S02E07 - Coming out again
Hello and welcome to This Little Light of Mine, my name is James Powell and I’m so glad that you were able to join me for today’s story episode entitled Coming out again.
I’m back from my trip to Peru and it’s time to put my decision to JUMP into action. I explored the options from my trauma therapist and I’m going to take a medical leave from work to attend an in-patient trauma informed rehabilitation space in Philadelphia followed by an outpatient addiction program at a local hospital in Toronto.
The big decisions have been made and it’s time for me to move into action. There’s a part of me that feels anxious about sharing these decisions with others but there’s a new part of me that I haven’t felt in years, this part of me feels like I’m on cloud nine. After years of stewing and internal debates, I’ve made a decision to put myself first. ME before the expectations of others. ME before work. ME before keeping up appearances with my family.
As I woke up on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, I took some time to capture these re-emerging thoughts and feelings in my journal.
“Today for the first time in ages, I woke up excited for the day. I’m looking forward to the challenging conversations that I need to have at work and with my parents because it feels like I have a plan to move MY LIFE forward. This recovery work is what I need to do to heal myself, remind myself of who I really am, re-parent myself and LOVE MYSELF so that I can help change the world for the better, starting with changing myself.”
Little did I know that journal entry was written on World Mental Health Day in 2019.
As I moved into action the two big rocks in front of me were sharing my plans with my parents and initiating my wellness leave with work.
Outing myself to my parents
I invited my parents over to my place for dinner and to prepare for the conversation I sat down with a blank page in front of me and started to write out some ‘talking points’.
My parents arrived the next day, I offered them drinks before dinner, and I sat down in a comfortable chair in my living room. I was nervous, but I knew that I needed to open up, share my struggles, and ask for their help. I took a deep breath and facing my parents, I started to read through my talking points.
- I need your support. I’m done with running and hiding parts of myself.
- I’m safe & healthy (I didn’t want to freak them out with how serious this conversation was going to be)
- I don’t place any blame or animosity towards you. (I’d later learn that this statement wasn’t exactly true)
- I was taught that I was unlovable and that I was a sinner tossed aside because of who I am
- I have so much shame because of who I have become, because it is exactly the projection that the church makes of gay people – lonely, desperate, sex obsessed, addicted, superficial
- I was taught that being gay is only a sexual thing and that sex is dirty
- I need to reparent myself, build up a healthy sexuality, and self-image
- To help me accomplish this I’m going to be attending an in-patient, trauma informed rehabilitation facility in Philadelphia.
Showing my parents more of me
This was a massive conversation for me. Never in my adult life, outside of my ‘being outed event’, had I ever let my parents in in this way. This was me taking of my mask for the very first time and showing my parents who I really was behind the curated and well-constructed image that I had been building since I was a child.
I stopped reading from my journal, looked up, and braced myself for what was going to come next. The nanoseconds of silence felt like years. It was time for me to stop talking and wait for some sort of response.
My parents looked at each other before they both told me how much they loved me and assured me that none of what I had just shared changed that in any way.
My dad, being my dad, asked a few clarifying logistical questions so that he could better understand the situation that I was in and how this might impact my job.
I don’t remember exactly how the rest of conversation unfolded but I do remember how seen, heard, and loved I felt after sharing with my parents.
As we closed out our conversation, I went back to my speaking notes and shared
- This is why it is desperately important that all children feel loved & fully accepted from a young age
- Children at 4/5/6/7 are not capable of protecting themselves and they need protection
- The church needs to present options of different types of sexualities and parents & families need to be taught how to raise these vulnerable children from a place of unconditional love and acceptance
We love you, how can we help?
For the first time in my life, I trusted my parents with the most vulnerable parts of me, and I was met with the simplest message.
We love you. How can we help?
The next morning, I woke up elated and journaled
“Thank you, thank you, thank you. It feels almost surreal to wake up without any secrets. Thank you for lovingly guiding our conversation last night. I could not have known that their response was going to be that open & loving. I’m proud of my strength and courage for lovingly using my voice.
Thank you for helping us all arrive at this place.”
