Bringing you the best in independent LGBTQ writing on life & faith

Coming Out: Not One More Mile!

OneMoreMile_3441654246It’s surprising to me how many questions I continue to receive asking what actually happened on the day I came out … what made me completely break down at my office that day, why I didn’t just gather my things and leave when I got upset, whether I have any regrets about the emotion and the words that poured out of me.

It was a day that began as any other day … a day that changed my life forever … a day worthy of being recognized and marked and celebrated. After much thought and consideration as to how I could best do that … how I could best remember and honor the deep meaning that day will forever hold for me … I decided it was time to answer some of those questions.

From the moment I made the decision to open up about that day, I felt that my words would be empty without including the words of two people to whom I owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude. My hope … my prayer … my deepest desire is that our words will speak to your hearts about the need for honesty, the power of listening and the importance of seeking help if you are struggling.

Since this is a collaborative effort from three writers, grab something to drink and settle in to read for a bit … I promise you’ll be glad you did. Then perhaps consider passing this along to someone else who may need to read it, too. I hope you’ll read with your hearts open, friends … I hope you’ll read with your hearts wide open.

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Terrie –  When my son Matt was a baby, we were in an automobile accident that could have easily killed both of us. He was in his infant carrier on the front seat, and I was driving … and no, there weren’t laws back then that stated kids had to be in the rear seat of a car. We were on a narrow, winding, two-lane Tennessee road that ran alongside a creek, a road I had driven countless times before in every kind of weather imaginable, through the darkest of nights and the sunniest of days. I knew the road like I knew the back of my hand, because I had traveled it for many years. I had driven on the road believing it was the best, safest, most correct way for me to get home. But then the steering column on my car suddenly snapped, I lost control, and I crashed head-on into a large utility pole.

I’ll spare you the details of the injuries I sustained that day when I plowed through the windshield face first onto the hood of my car, but I will tell you that Matt didn’t have a scratch on him … not a single scratch. I’ve never driven on that road again, and I can say without question that I never will. And here’s the thing I’d like you to remember as you read the remainder of this post:  that day was like any other day in my life up until that point. I was traveling on the same road I always traveled on, driving like I always drove, talking like I always talked, doing what I always did. Until something deep inside my car broke loose. And without warning, in the blink of an eye, I couldn’t drive another mile — not one more mile — on the road I was trying so desperately to follow. 

Friend 1 – Authenticity – to be genuine, real, representing yourself exactly as you are. It sounds simple enough to live in a manner where my actions match my values, where my words speak my truth, my heart, without shrinking back to be less than, or even worse, to be something I’m not, possibly what someone else wants for me. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with messages of what we ‘should’ be, from politics to deodorant to food to appearance. If I am uncertain of how to live, all I need to do is look outside of myself for direction. Yet when I begin to disconnect from the truest part of me, whether it’s in the smallest of ways such as ignoring an inner voice saying, ‘This doesn’t feel right,’ or more overt ways of making a decision to do something because of my fear of someone else’s reactions, then I am automatically rejecting ‘me.’ The moment I shift my focus away from my authentic self is the moment I am no longer fully living.

Terrie –  It was a Thursday. I remember not wanting to get out of bed that morning, staring into the mirror for a long time wondering how long I could maintain the pretense that was my life, driving to work, sitting at my desk, reading some ads and a friend stopping by to say hello. I remember the tears that descended upon me and wouldn’t go away, trying to contact my supervisor to ask if I could leave for the day and not being able to reach her, walking to the desk of a manager to get permission to leave, her rising from her chair, leading me into a conference room, closing the door and asking me what was wrong. And I remember sobbing … I remember sobbing like I never had before … I remember struggling to breathe … I remember rambling … rambling about how sorry I was … about how much I loved my children and how badly I wanted to be a good mother to them … about my Love Thy Neighbor shirt. I remember I couldn’t breathe … I remember sobbing … and sobbing … and sobbing. 

Friend 2 –  It was lunchtime. I was prepping for a meeting. When Terrie walked over to ask me a question, I guess I thought it was more of an opportunity to talk. Terrie says that she was going along the same path that she always had, but the office thought differently. For months, Terrie was in a different zone. And by different, I mean not good. She wasn’t looking people in the eye, she was withdrawn, she seemed sad, distant. Everyone in the office noticed, and many discussed it. It wasn’t ‘Terrie.’

