Living with Our Parents’ Blame: A Love Note to My Fellow Prodigal Kids

It’s been four and a half months since I came out to my parents. Four and a half months since I spit out the secret I’d been carrying like a poison pill under my tongue for years. Since this whole crazy, dangerous, exhilarating, beautiful adventure — life — began.

Four and a half months, too, since my parents cut me off. 

A lot has happened since then. But I’m not here today to tell that story. People like me, people from extreme religious families who’ve been cut off (or cut themselves off), we’ve all got our stories. No, I’m here to talk about how we can cope with the other story.

The story our parents tell about us.

We have all heard this story, too.

To be cut off from your family because you no longer live by their traditions — it’s a type of life like no other. Some of us escaped abusive religious houses. Others stopped believing in our family’s faiths and either spoke out or were found out. Some came out with a gender or sexuality different from what was accepted. So many reasons.

Some people might find this strong, inspirational, badass (AND IT IS thankyouverymuch!) But many of our families see us living our truths, choose to cut us off, and then paint us as the villains. They come from places where religion or conformity is everything. If you leave or reject the faith, it doesn’t just mean you’re going to die, it means they’re bad parents. They question everything they thought they knew about themselves and us. They feel as if we have died. That is their side of the story, for many. Yet it sounds like:

“You are so selfish. What you are doing is filthy.”

“You are killing us by rejecting our faith/by living your truth.”

“What have we done to deserve this? Why are you punishing us?”

“We have done nothing to you. This is all in your head.”

“Your mother won’t stop crying.”

 

The other day I read this article by a Christian mother who cut off her gay son. It pierced me right through. This is the part that haunted me.

Perhaps I am writing this is [sic] for myself more than for those who are reading. I have not seen my son in nearly two and a half years now and there are days that the pain is just as fresh as ever. Until now, I have kept this pain inside and shared with only a couple of my closest friends. I am not sure that a day has gone by that I have not shed tears. Sometimes it is a single tear and other days are gut wrenching cries of despair. I have pulled into my driveway with tears blinding my eyes, only to find myself literally screaming and wailing in grief. I’m devastated by our loss; his loss.

I know this is how my mother feels, too. I know she cries every day. I know she looks me up obsessively online. I know she calls around asking after me. She texts me asking why are you being selfish and I taught you right from wrong and we only want the best for you. Saying as a mother I have rights to you and you do not, saying I miss you so much, saying can I please just see you, please, please. Saying come back home

After I read that article, I carried the pain of knowing her pain around with me all day, red as hot iron at the bottom of my chest. I have no regrets about telling them who I am. I know so much of what they do and say is inexcusable and horrible. Don’t get me wrong, I know what living this truth is gutsy, pathmaking, beautiful, real; I know it’s right.

And yet I can’t help seeing their side of things. Their story. Which is that their daughter, who was once obedient, loving, and madly in love with God, has told them that she’s the type of person God used to sentence to death. They feel that I have died. They feel this means they failed as parents. They fear for my very soul. They are terrified of my Chinese grandparents and church finding out.

And I know I am not the only one who has felt this too.

 

So I’m saying this for all of us — every apostate I’ve met online and in person, every apostate I’ve yet to meet, every apostate yet to be (welcome to the club, prodiguys and prodigals) — because someone who gets it needs to say it.

Your parents are not hurting because of who you are.
Your parents are hurting because of who they are, because of how they see things, and because of what they cannot see.

Their pain is not your fault. Not your responsibility. Even if it brings you down, know that it’s not on you.

Religious mindsets and groups can blind so many people. It can become someone’s whole identity, and when that happens, going against the grain can make you feel like you’re losing your entire world. So they choose a god or gods over us. So they do what their leaders and texts say they should do.

That is what’s killing them, what’s hurting them, what’s causing them grief.

Not you. Their faith. Their tradition. Their fear. Their belief. Their conformity. Their lack of experience. Their inability to have an open mind. 

What they can’t see is how kickass you are. How much it can take for someone to be open about who they are and what they believe despite the costs. How much resilience and courage you have. The fact that you are creating an example of what it means to live life with joy, risk, strength, and above all, TRUTH for other people. The fact that you showing them who you are can actually be interpreted as an act of love, because if you didn’t care, you wouldn’t show them.

I see that, and I’m mothafuckin proud and glad you’re out here, cause we’re all out here, even if we don’t all know each other quite yet. There’s a lot of us, even if many of us are silent — which is why I’ve decided not to be.

Maybe one day your parents and mine will come to see how much we bring to the world. But for now, we’ve got to know it for them. And I’ll know it with ya.

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I Didn’t Fall From Grace, I Leapt to Freedom: Ex-Timony of a Half-Disowned Bisexual Apostate

It’s funny. If you had sat me down 5 years ago and told me that one day I’d be a blasphemy-loving bisexual apostate who had finally come out to her parents, gotten cut off, and called it all the best thing to ever happen to her, I probably would’ve laughed. Or cried. Maybe a little of both.

Certainty

Just picture it: high school aged me, little pink Bible in tow, memorizing Scripture verses in our church’s “Approved Workers Are Not Ashamed” Friday night program like any other week. I was not a picture of joyful heresy.

