How Coming Out to My Family Freed Me From Internalized Shame

Coming out to family

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

I held my secret close to my chest, cherishing it for over two years: I am bisexual. I gave pieces of my truth to trusted friends and watched them carefully to see how they reacted, and when there were smiles and hugs and sometimes shrugs of nonchalance, I felt a little lighter. A little less afraid. 

Still, I swore I would never come out to my parents. Not unless I absolutely needed to—unless there was a woman I loved and needed to share with the world. 

But secrets weigh. They start soft and precious, butterfly wings fluttering against the cages of my heart, and day after day, they grow heavier, the flutters less sweet, more violent. Until I felt like the secret was consuming me like it was rising from my heart into my throat and choking me so I couldn’t breathe, it seeped into my mind, and soon my depression and anxiety took on a distinctly secret-like shape. My anxiety was flavored with hints of they’re going to find out, and they’ll be so mad. My depression weighed on and pressed me into the earth, and I felt like everything was the secret.

This thing that had been so precious to me when I first discovered it—I was bi! I liked women! I liked men too, sometimes!—began to weigh on my soul.

When I was around people who knew, I was free and light, I felt whole. When I spoke to my parents I felt caged in, afraid. 

One night in March, I told them. The story of my coming-out is…a whole essay in itself, and I’m not ready to share it, but the gist is that they don’t approve. And they are very sad—dare I say, disappointed, even?

And yet, from the day they found out, I started to feel more free. My anxiety that had taken on secret-shaped colors faded—back to the usual colors, the ones I’ve lived with for more than 10 years now and understand how to manage. The depression I’ve lived with since high school, which had taken on a decidedly violent, terrifying nature over the past several months, retracted its claws slightly.

It’s hard to describe being happy when I’m depressed; because it’s kind of like trying to explain that my circumstances are great and fine and joyful, but also, there’s an undercurrent of despair through it all. I am happy! I can sing and dance and laugh and crush, and also, I think about dying at least once a day, sometimes passively and sometimes with an itch to do something about it. But those are the good times, really. The times when circumstances don’t worsen depression, they just live alongside it.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Sometimes, like when I was keeping my sexuality a secret or when I was unemployed for months, the circumstances are equally depressing, and then it’s just an endless maelstrom of sorrow. 

Coming out to my parents not only freed me from the secret I’d been keeping, but it freed me from a lot of internalized shame. Once it was out in the open and I could start speaking openly about my bisexuality without fear that it would get back to them in some manner, I started actually practicing the art of pride, of taking joy and pleasure in who I am. I came out on Instagram; I started sharing more about the books I’m writing, which are unapologetically queer; I just started living life with less shame.

I think that shame brings along with it a whole lot of pain. The psychic kind that is hard to explain and harder to fix. Sometimes, when I was still cherishing my secret, I felt like there was a voice inside my brain screaming as loud as it could; I felt like a person was flinging themselves against the walls of my mind; I felt like my spine was cracking under the weight of my shame. All the while, I was standing upright, smiling and laughing with friends. In pain. Unable to show it. Unable to let it out. 

I think that shame brings along with it a whole lot of pain. The psychic kind that is hard to explain and harder to fix.

It reminded me of watching a pot of water boil for pasta. I’ve learned that you need to cover the pot while the water is getting to a boil, but once it starts boiling, all that angry water and built-up steam have to go somewhere. If you don’t remove the lid, it starts to seep out the cracks; the pot shakes; it’s a whole violent ordeal. But if you just remove the lid and let the steam escape, the boiling water calms down slightly.

Coming out was like that. It allowed the pain to escape, or dissipate, or stop building up steam behind my ears. I no longer felt like screaming every day. 

I will never say that coming out cured me of depression and anxiety. Mostly because I still experience both to this day. I’m not sure there is a “cure” for depression and anxiety. There is simply management and lessening of the effects. But coming out absolutely shored up some circumstantial pain I was experiencing and freed me of shame that was causing psychic pain. It has allowed me to experience joy through the depression. 

This Pride is my first as an unapologetically out queer person. And while I can’t celebrate as much as I would have if this were 2019 and the world had never heard of COVID-19, I’m doing small things to celebrate. I ordered a Pride flag. I am writing queer stories. I am talking about my sexuality. All of this would have been unimaginable just a few months ago. And that was devastating. Sometimes, simply not being able to imagine a different future means that my present is more painful. 

As soon as I started thinking of ways the future could be better—more open, more proud, more free—well, I began to feel hope again. And that is a powerful thing.