Many of us had worked with Terrie for years. Terrie was happy, cheerful, a problem solver, always willing to help out. But lately, she wasn’t. And it was very obvious to all of us. 

So, back to the talk. I didn’t know what we were going to talk about. I didn’t know the impact of this discussion. I had no idea what was going to transpire. I just knew Terrie needed a friend. Someone to listen to her. Someone to try to break through the sadness. I think if I would have known the impact, the severity, the critical nature of what was going to happen, I would have been scared to death. I wasn’t a trained professional, I couldn’t give professional, schooled, time-tested advice. I didn’t know what was going to come out of my mouth, I was just there to listen. To simply be there as Terrie’s friend.

Friend 1 – Terrie’s journey is a clear and dramatic example of how dark, hopeless, and alone we can feel when we disconnect from our own knowingness. Not only did she disconnect from her authentic self at a very early age, she was taught to judge and condemn others who did not fit a certain mold, thereby learning to judge and condemn herself. Shame developed in the gap between the authentic knowing of who she was and the person whom she needed to portray in order to fit in and be accepted. We all have a need to feel accepted, connected to others, and loved. When who you are is not acceptable to those you love or the larger community, it is only natural to want to hide it, ignore it, or deny it. And so goes the creation of an identity that people will accept and love openly, with no judgment or fear.

Terrie –  I can’t tell you what caused me to fall apart on that otherwise ordinary Thursday morning, and honestly, I’m not sure I will ever know why the events of that day played out the way they did. While much of the conversation that took place between my friend and I remains somewhat cloudy to me, there are certain words that were spoken in the conference room on that hot summer day that will be etched into both my mind and my heart forever.

Words of despair and pain that poured forth from the prisons I had locked myself away in for decades … the prison of hiding … the prison of self-hate … the prison of shame … the prison of lying. Words such as, “You can put a snake in a sheepskin, and it’s still a snake,” or “You don’t get it … I don’t want to wear a dress, ever,” or “I’ve spent my whole life trying to be who everyone else wants me to be, and I can’t do it anymore,” or “I tried so hard to do the right thing.” Words of compassion and acceptance that flowed from the heart of my friend, fighting to control her own tears as she felt the depth of my hurt and saw the walls of the closet where I had spent my life in hiding come crumbling down around me. Words such as, “Just be you, Terrie, because the you I know is wonderful,” or “You’re one of the strongest women I know,” or “There’s no judgment here, no judgment here at all, friend,” or “I’m behind you all the way … hang in there.”

I remember the overwhelming thoughts that consumed me as I drove home after our conversation. “That couldn’t have just happened, no, no, no. What I said was veiled … I never actually said the words … maybe she didn’t get what I was really saying. I didn’t just tell her I’m gay, did I? I never said those words … did I? What just happened? Why her? We aren’t close friends. Why did I say those things to her? That couldn’t have happened … that couldn’t have happened … I’m going to lose my job. Oh, God … that could not have just happened.” I remember those thoughts … I remember those thoughts so very well.

Friend 2 –  So there it was. Terrie was coming out. I thought. She thought. But she didn’t want to. And she wasn’t ready. But she did. But then tried not to. I just listened. And reassured. And did my best not to say anything stupid or mess this up. Most of all, I didn’t judge. I didn’t do it consciously, I just didn’t judge. I listened with an open mind and an open heart.

Terrie told me a lot that day. To me, it’s a bit of a blur. I wasn’t taking notes, I wasn’t hanging on every word. I wasn’t listening to remember every word. I was simply listening as a friend, trying to give the best advice and support I could. Did I mention that I’m not a trained professional?

She went to the doctor, then home, then on her way on her road trip. I texted the next day to see if she was ok, and told her again that I really couldn’t give a rip one way or the other. I just wanted her to be happy and know that I was there if she needed to chat. Well, I later found out that she threw her phone down when she read my message. She thought, “SHE KNOWS!!!” We laugh about it now, because it was pretty obvious to me as I listened to her in the conference room the day before. But at the time, it wasn’t one bit funny. Terrie didn’t want it to be so obvious.

