Feeling alone and believing that life was against me led me into one bad relationship after another. After a big breakup I found myself in a place where I had had enough. I was desperate. I was at my bottom. I remember sitting on a huge boulder at Horsetooth Reservoir near my home in Fort Collins, Colorado, after my heart had been broken, again.
With tears streaming down my face, a deep yearning for the life I wanted rose from my core, to my chest, and came out of my mouth as I looked up at the sky and screamed to the Universe, “I just want to be loved the way that I love.”
My vulnerability shook me. I looked around to see if anyone had heard me. I had never asked for what I wanted.
I met Clare two weeks later. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t alone. Not because I met her, but because I was heard. I was being held by something bigger than myself. I felt safe again. And that’s when my healing began. My first book was published later that year, and with Clare’s encouragement, I dove into my writing and speaking career. Things were moving in the direction that I wanted, but there was still something missing for me.
I was standing in front of my friend’s kitchen window in 2010 in Colorado when I suddenly had a vision of moving back to Mississippi. My hands were under the hot water, washing dishes, as I became nauseous with fear. I wanted to throw up. After being gone for so long, was I really being guided to go back? I was terrified. It was one of those moments in life that you can’t brush off because it’s a calling forth. There was a path being laid out for me. The end of the path was vibrant even though the way was unclear. Something bigger than me knew it was time for me to fully step into my own healing. I had to go back home if I truly wanted to love myself because a deep yearning for acceptance doesn’t come from others.
Clare moved back to Mississippi with me at the end of 2010. We had $100 to our name. It was a tumultuous beginning. It was so hard to be open about who I was. In Colorado, I had been able to be free and open because there were no pre-conceived notions about who I had been. Moving back to Mississippi highlighted my insecurities, and they were apparent with every interaction I had with people I had known before leaving in 2005. I made so many mistakes along the way. I lied about who I was to avoid discomfort, and I judged others for not supporting me the way I thought they should. To go from blaming the world around me to looking at myself was a transformation that needed time to sink in. I had no idea that the journey ahead would feel like slow motion, and be so tough, and still lead me to embracing wholeness.
Anyone who ever feels like an outsider and wants to create more acceptance and unity in the world understands this dilemma: You feel fueled by a fire within to make a difference but changing others is impossible work. So you get burned out. You feel hopeless. You feel powerless. At some point you realize that the outward work has to become inward if you are going to retain any joy at all.
So the question becomes, how do you make an impact and stand up for a cause without feeling like you need to change who other people are?
I started by sharing my story. Storytelling became my companion.
Since being back in Mississippi, I’ve told my coming out story and shared my personal struggles over and over throughout the years on my blog, on the news, on Mississippi Public Radio, on stages and in classrooms at Mississippi State, in one-on-one conversations behind closed doors, in the grocery store, and on Facebook messenger. It has never been my intention to change people’s minds in regards to their beliefs about if being gay is right or wrong. I know what it feels like for people to try and change who they are, and it hurts. I wanted to find a way to love myself, and sharing my story fulfilled a need to unburden my heart and gave me an opportunity to connect with others in powerful ways. I wanted to understand and I wanted to be understood. In order to get both, I had to be vulnerable and willing to receive love.
In order to thrive in our lives, we need authentic connection. But someone has to take the first step. Many steps later and life started unfolding into the beautiful rendition of the vision I had when I first felt called to come back to Mississippi.
Clare and I got married in 2014 and we had our daughter, Merit, in 2018.
Retrospectively, I see clearly that sharing my stories in a vulnerable way is not only what has given me a feeling of wholeness in my life now, but it has also shown me the value that vulnerable storytelling plays in building bridges and creating connection. Ultimately, I have found that connection and understanding provides a foundation for change to prevail - as it opens doors to a kind of cooperation that doesn’t involve changing other people’s beliefs. By seeking acceptance within ourselves, by being open and vulnerable, Clare and I have indirectly received acceptance in a community that I never thought would embrace me again.
It hasn’t been an easy path – healing never is - it has been forged through vulnerability, hard conversations, a lot of tears, a willingness to be seen, and an active conscious effort to meet people where they are.
When I first found out I was pregnant with Merit in March of 2018, I was asked to stand in front of Starkville’s city council and speak to represent the LGBTQ+ community. A few college students applied for a parade permit to have our first Pride parade, but the permit had been voted down initially. When I was asked to address the city council requesting that our permit be voted through, I thought long and hard about how to approach my ten minutes of speaking so that it felt inclusive. Vulnerable storytelling was the only way. Sharing my heart and my experiences was the only thing that made sense.
Storytelling is an important tool to gain understanding and create change. The Harvard Business Review explains the power of storytelling on our brains: “As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing our sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation.“ The author of this article also says, “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains.”
We got the parade permit. We marched. And the community enveloped us. It was the warm hug I needed to let go of the past and move into the life I had always wanted.
As I walk forward in my day-to-day life now, a sense of wholeness has become a part of who I am. It doesn’t mean that life isn’t hard sometimes. Life gets hard. In the last few years, a dear friend died by suicide, Clare’s father died, Clare almost died twice, we’ve lost money in bad business deals, COVID changed the patterns of our life, Clare’s mom moved in with us, we sold a business, we moved houses, and we have had significant changes in relationships close to us.
Vulnerable storytelling continues to give to me. When I share what I am going through, it allows me to move on, let people in, and create meaning and purpose through everything that happens.
From the time I cried out to the Universe until now, the only thing I know for sure is this: The Universe holds all of my hopes and dreams gracefully in its hands, all while leaving it to me to trust and receive. Sharing my story over the years in Mississippi has been the driving factor behind this ever-evolving journey towards feeling whole and less alone. There have been heartbreak and loss, fear and courage, disappointment and tough lessons learned; all leading to me telling my story, this story...my attempt to trying to understand why things have happened the way they have and why I believe that I am held and free.