I can’t remember what it feels like to not be in pain. It’s been years since I’ve had the energy of a healthy person. The litany of physical symptoms that rage war in my body daily are a result of inauthenticity, suppressed identity and the internalized self-hatred and homophobia I was raised to possess.
I was taught to be good, to obey, to submit and to be a role model for others. I was trained to love Jesus, serve others and put myself last. My internal voice — the one that whispers to you in the stillness — was something to be avoided, not trusted. Instead, I was to trust my family, my pastor, my church and those in leadership over me — but never myself. Listening to my self was dangerous and worldly. It was not an act of surrender. So I ignored it, I pushed it down, and I hoped it would go away.
But it didn’t go away. Instead, the gut instinct that I should have relied on gradually got quieter, while the signs that I was ignoring my own guiding light grew louder. In my teens, it took the shape of compromised mental health. I pulled my hair out in clumps trying to cope with anxiety that I felt deep inside but could share with no one. Pulling my hair out made me feel ugly and insecure. Feeling insecure caused me to withdraw even further.
Then came “The Trauma,” and with it, the inability to trust anyone or anything. I only trusted myself — but I was told that my self was bad, that there was something wrong with me, that I needed to be fixed, cured, healed, exorcised. I didn’t understand why, but I did all the things people told me I needed to do: I prayed, I fasted, I confessed to those in authority over me, I read my Bible, I trusted God and had faith.
I did everything I knew to do, wanting so deeply to get better. But brainwashing to suppress my inner voice and my identity led to a spiral of further depression, anxiety and inner turmoil, which led to the cuts and bruises of self-harm, which led to questioning if I should even be alive.
Finally, I discovered the truth about who I was and why I was different: I discovered I was gay. And I realized why everyone kept trying to fix and change and heal me. Being gay was unacceptable and the most egregious form of immorality for people with my evangelical background and Christian upbringing. But even more so because my father had been in a high-powered position at Focus on the Family for more than 30 years.
“Finally, I discovered the truth about who I was and why I was different: I discovered I was gay.”
Eventually, I realized if I didn’t start listening to my own inner voice, I wouldn’t have a life or a voice left to listen to. At the age of 27, I came out to my family, risking everything and in turn, losing everything. My family told me they felt like I had died. They compared being gay to being a murderer or a pedophile. They took away my keys to the house, and nothing ever was the same again. Almost everyone I ever knew vanished from my life — my family, my relatives, my friends, my church — gone.
Grief. Loss. Trauma. PTSD. These were the gifts my upbringing gave me as a result of being authentic. What I didn’t know is that being authentic would give me the gifts of freedom, self-love, confidence and the ability to finally feel alive for the very first time.
But when it came to my health, they were gifts that came too late. After coming out, I began developing symptoms — signs of the years of secrecy I’d harbored — manifesting in my physical body. Extreme pain that left me bed-ridden, fatigue that made lifting a spoon feel too overwhelming, migrating muscular pain, extreme weakness, air hunger and excessive infections and illnesses. My life shifted and changed in drastic ways as my body steadily declined. It took seven years of suffering and searching to receive the diagnosis that I have a complex, multi-systemic chronic illness, often brought on by extreme trauma, for which there is no cure.
“Years of forced secrecy has led to a body revolting against shame and inauthenticity.”
This diagnosis has robbed me of so much more than my health. It’s robbed me of my social life, my productivity, my sense of adventure, my ability to have children of my own, and so much more. All because I was taught to suppress my identity, was schooled in the torture of self-hatred and was made to believe that being gay deserved eternal damnation. Years of forced secrecy has led to a body revolting against shame and inauthenticity. We weren’t meant to hide our truest selves. We never should be trained to despise who we are or silence our inner voice.
Auto-immune diseases and chronic illness disproportionately affect the LGBTQ population for this very reason. If someone had taught me in my youth that diversity was to be celebrated and that everyone was equal, regardless of how they identify or who they love, my story could have been so very different. Yes, I found my way to authenticity and freedom, but because it took me so long, that freedom came a little too late.
I am and will continue to do everything I can to heal my body and the trauma it holds. But my story and the story of so many others are a prime example of why loving yourself and embracing who you are (and teaching these lessons to our children young) is so vitally important. You never know when the secrets you harbor will suddenly become too much for your body to bear.
It’s not worth it. Don’t wait.
Embrace yourself now. Love yourself now. Celebrate your love now.
You deserve to be free and to feel alive. And I promise you, regardless of what other people say, it is exactly how God intended it from the very start.
Amber Cantorna grew up in the deeply conservative evangelical culture of Focus on the Family and now lives with her wife in Denver, where she advocates for equality everywhere. She is a national speaker, the author of Refocusing My Family and Unashamed: A Coming Out Guide for LGBTQ Christians, and host of the Unashamed Book Club. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and learn more about her work at AmberCantorna.com.
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