Fear and Authenticity
I should warn you that this is going to be a very long post. That’s because today, my Reflections are going to be deeply personal. I may ramble a bit. I may even not make sense at times, but my intent with this post is to claim a fear that has dominated my life. There are some in my chosen family who know part of the story I’m about to tell. For the rest, there may be surprise, disappointment, and perhaps even a little resentment or judgment. To those who may feel that way, I sincerely apologize.
While I do not ask for your forgiveness, my hope that is that you will find that forgiveness within your heart. I leave that choice to you. For me, I move forward having released the fears that have kept me from being the authentic, genuine, REAL me I’ve always wanted to be.
The fear I speak of was a fear of being judged for who I am. While I was raised in a loving home and always told not to care about what others thought, that lesson was overshadowed by a conflicting message: Never do anything that will reflect negatively on my religion. I was always confused by those two messages. If I’m not supposed to care about what others think of me, why should I care about what others think of my religion? I could never resolve that conflict, so I opted for the “safe” choice and I took on the belief that everything I did was a reflection of my religion and therefore a reflection of who I was.
At the time it was an easy choice. The fear of how people would judge my religion was a constant drumbeat that drowned out the occasional reminder from my mom that I shouldn’t care about what others thought. My religion was a lifestyle, so every week at church I was reminded that “the outside world stood in judgment of us,” and that even if I ordered a cup of hot chocolate at a restaurant, it would reflect poorly on me and my religion because hot chocolate was served in coffee cups and people would think I was drinking coffee. Coffee was a MAJOR no-no in my church.
This was the message of my youth: FEAR, FEAR, FEAR! Fear God! Fear the world! Fear the devil! Fear anyone who caused me to doubt what I was taught at church! Fear any idea or any book that asked questions my religion perceived to be critical, because those questions came from the devil, and the people who dared to ask those questions were servants of Satan! Fear anyone within the church who asked sincere questions hoping to resolve inconsistencies they saw in church doctrine! Those were the people without faith, the apostates who criticized church leaders! Stay away from those people, because they could lead you away from the straight and narrow path!
Imagine what that environment was like for me, someone who has always been a people pleaser. I spent most of my life going to GREAT lengths to keep the people around me happy, to the point where I was the proverbial “doormat.” So of course I was going to adopt those fears. Heaven forbid that I should do something that would reflect poorly on my church or my family. I saw the scandal and shame that other families went through if a child did something that was against church teachings. Ecclesiastical leaders and family members would do everything to keep the “sin” a secret, but if word got out, oh! The shame!
Members of the congregation would speak in hushed voices among each other (never in front of the family experiencing the scandal), and while they expressed their pity and sadness at what the family was going through, the conversations were also tinged with a hint of gossip. Some of the bolder members of the congregation would express their support and condolences directly to the family, always stating that they would pray for the wayward child’s safe return to the arms of the church.
That was my environment as a child. Add to the mix a full awareness from an early age that I chose this life so I could help others be happy, and the result seemed almost inevitable. I feared everything – most especially disappointing my family.
I lived with so much fear I made certain decisions at critical times in my life so I could survive. Those decisions exacerbated the depression I already lived with, and they led to me living a less-than-authentic life. Do I regret my choices? No, because they led me to where I am now. The choices I made have given me the courage to share this story with you today… and, in an ironic twist of fate, the fear I lived with kept me alive. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I wanted to take my life, but the fear of being cut off from God kept me from following through on those thoughts. I wouldn’t be sharing this story with you today if it weren’t for that fear.
I feel wonder at the words I write now. Fear helped me to survive. Fear kept me alive. Fear taught me the valuable lessons that I now use to help others release their own fears. Fear taught me to release my own doubts, and I can now show others how to release theirs. As I write this, I feel nothing but gratitude for what I’ve been through.
For most readers – especially those who know me, none of this sounds too earth-shattering. But this is where the decisions I made come into play:
When I was 20, I decided to undergo what at the time was called “reparative therapy.” Today the process is known as “conversion therapy.” If you’ve never hear of conversion therapy, it is a “treatment” given by many religious organizations to young men and women who identify as gay. Because the religions who practice conversion therapy have a sincerely held belief that being gay is somehow evil, wrong, or unnatural, they have developed a process they claim “converts” the sexual identity of those who go through it.
In the religion of my youth, the belief was that the only thing worse than being gay was being a murderer, so the stress my mom went through when I came out was horrible. The only thing worse than her stress was my own stress for causing her stress. I believed that because I was attracted to other men I would somehow be cast into the depths of hell and be cut off from my family for all eternity. When I was presented with the chance to change my sexual orientation, why wouldn’t I jump at it? I wanted to please God, after all, so if the “therapy” was ordained by God, of course I would go through it!
The “reparative” process never worked. For every person who claims that conversion therapy works, I can give you twenty examples of people for whom it didn’t work – including some who are no longer with us. Oh, sure, at the time I went through it I devoted myself 110% to the therapy and I even became a leader in the movement. I was one of the poster boys of how one could pray the gay away, but the truth was that I remained attracted to men, and rather than learning to love myself, I hated myself a bit more with each passing day.
Those feelings of self-loathing and despair influenced another life-changing decision, which was my decision to move as far away from my family and church as I could. I wound up in Florida. The years I spent there were some of the happiest of my life, because I felt like I could finally be myself and love who I wanted to love without anyone knowing. Unfortunately, I was deceiving myself. Even being an entire continent away from my family, I wanted them to keep thinking that the gay was prayed away. I was open with my friends in Florida, but I hid from my family.
When I moved near Fort Lauderdale, I met the man with whom I still share my life. More than 13 years later our relationship is stronger than it’s ever been, but 11 years ago I made a decision that has had repercussions on our lives to this day. Since there are other people whose lives remain impacted by that decision, I cannot go into detail here, but what I can say is that seven years ago I had to temporarily go back into the closet in order to protect those whom I love.
The irony was that my immediate family had finally accepted the reality of my relationship with my partner (even though we never openly discussed it), but… because of a choice I made, I had to go into hiding at work. I was at a point where I wanted to be fully authentic with everyone, and yet I had to continue living a double life. I moved as far as I could toward authenticity by playing the role of the very open-minded straight guy who had no problem going to a gay bar with his gay friends, but that was still a lie.
I left that job and emerged from hiding, but I remained disingenuous with people for whom I deeply cared and respected. To them, I offer my heartfelt apologies. Know that the deception ends today. I also apologize to any friends or extended family who feel that the words I used to describe the environment in which I grew up as being critical of beliefs they continue to cherish and hold sacred. Nothing could be further from the truth. I hold neither anger nor animosity toward any person or institution. I merely gave voice to the messages I heard and processed. I continue to rejoice with the faith and testimony that brings anyone to a place of genuine peace and happiness.
My path is mine and mine alone. I now have a relationship with the Divine that brings me unimaginable joy and peace. I’m also happy to say that the fears of repercussions from a decision made 11 years ago no longer haunt me. I step through that fear now, and I fully claim the authentic life I deserve to live. While I feel sorrow for the deceptions I had to maintain because of choices I’ve made, I no longer live in fear. I take responsibility for my decisions and I move forward, living fully in the NOW.
Today I live in love. Today and every day, I live as the authentic me that I am.
About the Author
Appio Hunter is an author, speaker, spiritual guide, and self-described champion for living joyously. He uses his seminars and workshops to facilitate conversations about authenticity, alignment, and the daily experience of community, connection, and joy. Appio is also a weekly columnist with The Good Men Project and co-host of the Real Men Feel Show along with his good friend Andy Grant.