Outing myself at work
With the first of my two big conversations taken care of it was time for me to shift my focus to work. In my mind the work conversation was going to be far more complicated. Like many gay men, I was a workaholic who always took pride in my work ethic. In all the years leading up to this point I honestly thought sick days and sick leaves (or as we call them now, wellness leaves) were simply for people who were physically sick or who couldn’t handle doing their job and wanted an excuse for some time off.
Internalized homophobia and toxic masculinity
I can now see how I had a very toxic view of mental health in the workplace and a toxic view of leadership and what I had to take while at work. What I would later discover is that much of the beliefs I held at this time in my life stemmed from my own internalized homophobia and toxic masculinity.
Women are leading our way
From my perspective it has been women who have been leading the conversation around mental health in the workplace. Women are giving themselves permission to be vulnerable, set new boundaries, ask for what they need, and share what they are actually feeling. Men need to follow their lead instead of suffering on their own.
Men’s mental health
One of the biggest reasons I didn’t ask for the help that I needed is because of the stigma that I attached to depression and anxiety. Like many men, I simply didn’t see, or want to acknowledge the many signs, and quite frankly, I didn’t have the proper knowledge around men’s mental health.
One of the largest blocks for men understanding their own challenges with mental health is that the symptoms of mental health issues present differently for men.
Work hard, play hard?
For example, men who may be experiencing depression or anxiety may be more irritable or angry over being more withdrawn or sad. Many men, including myself, attempt to cover up and escape these feelings by doubling down on work, or through other numbing activities like alcohol, sex, and drugs. We’ve all heard and normalize that old adage ‘work hard, play hard’, but sometimes this can be a warning sign and cry for help from men.
As I thought about having this conversation with the leaders at my work, part of me considered falling down a flight of stairs in the work parking lot, so that I had some sort of demonstrable physical injury. In my mind, at that time, it would have been way easier to talk about needing to take time off to deal with a physical injury than to ever have a discussion with my employer about needing time away to take care of my mental health.
Mental health at work?
We all talk a big game when it comes to mental health in the workplace but I’m not convinced that we are anywhere close on the day-to-day walk-the-talk, or on much of the follow-through, especially for men.
Thankfully I didn’t follow through on any of my fear filled thoughts and reached out to friends instead. I had a couple of friends in recovery who had taken leaves from work themselves and other friends who worked in human resources roles. Reaching out and asking for help from these humans helped to illuminate my path forward.
Reaching out helps
As I spoke to these friends, the impending thoughts of doom started to lighten up a bit. I learned that when you go on a health leave from work that you’re not required to share anything directly with your employer, all communication is done with the insurance provider. Learning this started to alleviate some of the anxiety I had about having to have a deeply personal conversation with any superiors or HR team members that I didn’t fully trust had my best interests in at the top of their priority list.
Instead of having to share any specifics with anyone at work all that was required of me was to let my boss and team know that I required to take some time away from work to so that I could take care of a deeply personal medical issue. Part of me was relieved that I didn’t have to get into anything personal but there was another part of me that was activated by not sharing the full details of what was going on. Being raised in the church I was taught that it was my responsibility to justify, explain, and get approval from those in charge. It felt so strange for me not to get into any of the details, even though there was no part of me that wanted to disclose any of the deeply personal details.
Ready for more ‘coming out’
This small catch 22 or ‘damned if I do / damned if I don’t’ was a tiny foreshadowing of the new type of uncomfortable growth that was waiting for me as I headed off to rehab. I’d also soon discover that much of the reasons that I thought that I was going to ‘cure’ in a rehab setting were only the symptoms of a much deeper wound that was ready to heal.
What I didn’t know back then
Obedient and compliant
Men & Doctors
- Men may not want to talk about ‘difficult’ feelings because they may worry it might make them appear weak, or unable to handle daily stressors or challenges.
- Men may feel or believe that their primary role in life is to be a provider for their family. Talking about mental health challenges may cause them to believe that they are putting that role in jeopardy, or to compare their success, or lack of “success” to their peer group.
- Many men are also taught from a very young age not to cry or express many of their emotions. This toxic teaching compels many men to feel shame when expressing emotion and may cause them to hide huge parts of who they are below the surface.