Monday, October 17, 2016

Switching Teams: Coming Out in my 40s

On Saturday, as part of the Stanford GSB Class of '96 20th reunion, I participated in a panel called Transitions. Four of my classmates and I shared stories of meaningful transitions we had made in our lives and the lessons we learned from them. This is a transcript of what I presented. It overlaps the subject of other entries on this blog, but I thought I'd share it here anyway.

The funny thing about transitions is that for much of our life, they’re cause for celebration. We move from diapers to our big-girl panties, we start school, graduate, go to college, get married, have kids, buy a home. And then at some point, “doing well” is no longer defined by transitions but rather by stasis. Years go by, and the answer to “what’s new?” becomes “not much,” and it isn’t a bad thing. We equate stability with all sorts of positive personality traits: loyalty, equanimity, perseverance, a certain flavor of likeability.

To the outside world, my story was pretty likeable between 2000 and 2008. I joined a startup in 2000 and stayed for eight years. I got married in 2001 and bought a house the same month. I had two kids five years apart. My life looked a lot like Life the board game. All but a small circle of my close friends saw a happy path.

What was actually happening was entirely different, because in 2003, I had a moment that changed everything. The best description I can come up with is to imagine yourself growing up in a world lit by incandescent bulbs, and then one day, you walk through a doorway and realize that there is a sun! And you know that what you’ve called light your entire life isn’t light at all.

I discovered, through my quite-unexpected feelings for a straight woman who never reciprocated, that I was gay. I tried everything I could think of to back away from this epiphany, to walk back through the door that had gotten me there. But it didn’t work. This was not the flirtatious crush we feel and safely dismiss. This was an awakening. And as the years went by, it nearly destroyed me. The child of divorced parents, I considered anything but lifetime loyalty to my spouse to be a total personal failure. I fell into a deep depression, trapped between the shame of feeling disloyal, and the strain of being an imposter.

It took me seven years to make the choice to leave. My then-husband knew it was coming. We’d been having the conversation for more than a year. Still, he was furious, and hurt, and resentful. The first year was very hard on both of us; if I’m being honest, it was harder on him than on me. But I stayed committed to a peaceful outcome, and eventually, we got there. For the past 6 ½ years, we’ve lived four blocks away from each other and share custody of our girls, now 9 and 14. And for the most part, it really does work.

Coming out in my 40s meant breaking things. It meant breaking my marriage vows, breaking apart my children’s home. My decision to leave caused pain, confusion and sadness. In my heart, I was creating something- but my day-to-day felt much more like destruction. And I was doing it without any idea whether there would be a payoff. It was pretty scary. I felt that I was putting all my relationships at stake for an unknown outcome.

My story has brought me to a happy place. I met Paula five months after moving out, when my life was still very much a demolition zone. She voluntarily entered into a relationship with a woman who had two young children, would remain legally married to someone else for four more years, wasn’t out to most of the world, and pretty much had all straight friends. But the sunlight that I believed I saw turned out to be very real. I have never felt such a pure connection with another person. I never believed it was possible. We got married last June.

We’ve settled comfortably into being the token lesbians at family camp. Our friends and families have embraced us with such warmth and love and acceptance that we usually forget that we’re gay. We know the hate is still out there; we celebrated our first anniversary on the day of the Orlando shootings. But day to day in our world, love is love, and we love our life.

If I had to go back and change the sequence of events, I don’t think I would- because if I did, I’m not sure I would have my two daughters, and I know I would not have met my wife. It’s impossible for me to imagine wanting any life other than the one I have. What I do wish is that I hadn’t been so afraid, that I hadn’t underestimated the strength of my relationships so dramatically. I wish I hadn’t believed my ex-husband when he told me I would ruin our daughters. Believe me, the kids are all right. It’s funny to look back and think about how much I worried about things that now seem silly- like my fear that it was going to be really socially awkward for my mom. She was so great about it. I didn’t lose anyone who mattered to me.

If you’re going through this, or you have a child or friend who has come out to you – trust that it’s going to be OK. It really will. And I’m happy to share more of what got me through the darkest days and to a place of gratitude, freedom, and joy: how I found community; how my ex and I managed to achieve a peaceful, compassionate divorce; and how I got to a place where I felt I was acting with integrity. All are possible.