The healing power of story

Every year, the college where I teach hosts a “Coming Out Stories” open mic event, in honor of National Coming Out Day. And every year, the room is packed.  Some stories are hilariously funny, others are gut-wrenchingly sad. Most have told their stories many times before. A few get up the nerve to tell their stories for the very first time. It’s a very raw, emotional event, and one that I look forward to every year.

But this year I wasn’t looking forward to it. Actually, I dreaded it. Because, you see, I was asked by one of the organizers of the event to share my story – and I said yes. I’ve shared my story several times before, but for some reason I woke up that morning thinking,  I really don’t want to do this. My story is not an entirely happy one, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take myself into that emotional space – especially at work, with classes to teach right before and right after the event.

From a purely academic, intellectual standpoint, I know that there are many benefits to sharing our stories with others. Years ago, I read a book written by a researcher named James Pennebaker, who is a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. This book, titled Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, explores why we feel such a need to share our stories with one another – and why putting your deepest, darkest experiences and feelings into words and sharing them with others is so powerfully healing. In contrast, keeping feelings and experiences bottled up, according to Pennebaker’s research, is linked to psychological distress, depression, and suppression of immune system functioning.

Pennebaker wrote this book back in 1997.  In 2004, he and his colleague Janel Sexton of California State University, San Bernadino published an article that focused on how personal narratives – coming-out stories, if you will – can counteract the stresses associated with marginalization and oppression. Telling our stories, according to Pennebaker, can improve our physical health, connect us to others, and solidify a sense of strength and pride in identity – particularly for less-visible populations like the queer community.

I’ve followed James Pennebaker’s research for years, and I’m a true believer in it. I get that telling our stories is a good thing. I’ve experienced it firsthand, many, many times.

But I still didn’t want to do it. Perhaps if I share my coming-0ut story, you’ll see why.

I started to question my sexuality when I was in college, and I started coming out to my friends as bisexual during my senior year. I didn’t, however, contemplate telling my parents until I moved to California, 3,000 miles away from my hometown. I began to see a therapist, and for six months we developed a game plan – when to tell them, what to say, and where to go if it didn’t go well. Two days after Christmas, at the dinner table, I said it: “Mom, Dad, I have something I need to tell you.” They paused. I paused. And then I said it: “I’m bisexual. I’m attracted to both men and women.”

My father let his breath out, and then said, “Oh wow – I thought you were going to tell us something BAD!” (I kind of thought I was telling them something bad, but I let that slide.) Both my father and my mother then proceeded to tell me how much they loved me, no matter what my sexual identity – and I thought, whew! That went much better than I expected.

Except the story doesn’t end there.

Even though my parents voiced their acceptance in that moment, from that point forward, our interactions were increasingly chilly and tense. Talking about that part of my life was frequently met with uncomfortable silences, with comments like, “Why do you have to talk about this all the time?” Months passed, tensions became, well, more tense, and that following Christmas, I decided for the first time not to come home. I didn’t call my family for weeks.

That spring, I got a phone call from my uncle (my father’s brother). “My birthday’s coming up in June,” he said. “I want you to be there, and I want to surprise your dad with your presence.” Oh, he’ll be surprised all right, I thought. I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t want to rock the family boat any more than it already was. So I went. My parents were surprised. It was awkward – but okay. I stayed with my parents for a few days afterwards, which was uneventful, but still riddled with a low-grade tension.

The night before I was scheduled to fly back to California, my dad and I were watching Law & Order together. When the show ended, I got up to go to bed, and it was my dad’s turn to say to me, “Sit down. I need to tell you something.”

Uh oh. 

What he proceeded to say was the most powerful thing I’ve ever heard in my life. He told me that he loved me, but that ever since I’d come out to him, he’d been really uncomfortable with the whole thing. He made a point of watching Ellen (Ellen DeGeneres’ 1990s sitcom), particularly the coming-out episode, and told me about the impact it had on him. He apologized for the way his negative attitudes had leaked out, and he told me how much he loved me. And he cried.

I wish I could tell you that I embraced his apology with open arms. I didn’t. His response surprised and touched me, but I was still angry. I wasn’t ready to open my heart completely. Instead, I said in a tight voice, “Thank you for your apology. I’m not ready to talk about this right now. I need to go to bed.”

That is the last conversation I ever had with my father.

A month and a half later, I got a midnight phone call from my mother telling me my father had been in a freak accident. I jumped on a plane and flew home. He died three hours before my plane landed.

And that is why I didn’t want to tell that story. I didn’t want to kick up all that pain again, especially in the middle of the workday, sandwiched between teaching two classes.

But you know what? I told that story, and by the end half the room was crying. And afterwards, I felt better. It’s like when you know you’re going to cry, and you’re doing everything you possibly can to keep it from happening, the point right before the tears start flowing is what feels the worst. Once you’re done, you feel calm, relieved, peaceful. I think sharing our stories often works like that, too.

National Coming Out Day is recognized every year on October 11. All of us have things that we keep hidden in our personal closets. They’d freak out if they knew THAT about me! we think to ourselves. To me, it’s a perfect day to reflect on what might happen if we crack the door open, even just a little bit.


Filed under bisexuality, coming out, homophobia, mental health, psychological research, relationships, Uncategorized

4 responses to “The healing power of story

  1. Tony Lavelle

    What a powerful message. My mother and I had terrible falling out, resulting in our not talking for about 8 years. About 6 years before she died, we made up and enjoyed her remaining years as mother and son. My mom has been in bad health for years before we made up. Bad enough that when we said goodbye at the end of each get together, we knew it could be the last. That process went on for 6 years. The night before she died, we had dinner together. We said I love you and goodbye.

    My brother, on-the-other-hand, had not spoken to Mom for years, for different reasons than mine. But nothing so terrible that could not have been repaired. She died before my brother and her could reconnect like mom and were able to. Now that it is too late he is still depressed and guilt ridden to this day.

    Gayle, I feel for you.

    • I hope your brother can find a way to make peace with this, for guilt and depression can eat away at you in the worst ways. I no longer feel guilty about how I responded to my father, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel sad at times. Talking about it in various ways really has helped me.

      Thanks for reading, Tony! I hope you’re doing well.

  2. janishaag

    Thank you, Gayle, and thank you for telling your story on campus. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be there to hear it. I, too, am a big fan of James Pennebaker, which is one reason I created the “Writing as a Healing Art” class at SCC. Though it was cut as part of the budget crisis, I still run private writing groups and there are a host of them in Sacramento that use the Amherst Writers & Artists method to encourage people to write their stories. Keep telling your story and encouraging others to do so (as I know you do in your classes). They’re important, worthy and moving. Yours will stay with me for a long time!

    • Thanks, Jan! We should move the “Writing as a Healing Art” course into Psychology, offer it as a Living Skills class, and find a way to EQ you so you can teach it. 🙂 I know I’m preaching to the choir with you regarding the importance of writing/telling our stories.

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