Saturday, May 2, 2009

Broken Open

So, I turned 40 a couple of months ago. Yikes! I remember when I was a in my mid-20's. I'd poke fun at the older women on my rugby team who were, as I insultingly called it, "mid-to-upper 30's." Nice. Well, now it's my turn to be up there in age, and ironically, today, I'd actually enjoy being called "mid-to-upper 30's" by some smart-ass, younger version of me.

But seriously, a lot happened for me in the months proceeding and immediately following my 40th birthday that I want to share. Maybe my story will help someone experiencing a similar thing. Maybe it just feels better to get it out on the screen. Who knows. But, I do know that some of my personal changes probably happened because of the number '40' and the impact this had on my psyche, and some were definitely a result of a soul-stirring break up I experienced this past September. Whatever the cause, the biggest result was that I faced my fears (that have been mounting for 15 years) and came out to both my parents (pause for applause, here).

Actually, I had come out to my mom 3 times previously, but, she had a special way of ignoring the issue 'hoping' that I or it would go away. I went away. It didn't. And, though she never really wanted to talk about it, my mom found some Armenian maternal satisfaction in making me feel guilty about my 'lesbian' condition. She mentioned several times over all those years, "If you tell your father, he'll have a heart attack. You don't want to be responsible for that, do you?" And then there was the, "I don't want to hear about your disgusting life. Why don't you go back into the closet you came out of and stay in there?" And the worst of all for me was the angry yet simply devastating statement, "Your selfishness will ruin this family!"

For years I had withstood pretty harsh comments from my mom about my weight, my bitten nails, my tomboy look, my (lack of) fashion sense, and my disregard for applying make up. This "lesbian" stuff was just another thing to add to the pile. Despite everything, I never doubted my mom's love. I mean, I was her only daughter. I did understood her pain and didn't want to rock the boat. When I first told her I was gay, I knew that I had shattered all her dreams and aspirations for me; including the perfect marriage to an Armenian guy that she drew up in her mind. I also saw my mother break down in a way I hadn't seen since my grandma (her mom) died. Wailing and all. It was heart wrenching to witness and to know that I was the cause of it. Upsetting her made me feel sick. I thought to myself that maybe I was being selfish. Maybe I will cause the family undue hardship and turmoil.

So, instead of being vocal and gently prodding my mom to face my reality and hers, I actually enabled her homophobia for 15 years through my relative silence. This was not surprising, for as easy as it was for me to be a vocal, confident, proactive leader in every other aspect of my life (the classroom, the sports field, with friends, etc), it was as difficult for me to have constructive, open, adult conversations with my parents--let alone about my sexuality as the main topic. Silence was emotionally easier. And, besides, I thought it didn't affect me much; I could 'walk the line.' That is, until one day I was told and then told myself, "no more."
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Her reasons for saying "no more" and leaving after 5 years had little to do with the affair she was carrying on with her boss over the summer. Rather, she said that I always put my family first; that we were on two different paths; and that I didn't want the same things in life she wanted (meaning marriage, kids, etc.).

True, I did my best to avoid conversations about those big issues. I stopped talking when she brought marriage or kids up. Went silent. Left the room. Couldn't explain myself well. All these actions sent the signal that I didn't want those things. But, the simple truth that evaded even my own consciousness at the time was not about not wanting those things. Rather, that working towards those goals would absolutely require coming out to my entire family first. And, this scared me more than anything. This fear immobilized me and just kept me stuck. It separated me from my own wants...from even thinking about the future in those big ways. First things had to come first. 'What? Am I going to show up pregnant one day before my parents even know about me and my girlfriend? Am I going to have a wedding in secret, behind my family's back?' My first step towards a full future with her needed to be coming out to my family, but it was too daunting for me to even fully realize this at the time. I had no idea that my coming out fears were driving my avoidance of other issues. It was crippling me from the inside out. It suppressed my own self-expression of what I truly wanted for my own future. That is, until I was told our loving relationship was over.

