“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” ~Bronnie Ware from Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
I wish I could remember the exact moment I mis-learned that being myself wasn’t going to cut it.
It happened early. Maybe kindergarten. I didn’t do it consciously, but at some undetectable moment, I put my real self in a box and created someone else. This new me was so much better—always happy, very accommodating, super quick and witty, and an expert at everything.
This new me was almost impossible to maintain. She required constant observations, self-sacrifices, and living in fear of being found out. But I knew she was necessary. The real me was not an option.
Why? Because something was wrong with me. Even in elementary school, I had come to an unfortunate conclusion: Everyone is better than me. I can never let anyone see that.
There was evidence. I had the only divorced parents in a conservative suburb. I had stringy hair that never congealed into the halo formation I desired no matter how much spray I applied. (It was the eighties!) I didn’t own any brand names. And, worst of all, my father was gay.
My dad never told me he was gay. He just was gay one day when I was ten. The problem was, he left my mom for a man when I was three. That left seven years of deception in between.
I went to gay parades with him because he “had some gay friends.” I slept over at the house he shared with his “roommate.” So when my mom finally sat me down to tell me the truth, I was shocked. And betrayed. They’d both been putting on a show for seven years. Why?
My ten-year-old brain assumed they must have hidden it because it was supposed to be hidden. In a time before Ellen or even an inkling of gay marriage talk, I figured this was a secret so shameful that nobody should know about it.
I wasn’t against my father or against homosexuality. I was against being different. Flawed. Weird. I was surely the only girl in elementary school who had seen assless chaps at a street fair. I wish I had owned it and flaunted a rainbow flag backpack, but I couldn’t then. I was too obsessed with being ‘the same.’
I decided not to tell anyone. Not my friends. Not my teachers. No one.
But a story has all the power when the only place it’s allowed to live is inside you.
Keeping up a constant lie is exhausting. The anxiety alone about being found out can overtake your body. It controls the way you speak, the way you breathe, what you choose to share with friends. The latter kept all my friends at an arm’s distance. I craved so badly to feel closer to them. Connected. But connection was too scary.
Six years after I found out about my father’s true self, he fell into one of his many deep depressions and took his own life.
I had just gotten my driver’s license. His phone was off the hook, and I drove against my mom’s rules to see him. His apartment was a den of depression and his 6’5” body thinner than I’d ever seen. I gave him a hug, and when I drove away, I had no idea it would be our very last hug.
At sixteen, there were few conclusions for me to make besides: See! Something is seriously wrong with me. My dad didn’t even want to stay to see me grow up.
Outwardly, I pretended it was no big deal. I cried alone in my room, in my car, places where nobody could see. I wanted to rewind it all. I wanted to change everything. I wanted to go to sleep for years and wake up a happy adult with it all figured out.
I jumped further into people pleasing. That guy needs a date to something? Let’s go. My teacher is handing out extra credit? I’ll do double. Smile. Smile. SMILE! I got my grade point average to 4.5 and was crowned homecoming queen. (Kids, take notes! You too can become homecoming queen if you simply accommodate every single person who is not you.)
I went to college far away to get away from myself, but my self followed. My fear. My pretense. My anxiety followed. And as I compared my family to an even broader spectrum of strangers, it got worse.
The only time I would talk about my personal life was when I was drunk and making jokes. Once a salesman told me to buy a present for my father. I laughed and said, “My father is in the ground!” Then I walked out of the store laughing as if it was the funniest thing I’d ever said.
Years after college, I met a girl in a writing class. She was the tiniest person I’d ever met and had a voice to match. It happened that our leases ended at the same time, and we had a frank conversation about becoming roommates.
“I am a loner,” I told her.
“Me too. We can close our doors and we’ll know that it’s not a good time. Let’s do it.”
We moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, and one month after combining our silverware, this girl washed the dishes I’d left in the sink. I didn’t get it. She wasn’t my mom. She didn’t have to. I could not grasp the concept of someone else actually wanting to do something for me without being forced or wanting something in return.
She also insisted on driving me to the airport or paying for dinner or seeing if I needed anything from the store. She simply wanted the best for me. She was offering me the connection I’d craved, and I didn’t know how to handle it.
We would lie on the carpet at night and stare at the popcorn ceiling. I tried to be vague when she asked me about my life. I was used to short answers, accustomed to my motto: Get done with the talking fast so the group can move on to someone better. But she wouldn’t let me off the hook.
