Self-denial: I'm pretending to be someone I'm not 

Growing up, Sean loved his life. He was surrounded by his brothers, and they spent all their time playing sport. He didn't want anything to ruin it. And being gay - well, he didn't know how that would go down. 

Ignoring that part of himself led to the creation of Sean’s alter ego, Hank. Appearing whenever Sean drank alcohol, Hank was loud, obnoxious and always getting into trouble. Something that Sean wasn’t and didn’t want to be. But if getting drunk meant he didn’t have to pick up a girl, then he’d rather be Hank. 

Over time, Sean began to isolate himself and his mental health deteriorated. Finding someone to talk to, someone who shared and understood Sean’s struggles, turned everything around. 



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Narrator  0:00   

Just a heads up - this episode features a personal story of mental health. If this brings up distressing feelings for you, please contact the Beyond Blue Support Service. 

Sean Towner  0:14   

I would be the one that would go over the top, get myself drunk that I wouldn't be able to pick up a girl because at the time for me, it was easier than trying to fake your way through being with a girl. Out of that binge-drinking camera character called Hank.  

Hank was my alter ego and would be the person who would get super drunk at a party and do something dumb or loud, obnoxious. Anything to put the attention on him being a dick head rather than the attention on him not picking up a girl. I think if you ask anyone who's met Hank before, he's not a very nice person. 

Narrator  0:53   

Welcome to Not Alone, incredible stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health to help you with yours. This episode is about self-denial, and pretending to be someone you're not. 

Sean had a typical Australian upbringing. He grew up on the suburban streets of Melbourne spent his summer holidays kicking about country Victoria with his big brothers. And everywhere his childhood took him, his beloved sport followed. Sean absolutely loved sport, still does. Every weekend without fail, his parents would drive him around to basketball, to cricket, and of course, to his pick of the bunch, footy.  

Sean loved his family, he loved his friends, and he loved his footy.  

But there was a part of Sean that he didn't embrace. A piece of the puzzle, he did everything to ignore. Sean was gay. And that simply wasn't part of the game plan. 

Sean Towner  2:21   

When I was younger, I thought my life would look different to what it looks like now. I remember looking at Dad when I was growing up and thinking that was what I wanted to do in terms of my timeline of life. I wanted to have a wife at 21, I wanted to be married at 25 having my first kid and that third boy by 30. Because that's what Dad had.  

The masculine sporting family I grew up in shaped me certainly a lot as a young guy. It's a culture that sort of follows you through sport and through football. And it's something that it's hard to break the cycle of.  

I think I first thought that I might be gay when I was about 11 or 12, I realized something might be a little bit different about me, compared to my brothers who at that time had girlfriends and that sort of stuff. You sort of have a nagging voice in the back of your head that you might be, but at the same time, tell yourself you're not, because I was terrified that if anyone in my life knew that I was gay, that they would either treat me differently, or that they'd disowned me.  

So I knew from a very young age, but I don't think it came out until I was 25 or 26. The best part of sort of 15 years living with that bag of bricks on the back of your shoulder, which is pretty hard to carry around for that long. 

Narrator  3:43   

Although Sean knew deep down that he was gay, he couldn't admit that to himself. He came up with ways to avoid confronting the truth. And more importantly, make sure no one else could tell. 

Sean Towner  3:58   

To avoid thinking that I was gay, I would - you push it as far as the back your head as you can. You'd also sort of play tricks with yourself saying I will I've never actually kissed a boy therefore I'm not gay. So you kind of bargain with yourself a little bit. Try and mask it by getting girlfriends and all that sort of stuff because that's what your brothers or your friends are doing. But just trying to avoid any situation that might make you look gay; the way you cross your legs, you know, wearing pink colours and all that sort of stuff.  

Towards the back end of my teen years, you start to drink and socialize. And when my friends were getting girlfriends or sort of hooking up and stuff, I would be the one that would go over the top, get myself so drink that I wouldn't be able to pick up a girl. Because at the time for me it was easier than trying to fake your way through being with a girl. Out of that binge drinking came a character called Hank, which is - not sure if you've seen the movie 'Me, myself and Irene' - the alter ego Hank.  

Hank was my alter ego and will be the person who would get super drunk at a party and do something dumb or loud, obnoxious, anything to put the attention on him being a dick head rather than the attention of him not picking up a girl. I think if you ask anyone who's met Hank before, it's not a very nice person. 

Narrator  5:20   

When Sean was Hank, he didn't have to worry about his sexuality. He could escape into the world of his wild drunk alter ego. He could let the alcohol numb the emotions eating away at him.  

He didn't care if he got reported for being drunk and disorderly every weekend. He didn't care that everyone knew he was losing control, that he was out of control. Anything was better than admitting he was gay. And then, things started to get a little out of hand. 

