Sunday, August 18, 2019

To Be Seen

I kept myself busy throughout my life as a coping mechanism. If I was too busy to stop and think, I would be too busy to be afraid. If I was too busy to stop and think, I would be too busy to suffocate from my cognitive dissonance. If I was too busy to stop and think, I would be too busy to have to grapple with being gay.

So I absorbed myself in dozens of hobbies and I signed up for everything. In high school I ran cross country and track & field, I sang (badly) in the school choir, I went to every school activity, and I packed my life with social events--as many as I could find.

In college I took a full class load and worked sometimes as many as three jobs at once. "I like being busy," I would tell people when they asked me how I had the energy to do everything I was doing.

The truth was I didn't like being that busy. I didn't like having a plate so full of tasks, many I didn't really enjoy doing, that I constantly felt overwhelmed. I didn't like not sleeping. It was stressful. But I was terrified of the alternative.

I would watch my friends guard their free time and I would feel jealous of them. Then I'd watch them get married and slip away. So I would make myself even busier, busy enough that I wouldn't have time to think about what my future looked like.

It got worse in law school. I was getting older, and the terror was getting more challenging to keep at bay. Life was trying very hard to confront me and I had to swamp myself with more and more distractions to shield me from reality. The reality that before long, I would need to face the fact that I wasn't a 20-something anymore living in a college town, working on a degree, and mostly avoiding the rest of adulthood. 

I signed up for everything available to a law student, and I studied constantly. By my third year of law school, I was taking a full course load, editing two different law journals, I was a board member and on a traveling team for two different mock litigation groups, I was a TA for two classes, co-writing a series of articles with a professor, taking the bus to Salt Lake City twice a week to work part time at the Attorney General's office, and studying every possible second. I used to bring notecards into the shower with me. I got good grades. I made great friends. 

And I was terrified.

I had classmates at the time who thought I had lost my mind. "How are you going to make time for that?" I remember them saying whenever I took on some new task. 

Looking back, I know I was acting like a crazy person. It was unhealthy. It was destructive in its own special way.

"I like being busy," I told people. "I just like being busy."

Then I graduated law school and everything suddenly changed.

I took a job clerking for an appellate judge. It was quiet, 9 to 5 work. Most days I sat in a small window-less office by myself reading briefs and case law and writing.

And then I would go home to my quiet apartment in this city where I had no friends. I would start panicking. I would hyperventilate. Nearly three decades of avoidance were abruptly coming to a head. For years I had made sure I never had time on my hands. Now all I had was time on my hands.

I signed up to do an Ironman. I didn’t have a bike and I couldn’t swim, but it was the most intense thing I could think to take on. That could keep me busy, and if I stayed busy, maybe I could hold onto my sanity.


But it didn't really work this time. It was like I had been hanging onto a bar my entire life and my fingers were finally starting to slip. It was like there was nothing I could do to stop my fingers from slipping.

I would train. I would go on long training runs or bike rides or swims in a pool and I would try to do everything I could to think about anything other than “what am I going to do?”

I was totally and completely alone in this. Truly, no one knew. No one knew that I had found a spot outside just behind the courthouse to go hide when I was having panic attacks every single day. No one knew I was waking up most nights in desperate and uncontrollable tears. No one knew I was deeply convinced I would never experience happiness again in my life.

How could they know? I was hiding. I had to hide it, or so I thought. I had to hide it because talking about it with anyone was my greatest fear.

So I didn't talk about it. With anyone. I put on a happy face at the office. I smiled at church. I wrote a blog post about a wrong number text exchange where I tried to convince a stranger to buy a snuggie. And everyone thought I was fine, because I was laughing.

It was getting harder to maintain the happy face. My grip kept slipping. And I think I knew deep down everything was going to have to come to the surface eventually. That terrified me even more. "What if I can't keep holding this in and people find out?" The thought was bubbling up, and I needed to find a new escape.

