Shining a Light on Shame
I have come out to my parents twice in my lifetime. The first time, I was standing in our kitchen after coming home from school, tears streaming down my face as I explained to my Mum that I didn’t want to go on a date to the movies with the kind boy I sat next to in Legal Studies because I didn’t want to date boys at all. She bundled me up in a hug, told me that everything was going to be okay, and reminded me that even though I was a lesbian, I still had to unpack the dishwasher after dinner that night. As we went to pick up my father from work that night, I sobbed some more while Mum disclosed the worst kept secret in our family’s history. Dad chuckled and said that only a few days earlier, he had been wondering when I would just come out and say it. As obvious as my sexuality seemed to my family members, carrying around the secret of being gay was a suffocating burden that I dragged with me throughout every aspect of my life. Waves of paranoia swept through my body each day as I walked through school, washing away any semblance of pride or comfort I felt in my identity. In the depths of my despair amidst bullying and loneliness, I carried a copy of Dr Brene Brown’s book ‘Rising Strong’ to and from class, and when I had a spare moment at lunchtime, I would seek solace in its pages. It was here I read that “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”
When I told my parents that I was gay, and then my sister, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles, I felt an unbelievable sense of relief. Their words of support and unconditional love warmed my heart, but somehow, standing in my truth and being authentically ‘me’ was remarkably comforting in and of itself. Somehow, it didn’t matter what anybody said or thought about who I love, because the only person that had to live with and accept my queerness was me.
My second coming out occurred somewhat later in life, but was equally, if not more difficult. After two years and two different psychologists, I explained to my parents that I had OCD. They had always been aware that this was the diagnosis I had received in the course of my private conversations with my clinicians, but the path from my clear distress over the past few years to a diagnosis of OCD made little sense without context. For the longest time, I had deliberately kept them in the dark because this seemed easier than disclosing the nature of my most frightening and abhorrent intrusive thoughts. However, much like the isolation I experienced prior to identifying as a lesbian, it was incredibly lonely working through feelings that I was a monster without the people I loved by my side. Even though my parents always held me close while I cried after my exposure therapy, I could tell that there was some inaccessible truth within me that they were trying to reach but couldn’t because I was actively hiding it.
Once again, bearing my soul to my closest supporters went remarkably well. When I filled in the blanks and told them about the various moral obsessions that kept me up at night, the pieces came together to form a vivid picture of the last few years of our lives together. Suddenly, every panic attack and bout of depression they had lived through with me made perfect sense. Initially, I had lied and told my parents that I washed my hands multiple times a day because I thought this stereotype of OCD would be easier for them to stomach. In reality, when I told my Mum I was having what I thought of as unacceptable intrusive thoughts, she seemed oddly relieved. Apparently, the details I shared with her, aligned very closely with the scrupulous person that I am in her eyes, much more so than fears about contamination – after all, I am the messiest person in my family.
Just like my queer awakening, stepping into my mental health diagnosis was far more empowering than I ever could have imagined. People always say that “it gets better”, but I had always imagined that this was contingent upon whether people reacted well to what I had to say, or whether they accepted who I was. While my beautiful family stood by me as I explored every part of my identity, and I am forever grateful for that, the only person that had to accept me was me. Regardless of other people’s opinions, sharing myself with others was a radical act of self-love. It was personal proof that I wasn’t ashamed of my sexuality, my mental disorder, or myself, and that no matter what happens, I am enough, just as I am.
So I encourage you to tell those you love when you’re ready. The love and acceptance I found was wonderful. Until you are ready, you can always contact eFriend. It’s completely private, no doctor’s referral needed… just book your call. We’re here, we’ve been where you are, and we’ll listen without judgement.
Book your chat https://efriend.org.au
We look forward to having a cuppa with you soon.