The term ‘coming out of the closet’ describes when you decide to reveal something you’ve kept hidden about yourself to others. But although I’ve previously written about disclosing your chronic illness to society in general, your date, and your friends, I’ve neglected perhaps the most important aspect of coming out of the closet, coming out to yourself.
As my friend Avril says, coming out of the closet is a choice and a brave step. It implies you’ve spent sometime in the closet, dealing with something you don’t necessarily want to admit is true even to yourself, something you’re possibly ashamed of. Before you can tell others something like that, you have to embrace it yourself.
An avid reader, I am also a collector of quotes and book passages. Recklessly folding down page corners to mark the parts I want to remember after I’ve finished reading, I search endlessly for fictional situations and characters that resonate with me.
Since I began recording them on my laptop, I’ve collected eleven pages of quotes. The other day after I inputted the latest batch, I started re-reading them. Not surprisingly, a theme appeared: being yourself.
One of my favourite quotes, and the one I think fits best with the topic, is from “Keeping the Moon” by Sarah Dessen. Nicole, Colie for short, is staying with her somewhat eccentric aunt Mira for the summer while her mother is in Europe.
Colie and her mom used to be overweight, but then Colie’s mom became an aerobics instructor and created her own exercise empire, getting both Colie and herself into shape in the process. However, Colie isn’t comfortable with her new appearance yet, but finds herself living with her aunt Mira, a fashion-challenged and overweight woman who is always unabashedly herself.
Unable to figure out how Mira deals with the people who whisper about her and make fun of her, Colie finally confronts her aunt about it.
‘“How can you stand the way they treat you?”
She turned her head. “How do they treat me?” she asked. I wondered if she was joking.
“You know what I mean, Mira … The things they say, about your bike, or your clothes. The way they look at you and laugh. I just – I just don’t see how you can take it, day after day. It’s got to hurt so much.”
She stopped walking and leaned against the bike, looking at me with those wide, blue eyes, so much like my mother’s. “They don’t hurt me Colie,” she said. “They never have.”
“Mira, come on,” I said. “I’ve spent the whole summer seeing it. I mean, what about Bea Williamson? You can’t tell me–”
“No, no,” she said, shaking her head, “It’s not about Bea Williamson. It’s not about anyone. I’m a lucky person, Colie. I’m an artist, I have my health, and I have friends who fill my life and make me happy. I have no complaints.”
“But it has to hurt you,” I said. “You just hide it so well.”
“No.” And then she smiled at me, as if this wasn’t as complicated as I was making it. “Look at me, Colie,” she said, gesturing down at her big yellow shirt and leggings, her little purple high-tops. “I have always known who I am. I might not work perfectly, or be like them, but that’s okay. I know I work in my own way.”’
Mira knows and accepts she works in her own way, and it’s a universal truth, we all work in our own way. In fact, having a chronic illness can make you painfully aware of how we all work in our way.
Unfortunately, coming out of the closet is not always a linear event. There are some days when I know I’m back in the closet about my illness. There are times when I don’t want to admit I need to stop and rest because I don’t want to be different and days when I don’t follow my high protein diet as I should because I’m in denial about my illness and how to manage it. I also get sick of being sick. And sometimes I still feel admitting my illness makes me inferior to others.
Becoming comfortable in your own skin is a life-long endeavour. While I feel I’ve come a long way since childhood, I also know I have a long way to go. Illness will always be a part of my life, and, in a way, it’s part of my identity. I just hope I have enough courage to embrace my phoenix instead of remaining closeted.