I remember how my heart broke. I remember how I felt the air leave my chest, with no sign of ever returning. This feeling, an almost indescribable feeling, stuck around for almost a year.
The beginning of my sophomore year of high school, rumors began to spread. I was officially labeled the “gay” girl at school, and there was no going back. But truth be told, I didn’t even know if I was gay. Sure, I liked a girl, but that doesn’t really mean anything. I was still trying to figure myself out, trying to decide who I was. I could deal with the rumors at school, but then they hit home — they spread so far through the grapevine that they reached my uber-religious parents.
I remember that day so clearly. I received a text from my youth group leader, a very close friend of my family, telling me I needed to tell my parents “my secret.” My brother picked me up from school and we drove home in utter silence. I could feel my heart climbing up my throat, wanting to jump ship before the impending conversation and clash. I arrived home. My dad was waiting outside for me. We stood in my front yard for what felt like hours as I sobbed, searching for words to explain how I felt.
That was the worst part. I had no idea how I felt. I didn’t know if I was gay. I didn’t have enough time to figure this out myself, let alone enough time to figure out how to explain to someone else.
I finally said “Dad, I don’t like boys. I don’t want to date boys.” There it was. The truth that I wasn’t even sure was the truth, was out for the world to judge.
You could feel my words hanging there, like a wedge being forced between us. I remember the look on his face made me sick to my stomach, all the things I feared coming true right before my eyes. He looked at me like I was a broken toy; I needed to be fixed before anyone could accept me. I could see he thought everything I was saying was complete nonsense. He thought I had strayed from my faith and needed to be brought back to God.
I think I broke my dad that day. Up to this point in life, my dad was my absolute best friend. As a child, I spent every single day attached to his hip. I would follow him to the barn and help him feed the cows; granted, I was more in his way than anything, but he always told me how much he loved my help anyways. I would go to him with everything and anything, from fights with my friends to my worries about the future. There wasn’t a day that went by where we wouldn’t have a heart-to-heart conversation.
All this stopped after my front-yard confession.
I would go days, weeks without seeing him. He avoided coming into my room. He spent fewer and fewer nights at dinner, leaving me to bear the pointed glares from my step-mother. And those moments when I did see him were filled with uncomfortable conversations about if I had been reading my Bible and praying enough. It was hard enough changing my whole entire way of living, but now I was doing it without my dad, my best friend.
I couldn’t tell you much of anything that happened in the year following that day. I can’t tell you what classes I took in school, what shows I watched, if I went to the homecoming dance, what I did the last day of school. The only things I remember in that year are the nights spent sobbing, the nights spent contemplating how I could end my life so I didn’t have to deal with the weight that never left my shoulders. I remember being sent to a counselor at the church, who tried to help me pray away my sins. I remember how it worked too, and how I convinced myself that it was all just a phase. I remember telling the girl I loved, “God says our love is forbidden so we can’t be together.” I remember feeling like my life was utterly worthless.
These feelings were at a climax during the summer following my sophomore year; I was getting to a point where doing something very dumb and permanent was a motif circulating in my brain. One night, my step-mother had taken my phone and went through my text messages. This wasn’t an uncommon practice at this point. My parents had taken all kinds of things away from me in order to try and force me into being the straight daughter they wanted. This time, however, she found out that I had been self-harming for almost a year. I was pulled into the living room and she asked me why I would do that to myself. I was forced to show them every scar on my body that I had put there, thereby, exposing my pain to the people who were causing it. She called me insane and said I needed to be checked into a psychiatric hospital. My dad sat idly by as she fumed. She was blind to my pain and it didn’t register that I was falling apart at the seams.
The following day, my mom called. During this period, she was left in the dark. I was too terrified to tell her after the reaction I got from my dad. Her house was the place where I could go to hide, where I could forget about the absolute hell that was my life. She was crying, telling me how she never ever wanted me to hurt myself again. I told her the reason behind a lot of these things: I was gay. Her reaction was nonchalant. She told me, “I don’t care who you love. I will love you no matter what, but you can’t keep hurting yourself like this.”
