Last week, after years of carrying it around as a secret, I came out publicly as gay. Coming out is almost never as simple as it should be, but, for me, it was complicated not only by the fact that I was nearly 40 and married with two kids, but also because I have a decent-sized social media following, many of whom have supported my writing as far back as 2012. I felt a duty to formally announce what was going on with me.
While I realize I don’t owe anyone details about my private life, my connection with my followers, my writing, my novels, all of that has been rooted in the idea of being as honest as possible. I write about my life, my relationships, being a mother, and the novels I’ve written have been inspired by the pain I’ve lived with in secret for so long. It didn’t feel right to march forward as an out woman without clarifying things for those who have supported me and read my words all this time. I wanted to explain myself. And so I did.
But then, in the process of coming out, I had an epiphany: We — “we,” meaning, humans — so often don’t allow ourselves to know each other. We are rarely honest enough with each other to truly know each other. And whatever we think we know about a person based on what we see on social media or even when we see them out and about in the real world, we can’t really know.
We don’t know what’s behind the perfectly rehearsed smiles or newly remodeled kitchens or expensive vacations or confessions of “inexplicable” depression. Until we get close enough to someone that they feel safe enough to let down that wall, we just don’t know. And how often do we get that close? It’s rare. Only a couple of very close friends knew I was gay in the years leading up to the moment I finally came out.
A flood of emails followed the post I published. So many people in the same position, hiding painful secrets, living a life that doesn’t feel like theirs, afraid to admit it, afraid of the consequences of being honest. And so they’ve been faking it. And no one knows. No one knows their secret, and so no one knows them.
Are painful secrets just a part of the human condition? Is everyone walking around with a big painful something? Are we all floating through the day assuming we know the people around us, assuming the story we get about a person on social media or via daily interactions, a coffee date here, a girls’ night out there, is the whole story? I bet most of us don’t have time to wonder whether we’re getting the whole truth. We have our own hard shit to deal with.
But there must be something about revealing your own truth that makes others want to open up and reveal theirs, because that is what happened when I came out. There is something uniquely heart-opening about allowing yourself to really be seen. We don’t all have to carve our hearts out of our chests and serve them on a platter to the public, but what if we could at least recognize that each of us has a “thing” we struggle with? Something we wish people could see but for whatever reason, aren’t able to reveal? Feeling seen and validated and accepted is all most people really want, but it’s a thing so few of us ever get to fully experience.
Very few people are 100% “what you see is what you get.” Most of us have a private battle or massive secret we feel we can’t share. Almost everyone is dealing with something heavy. Some of the messages I received were reflections of my own story: “I’m gay too, but I can’t tell anyone.” “I feel guilty and trapped.”
Others were different topics but just as heavy: “I want to leave my husband, but he says if I do, he’ll kill himself. And everyone thinks we have the perfect marriage.” “I’m addicted to pain pills and no one knows. I don’t know how to stop.”
I received a lot of messages of support when I came out, and that felt good. Old friends from high school I didn’t even realize followed me reached out to empathize with how hard it must have been for me to admit my truth when I knew it meant hurting those I love. Family members I was worried might disown me reassured me that they will love me no matter what.
But it was the other messages that came in that broke my heart—the messages that showed me so many others are suffering a similar to pain to what I felt. At the same time, these messages provided a comfort. It is an unfathomably isolating feeling to struggle with something huge that you can’t tell anyone about. But so many of us do it. Your coworker, the guy on the subway seat next to you, the acquaintance who is too “extra.” They’re all dealing with their own thing that for whatever reason they can’t talk about. There are so many of us who feel so alone, but we don’t have to.
I’m not encouraging people to dump their secrets. That has to be done when the time feels right. It can’t be forced. But can we at least be more compassionate to one another and understand that behind every half-smile and distracted “I’m fine,” something bigger is going on?
We might feel alone with our burdens, but we aren’t, not really. We all have something we’re struggling with, and in that way, we are very much in this together. If we could operate under that assumption, we’d be a lot kinder to one another.