The Secret


This is the first in a three-part series written by 2001 grad Jillian.

Coming out has been a long and fractured process.  In my Portland circles and with my closest friends, I’ve lived freely and openly for many years.  In my family circle, I’ve maintained complete silence, living my life in secret and hoping not to be discovered.

I first began coming out to my closest friends from Wheaton in 2003, and although all of them have been loving and supportive, I continue to feel totally overwhelmed and terrified when it comes to telling my (mostly conservative Christian) family.  Their response feels totally unpredictable, and I’m not sure they will know—or ever figure out—how to love me once I’m out.  Once they know.  I’ve planned to tell my family my story many times, but once I open my mouth, nothing comes out.  I just can’t find the words.  I sometimes wish I could avoid telling them indefinitely.  But will I ever again know peace and joy and freedom and wholeness if I continue to hide this part of myself from them forever?

For me, writing has been a force of calm when these waters rage.  The following are excerpts from my journal, a piece of my journey through the past 2 years, to share with you.

May 15, 2010

I am having a recurring dream.  I am a little girl, maybe 6 or 7 years old.  I’m curled up in the corner of a dark room, crying, trembling with fear.  I’ve heard footsteps.  Someone is coming and I’m terrified.  I wonder, Why am I so afraid?  Who is it?  Who’s coming?  Then I realize—it doesn’t matter.  I’m not afraid of who’s coming.  I’m afraid that when the door opens the light will shine in.  I am afraid of the light.  I don’t want to be seen.  This helpless, terrified little girl is not the person I present to the world most of the time.  This shame does not paralyze me in most of my waking hours.  But when it comes to letting my family see who I really am, this is exactly how I feel.  Afraid to let the light shine. 

November 18, 2010

I’ve been feeling so sad lately, so overwhelmed.  I want to believe that light can be found, that it will illuminate these dark, cold places.  I recall an essay that Anne Lamott wrote in Traveling Mercies, about a sermon her pastor gave.  She spoke about how you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going, or how to arrive at the place that seems impossible to get to.  You only have to step into the next circle of light.  And from there, your next step will be illuminated. And from there, the next.  You only have to trust that the light will appear…

I’m praying that I’ll keep seeing those circles of light when it comes to the things that feel hidden in the darkest shadows. Like what to do about coming out to my family.  How do I let go of the fear there?  How do I let go of the shame I feel? How do I let go of the feeling that this is a defect?  That everyone, including me, is sorry it had to be this way, sorry that I can’t just be normal.  I feel the best I can hope for from them is, I wish you were different but I’ll love you anyway.  Is that a good enough place to start?  If we start there, will we eventually come around to loving more wholly?  Will they ever be able to see and embrace my difference? Will they ever stop wishing this part of me away?  Will I?

March 21, 2011

It’s my birthday—the latest deadline I gave myself for coming out to my family.  There have been so many, and this one, too, is going to pass without me telling them.  Will I avoid this forever?  There’s a line I remember from Water for Elephants, about secrets, “With a secret like that, at some point the secret itself becomes irrelevant. The fact that you kept it does not.”   It creates distance, causes trouble.  And this secret, kept for so many years, has done both.  I am withering away.

May 23, 2011

A group of alumni and students from Wheaton has formed a group of LGBTQ and allies.  I just spent several hours looking at their website and Facebook page.  I can’t stop crying.  I feel like I was alone in the middle of the ocean, just barely keeping my head above water.  Suddenly I’m surrounded by lifeboats and in every direction I turn, there is a hand reaching out to pull me in.  The prospect of sharing my story with my family is still terrifying, but I feel so much stronger and less alone knowing these folks are out there.

June 21, 2011, on a trip to Atlanta with my family

This trip with my family has left me feeling so confused and so worried.  Sometimes I feel so sure that their love is big enough to fit me in, queerness and all, and sometimes—often within the same day, or even the same hour—I feel like I’d rather die than break this silence.  I don’t know where to go from here, but it feels like the only real option for moving forward is to tell my family.

August 8, 2011, on a trip to California with my partner and some friends

Good friends, good hikes, good food, good conversation.  The circle of love surrounding me feels so rich, so life-giving.  I feel hopeful, like maybe I can bring more of this relaxed, open, easy me into the world.  I’ve felt so exhausted lately.  I’m so tired of always wondering what my family thinks of me, always fearing there’s a story they’re telling behind my back, and it’s probably not a good one.  I’m so tired of shielding myself from my own fears.  This is no way to live.  I haven’t told my family the truth about my life and my relationship with Robin because it feels like the only way to stay in control is to maintain silence.  Withhold all ammunition.  Let them shoot only blanks in my direction.  Keep them guessing about where to aim.

What if I could finally let go of wanting to control how my family will respond to me coming out to them?  What if I could let other people be responsible for their own discomfort and uneasiness?  Can I tell my family this story and not be attached to how they hear it?  Am I so afraid of the pain this may cause me that I’m willing to hover in this dark corner of life forever to avoid it?  …  I’m sitting on a rock in the middle of this river, bathing in the warmth of the sun.  How good it is, how delicious it feels, to be in the light! Perhaps it is finally time to step out of this darkness, to lift my face to the light of the sun.


Read Jillian’s next post: The Secret, Part 2


  1. Debra Dunkle

    Thank you! Your writing moved me. Being surrounded by lifeboats. Withholding ammunition. Envisioning passing on the discomfort to others, like your family. May you bath in the support of The OneWheaton community and trust your timing, Jillian. Debra, lesbian, 1977

  2. Rachael Burke

    You are very brave for sharing this Jillian. Thanks.

  3. Sara Elliott

    I echo the comments above, Jillian. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing yourself with us. This act alone demonstrates your braveness, your strength, your wholeness. I know the pressure and fear must still seem immense, especially having lived with it for so long. I do hope you can continue to be aware of all the lifeboats surrounding you. My brother, Phil, developed a great metaphor for secrets and shame. He says that they are like compost. If you just keep piling them on top of each other, they remain a stinky pile of garbage. But–if you can get a pitchfork in there and turn that stuff over–expose it to the light and the air, then, over time, it becomes something to nourish new growth. I am looking forward to hearing about the beauty that will come as you step into the light!

  4. Steve Thorngate

    Thank you, Jillian.

  5. Pingback: Untold – The Secret, Part 2

  6. Pingback: Untold – The Secret: Part 3

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>