Friend 1 –   Ignoring aspects of yourself, particularly aspects that are at the very core of you, is exhausting. Denial, whether it is to yourself or others, takes mental and physical energy above and beyond the tasks of daily living. The pain and confusion become too much to tolerate, and the need to be loved and accepted for who you really are overpowers. One year ago today, Terrie had reached the point of exhaustion. Although she was no longer living in denial to herself, she was still hiding to the world around her, and the weight and energy that required was more than she could handle for even one more day.

It was the serendipity of the tipping point: several different events and circumstances pulling on her emotionally all while continuing the strenuous exercise of existing in a life of facades, of ignoring what was real and ever-present within. So although that day was like any other, the moment occurred where the exhaustion and mental anguish overpowered Terrie’s usual mechanisms for hiding. Although she didn’t really want to share her secret, her emotions could not be held back any longer because the secret was slowly wearing her down mentally and physically. In fact, the depression she was experiencing from keeping the secret, the secret that disconnected her from all that was important to her, was killing her. Terrie had wanted to die for quite a long while in order to escape the pain. By the time that day arrived, she was merely clinging to a buoy in an extremely rough sea.

BrightRoad_8694140720Terrie –  I don’t know how long I was in the conference room that day, but I know that it was long enough … long enough to be the beginning of a journey toward living honestly … long enough to be the beginning of living as the me God created me to be.

A lot of people ask me what’s the biggest thing I’ve learned since that day. For all the questions I don’t have the answers to and very well may never have, I can sort of answer that one. I say “sort of answer” because it’s impossible for me to choose one lesson that is the greatest of all the ones I’ve learned over the last year. I’ve learned that you never know what’s inside a person’s heart unless you make the time to listen with the ears of your own heart wide open. I’ve learned that real friends, true friends, committed friends shine brightest in the darkest of nights. I’ve learned to never underestimate God … His design, His love, His purpose, His calling, His plan. I’ve learned that something needed to break inside of me … that I needed to be forced off the road I was on … that crashing head-on into the conference room ended up being the best thing … the very best thing … that’s ever happened to me. That day took me off the road of pretending and placed me on the path of becoming real … real with myself … real with my children and others who know me … real with God. 

Friend 2 –  With a year of reflection behind me, I have to thank my parents (this sounds like an Oscars speech). I was raised in an environment of acceptance and support. An environment that was far from perfect, but one that taught me to be kind.

I talk to my pre-teen kids about this a lot. They will be put in many, many different situations in life. They will find that they might not always be the smartest person in the room. They might not be the best looking, the most athletic, the funniest or the most liked. But they have the choice to be the most kind. I remind them that they always have this choice, and it’s the one that is likely to make them the most proud.

Without kindness that day, without taking the time to listen, without taking the time to care, Terrie might be in a different place today. I’m not saying I made all the difference in the last year, not even close. She has so much support from so many people. But in the end, I’m really glad I was kind. She deserves it. 

So remind your kids, and remind yourself, of these two words: Be kind. You have no idea how one act of kindness may change someone else’s life.

Friend 1 –  The truth is that being authentic isn’t easy for anyone. We all share the universal experience of wishing parts of ourselves were different or better; some even wish they were completely different people than who they are. When a person is disconnected from parts of themselves, they are disconnected from others as well and that disconnect is the obstacle that stands in the way of getting help. Getting help begins when we first reach for connection, to share whatever part of ourselves we can muster. In the conference room one year ago today, Terrie shared her pain, visibly and openly, with another person, allowing connection, real authentic connection, to take place. As she connects with others in her truth, she is likewise connecting more to herself.

Terrie –  I never would have believed that being broken, losing control and plowing heart first through the windshield of hiding onto the hood of who I truly am could be such a good thing. Well, I didn’t believe it until I walked into a conference room on a hot summer day. I believe it now, friends … I believe it now.

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photo credit: “Hard Road”:  Alex Abian (Also on flickr.com/alexabian) via photopin cc
photo credit: “Bright Road”: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc

Johnson-Terrie2TERRIE JOHNSON is Senior Editor for a nationally recognized advertising agency in Kansas City, and author of Lord, Help! Here Comes Mom! and God Even Loves Wiener Dogs.  

She is an awarded public speaker, writer of the daily blog, The Tree House, mother to three adult children, and grandmother to the most beautiful, intelligent little girl ever!

Terrie is producer and co-director of Ears Wide Open?, a short 3-minute film that packs a powerful punch.

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