I just finished listening to an Instagram Live where a man I admire and am entertained by daily (George Hahn) was describing someone else’s coming out story. He burst in to tears as he spoke of this and his emotion fueled my own. He talked about how courageous his friend was for making this bold move at this juncture of his life.
This all spurred me thinking about my gay brother, whose life I’m actively involved with right now.
When someone has a chronic mental illness (or any chronic disability really), they tend to get defined by just that. My brother, who is schizophrenic, for example.
When John first moved to AZ at my urging, nine years ago, he lived with me that summer and together we worked toward stabilizing him and finding him a meaningful life. He had been living alone–largely untethered– for years. Left to his own devices to find his way.
John had been out of the closet for decades at that point, but in many ways was living like he still was ensconced there.
When he came to live with me, I looked at his whole life and saw this gap; unrealized. I started investigating ways I could help him get involved in the gay community at age 50–bars were not an option, but what else was there?
That’s when I got the spark about the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus, pushed him to audition and we all know what happened there. He spent two years singing with them all over Phoenix and beyond. He even bought a tuxedo and learned, with his challenged brain, songs in Italian and Latin. Memorized them.
I find myself in the same boat here in Pennsylvania and we are working on it. We’ve been very busy the last three weeks getting him unpacked, settled in the house/community, my husband helped him buy a bike, sorting through countless items that were sent here that we are donating, on and on. It’s been very busy. But he’s met his neighbors and yesterday the nurse coordinator at the Assisted Living told us one of his neighbors was raving about how friendly he is. Today he explores the art class there for the first time. We are doing it.
The smoking issue at the house has worked out easily (it’s a non-smoking campus, so we got a house just feet from the property line and I got him a chair he can easily transport and he sits between two large trees and has his cigarettes–which has dropped off dramatically since he moved).
We got him his own large TV for the living room, so he can also have his own space in the house. John admitted he was taking so many smoke breaks because he didn’t want to always watch Dad’s shows and smoking got him his own space. My Dad will be basically living in the sunroom–we all know that. So we are shifting that with John having his own room for music and movies. It’s important he has his own life which is defined by his preferences/choices/style of living. I am adamant that he not become consumed with caretaking our Dad, which is what was happening in AZ. He has enough on his plate taking care of himself.
It’s been a busy and fulfilling time. My Dad comes out in about 2-3 weeks (my angel husband is driving him on an extended road trip in my brother’s car across the country), so we are doing our best to get as much sorted out and set up before he comes. There is a lot to it!
This week we’ve been christening his new TV with a Michael Douglas movie marathon. First, Basic Instinct and last night Fatal Attraction. He served me dinner that he made both nights. It’s been great.
Anyway, back to the George Hahn’s emotions this morning and my own. It brought me back to the time when my brother came out. He had his first serious psychotic episode right around the trials for Cindy’s murder. He lived in Minneapolis then, and traveled to AZ only one time for the trials–toward the end of one of them. It was during that visit that I noticed he was experiencing significant paranoia. I was a Psych RN at the time and came home from shopping with John and pulled my Dad aside and pointed out what I had observed. There was so much denial about that, even within my mental health professionals family. He had to fall much farther before he got proper help and it was during that acute episode that he also came out of the closet. I can only imagine the psychic pressure he felt holding his sexuality in for so long. He had been living out of the closet in Minneapolis for a few years at that point, unbeknownst to our family. Those were likely some of the best years of his life.
Cindy never knew he was gay.
I had one conversation with Marj–our stepmother–about John’s coming out and her response haunts me to this day.
“Well, you know, it’s probably the only community that would accept him,” she said, making it clear that she didn’t think his being gay was really real. He just chose that life because he didn’t fit in anywhere else. Ya think?
I wasn’t the person then that I am today. I was struck dumb by her words. I still respected her as a parent and authority figure, in my 30’s then, and was far away from coming to grips of the damage she had caused in our lives, in my life.
Now this woman was also a mental health professional–a PhD level social worker. And she had spent a lot of time with John that summer before his major break–she was teaching up in that area and would parlay visits to his home for weekends (he owned his own home he called “Little House in the Prairie” there). She shared with me that she saw him losing weight, that he had some medical issues going on that they couldn’t quite figure out, that she had accompanied him to various Dr. appointments but no real diagnosis had occurred. They finally landed on some vague chronic fatigue syndrome.
That Fall I was with John for a few hours before seeing he was completely paranoid–claiming security guards were following him around the Mall. Had she missed all of this? Had he been better about hiding it?
In reality, he was so paranoid about the AIDS crisis, that although he never tested positive, he started manifesting the physical symptoms of AIDS. It was the first glimmer of the closet door peeking open.
I have no idea what kinds of conversations happened between John and Marj that summer, but I do know that one line she said to me, which sums up the entire dynamic.
Marj was a politically progressive person, a “women’s libber” she would be called back in that time, yet her Deep South roots still clung tightly to her basic beliefs. She never accepted John’s homosexuality and God knows the ways she shamed him about it in her unique passive-aggressive way. I know how she shamed me —and Cindy–I know what she said to me about him.
As if John was such a misfit that he went out seeking a community that would accept all the misfits, because they were such misfits themselves that they would take anyone. That’s what I took in her statement–what I take now in it. It makes me shudder, but I’m sure not an uncommon belief.
It’s not easy to speak out about taboo things. Heck, it took me decades to speak out about Marj, and that started after her death in a private therapist’s office who asked me to circle back to something “your stepmother hit you?” after I glossed over it like it was normal family behavior. She held me to that fire until it all unraveled out. I always credit her for helping me see the truth in my upbringing--as she was on a quest to figure out the root cause of the reason I came to her–a debilitating anxiety disorder that stretched from my twenties in to my early forties.
