Toward a More Balanced View of Coming Out
As an activist who is pretty “out” about just how fucking crazy I am - who has spoken publicly too many times to count about my involuntary psychiatric hospitalization, who has written blog posts about being actively suicidal and borderline, who introduces myself as a Mad woman and a psychiatric survivor - I get asked a lot of questions.
A lot of the questions are well-meaning, often coming from fellow Mad folks and people in the psychiatric survivor community.
“How did you get to be so brave and tell your story?”
“Were you scared of how other people would react? How did you overcome that fear?”
“How do you handle all the negative responses you get?”
“How do you deal with all the people who think less of you and have gotten distant from you because they know your history?”
Some of the questions are significantly less well-meaning; most of these come from people outside the Mad community.
“Aren’t you scared of what publishing an article like that will do to your employment prospects?”
“What if in 10 years from now you regret the decision to come out because you’re unemployed and broke and no one likes you?”
“Who in the world is ever going to date or marry a girl who’s announced herself as crazy all over the web?”
“Is it really worth sacrificing future job opportunities, dating prospects, and friendships over some higher belief in whatever this Mad Pride thing is?”
What all of these questions, the well-meaning ones and the not so well-meaning ones, have in common is the assumption that coming out was an active choice I made, a plunge that I boldly or brashly took. To some, my act of coming out represents a noble and worthy sacrifice, a giving up of career opportunities or relationships for a worthy cause; to others, it is a quixotic sacrifice worth mocking, an exceedingly idealistic decision made in my 20s that I will come to see as irresponsible.
The reality is that my coming out did not feel like much of a choice. Before I came out, I was in the closet (for only a short time, really), and I hated every single minute of it. I felt like there was a big, huge, gigantic boulder that I was forced to carry around constantly, except I couldn’t tell anyone about the boulder, and not only did I have to exert effort and labor to carry around the boulder, but I had to expend energy and resources to cover up the existence of the boulder. On top of that, I had to figure out how exactly to act and look like I was the type of person who was not carrying a boulder, who had never carried a boulder, who had not touched a boulder, who did not know what a boulder was - how to fit in day in and day out with people who knew nothing of boulders.
It was exhausting. I felt tightly wound, determined not to let my words or body language slip any hint of craziness. I was hypervigilant, closely monitoring others’ words and behavior for signs they knew, they had somehow found out. I was so, completely, utterly alone and drained.
I was trapped in a miserable, lonely, tiresome closet and there was only one way out. I came out and I was (mostly) free. It didn’t feel like a choice.
When marginalized people talk about coming out, the conversation with friends and family often revolves around potential negative consequences. The social shaming and exclusion one might face, the possibility of lost jobs, the chance of being stereotyped or discriminated against. I don’t want to ignore the reality of those consequences. They are real possibilities and they can have a life-threatening impact.
But people very rarely seem to discuss the pain, struggle, and sheer exhaustion of being closeted. To me, being closeted felt not just like a component of being Mad or an added layer of what it means to be marginalized but like a whole, entirely separate disability, an additional kind of madness. Part physical and part mental, it encompassed by whole bodymind, burdening me with intense anxiety, stress, paranoia, headaches, and nausea. There were times when I felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me, as if I couldn’t breathe, for fear that I had accidentally slipped up and shown how crazy I was. It was an illness, an ailment that I could not get recognition or accommodations for - “Sorry I was late to class, I was just so worried sick about the possibility of my involuntary commitment showing up on a background check that I threw up” or “I need extra time on this paper because I was so exhausted from having to pretend to be someone I’m not that I couldn’t focus on anything” don’t really work (and kind of defeat the purpose, as that in of itself would constitute a kind of coming out). I spent a lot of my time in the closet desperately wanting to die because I felt so alone and alienated.
I share this not to seek pity but to acknowledge just how disabling and crazy-making it can be to remain in the closet, to have to keep one’s identity a secret. It can be just as dangerous and life-threatening as coming out.
I often wonder how many people feel they must hide who they are because they have not been given permission to acknowledge the pain and suffering that comes along with staying closeted. I wonder how many people feel trapped, as I did, and don’t see a way out, because they have been told that the way out is unwise, irresponsible, reckless. I wonder how many people have been told that coming out is a reward they have to work hard to earn, give years and years of arduous bodymind labor in order to become “successful” enough to have the right to be who they are, to not have to spend so much additional time and effort hiding a boulder. I wonder how many people are told to wait until late in their career to come out, as if the right to be who they are is something to be sought and won, to be saved up for and afforded, like retirement, like vacation days, like paid time off.
I wonder how much marginalized communities could stand to gain by acknowledging the pain and arduousness of being forced to hide one’s identity. What would happen if we as a society could acknowledge living openly and authentically as who one is as a right that every single person deserves rather than a prize to be worked for or attained, or an act of bravery or courageousness? What if we disabled, Mad, queer, neurodivergent, non-normative folks could spend what little surplus energy we have on creating art, listening to music, supporting one another through hard times, researching something we are passionate about, cooking or eating delicious food, designing or reading satirical memes, making one another laugh - in other words, making our own or others’ lives worth living? Dare I ask?