I found out what ‘family’ means — with a piano suspended above my head

When I stumbled alone into the real world at 17, I decided my best chance of survival was to trust whatever hodgepodge bunch of humans I encountered next.

4 min readJul 17, 2021


Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

Keeping up appearances

In Britain, the most explicit examples of how we view our family ties can be found on the telly. Soap operas (such as Eastenders or Coronation Street) make it look as if we think of family ‘units’ as nothing more than aggressive branding exercises.

The infamous ‘Mitchell’ family, for instance, have always harboured an unhealthy obsession with the esteem of their name. If a Mitchell’s personality starts to contradict their aura of gangster toughness, they get screamed at until it subsides.

Ben Mitchell, for example, started out as an exuberant drama student but ended up a habitual killer with all the charm of a hard-boiled egg.

One of our most notorious Britcoms centres on a woman whose surname is literally spelt ‘B-U-C-K-E-T’ but insists it’s pronounced ‘Bouquet’. She overlooks the needs of her husband and worries herself 24/7 with the impression she’s making on the neighbours.

Congratulations, it’s a homosexual!

I could have tarnished my folks’ good name by being a big gay. They were church-goers, so I can understand the worry.

They were valued as part of a traditional community and my ill-timed self-awareness risked it all. In truth, I was fumbling about in the dark. I had no template; Eastenders didn’t cut the mustard.

I wanted to explore, experiment and find my identity! But I got booted out and, therefore, had other priorities.

I think their concerns stemmed from a tendency to ‘catastrophise’. Which is to say, they thought that if things didn’t go a particular way, they’d fall apart. They were probably awake at night imagining I’d get murdered for brandishing a rainbow wristband (which can happen).

This is now a habit of mine. When people ask about anxiety I explain: there’s a piano suspended above my head. I know that if I stop thinking about the piano, it’ll come crashing down on top of me. If I relax, or just do what feels right, things will go horribly wrong.

Fake mums, true self

Thankfully, a chum’s mum took me in; she was a funky single lady with three tearaway boys and she never winced at any mention of my sexuality. In fact, she actively encouraged me to express it — to express whatever!

I dyed my hair a grotesque yellow-blonde. I got a labret piercing. I made crass, inappropriate jokes. I probably went too far. All the while I was accepted and celebrated for simply being… who I was being.

She had a friend who looked after me too. She was unapologetically honest and loved the word ‘cunt’. I lived in her basement like some sort of gay goblin. I talked to her about my friends, relationships, sex life — and that damned piano. She talked to me about her ‘grown-up’ issues.

Both mums sought mutual respect and honesty, and these are traits I looked for in any new connections.

I went on to build strong, candid friendships at college, work, and university. And I’ve never spent long standing still. These people let me evolve.

Reality presents opportunity

I’ve been coming to terms with the piano. It’s not the end of the world. Nowadays I know it can fall at any time (and there are unlimited pianos).

So the pianos keep falling, and the people who show up when they do, help me — and I help them.

Nobody’s perfect. They don’t hold all the answers to my problems — after all, anyone who tries to look invincible isn’t (think: the Mitchells) — but those who struggle, same as me, are more likely to share their two cents. With open dialogue, we piece together the advice we need.

Baz Lurhmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free’ is basically my swapsies for Christianity. His lyrics go like this:

‘Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.’

Whatever your screwed up definition of a modern family, try not to make it about expectations. Go for honesty, truth, and change.

Let that piano swing free, baby!