So I moved to another country. A small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away from my friends and family. They wouldn't be able to see me there. They wouldn't see me completely lose my grip. And if they couldn't see it, it would be like it never happened.


The next year was harder than any other year had ever been for me.

I had panic attacks in my office. I would lie on the floor and cry and try to catch my breath.

"I'm just stressed," I would tell myself. "Because of work. I'm just stressed because of work."

I don't know why it's so hard to admit that we are afraid. Why it's so hard to acknowledge fear. We treat it like it's a character flaw. A weakness. If we're scared it means we aren't brave.

That's nonsense, of course. You can't even be brave without being scared first. No one ever needed courage to do something comfortable. Bravery is staring down terror and not letting it defeat you. Bravery is understanding a good thing is hard to do, and then doing it anyway. Bravery is admitting you're afraid while persevering.

For years I thought I was being brave by bottling up my fears. 

People who told others they were gay were weak. They told others they were gay because they weren't strong enough to suffer in silence, like I was. They asked for help and support because they didn't have enough courage to brave their storms alone.

I don't think there was any single moment that snapped me out of that destructive thinking. But sometime during that year--the rolling waves, the dark quiet nights, the sounds of the jungle--sometime during that year it started to occur to me that this was unsustainable. That I wasn't actually gaining anything from this pain. That the people I implicitly admire the most are the ones who love themselves. That true self love requires honesty. And that it's impossible to be honest while hiding.

To hide is to deceive.

To deceive is to cower from truth.

That's not brave.

I moved back to the United States. I reconnected with friends and family. I started telling them. It was the bravest thing I have ever done.

It was the first time I remember feeling truly proud of myself. It was the first time I ever felt peace. I didn't know before that that I had never felt peace. It was like seeing color for the first time.

It was a relief to let go of the bar and not feel bad about it. It was a relief that I could decide to be busy because there were things I wanted to do, and not because I was hiding from the things I needed to do. It was a relief that I didn't always have to be busy. It was a relief to actually like being busy instead of just claiming to like it. It was a relief to admit I was afraid. Admitting I was afraid somehow made me less afraid.

When I came out to my parents one of the first things my mother said to me was, "can you breathe now and stop taking on so much?"

I felt very seen, and frankly surprised that someone else had so perfectly recognized what had always been a coping mechanism for me.

But despite that acknowledgment from my mother, one of the most surprising things about telling people my story over the next few years was learning how well I had hid. My friends and family were shocked and sad to learn how much I had hurt. They worried they had failed me somehow. One of the most common responses I got from people was some variation of "if I ever said anything that caused you pain . . ." or "I hope I never did anything to make you feel worse."

I've had a lot of opportunities to reassure people that I count them among those I love because of the things they have said and done, and that it wasn't their responsibility to read my closed-off mind. But I certainly understand the tendency to wonder if they could have been better.

It is so easy to be dismissive, or to spew vile online, or to roll your eyes at someone's life, but we so often really don't know what the people around us are going through. During my darkest period I think most people who knew me would have described me as a pretty happy and upbeat person. They had no idea I was actually in free fall. 

I wonder all the time how many people around me are silently struggling in a way that would surprise me if I found out. I wonder how many burdens I can help lift by just being a little more kind and patient. By using the internet to uplift rather than fight. By taking the time to care about someone. By treating everyone like they might have just come back from their hiding spot behind a courthouse where they suffered a panic attack.

So, I don't know. Hug your friends today. Tell the crabby neighbor you like her flowers. Be kind to the customer service representative whose voice is shaking from nerves. Tell a joke to the stranger on the elevator.

I can tell you from personal experience what miracles you can perform from just being a little more human to someone who is secretly struggling to be one at all. By making a habit out of lifting up and not tearing down. 

By looking at someone who needs to be seen.

~It Just Gets Stranger

35 comments:

  1. So beautiful. I often wonder if the people who are always the most positive and upbeat and always happy are the ones who hurt the most. You truly never know, and it’s so important to be seen.

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  2. Very touching. Thank you for sharing!