She reached for me. She held my hand. I’d never experienced such intimacy with a friend. I recoiled at first, but she persisted. It’s like she knew the terror inside my head—the terror to be close, to be discovered, to be guilty. She knew, and she was guiding me through.
And so I told her my truth. I let it out. And she told me hers. And we cried and we laughed and we didn’t stop until our lives made a pile on the living room floor. She didn’t hate me. She didn’t abandon me. She didn’t tell me I was weird or different or wrong. She just held me and said it was all okay.
At twenty-eight, she was my first real friend. At twenty-eight, I finally grieved openly for my father.
This first friend of mine began to unravel the mask I had spent years sewing. She pulled the first thread, and then I began to write, which untied me even more. I posted an essay about my father on my blog and was met with solidarity and hugs. And love.
Being real felt suffocating at first. I had to get used to awkward pauses when I’d say the word ‘suicide.’ I had to learn to relax and not be on constant alert during conversations in order to say the wittiest response first. I had to admit when I was wrong or didn’t know. I had to be willing to show others my imperfection.
I’m still working on it all. Every day. But since I came clean, my world is completely different. I drink less alcohol because I don’t need to hide from my own terror-filled brain. I have a set of friends with whom I can share every tiny detail about myself. I feel fulfilled. I feel honest. I sleep well.
And most of all, my story has lost its power. Once I began saying it out loud, I realized that every single person has felt shame at some point. No one thinks she or her family is perfect. But it takes sharing to find that out.
I felt such a relief from letting go of my secret that it became my mission to spread the word.
I started a show in Hollywood called Taboo Tales. I help people take their secrets and make them into emotional comedy pieces they tell on stage to a big crowd of strangers. It’s a mini version of what I’ve experienced over the last seven years. People get to tell their story, feel a relief from letting go, and then find immediate solidarity from the audience.
Brene Brown says, “When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.”
It is the absolute truth. I have seen it firsthand countless times on stage. And I experience brave new endings every day. I have an entirely new life after learning to become vulnerable. To tell it all. To own what’s made me who I am. To be proud of my cool, gay, leather-wearing dad!
Sure, I’m still working on figuring out who I am after faking it for so long. But I know for sure I’m doing my best. And I’m not following in my father’s footsteps. He let his shame simmer inside of him until it was too much. Not me. Vulnerability saved my life.
If you’d like to taste some vulnerability, you can start with a tool I use in my Taboo Tales workshops. Set a five-minute timer and write a list of all the things you would never share with anyone else. The timer makes you keep going, and you’ll be surprised at what comes up.
Take one of those things on your list—the scariest one— and write about it. You can burn everything later, but just getting the story out from inside where it festers is a necessary step. See where that takes you. Maybe read what you wrote to one person if you can.
If not, start with small truths. Post an honest picture on social media instead of something posed and perfect. Let someone see your messy house or car when you may have made an excuse in the past. Respond with anything other than ‘fine’ when someone asks you how you’re doing. And something I really value in my own life: tell the truth when it’s time to break plans.
“I’m really too depressed to hang out today” is actually what a good friend would want to hear instead of “I can’t make it.” Your honesty could open that friendship up to new and more intimate conversations.
Friends are really important in your path to vulnerability. Could you tell any of those items on your list to a friend or two? If you feel like they would all judge you, maybe you could use a new, cozier friend. They’re out there, I promise.
And one last tip: participate less in gossip. One thing that keeps us holding ourselves back is the fear of being judged. So I challenge you to not be a part of judging on the other side either. Once you begin letting go of your own judgments against others, the idea of being judged yourself becomes less scary.
Tips or no tips, the goal is to tell your story, whether it’s big and taboo or not. Start small and work up to letting it out in whatever ways you can. Hey, if you want to start below, let’s make this comment section a judgment-free space where everyone’s allowed to share whatever it is they can. That can happen on the Internet, right?
About Laurenne Sala
Laurenne Sala leads writing therapy workshops and speaks about vulnerability. You can find her at laurennesalabooks.com or through her show at tabootales.org. Her first picture book is out in March: YouMadeMeAMother.com You can also see juicy anonymous secrets on Instagram at @TabooTales. She thinks parrots are gay pigeons.