That very second she broke up with me, it all came together. A voice, a thought, an angel--whatever you want to call it--gave me the most clarity in the middle of despair that I have ever experienced. At the same instant my life was crashing down on me, the truth--my truth--revealed itself. I knew without a shred of doubt what was holding me/us back. It was like reality backed me into a corner and nailed me hard to my own cross of fears. In that position, I no longer could escape. I no longer could distract myself. I could neither 'walk the line' nor walk away. Silence wouldn't suffice. Most of all, I no longer could avoid or deny this simple fact---that I (through a combination of inaction, complacency and remedial skill in bringing self-awareness to self-actualization) allowed the fear of disappointing and potentially losing my family rob me of my own future happiness. In essence, I sabotaged my own relationship.

Sure, I was out and about in the community, but in my mind family was different. Sure, I had a ton of deep and loving queer friendships, but family was different. Yes, I was proudly 'out' at work, with college friends and past roommates, but family was different.

This break up made me reassess everything in my life. Two weeks after the break up I came out to my best friend from growing up and to my older brother and his wife (who were supportive, loving and accepting). Then to my father (who said he loves me no matter what). Then I had a nice, adult sit-down with my mom and dad where I told them what I think I deserve in life and that they have to work towards acknowledging my sexuality. After that I told my younger brother. This mission could not have been aborted. I was determined, sincere, focused and gentle. And I did it for my future and the happiness of my future family.

The 'break up' also led to a 'shake up' in my soul. Coming clean like this was the closest thing to a religious experience that I ever felt. It was like being re-born; like baptizing my soul and liberating it from the immobilization caused by years of fear and some layers of shame. Today, I am a better, more self-aware (still far from perfect) version of myself. And, my life has transformed leading up to and after turning 40 in every way possible. As a result of coming out to my entire family, everything has changed. Except...my broken heart remains.

6 comments:

  1. Dear Chicago Girl,

    Many thanks for such an honest, moving and liberating personal account of 'coming out' to parents. I wish you happiness, and happy belated bday!!

    I will mention your post on my blog too. Hope, this will help other gay Armenians too.

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  2. Cool, candid post
    Coming out is just not easy. No matter how open minded your parents are when it is one of their own, then something goes wrong with their open mindedness

    Actually I can't complain because I was never really in the closet.

    My sexuality is one of those things that always was.

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  3. Truly inspiring. My partner of 10 years and I came out to our mothers recently. I can honestly say that it was the saddest and the most devastating experience for my Mom and myself including. Having lived almost a decade in the West, I developed a false sense of security in thinking that my own coming out experience will mimic that of the many stories I've seen and heard of in the West that were full of understanding and support on the part of the parents. Boy, was I wrong.... I guess being the only child doesn't help either. I am hoping that it gets easier with time. I just wish there was some sort of a support group for Armenian parents in Armenia where they could share their stories and hear others and gain strength and perspective in sharing.

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  4. Dear Chicago Girl. Oh my GOD. You expressed Evrything i feel. About the harsh criticisms aboout our tomboy look, the shattered dreams , and the line "you will ruin this family with your selfishness"- sigh, what a classic. I find it very telling how your father reacted much better than what your mom made you think would happen to him. Armenian mothers are like the drama/boundary keepers, no matter what their imagination is tainted with grossly insane exagerrrations and how they must uphold the morality of the whole unit with their pressures. You know what though? Everythin about me says I am gay, except my desire- i don't desire women! I say "I'm not gay, I'm just smart" (hetero/normative bullshit is a poison)

    Many thanks for you amazing blog

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  5. Dear chicago girl,

    I relate to your post, but not as an Armenian or a lesbian but as Turkish-American straight feminist. I know this opens a can of worms but before there are too many assumptions, let me just say it would probably be an identical situation for a Turkish-American lesbian, including the hoisting of responsibility for the entire family's morality on the girls shoulder, projecting the father's unhappiness to be more than the mother's when he will probably be more clearheaded on these issues, and finally, thinking you can please your mother/family if only you could compartmentalize your personal identity from your responsibility to your ethnic group and then eventually you break down from all this stress (a "female" trait if i ever heard one). Kudos for trying to be so strong for everyone's interest. You will probably do more for Armenians by coming out. I know about WOW and Queering Yerevan, as well as similar movements in next door neighbor Georgia. I am personally waiting for an explosion of feminism to hit these two countries (as for Turkey, similar situation but they've had some more time to get the ball rolling).

    Maybe the destruction of this boundary will mean that the wall between Turks and Armenians is next? I will be first in line to cross this border.

    Wishing you well. We are all lesbians.

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