Hannah ActonPublished in October 2019 / Updated in January 2021
Heartbreak is one of those words that everyone knows about. We all know the ways that a heart can be torn apart or stretched to within an inch of it’s existence.
The real kicker though?
It’s not always just a case of relationships breaking up and then having to deal with that. That’s a fairly linear form of grief to deal with. In as far as it’s linear and you know who is hurting you and who is to blame. The heartbreak that I’m here to talk to you about is all about family and identity. Specifically about what we do and do not owe one another of ourselves. And the fallout that comes with people either asking for too much, or of people not feeling comfortable giving anything.
Coming out to your parents remains the gold standard of stressful, alienating and bewildering experiences. No matter what the media says or glittery sitcoms that resolve everything in 20-minute episodes, no coming out experience is ever perfect.
Half the time it still feels like a question. Or like a performance.
Only because everything before has been a performance, so it’s hard to separate the two. Indeed, the threat of becoming ‘who I truly am’ when I say a few words is very much too much pressure. People forget that. Parents forget that.
Now, the simple truth of the matter is that my father, bless him, wouldn’t notice that I had Queen Elizabeth’s corgis tattooed across my forehead. I reckoned he’d be fumblingly bemused, but ultimately relaxed, as per. For my mother, as is the tendency of mothers perhaps more so than fathers, she had invested much more of herself in my relationships (and in the unfortunate presumption of me being straight). Whoops.
However, there was still no dramatic moment or rejection of who I was, so don’t worry about dusting off the pitch-forks and canons. Bar the classic ‘are you sure you haven’t just found Mr. Right//but how can you really know?” comments, I continued to live in a safe, quiet household, for which I remain grateful.
Nonetheless, what followed was sea of awkward angst only intensified by a heady combination of my standoffish emotional unavailability and her reticence to say what she actually meant.
I found, ultimately and disappointingly, that coming out to my parents was actually vaguely meaningless in the trajectory of the rest of my life.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very much my parents’ daughter, I love them to bits and I’m not sure what I’d have had them do differently. That being said, coming out to them was never going to be about them, because it’s really nothing to do with them. Funerals are for the dead; who is coming out for? I am not a bigger, smaller, more offensive, progressive or deviant child than I was yesterday.
There are lots of simultaneously existing perceptions of me in various people’s minds. But there is no one truth that I am capable of speaking that will make everything clear. And that’s where the heartache comes from. I have this feeling in my chest that saying a few words will not resolve. I imagine that, for parents, this emergence from a closet is like finding a tin of forgotten soup in the back of the cupboard that they now must remember to squeeze into the weekly shop again. Maybe your kitchen needs different recipes now, new cookbooks and alien looking egg slicers. I understand how one can be blindsided or feel excluded.
I can appreciate that, but I am not responsible for it.
‘Well meaning’ became the phrase of my December: ‘ah they probably mean’ or ‘nah that came out wrong’. While these concessions are true, I spent that month excusing everyone and convincing myself that everything was fine, and ignoring the intense emotional cocktail of loneliness, confusion and regret. It never occurred to me to take time to unpack all of that, because I felt that it was my duty, my obligation, to inform and release the information rather than just sit and chill with it for a minute. I do not need to bear the burden of re-educating everyone in my life.
I think even I presumed that telling my parents would allow me to be my ‘authentic self’, ‘more me’ or the killer, ‘happier’. Sorry pals, that’s not how it works, even if the coming out is relatively painless. You still have to flinch at your aunt’s incredulous story that a guy hit on her son in the chippie, or sigh that your cousin’s bio on Instagram is still ‘its not gay if no one sees it’. Your mum will still occasionally forget you’re gay when she makes small talk at the dinner table. Embarrassed, you will not correct her. No one will and you wonder if they even noticed the Freudian slip.
I did come out in the end, but only really as a courtesy; just some vague ‘I probably should’ knee-jerk reaction that I felt I ‘owed’ them.
Sure, coming out opened loads of doors but I fell through most of them before I could see what was inside.
In one respect my parents were the one ‘coming out’ that I couldn’t take back, that I had to stick with, but also it was the most meaningless in the sense that we didn’t talk about my love life before and we certainly don’t now. It wasn’t an event horizon, I just assembled the family after a watching a football match in the living room and had it out. My parents are trying to relearn much of what they and everyone before them were taught, which I appreciate but also resent, somehow. I need to figure myself out first before I let people in.
As concerns my parents, I still cannot for the life of me separate some sense of ingrained shame with their presence and some dark, masochistic, three-in-the-morning part of me wishes that being gay was still just my thing. I don’t resent my parents.
I do, however, associate them with feeling the need to hide.
So when I talk about heartbreak, I’m talking about the moments you give your heart to someone else and expect it safely returned to you. I don’t blame anyone for this specific type of heartache. I know that I have my own emotional self defense barracks that stop people getting too far in. but that doesn’t really apply to parents.
Even if coming out was relatively painless.
Something still came loose and I’m not sure it wasn’t my heart.