid—indirectly discarding away so many amazing memories of my entire family—all to make sure no one suspected I was gay.  

I didn't want anyone to see through this layer of heteronormative skin I was forcing myself to grow. I went so far as to make sure that when a girl would pass me, my eyes would go straight to her chest, so that if anyone saw where my eyes were looking, they wouldn’t question my sexuality.

It was such an effort to exist as this Chad. Every word, every move, was so meticulously planned out. But deep in the back of my mind, I knew I was gay, but could never allow myself to explore that part of myself. I had to do everything in my power to make sure no one could find me out. And I did it. I did it so well. I did it so well, in fact, that I would express a genuine strong distaste for gay people to all my friends. This continued throughout middle school, high school, and even college.

By the end of my senior year in college, still not having come to terms with my sexuality, my stress level was higher than it had ever been and my emotional state felt as unbalanced as ever. At random points throughout the day, I would start crying for no apparent reason. I knew I couldn’t hold on to this facade for very much longer. I knew a breaking point was coming. The week before I came out, I remember walking into Ian’s room several times in the evening feeling like my internal organs were completely exposed and I was ready to tell him everything. But I would turn around before he noticed me there, not having the courage to speak. I started to journal what I was experiencing. I remember one entry in particular saying, “My fingers continue to dance around the words that I long to type.”

That same week, Ian came out of his room and asked me, “Did you know that one in 10 guys is gay?” That question, so perfectly timed. A question I was so hoping to be asked. I said, “Really? [long pause] Really? [another long pause] Because I think I am.”

I remember celebrating with Ian that night so vividly, getting wasted and dancing around his room like fools to David Bowie and Queen. The day after, I felt like I was seeing color for the first time. The sun was shining bright on my soul. I felt so incredibly liberated, finally free in over a decade. I didn’t have to be anyone else. I was just Chad.

Two weeks later, all my energy shifted suddenly to my MS symptoms. The timing of this was devastating. When I was finally feeling like myself again, I was turned upside down immediately. But if these symptoms had not shown themselves when they did, I might not have the same insight and understanding of this disease that I have now.

My immune system was rocked from years of me being terrified of myself—from years living in fear, living in a state of fight or flight. When we are in this fight-or-flight state, feeling a threat to our survival, our immune system will shut itself down. For instance, if you're being chased by a sabertooth tiger and at the same time are battling a bacterial infection, your body will know that surviving is priority and that it can address the infection later. It's a form of protection our bodies instinctively have. But staying in this state for too long compromises the immune system. It doesn't allow the immune system to function like it needs to.

All bodies don't react to high levels of stress in this same way. But from years of managing this disease and these symptoms, I know that stress is my biggest enemy. No, I'm not a doctor, but I’m certain my MS and my struggle with my sexuality are one and the same. I’m continuing to love myself more and more every day, and continuing to feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually, better and better. I’m slowly getting back to that fearless 7-year-old Chad that I once was, and who I know I still am.

In 2012, friends Ian Axel and Chad King formed A Great Big World and released their debut singles “This Is the New Year” and then “Say Something” in 2013. After "Say Something" was featured during a pivotal segment of Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, Christina Aguilera fell in love with the song and collaborated with AGBW on a new recording of the track that they subsequently performed together on NBC’s The Voice. “Say Something” ultimately sold over 5 million copies in the U.S. in addition to going Top 10 on sales charts in 19 countries, and earned A Great Big World a Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. Recently, the group released their second album When the Morning Comes, featuring singles “Won’t Stop Running” and “Hold Each Other,” and spent 2016 touring the U.S. They are currently working on a Broadway musical. Chad also blogs regularly at facingforward.tumblr.com

Watch AGBW's most recent music video for "Won't Stop Running" below:

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