Speaking out about her has not been easy for me either, but it’s been helpful and not just to me. My posts about hard subjects like that have garnered the most feedback from my readers here on the blog and in private. About their own lives. It’s important to bring things like this to light. But it’s been not unchallenged or fraught with losses, like George spoke about this morning with his coming-out story–necessary losses of relationships.
I was recently challenged about this with one of Marj’s sisters, now elderly, who had offered herself to me as a confidante for many years. A few years ago, I confided in her something I was very worried about, about another family member. I was needing help, as in many ways, I’m this middle child steering a ship I was never prepared for all by myself (until I met my husband who has been an amazing ally). I’ve navigated some very rocky waters with my family, alone. So at her urging, I reached out to her for help.
“Please, talk to me anytime,” she encouraged me. So I did.
I don’t know if it was the results of the election–she’s also still in the Deep South and we are at opposite ends of the political spectrum (as she was with her own sister). But she kind of lost her mind with me. Or maybe she just lost her filters.
I made a Facebook post about some feelings post-election and in this, I used an example of being a survivor of child abuse and speaking out about it to compare to whatever point I was making about recovering from the months of trauma surrounding those heavily-charged politics.
Out of the blue, I received a text from this former “step-Aunt”. Now, she had read the blog I originally wrote here about her sister (with a caveat and warning at the beginning that it was going to get real and difficult for her remaining loved ones so maybe stop reading there) and reached out to me in support back then. That was years ago. We never really discussed it, but I believed her when she said she had no idea it was happening. Such is the way of abuse in families–often hidden.
Imagine my blindside, when she vomited in to my text box claiming she was “sick of the crap” I was writing about her sister (as if I do it on some regular basis) and she threatened to expose the sensitive material I had shared with her years ago, about another family member “to friends and family”. She was specific too about how she was going to do that, I suppose, if I wrote any more “crap” about her sister. Of all the responses to her feelings about my post, this was the one she chose. A specific, detailed threat involving the privacy of someone else. Sad.
That “crap” she was referring to is my life story. And something I never asked, nor encouraged her to read. In fact, I steered her against it, knowing it would be difficult for that side of the family. I’ve never asked to read one word of anything I’ve ever written–on my blog, on Facebook, anywhere. She chose that freely on her own–even after being warned in a loving way–yet found a way to blame me for it. It all felt very familiar. Apples and trees, as they say.
It’s hard to talk about hard things. It’s not easy to keep talking about them. You will lose people, as I did with Marj’s sister. Her threats–a blackmail actually–told so many stories in one text that it was clear this was a person who was not–and had not been–safe for me to be around, period. Letting go of people is often necessary along the way to finding your freedom.
I accompanied my brother to his first Psychiatrist appointment here. That Dr. was amazing. After the sheer, scary incompetence of what he just left at the clinic in AZ, this was like gale force winds of fresh air. He spent an entire hour asking John about his history with me present. I was glad I was there as I knew–and it became obvious to the Dr.–that John minimizes things. I filled in many blanks for him and at one point he said directly to John “I see you have a tendency to sugar-coat things, and I’m not here as a person you need to impress. I’m here as a person to help you when things get their worst, so I need to know everything about how bad it gets.”. (Wow, I’m sitting there thinking, just wow).
John agreed and I was still surprised when the Dr. asked about childhood trauma (after John originally said “no” and I pointed out that we lost our mother when John was just 3–about as traumatic as you can get). He then asked “was there any abuse?” and John said “yes, our mother after Dad remarried”. Marj adopted us, so we were required to always call her “Mother”. As you can see, I no longer use that title for her, but my brother does and I’m not saying a word about it.
“Was it verbal or physical or….?” the Dr. asked.
With no prompting, John replied “it was verbal and physical”.
I was so proud of him that he could speak the truth.
I had not spoken with him about Marj and the abuse for years. Once during a really rough patch, he blurted out “you left me alone there with her for three years when you went to college Kathy–THREE YEARS!“. But beyond that, he’s been reluctant to talk about things and I don’t know what happened in those three years. I don’t push him on it–if it’s meant to be discussed it will be.
I just know that the last time she hit me, I got in the middle of her beating him and she turned on me. I was in college at that time and home for a weekend.
So he’s speaking out too. That’s good that it just comes to light. I didn’t ask him any further about that, as we are focusing on moving forward. But should he ever need to talk about it, he knows I know and am a soft place to land.
I decided not to tell him about the crazy interaction and ultimate severance of the relationship with Marj’s sister. My brother has few people on this planet who he feels connected to, and I am not taking any of them away from him. If she was nearby and I felt a danger to him in any way, sure. But, like her sister, her focus seemed more directed at me for speaking out, so I’m leaving it there.
But rest assured, I blocked her from all social media and from my phone number.
I may not have been able to protect myself from her sister then, but I know how to protect myself now. If she chooses to follow through on her blackmail, well that would just be a sad legacy for her to leave her descendants, but for sure it has nothing to do with me.
Anyway, here’s to telling the truth. Here’s to all the gay people I know (and don’t know) who have traversed all the obstacles they have to step in to their lives–freedom to breathe your own air is a great place to live.
You will lose people along the way, but you will gain more who vibe with who you are.
And God knows, my brother and I have had enough struggle.
It’s finally the time in our lives to be living fully alive–lives that our mother and our sister would be proud of.