Back then, see, Jesus was still my everything. I was still eager servant to the God of the Universe for my forever and ever, still believed that was the only right and happy and good way to live in the first place, as my Chinese American Baptist church taught. I still sang songs like “your will above all else, my purpose remains: the art of losing myself in giving you praise” with all my heart. I still got down on my knees weekly to rededicate my whole soul to God. And so on and on.

All my life, too, I’d heard of the fabled fallaways, apostates. I could never understand how anyone could know the indescribable joy and peace and hope of Christ, live a life for Him … and leave. For what? Nonbelievers were supposed to be dangerous, blind, with empty lives not worth living; atheists were all secretly miserable. My greatest wish was that I never became one of them. At annual summer camp, I sang “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back” with tears in my eyes.

Doubt

Maybe that’s why, when I began to have my first doubts in high school, I never saw it coming. I still don’t remember when it happened, or how, or what even did happen — my brain has blocked those memories out. Was it conversations with kids at school — exposing me to a world beyond my insulated church? Websites, videos, or just a slow, wordless dawning that came naturally with my age? I don’t know.

But it began a tug-of-war that lasted years: the ever-echoing could it all be wrong? locking me in a spiral. Every week, seeing the moral and logical discrepancies in what I’d always taught was the only accurate, just, and fulfilling belief system in the world would push me to my breaking point, and I’d think “screw it all” for a few short hours until some sermon or song lyric would “convict” me to return to God on my knees.

Hiding

By senior year, I had somehow reached the point where the terror of hell and wasting my salvation couldn’t chase me back to the foot of my bed in prayer anymore. I no longer believed. I had also realized that I was bisexual. That brought a new all-consuming problem: I couldn’t let anyone find out. 

My parents, while they loved me, could be controlling, punishing, and zealous. I didn’t know yet that it wasn’t normal, but I did know it wasn’t safe. I had no idea how my parents would react if they knew I was bi and a nonbeliever, but it could be anything from getting disowned and kicked out, physically punished and trapped, sent to conversion therapy, and so on. 

So I passed my time in fear. The summer before I went away to college, the pressure of having to keep pretending I believed to everyone I’d grown up with, singing to a God I loved all my life but who never even existed, and keeping my sexuality and true beliefs a secret, all 2-3 times a week, got to me. I nearly attempted suicide a few times, but I made it to college — a liberal, Jewish-influenced university 5 hours away.

College changed everything for me. For the first time, I could say my secrets aloud. I had a lot to learn; I didn’t know who Drake and Beyonce were, I was afraid of alcohol, I didn’t know how to hang out with people. But from the very first moment, I was free to be who I’d always dreamed I could be, beneath the secrecy and fear. I went from a situationally mute high schooler to someone friendly, energetic, open-hearted, and involved in more activities and activist leadership roles than I could remember.

I continued living a double life at home, though, and it was poisoning me. Every time I went home for break, I wondered if I’d come out the other side. Having to keep pretending at church was hell, and I’m not made for hiding. I would revert to the small, powerless, trapped self I’d been, and my Christian indoctrination would rewrite my brain. I almost tried to kill myself one or two more times, and I realized in winter of freshman year that my parents could find out my secrets at any time because of short fiction pieces I’d had published. 

So I started preparing for the day my parents found out. I knew at the very least they would stop paying for college, and if it happened over break, I’d be trapped with them. So I called local shelters, memorized crisis numbers, packed a runaway bag with me at all times, and went to the campus Bible study, which was even more toxic than my church and originated from a cult. When I went home for the summer after freshman year, I truly thought that I would not make it out alive.

But I did. And even this brought troubles with it. I had not expected to survive and for the last half of 2016, I wished I hadn’t. I didn’t know what the point was. I felt I’d been lucky for having kept my sexuality and disbelief a secret for this long, and it was just a matter of time before my parents found out, I was disowned, homeless, and had to drop out of college, and I thought I would kill myself or be killed when that time came. I also didn’t know how to leave Christianity behind fully; my double life kept me anchored still in that world. What did life as a non-Christian even look like?

Healing

But something happened on Christmas Eve of that year. I was desperate, drowning in the memories of how I lost my God, my self, and my family, friends, and world without anyone even knowing, and close to suicide. So I called the Trevor Life Line. A woman picked up, and we talked, and for some reason, while I was sitting on my bed with that tear-streaked phone, I understood why leaving and living in the aftermath of my fundamentalist religion was so damn hard. I saw my past self, everything she had gone through. I saw my past glowing like a path. 

I can’t explain what came next. I think of it like a fever break, forceful, sudden, and thorough as first hail, tongue of fire, riptide. I started healing. Apparently the term for this is post-traumatic growth: a phenomenon where, after trauma, your view of the world and your self evolve into appreciation, openness, adventure, spirituality, and gratefulness. And in the mountains by Vegas as the year turned 2017, that began.

I spent the next few months coming into myself. The world exploded into a wide-open kaleidoscope of possibilities, adventures, opportunities. I realized that the idea of a conventional life: 9-5 job, stationery, family and retirement, bored me. I wanted experiences out of life, and there were so many fewer rules than my religion had led me to believe. I’d discovered absurdism, the idea that life has no inherent meaning, in the autumn, and it didn’t depress me — it excited me. 

