The stories we tell are the words we use to describe the world. Every now and then, a story finds a way of putting something into words that although it hasn’t been heard before, it feels as right as if it’s the only way to refer to it. Like the “cone of shame” in Disney/Pixar’s Up. Or “holding your breath” in the recently released romantic comedy film Love, Simon.
This is a mild spoiler, but after Simon comes out to his parents, his mother tells him that she knew he had a secret. “These last few years, more and more, it’s almost like I can feel you holding your breath,” she says. “You get to exhale now, Simon. You get to be more you than you have been in a very long time.”
It hit me then that I, too, have held my breath. I’ve done it over and over again.
Simon isn’t ashamed of being gay. He’s worried about how things may change when other people know that he’s gay, how they might act differently towards him. He’s worried about him and the people he loves getting hurt.
Like Simon, I’m not ashamed of my “minority” identities. I’m not ashamed to be Jewish, or asexual, or anosmic. But every time I meet a new person, no matter how perfectly nice and friendly they are, I worry about how they will react when one part of me or another comes up. I worry about the results of this time I come out.
It’s a completely rational worry. Anti-semites, acephobes, and ableists can be perfectly nice, friendly people.
This worry is exactly like holding your breath because you don’t know whether there will be air or water to greet your lungs when you exhale.
Eventually, though, you must exhale, and something will flow into your lungs.
It could be hatred. It could be glares, or spit, or slurs carved into my cafeteria table. It could be shouting or getting beat up or being murdered or driven from my home. There is no exaggeration here.
It could be doubt. I say I don’t experience sexual attraction, or that I don’t have a sense of smell, and I am questioned on it. “Is that really a thing?” “I don’t think that’s a thing.” “Don’t be silly, of course you do!” “How does that even WORK?” The implications that I am lying, the assertions that someone else knows my lived experience better than I do, the demands that I justify my existence – they cut deep.
It could be isolation. Some people, a lot of people, just don’t feel comfortable interacting with people who are unlike them. A lot of new acquaintances have taken their potential friendship away from me because of my differences, and it hurts in a different but no less poignant way than outright hatred or doubt.
These things are unbreathable as water. They hurt like water hurts your lungs.
On the other hand, when you exhale, it could be air that flows in.
It could be acceptance. Some people see the world as more beautiful when there are differences in it, and approach those differences with joy, respect, and genuine curiosity. Those are good people, who make it safe to exhale.
It could be understanding. I was in college when I told someone I didn’t have a sense of smell, and she replied, “Oh, are you anosmic?” I almost cried, because for once, there was no doubt, and there was no demand that I defend or explain myself. She already knew.
It could be kinship. “Oh cool, me too!” is music to my ears.
I don’t know, when I’m in one of these “holding my breath” situations, what the outcome will be. All I know is that it will happen again and again for my entire life. Coming out is not a one-and-done deal; it is a repeated life process, and it never really ends. We never stop breathing, either.
But, if you keep breathing, it’s possible to cough out the water and get to the air.