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  3. From one formerly-closeted Mormon who liked to be busy to another: this was beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

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  4. Eli I am truly happy that you have made so much progress in your journey to be happy. I am glad you were able to face your fear head on. You are an extremely talented and accomplished young man. I know that you influence and uplift many others as you share insights of your life’s trials and the things you have learned from them. You are highly admired by lots of people. Keep working on those things that bring you happiness. I love you and are so proud of the great person you have become and most importantly the great son and brother you are. Dad

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  5. ❤❤❤❤❤❤❤
    Unless we have walked in your shoes we cannot know what this felt/feels like. But you have described it so well here that it helps us know a little better what it felt like for you. Thank you. We are happy you have felt peace. As always... in our book - you are amazing in every way.
    Mom XOXOXOXOXO

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  6. I have been reading your blog for years and years and this was your first post to make me cry. I’m sorry for the years of pain you experienced, and I’m grateful you shared. Tomorrow I will be kinder to the people I encounter because of your words. I’ll even be kind to the mean lady at my gym daycare. ;) Seriously, though, thank you. (Also that comment from your Dad is the sweetest. He is so adorably proud of you!)

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  7. Thank you for this - it speaks volumes to me. My husband and I were talking about leadership the other day. We'd heard a quote that some of the best leaders lead out of fear. I made the comment that all of the best leaders lead out of fear. It's a motivator - but it's one that people often miss in others. My husband knows how terrified I am on a daily basis - but very few others, if any, in my life do. It helps to hear someone I respect feels or at least felt the same way.

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  8. So poignantly written. Thank you for sharing your story in such an eloquent way.

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  9. Awww- Dad! ❤❤❤ And Eli- you're amazing, this was amazing. ❤❤❤

    - just a stranger that has been reading you for years.

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  10. Last night I finally had to do the terrifying thing that would either irreparably ruin my life, or set me free. I don't know how it will play out. I hid my struggle from everyone and denied them the opportunity to help me and hold me up. Telling them of the struggle allowed us to be real. Their support gave me the courage to finally, finally act. I've lived my life on a need-to-know basis. People need to know more than I think they do. It's terrifying, isn't it? Eli, I am so, so glad you stopped hiding. I am so glad you can be happy now. Thank you for telling us your difficult truth. Your courage gives us courage. Thank you. <3

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  11. You made me cry. And then your mom made me cry. I don’t like to cry.
    Thanks for sharing! My journey has been different from yours but the smiling, making others laugh etc while so scared and trying to hold it together inside is the same! I turned 49 yesterday and this past year I saw a counselor/therapist for the first time and feel like I’m making progress in making choices with me in mind instead of what I think i “should” do. I Love you Eli! (And Skylar and Mom and Dad)

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  12. Reading this I kept having to remind myself to breath. My struggle is different than yours but I understand the masking fear and pain and ugliness with a happy face and lots of busy work. Never apologize for the humor, it helps others, but thank you for sharing the vulnerability and real struggles as well...that helps too, more than you know.

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  13. Thank you so much for sharing this! The entire time I was reading this I kept asking myself if I had written it. Unfortunately, the keeping busy to hide the truth part of your story is what I am living everyday right now. It's mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting. I hope I can find my peace someday; your story gives me hope that I will.

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  14. Thank you for sharing such a personal story. It really hit home for me. My coping mechanism growing up as a closeted gay Mormon was being the most righteous commandment-keeping Mormon I could be (because I secretly felt like the most vile, unworthy person ever). I was obnoxiously righteous. So much so that it annoyed my family, and my sister’s husband suspected I was hiding something (cuz nobody’s THAT righteous unless they’re hiding something). It was exhausting keeping up such a perfect image, so it was a relief to let that go and finally be honest.

    So glad you were able to find the courage to be honest when you did. A lot of people never find it or find it way too late.

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    1. That is so often the pattern. That and trying to make promises to God that if you perfectly do your calling / attend seminary / read your scriptures / go on a mission / go to BYU / whatever thing, that you expect God to make you straight. Which doesn't really ever work and only leads to crushing disappointment and disillusionment when the whole thing falls apart.

