(or How I Lost My Family)
If I’m going to let you into my garden, I guess I should tell you why I had to close it off in the first place.
It wasn’t always this way. I used to have a lot to say. In fact, once upon a time, I talked so much and so loudly that my parents thought it was funny (not to mention shaming) to call me the “Mouth of the South.”
That label, in and of itself, probably shut me up. And in time, I started to realize that I was different from my family. I share an uncanny physical resemblance to my family of origin, but that’s where the similarities and connections end.
So at some point I just stopped talking. No one was listening anyways. No one understood me.
I escaped to boarding school and then to college a thousand miles away. Then I moved, and moved again, putting more physical distance between me and them.
And then I dropped the bomb. May 22, 2003 was the worst day of my life.
Sure there have been other devastating losses, but most of those transpired over the course of several days and I don’t know that I could pin-point which one of a string of bad days was the “worst.”
But on this particular day, back in 2003, I came out to my parents, and my world hasn’t been the same since. I spent months building up to that moment of reckoning, even working with a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist. The “problem-focused” and “action-oriented” approach of CBT seemed to fit my predicament, in theory. I held a false belief (“cognitive distortion”) that the world would come to an end if I dared to show anyone who I really was (“Fortune-telling,” “Catastrophizing,” “All-or-Nothing Thinking”) and I just needed to challenge these thoughts and all would work out fine.
Except my beliefs weren’t false or distorted at all. They were spot on.
I first shared my secret with those who I knew would still love me, then with those who I hoped would still love me but might not, and finally to my sisters and parents. I gathered up the courage to tell them and that’s when my world fell apart.
I dropped this bombshell when my parents were in town, helping to get my youngest sister moved into her first “real world” apartment. I had cleared this with my sister in advance, waiting until the last day of my parents’ visit so as not to ruin the rest of the trip.
I arrived at my sister’s barely furnished apartment, bearing a peace offering of sandwiches. We sat on the floor and ate. Well, they ate; I couldn’t stomach it. I was too nervous and scared. No, terrified.
I finally gathered up the courage and told them. My declaration wasn’t well received.
It wasn’t as if there hadn’t been signs. My mother once confided her suspicions to my father, and he retorted that I was “too smart” to be gay (as if). They had time to process their own fears, years ahead of my formal coming out. But they didn’t.
They could have just said “you are our daughter and we still love you” and processed their own grief and shock in private. Instead they emailed me what we refer to as the “Letters of Hell Fire and Damnation,” which were, thankfully, deleted soon after they arrived.
I just wish I hadn’t read those letters in the first place.
Before my bombshell announcement, there had been lots of talk about what we were going to do on the last night of my parents’ visit. Once my parents realized they had a gay daughter, it seems no one was interested in most of the proposed ideas. We ended up going to dinner. I brought along my girlfriend (who is now my wife), who my parents had met before and really liked when she was just a “friend.”
It was the worst dinner ever, marked by tense, uncomfortable, awkward silences, not to mention two gay people at the table. I’ve never been able to go back to that restaurant, and find myself quivering if I even just walk past. (It took me nearly a decade before I was able to eat again from the restaurant where I picked up our lunch sandwiches.)
Later that evening my mother would lose a bracelet in a taxi cab, my father’s cell phone would be hacked. There was clearly nothing good in the cesspool of the big city.
My parents went home, and so began this torturous chapter in our relationship.
Despite months of talking about “worst-case scenarios,” what happened was actually worse than anything I predicted. Even my therapist was caught off guard because I had proven to be a pretty good judge of other people’s reactions. I was gutted. It felt like my soul had been ripped out of my body, stomped on and discarded. My mother even said “you are dead to us” and those words continue to ring in my ears, every day. It’s like this taunting, jeering, disapproving voice that has taken up permanent residence in my head. I try to rationalize with it and reason with it, but it’s a hard reality to live with. I try to rewrite the story, try to figure out if I had done something differently it would have changed the outcome.
Well-intentioned friends tell me to move on, forget about them. But it is such a core injury, I’m not sure many people understand that moving on and forgetting is impossible when you’ve been violated in this way.
In hindsight, I think my therapist was overwhelmed. There were no CBT worksheets or exercises or protocols that could contain my loss or withstand the force of this rejection. My thoughts weren’t distorted at all. So she fumbled about, as one might do when lost in a dark room.
She should have referred me elsewhere, to a modality better equipped to support me. No one stays in CBT for two years, and when I finally left, it wasn’t because I was “better” or “healed.” It was more of a feeling that I was making the clinic’s numbers, their “success rates,” look bad, and so it was time for me to go. I had outstayed my welcome and she didn’t have much else to offer me anyways.
I went into hibernation for a few years. I buried myself in work and friendships and in getting married and starting a family. But the process of becoming a mother myself was strikingly transformational. It caught me off guard. For the first time in my life, I came face-to-face with unconditional love. I felt the love that I had always yearned for, but was unable to find. This newfound love made me reconsider and re-evaluate my relationship with my family of origin. I now had children who I vowed to love and protect, and I can’t imagine either of my children every doing anything that would cause me to reject them. My love for them is without condition, for as long as we all shall live.
It would take me another 10 years before I would find the right therapist, someone who truly understood the loss of severing. My current therapist calls this a “complicated grief”… an “extreme yearning for the lost loved one that’s never satisfied.”
Indeed, I often feel trapped by the fantasy of a loved one returning. I mourn the parents I never really had, and never will have either. And yet, I hang on to hope that they will one day come around. Unlike grieving a deceased person, I’m grieving people who are still here, and who do occasionally drop into my universe from time to time.
What the activist and transgender sensitivity trainer Imani Henry said of transgender people may also be said of gay people: “We don’t really transition, it’s the people around us who transition. They’re trying to figure out if they’re going to stay in our life, or if they’re going to stay in their own.”
I still haven’t figured out the balance. I’m not sure how to stay connected without getting hurt. I’m not sure that’s even possible.
The best I can do is try to be the mother I wish I had, and that’s even hard as it clearly highlights all that I missed out on and all that I had to carry on my own for all of those years. It’s no wonder that I am so tired.
I know now that what I have lost has actually made me a better parent. I’m capable of giving unconditional love, able to nurture the wonderful traits that make my children different and unique, able to encourage their own differentiation. I have the capacity to hold them and comfort them, to hold their pain and minimize their hurt, the ability to already start letting go. I strive to help them realize their true selves and put them on a path to a happy and productive life.
Sometimes you have to cut off a toxic limb, to keep an infection from destroying the rest of the body. Even in the interest of self-preservation, severances are painful and leave scars and phantom sensations.
Humans are more like trees than starfish. You can’t regrow a limb once it’s had to be cut off. You can nurture it, and care for it, and try to keep the abscess from getting an infection. You can learn to live with the missing part, even grow from it and perhaps experience things you would not otherwise have been able. You can regenerate and continue living despite the hole, but the hole is still there.
Well we’ve got holes in our hearts, yeah we’ve got holes in our lives
Well we’ve got holes, we’ve got holes but we carry on… ~ Passenger, “Holes”
(See my taste in music has improved over the years. I hope.)
So I guess we all have holes. Some bigger than others, but holes just the same.
And we all have ways of plugging those holes. Maybe this garden will start to fill in some of mine.