And then came March 19.

Leaping

This day, like so many other events in my deconversion, I cannot fully explain. Here, too, it’s like there was something wordless, instinctual, and invisible in me, guiding. It knew, I think. It knew that I deserved more than the hiding I’d been doing for the past five years. It knew that if this new self was to keep growing and healing, the hiding had to stop.

And so, during a late-night routine phone call with my parents on Sunday, March 19, I ended up telling my parents that I was bi and a disbeliever. The whole thing was surreal, none of it planned. It just happened: halfway through the conversation, something unknown in me reached a tipping point, and the words forced themselves out of my mouth.

After all this time hiding, I had never imagined I would be the one to tell them, to bring the consequences I was terrified of down on my own head. My parents told me they were no longer paying for college. They asked what they had done to deserve this.

But it happened. After I hung up the phone at 2 am, I curled up and cried into my stuffed panda. And one minute later I straightened myself up. I breathed deeply. And I launched into action. I told my suitemates next door what had happened, I emailed every university employee I needed to, I paced the common room floor, feeling the carpet under my bare feet, drinking in the redness of the dull EXIT sign.

Everything was a thousand times more real. I knew what lay ahead would be grueling. I knew the person I would’ve become if the phone call never happened would never exist now; instead, there would be a new one, called on to survive all that was coming.

And yet, when I woke up in the morning that same day, all I felt going forward was a deep peace. As I told friends, professors, financial aid advisers, and bosses what had happened, I did it with grace, humor, and that peace. I didn’t know if I would still be able to go to college or have a place to stay come summer; to be honest, I’d never imagined this ending anywhere but with me as a homeless dropout. And yet, in this new reality, I knew I would find a way to be okay because I had me, the me I’d been healing and growing into since Christmas Eve.

So I did all the things I needed to do to stay in college. I filed my first tax return at 5 am on a Wednesday. I wrote a 13-page letter to the financial aid office, appealing for a grant of independent status by describing my abuse and trauma narrative with details I had never told anyone before, hoping they would consider it “bad enough” for me to be allowed to try to pay for college by myself. I got a 4th job and started waitressing with no prior experience during finals season. I started a fundraiser for summer living expenses that went over its goal in 3 days. 

And through it all I found more love, support, and grace than I ever expected. From all sides. I found out I had friends who were working through college as independents and got advice (and my 4th job lead) from them. The financial aid adviser turned out to be queer with abusive parents just like me, and my academic adviser, a wonderful man with a husband, went through the same thing himself in college. My supervisor at work and my therapist advocated for me. A friend from high school shared my fundraiser on Facebook, and ex-religious friends from online, readers of my poetry and short fiction, and people I hadn’t seen from as far back as fifth grade donated and encouraged me. I made new friendships and deeply strengthened and restarted old ones.

Freedom

After it all, just before finals, I heard that dependency override to the financial aid office was accepted, and I applied for financial aid. What I heard back still floors me.

I won’t need to pay for any tuition out of pocket, other than the usual loans I’ve already been taking. I’ve been given free on campus housing this summer through a job (in the financial aid office!) with someone who’s been unbelievably generous to me this whole way. And with my new waitressing job? I am gonna be okay. 

But I’m so much more than just okay. I am thriving. On a level I’ve never seen before. 

I enjoy going to work because I love the people I’m with. I make good money on my tips, and I’ve heard that I’m good at my job for someone who’s just started. Waitressing is throwing all the areas of situational mutism that I need to recover in my face, and while it’s definitely hard, I’ve grown so much as a person just in the past 2 weeks.

I’m planning to get the blasphemous badass tattoos I’ve dreamed of this summer, and I may finally change my name to my preferred, Max. I’m going to sharpen my harp skills at a Renaissance music camp on full scholarship for a week. I’m hanging out with friends, making new ones and learning to connect.

I’m going back to my old high school, empowered by finally being out, to make things better for LGBTQ+ people, while I also organize Asian American advocacy events, plan LGBTQ+ resource improvement at my university, and try to build community and resources for people who are recovering from and transitioning out of religious communities just like me. 

Life is an adventure now. Life is open, and full of possibilities, and while the world can be sketchy and complicated as hell, I’m all in it now, and it in me. I wanna travel, to live an unconventional life, to become and grow and heal every day. I am not just the person I always dreamed of being as a closeted, scared, traumatized born again Christian kid … I am becoming someone I didn’t even know I could be, and falling in love with them.

Before I lost my faith, my self, my world, I was supposed to go to a Bible Institute. Become a missionary, live my whole life for Jesus. Now, I’m a soon-to-be-tatted bisexual apostate, financially independent from her family, recovering from situational mutism, depression, disordered eating, and religious trauma, and an aspiring community/clinical social worker dedicated to empowering ex-religious people. I never saw this coming, but I’m so happy it did.

There’s a poem I read today that I think sums this all up. Fittingly, it’s “Autobiography of Eve” by Ansel Elkins.

Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake—
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt
to freedom.