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  15. Beautifully written, and hits home today as the first post on FB this morning was an old coworker/friend who found her son yesterday after he committed suicide. I don't know what that young man's struggles were, but it doesn't matter. Heartbreaking, and I wish more folks knew the response of love and support they would receive if they could just trust taking off the armor.
    I have a 25 year old nephew who I've watched struggle with both his sexual orientation and gender over the past 5+years. I do my best to go out of my way when he makes a social media post to let him know that, as his aunt, I love him unconditionally, that he always has a place in my life and my home.
    We've always been acquaintances, but you've always been someone I'd like to know better. From a distance (this blog) I've seen this shift over the past few years, and I'm so glad you found your way through the fog and fear to bliss and happiness. Also I love and hope that this piece might help just one young person out there that identifies with you!

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  16. I love this and you! You are amazing!

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  17. "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." --Ian Maclaren
    Thank you for the reminder today and for sharing such a personal part of yourself, Eli. <3

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  18. It's so hard watching this. I'm a naturally perceptive person, and I've consciously honed my abilities through study and practice, and I've gone through it, so I recognize the signs. I'm very confident in my Mormon gaydar (some of the skills are portable to regular gaydar, but Mormon gaydar is a very specific skillset). But that doesn't get anyone anywhere, because though I can recognize the signs, I can't usually do anything actively to help the person going through it, because the fear will cause them to push me away if I do anything overt. So I have to be a good example, and wear my pride on my sleeve, so to speak, and make it obvious that I am a safe person to talk to, but I can't go and initiate the conversation because I'll probably scare them off.

    I saw the signs when you TAed my contracts class. While you were taking on the world and people were putting up signs in the school that their activities were approved by you (and let's be honest, that was a hilarious in-joke meme for a while there), I was starting up USGA, effectively the first gay-straight alliance at BYU. I was almost late to Justice Lee's house for a 1L meet-and-greet with a professor because I had to skip out of one of our first meetings. We got a good group going that helped a lot of people. But we could really only be there for them to find, we couldn't reach out to them, because that fear would take over and they'd run.

    I often think about the people I saw that I wish I could have just been there for. I've seen situations explode because someone who thought they were good at hiding really weren't, but that also didn't mean they were ready to talk to people yet.

    I wonder if people like me had been just a little bit more visible or a little bit more outspoken, would we have saved people like you a few years of anguish?

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    1. Brandon! Thank you for reminding me of that! I had totally forgotten about the "approved by Eli McCann" joke. I don't remember how that got started but it just made me smile.

      And thank you for all that you do. I have no doubt you have made a huge difference for a lot of people.

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  19. This is a really important post. It’s important because you’ve been entertaining people
    for years and years with your stories, opinions, and adventures. But attaching your personal pain to these stories and allowing yourself to be seen now...that is some potentially live saving shit. Thanks for helping future generations find freedom in being seen. I’m sorry that things were so hard, while you managed to make so many people smile.
    Love, Trudy the bottle doll

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  20. This is so profound. I keep reading it over and over:

    I don't know why it's so hard to admit that we are afraid. Why it's so hard to acknowledge fear. We treat it like it's a character flaw. A weakness. If we're scared it means we aren't brave.

    That's nonsense, of course. You can't even be brave without being scared first. No one ever needed courage to do something comfortable. Bravery is staring down terror and not letting it defeat you. Bravery is understanding a good thing is hard to do, and then doing it anyway. Bravery is admitting you're afraid while persevering.

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  21. I am struggling. I smile every day. Joke. Post wonderful pictures of smiling happy kids. But inside I’m anxious. Some days getting out of bed is hard, other days, going to sleep is hard. Here is to hoping things become less
    Heavy feeling

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  22. It's an interesting feeling to read this and have this overwhelming urge to run back to your past and rescue you. I'm glad you broke free from it all. I've really appreciated your honesty and vulnerability over the past year. Thank you for letting us all see you and learn from you.