She was more concerned with my well-being than who I wanted to date; me being gay didn’t even phase her. That was all I ever wanted to hear from my parents. She said all the words I had been waiting for. She reminded me of what I always knew, that she would drop anything and everything to come get me and make sure I was okay. She reminded me that I had a safe place to land when all else failed, and that place was with her.
We talked for a long time, although I cried through most of it, about how much we loved each other and how sorry I was for not telling her sooner. It was a truly life changing moment for me; it was like I was finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the weight of the world starting to ease off my shoulders.
Knowing I had my mom’s support behind me gave me the confidence to finally start standing up for myself. Throughout the few weeks to follow, my dad and step-mom continued their religious rampage to try and “fix” me. They would invite my youth group leaders to our house and have them come into my room just to preach at me. One day it became too much. I finally said what I had been too scared to say in the previous year. I told them I was done listening to their bigoted hatred. I told them I was sick of being made out to be some sort of villain when I was just trying to be loved. The next day, I went to my mom’s house. When I left, my step-mother told me I had a choice; to follow their rules or move out permanently. But they knew as well as I did, this wasn’t a real choice. It was them telling me to not come back unless I wanted to live a lie. I couldn’t stand one more second trying to hide who I was, so I moved in with my mom, changed schools, and didn’t look back.
This transition was an immediate turning point in my life. My mom and I were close when I was a kid, but not nearly as close as my dad and I. This quickly flipped when I moved in with her. She spent countless nights holding me as I mourned what felt like the death of my father and best friend. She constantly reassured me of my worth. She gave me a purpose to carry on when I felt like I no longer had one. She pulled me out of a very dark place that I never thought I would return from. Even further, she let me see my girlfriend whenever I wanted and made a genuine effort to get to know her and accept her as part of the family. In my new home, I was encouraged to be proud of my sexuality. And that’s exactly what I did.
Today, almost three and a half years later, there still isn’t a day that goes by that this period in my life doesn’t cross my mind. That initial rejection from someone who meant so much to me will never leave me. I take this hurt with a grain of salt; I recognize that this wound I endured may never heal fully, and that’s okay. I could take this experience, hold a grudge, let it make me cold and bitter toward the world that allowed me to endure this pain. But instead, I try to see how this experience made me stronger. Going through this part of my life has only made me into a more gracious, forgiving, and caring person. It has given me the experience that I can use to help others.
This is the greatest outlook I have on life that I hope others can take away from my story. It would have been so easy for me to use this part of my life as an excuse, as many people choose to do. I know far too many people who blame their flaws on the wrongdoings they have endured. While these people and myself had no choice in what we had done to us, we do have a choice in how we react to it. Keeping this in mind, I challenge people, you, to find the bright side. I realize this is much easier said than done and I accept that this may not happen overnight. I even realize that many people may find my outlook childish or naive. But what I have experienced is that using your pain as motivation to better yourself is one of the most empowering things you can do. To this day, I use my hurt as motivation in everything I do. I strive to prove to my dad and step-mother that I can be the most successful version of myself while being a proud member of the LGBT+ community.
I must admit, even I can’t keep this outlook all the time. I would love to say this is my unwavering perspective, but that would be far from the truth. I am human and humans are, by nature, flawed.
There are still many times when I am very angry, when I am hurt and bitter and I want to be allowed to bathe in my own sorrows. I still struggle with self-acceptance, with loving myself for who I am. There are still times when I walk down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand and I feel as if everyone who walks past us is staring and judging. There are times when this feeling is so strong that I am too scared to hold her hand, too afraid of what some stranger might do or think. There are times when my hands still shake and I get nauseous at the thought of having to come out to a group of strangers. There are times when people mis-label me and I am too tired to correct them, so I laugh and go along. There are times when I am not proud of who I am, when I wish I could change my sexuality just to make life a little easier. I am human and I accept that I cannot be perfect all the time. But I also refuse to let my moments of weakness define me.
Recovery is not linear. I have my days when I can share my story with a sense of pride in my voice, knowing I have become a stronger person because of what I went through. But there are also days when I can’t stomach thinking about those times, when I get so overwhelmed with the memories that I can’t breathe. Having bad days doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human. Ultimately I know that my story is part of me and it is something I have to live with whether I like it or not, so I’d rather make the best of it. •
All images by Isabella Akhtarshenas.