I recently began corresponding with an old friend of mine who also grew up in a conservative Christian family. She is now an ordained minister and is the woman who presided over my marriage to my wife. We became friends in high school, but we hadn’t talked since graduation.
When I moved to Seattle for graduate school, she messaged me out of the blue. We met for dinner and quickly became kindred friends again. This reconnection was years ago now, and I recently asked her about what she remembers about this time of reconnection.
Much had changed for both of us since High School.
She was married to a man who wasn’t a “born again” Christian (for her family, this was almost as bad as being gay). I was dating a woman and trying to figure out if I was gay. I recently wrote her to ask what she thought that day when she found out I was dating a woman?
I had never asked her this before, and it felt scary even though it was a time in our friendship that was long ago. She responded, “I don't remember you exactly telling me directly: ‘I am dating a woman.’ What I do remember is hearing through the grapevine that you had ‘come out’ and that you had moved to Seattle to attend graduate school.”
She wrote much more about how this information gave her courage and comfort to reach out to me, but I barely heard anything else after having read that she knew I was gay before I had told her.
It was such a truly violating, vulnerable and out of control feeling to know people (I didn’t exactly know who) had been talking about this very intimate and, at that time, confusing part of my life. Questions swirled in my mind as if it was happening then, not years ago:
"Who told Gretchen?" "What did they say?!" "Why were people talking about me?"
I had to take a breath and realize it was a long time ago. I released myself from the panic and reminded myself that I am no longer in that place. At that time in my life, I remember being very much hidden with lots of anxiety, pre-occupation, and fear. It was a painful place to be.
I did not want to admit to my friend that I panicked reading her email. I did not want to tell her I felt triggered, but I did. Part of me believed it was my fault others were talking about me.
I suppose on some level I felt I deserved this betrayal because I chose to live in hiding. While there are often good reasons people hide who they truly are, it can create an internal shame that translates into thinking you deserve the bad that happens to you.
For me, this interaction with my friend opened my eyes to understanding this shame in a new way.
Her response to my panic surprised me and created a space for me to offer myself a deeper grace and understanding. She wrote:
What's interesting is that I do not remember 'who' told me. I do not remember who/what/when/where. I just remember feeling a charge to connect with you. I understand that this does not undo the feelings of exposure, the public hearing of your own intimacies....The thought of having others talk about me behind my back—in general—feels vulnerable. It makes me question: "Who can I trust?"
To have it be about my sexual orientation, [whether it is in a Christian context] or otherwise, taps into something extremely personal. What I do know is that I don't feel like I concealed something from you. Like "I knew" before you told me or knew something before you "knew’ yourself. I wanted to know you on your own terms. Not anyone else's.
What a gift to have a friend who truly wanted to know me, yet also allow space for my hurt. My friend did not blame me, but provided words and affirmed my experience. She worked to understand what it was like for me.
I know the nature of secrets is that there is a high probability someone will share your hidden places with others.
If this kind of exposure has happened to you, my hope is that you will not blame yourself. You did nothing to deserve this even if you are not ready to share all of who you are with the world.
Remind yourself that you will come out of hiding when you are ready, and there is no shame in taking your time. But also remember that secrets are hard to hold on your own, and offer kindness to those who have shared yours.
Lastly, I hope you can offer yourself understanding, space to feel the hurt, and courage to reach out to those who will love you no matter what your secrets are. We all have reasons for staying hidden—many of us stay hidden until it becomes too painful, or it doesn’t make much sense anymore.
Be kind to yourself in the hidden places, and allow those who accept you to give you grace and courage.
You are not alone.
Photo via flickr user Étienne Ljóni Poisson