Since this past weekend, I have been thinking about an old chest of drawers that we bought at an estate sale years ago. It was painted yellow but we could tell that, underneath that paint was a beautiful solid wood that could be brought to life with a little work.
Anyone who has tried to strip several layers of paint off an antique piece of furniture knows how difficult this process can be. Even with strong chemicals, the work involved can be tedious, time-consuming and sometimes very frustrating as the paint sometimes refuses to yield. But it can also be tantalizing and rewarding as one begins to catch a glimpse of the possibilities of just how beautiful the piece could be once every last bit of paint is stripped away and the beauty of the natural wood is brought out and allowed to shine.
I thought about this chest of drawers because of how I felt as I talked to my oldest daughter this past weekend. I had driven quite a distance to talk to her in person about three very important subjects that were, in the case of this particular child, linked. First, I wanted to tell her personally of my wife and I’s plans to separate and eventually divorce. Secondly, I wanted to tell her that I am gay. And third, I wanted to address some issues between my daughter and me that date back to her childhood.
As our oldest child, this particular daughter, whom I will call Stephanie, had borne the brunt of her mother and father’s efforts to be perfect parents, with all that this entailed. She had been our “wunderkind.” Among other things, by the time she was three, she could recite the names, in order, of all the presidents of the Church. (What were we thinking?)
She had also borne the brunt of my own efforts to adjust to being married and a father and to deal with the after-effects of abuse I suffered as a child, which started to come to the surface as we started and added to our family. As I look back on the early years of marriage when I was in graduate school, striving to be the perfect Mormon father and priesthood holder, adjusting to marriage and life in new surroundings, and dealing all the while with my ultimate secret and dichotomy – the fact that I was a gay man striving to be a model heterosexual husband – as I look back on all this from today’s vantage point, I can see not only how desperately unhappy I was, but also the root cause of this unhappiness. I can also clearly see that my daughter was adversely affected by this unhappiness, something that pains my heart very deeply.
I’ll describe in another post the discussion Stephanie and I had about my marriage and also about my coming out to her. Suffice it for now to say that as I told her about the separation and divorce, and even more so as I tried to explain her father’s life-long attraction to men and what had resulted from this suppression, I increasingly felt a sensation of nakedness and vulnerability. It was like I was stripping away layers of pretense, duty, false identity and guilt that had accumulated year after year, concealing who I truly was. As a result of me coming out to my daughter, she was seeing me for the first time as I truly was. This led to some positive developments, but it also left me feeling naked, stripped, vulnerable, exposed and disoriented.
As I talked about my sexuality and identity, I tried to explain to Stephanie the realization I had had since coming out, viz., that much of the unhappiness I had felt when she was a child was attributable to the inner conflict I experienced with respect to my sexuality and identity. Talking about my unhappiness during her childhood led to a discussion of some of the issues between us and gave us an opportunity to “clear the air.” We had a good conversation, one that we needed to have, one that I think will allow some healing to occur. There were some things said that were difficult for me to hear, but they needed to be said.
Beyond this, however, I saw the authenticity and openness that started to flow between us as a direct result (I believe) of me coming out. As a result of me opening up to her, Stephanie – who has typically held things in and been a very private person – started opening up to me about some of the things that are going on in her life. She talked about new interests that she is developing, about things she is learning, about her Self. I cannot even remember the last time she and I had had such an “authentic” discussion. It was a rare window that I savored while I had the opportunity; the next morning, the window had closed again. But! I felt that the groundwork had been laid for future opportunities for authenticity and open communication.
This brings me back to the chest of drawers. I had felt at certain points during the conversation with my daughter that I was stripping away layers of myself in order to reveal my true self to both Stephanie and to me. As I have commented, doing so left me feeling naked, vulnerable and disoriented, and these feelings continued to swirl around me as I went to bed that evening, wondering once again whether I had done the right thing in coming out – not only to her but to everyone, including myself.
But then I thought of the chest of drawers and how its true and authentic beauty could not shine forth until the layers of paint and old varnish had been stripped away. Similarly and metaphorically, my true self has been covered over time and time again with layer upon layer of pretense and false identity. It is the process of coming out that serves as a powerful stripping agent that is able to remove all of those layers and get to the authentic Me beneath all of that gunk.
Though there are moments of disorientation and discomfort along the way, I know that the process of stripping down is worth it so that the real me can be revealed – not only to others, but also to myself.