Sean Towner  5:51   

Times where Hank would throw full beer cans at people when he was really drunk because he thought it was a funny stupid thing to do. I think the worst thing Hank ever done was drink driving. Drove from a 21st birthday party, crashed into a parked car. Wrote the car off. Unfortunately for Sean, Sean lost his license for 12 months because of that. 

Narrator  6:14   

Just before losing his license, Sean had bought into a frozen yogurt franchise with his mate. The store was in Hawthorn on the opposite side of Melbourne to where he lived. Sean had to move closer to the store, or he'd lose the business. 

Sean Towner  6:31   

Being away from my family for the first time, I didn't have many friends in Hawthorn, most of my friends were Essendon/Keilor way. That plus coming to terms with sexuality, being away from my mom and my dad who had sort of helped me through life for the first 20 to 23 years was challenging. My mental health deteriorated fairly rapidly. The business was going, okay, not great. I didn't enjoy going down the footy club anymore. I didn't enjoy playing football, I didn't enjoy going for my runs and things like that.  

And I remember thinking how the football club at the time was one of the best things of my life, but also became one of the worst things in my life because I never thought I'd be able to bring a partner to the footy club. So we have partners and girlfriends of the players who would come along, I never thought I'd be able to do that.  

There's a, I guess, a masculine culture at footy clubs, casual homophobia, all that sort of stuff. I remember that impacting me a lot at that time, my life. Because that casual homophobia - wasn't directed to me, because I didn't know - at the same time, kind of think if they talk that way about someone who's gay, they don't respect gay people. Therefore, if I come out, it's going to be completely different in terms of relationships.  

So that was one of the things that kept me in my closet for a long time. And something that impacted my mental health because they were my best friends. 

Narrator  7:53   

Sean didn't know it at the time, that these were all signs of depression. He lost touch with his friends. 

Sean Towner  8:02   

The ups and downs you have especially when you're in a bad headspace, the - a really good moment might be going out and hanging with friends and sort of bringing your mood right up. Because for me, being around people was something that was really good for my mental health. But then you'd have a really hard come down or a crash when some would use the word poof or gay or fag and that sort of thing in a negative context. And you just - heart would just sort of sink. And that would cause me to spiral and go on, right I may as well go and get super drunk now and just wipe my mind on it.  

That was a yo-yo scenario every other weekend. And then to try to get yourself up for the next weekend or the next social event knowing that you're going to come crashing down was a pretty hard thing to manage my way through.  

The lowest of low points in my life, especially when I was sort of in the the midst of the really down part was I'd sit at my parents house, I'd get drunk by myself and just think about taking my own life. The reality of my family or my parents, my brothers, my friends, in my mind knowing they had a gay brother or a gay uncle would be an embarrassment or a sense of shame for them. So for me, I was kind of I'd be doing them a favour.  

That is a terrifying and scary feeling when you have that sort of mental thought. And it's a pretty hard place to get out of. Talking to someone else about that particular moment was the turnaround for me. 

Narrator  9:43   

While working in Hawthorn, Sean met Mike. Mike worked at the frozen yogurt store too. They'd spent hours working together and grew closer by the day.  

Then one night, after some work drinks, they shared a kiss. From that moment, Sean knew he couldn't avoid it anymore. He liked men. And now he had someone to talk to you about it. 

Sean Towner  10:10   

Becoming friends with Mike really helped our relationship because he was going through his own things as well. We both weren't out of the closet. But we both had that commonality to talk about it. We both used each other as a sounding board. And I think that really helped both of us get through that really tough period in our lives.  

I remember having a conversation with him once about a really down moment I was having, and then him saying, "Oh, I've had similar down moments as well," and just kind of talking it out. Just a weight off my shoulders. I remember going home afterwards, and just going, I'm not the only one feels this stuff. 

 And for me, that was a freeing, liberating experience. It made those moments easier to deal with and work through. And it certainly changed my outlook on thoughts of taking my own life after that. 

Narrator  11:13   

Sean and Mike grew closer, that they were as hesitant as each other to come out. Then, Mike had a change of mind. 

Sean Towner  11:21   

Mike and I didn't come out at the same time or together. Mike was - in my eyes - was even more terrified that I was about the prospect of coming out. And I went on a footy trip, came back, and Mike had come out with with another guy. And I remember thinking, well first I was shattered, because I'd because I loved him. But second, I remember thinking, well, if Mike can do it, Mike was terrified completely, why can't I?  

And he sort of helped lead the way in being a role model, in a sense for me, and saying, 'Well, bugger whatever anybody else thinks, you know, someone else's opinion to me is none of my business,' that sort of mindset. And I remember going well, just do it. Easier to tell yourself that rather than to actually come out.  