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  23. Thank you. I recently finally admitted to myself that I’m bi, and I’m still closeted to almost everybody in my life. I’ve told a few people, and it was heart-poundingly terrifying to open up to them, but everyone I’ve told so far has blown me away with how normal they are about it. They, and this post, give me hope that I can be who I am and people will still love me. I haven’t always been sure of that, so thank you.

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    1. Hey Anon- if you need someone to talk to, I'd be happy to be a resource to you. I have also recently been exploring that side of myself. I'm not totally out, and people I'm not out to also read this blog, so I've created an email account that I can be contacted at: biaskween at gmail.

      This goes for anyone who needs a friend, even if you are not the original Anon <3

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  24. Amy Rose: Sometimes I wonder about the discrepancy in life: I remember when I was ten years old, living in São Paulo, Brasil, we had some social studies lesson on what the odds are of being born a certain race, gender, during a certain time period on earth, middle class family, etc. etc, and it’s just minuscule. It’s tiny. You add in all the other little details of talents and gifts and personality and then any inborn challenges and struggles, physical, mental, emotional, that some people face from day one, and when I meet someone new, especially someone struggling, I wonder at that tiny tiny percentage that made me me, and them them. Does that make sense? My teacher in class that day literally had it all on a wheel we had to spin, as if to say, if we had been born again, we would never in a million years be born into the same situation we got this time around. Most days, that makes me feel pretty lucky. It’s also a reminder to me that pain, anguish, heartache, is all a part of the human condition, and what we do with it, our own, and what we do when we see someone else’s, that’s what matters. Right?

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    1. What we do with our own personal sorrows and what we do when we see someone else’s anguish definitely matters more and is what defines who we are rather than all the other characteristics you listed that weren’t what we chose but just complete random chance. I agree with you. If only we could all focus on the contents of hearts rather than race, nationality, religion, orientation, gender, income, etc.

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  25. Eli we have never met. I have always enjoyed your writing since we are very similar in many ways. I love to laugh and have fun with people as well so your lighthearted silliness aligns with that.

    I am proud of you for taking that step and reclaiming your Life! I am in process of doing that as well and have different fears and judgements in my world. Never good enough, never smart enough, now I find myself at a crossroads where I am trying to break through that barrier and allow myself to be brave enough to take care of myself and feel good again! No one would ever know the loneliness and sadness I struggle with, and thanks to you I feel like I have an ally trying to put myself first for once. THANK YOU for your post and know that you continue to inspire and entertain us all. ❤️

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  26. I'm not having the best day, so I came to your blog to binge and catch up on everything I've missed. I loved this post - your writing is so great!

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  27. I've been reading your blog for years and pretty much never comment (I think I only have commented like one other time), but I really wanted to comment on this one. You are shining a light on something that so many people suffer from, but not many people have your talent with words to explain it in such a good way. So many of us hide from our problems, by keeping busy or by deflecting with jokes or by any number of things. And, as one of those people who regularly has panic attacks and cries in the office bathroom, then goes to my desk and makes jokes with coworkers because I feel "safer" being the apparently-cheerful person rather than the sad and anxious one... thank you for making me cry on a random Tuesday. Because it was a good and healthy cry.

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  28. Timely good sir, timely. I realized last night that the soul-crushing stress of my job has become unsustainable. Or has always been unsustainable if I'm honest. First I was pregnant and needed to keep the insurance. Then I just needed to get through school. Then baby 2. Then baby 3. Then there was an accident and back to needing to keep the insurance. Then if we just get through this deadline things will get better. Only it's never getting better, and I walk around pushing myself as hard as I can, working 12 hours a day, and smiling because if I let out one tear I think maybe they'll never stop coming.
    Last night I told my husband I can't handle it anymore.
    Only...we still have to figure out what to do next...

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  29. How can you talk about your time in Palau and not mention Daniel at all? Crazy

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