Sometimes, I think you have to travel back a bit before you can move forward in life, before you can really find your own little place in the world. I think maybe it’s kind of like when I go to a store and I’m trying to get my car to fit into a parking place. I pull forward, I back up, I turn the wheel, I tap on the brakes, I give the engine a little gas. Every once in a while, I can just whip right into a space, jump out of my car and hit the ground running. But more often than not, I have to work at getting my car between the lines that are painted on the surface of the lot. More often than not, for every time I inch forward, I also have to back up in order to make sure my car fits as it should. And I think that’s the way it is in life sometimes. You have to travel back a bit before you can move forward.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I realized I was attracted to girls rather than boys, but it was when I was in elementary school. I do remember, however, the self-loathing and fear that quickly took up residence within me once the realization took root in my mind. I was raised in a conservative Southern Baptist church, and I had been taught that being gay meant spending eternity in hell. It was when I was very young that I started hiding who I was, trying to change and attempting to be “normal.”
I spent decades trying to do the right thing and trying to be who everyone wanted me to be, who the church taught me I had to be. I dated guys in junior high, high school and college, and I tried to be normal. I was active in my church, and I tried to be normal. I got married, and I tried to be normal. I had three children, and I tried to be normal. I got divorced, and I tried to be normal. I began to speak to Christian women’s groups, and I tried to be normal. I went to work each day, and I tried to be normal.
And then one day, I couldn’t try to be normal any longer. I couldn’t be normal no matter how hard I tried, but I couldn’t live with the thought of being honest about who I was and hurting my children, my family and my friends.
That’s the day I began planning how I was going to end my life.
On February 4, 2012, I sat at my kitchen table, my farewell letters to my children stacked neatly before me, pills in my hand, ready to rid myself of the shame and guilt that I had carried for a lifetime. I had reconciled in my mind that because I was a believer, God would understand my need to escape the depression that engulfed me and that He would forgive me for what I was about to do.
And then my phone rang and interrupted my plan. My plan … God knew my plan, and He interrupted me in the final minutes before I implemented it. The events that followed that call had never taken place before, and they have never occurred again. I believe with all my heart that God stepped in on that chilly Saturday morning in February and brought my plan to a grinding halt. I began seeing a counselor the following Monday, and for the first time in my life, I was forced to face the truth of who I am. That’s the day I began my journey toward understanding who God created me to be.
As my sessions with the counselor went on, it became more and more difficult to continue trying to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. She was persistent in her attempts to get me to tell the truth about my sexuality to those closest to me. When my oldest son announced that he, my daughter-in-law and my only grandchild were moving to Canada, I was consumed with the desire to tell my son who I really am. Fearful of hurting him, or even worse, having him hate me, I remained silent and continued to carry the burden of dishonesty buried deep within me. Each time I was with my other two children, the weight of lying to them felt as though it would choke the very life from my body.
And then almost exactly six months to the day after I sat at my table with the pills in my hand ready to end my life, something happened that changed my life forever. I broke down, quite literally broke down, and began to sob while sitting at my desk at work. I went to tell someone that I didn’t feel well and needed to go home, but instead of allowing me to leave, she took me into a room and closed the door. On August 30, 2012, my friend closed the door to the conference room, and as I wept uncontrollably, I opened the door to the closet where I had spent a lifetime in hiding. That’s the day I began to truly understand the meaning of the word acceptance and the power of unconditional love.
Within a few weeks, I had told my children … my children who first assured me they had known who I am for many years and then humbled me with their affirmations of pride, respect, honor and love for me. Soon afterwards, I began opening up to other members of my family, close friends and a few co-workers. Though I was finally being authentic with most of the people in my inner circle of relationships, there remained a large part of my life in which I continued to hide my true identity. I’ve been the keynote speaker for a plethora of Christian women’s events for more than 10 years; and for the last five years, I’ve written a daily blog called “The Tree House” which has amassed a large and loyal readership base. In those two areas of my life, I was still living a lie, and it soon became clear to me that I had to end my life of pretense once and for all. On January 1, 2013, I posted an entry to my blog titled “Easier to Die” in which I shared the truth about my plan to end my life and my sexuality.
That’s the day I began to comprehend that God has a much bigger plan for me than I ever knew.
Within minutes of my “coming out” blog post, I began receiving emails and private Facebook messages from people around the world. Many of the messages were filled with judgment and condemnation, but many of the notes contained stories from people who were hurting and ready to take their own lives. I felt compelled to do more to reach those people, to encourage them to choose to live, and it only took a couple of weeks for God to plant the seed within me to create a video to serve as a PSA for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
On February 26, 2013, almost six months after my conference room confession to my friend at work, the video “Ears Wide Open?” was posted to YouTube and Vimeo. I had written the New Year’s Day blog post for myself, to free me from the dishonesty that had held me captive my entire life. The video was created to help those who desperately need to find hope, those who truly need to know that life is worth living and those who certainly need to believe that it really does get better. And again, within minutes of posting the video, messages began pouring in … messages of pain, despair and hopelessness, but also messages of overcoming, victory and living. That’s the day I began to believe that God can use any way and any means He chooses to establish His plans and fulfill His purpose.
Though I don’t understand why, and perhaps I never will this side of heaven, “Ears Wide Open?” is being viewed by thousands of people, and the story told on the notecards is helping to save lives. It is being shown in churches and youth community centers across the country, used as part of presentations in universities, tweeted by well-known gay rights supporters, and featured in many additional venues. When people tell me the video is powerful or of the impact it is having in their lives, I smile and say, “Last year, I wanted to die. Today, I choose to love. Today, I choose to laugh. Today, I choose to live.”
Today’s the day I’m so very thankful for … a day that is honest, open, real and transparent. And that’s the best day of all.
TERRIE 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!