First person I told was my older brother, oldest brother. And we were just sitting at my cousin's wedding. And I must have been thinking about it. And he just said, "What's wrong?" And I just turned around and said it. And at the time, he said, "I'm surprised but I'm not. A guy like you, I would have expected you to be having girlfriends and all that sort of stuff at your age, the fact you didn't was just a bit of a trigger for him that sort of said I might be," which was what I was scared of, I guess this was why, you know, I'd always sort of have those, those Hank moments.  

But he went home and started crying because it he thought all the different times, he'd use the words poor or fag and all that sort of stuff in a negative context and just thought how much, how hard it would be for me. So to see my, my brother at the time, who was 30, crying in front of his son was a, it was a heartbreaking thing from my end.  

He took it really well, my whole family took really well. They never gave me any indication, they wouldn't be good with me being gay. But at the same time, you go through the worst case scenario in your head every time when you're sort of going through those mental health challenges.  

Every person I've told has been, you know, our relationship has changed, but it's changed so much for the better, which has been really cool. 

Narrator  13:28   

For Sean, and it was a feeling of total relief. Not having to hide who he was from his family and friends was liberating. A total game changer. 

Sean Towner  13:40   

it's like each time I said the words, "I am gay" to someone in my life, the weight has kept lifting off my shoulders. It didn't get easy, easy, but it got easier and became simpler to do it every single time. And I remember from the footy club perspective, at the time, when I came out, I was the captain. So I thought, well, if these players know that the captain is gay, is that going to make us the gay footy club and all that sort of stuff? After I told the footy club, they were all great.  

The players - every time they would use a casual homophobic word, like a poof or fag, that sort of stuff, they would catch themselves and actually apologize to me. And for me, I mean, I don't get offended by that sort of stuff anymore, but the reality is, is there were other players at that time who were gay as well. So if my coming out, changed the way people spoke to each other at that time, I think it helped a lot of other people as well. And Mike was so comfortable coming around the football club after that. 

Narrator  14:48   

And then, Sean and Mike got married. Now they spend their typical days hanging out at home on Victoria sublime Great Ocean Road, and reconnecting a regular date nights. A time where checking in on each other is at the top of the menu. 

Sean Towner  15:05   

Mental health now for me is about routine I guess. So, Mike and I we both - through covid - we both work from home. We have a really cool routine where every morning we take our dog Jimmy for a walk along the beach, go off to our coffee shop and just sort of have weekly conversations or FaceTime calls with nieces and nephews and our family which is really nice.  

Spending time, even if even if it's only screen time, with the people that I love really helps me stay grounded and stayed in a really good headspace. Alcohol for me, it used to be a vice, I think now it's more of a social thing for Mike and I. So I don't do it to hide away from my life anymore. I do it as an enjoyment factor which is really good space to be in for me.  

We try and stay as active as we can for runs every morning, for me being active, keeps me sane. 

Narrator  16:06   

Sean say goodbye to Hank a long time ago. Hank is in the past, and Sean has never looked back. He no longer hides who he is. And he embraces every part of his true self. Opening up and talking to someone save Sean's life. It's the first thing he encourages people to do as soon as they're not feeling okay. 

Sean Towner  16:32   

Talking to other people, or having that sort of first conversation is the most important thing from a mental health journey, at least in my experience anyway. Because the sooner you talk to somebody else about your mental health challenges, the sooner you are on that road to recovery. Those conversations that you have with other people are invaluable, because they allow you to be your true authentic self, at your most vulnerable. And I think people really connect with other people through vulnerability and through stories.  

Those vulnerabilities helped me get, get to know Mike better was one thing, but also get to a point where I was able to love myself again as opposed to hate myself. And it's through those conversations that you get to that point where you start to really be happy with the person you are rather than be ashamed of the person you are, which is where I was.  

I think what I would tell young Sean or young anyone, is find one person can have a conversation with. If that is a friend or family member, even an online chat, don't bottle things up. And once you're on that road to recovery, and you can see that light at the end of the tunnel, that's when it becomes less scary. 

Narrator  18:00   

We want to say a huge thank you to Sean for sharing his story with us.  

We've covered a range of mental health issues and if anything has been upsetting for you contact the Beyond Blue Support Service on 1300 22 4636. We've also listed a number of resources in our show notes.  

This podcast was recorded and produced on Wurundjeri country and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands.  

Thanks for listening to Not Alone. 



Our theme song is Friends With Feelings, written and performed by Alice Skye, produced by CAAMA Music and published by Sony Music Publishing Pty Ltd.

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If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000. Other services include: