A little over four years ago I went through the biggest transformation of my life. It happened fast, yet was a long time in the making. Difficult and complex. And as simple as an exhale once I allowed it to happen.

There were two layers to this massive, forever change in me. Like a metaphor. In metaphor there is the happening—the thing—and there is also the less apparent, bigger something beyond. The happening represents this something and metaphor holds both. Four years ago the layers of my metaphor were this:

  1. I was in a heteronormative marriage that did not speak the truth of me, and it was time for me to come out as a queer woman.
  2. I was expanding into a self I had never known.

The first layer is much easier to understand, even if it is ridiculously hard to live. It was a concrete happening I could explain to the people in my life. Yes, this 10 year relationship with my husband was over. And yes, it was over because I wanted to be with a woman. There were moving trucks and bank account divisions to prove this layer. Documents to be filed. A household being halved.

Let’s rewind a little. Seventeen years prior to our divorce, I’d had a relationship with a woman. I was in my late teens. As with much self-discovery at that age, the relationship with her had been complicated by many factors, not the least of which is youth.

How do you know what you feel at that age, anyway? I was living away from home from the first time. I had agency of self for the first time. A new place, a city (San Francisco) that supported whomever I wanted to be. It was the last year before the terrifying turn of the millennium. Everyone yawping about Y2K and what was to come. We didn’t know! The internet had exploded. What did it mean! Who was I—someone who could hardly boil an egg—to know how I really felt?

But I did know, though it would be many more years before that knowing would take.

That relationship with a woman when I was nineteen ended in abuse, betrayal, pain. It would be the most painful event of my life. I held it inside me as a nightmare for so long, and I thought it meant something about the me I was then. About what I then saw as my choice to be gay.

Metaphor works in all kinds of ways, as it turns out. I made the violence and fear in that relationship into a metaphor as old as dogmatic structures themselves. Do not listen to the good feelings in your body or your heart rang the metaphor. They are wrong. They will lead you to this pain.

So I bottled it up. The pain in that relationship provided a kind of cork for the very real and full experience that was the opening of my body, my sexuality. My self. The early days with that first girlfriend before the abuse and the trauma and fear was an experience so endemic to me that the word “natural” only begins to approach it. Being with a woman wasn’t just natural for me. It was me. And it was also deeply unsafe.

It is understandable that I sublimated myself to the heteronormative life for so long. I had a four year relationship with a man after that time in San Francisco, and then shortly after that I met my ex-husband. I became an expert at pushing what I had been into the past, refusing to take it with me. Demanding obedience of myself where before I had let it all run dangerously awry.

So seventeen years later when I at last listened to my numb, sexless body at the age of 36. When I at last allowed the possibility of a me that wasn’t 100% heteronormative into my 100% heteronormative contructs. When I released everything I had tried so hard to build—houses together and attempted pregnancies and deep kinship with a man I still call my dear friend. When I let it dissolve into something bigger… into the other side of the metaphor I call expansion… well, then I could start to entertain the idea of being free.

The freedom means not knowing. When my ex-husband and I split, I didn’t know if I would ever meet a woman I wanted to date. If I would ever love anyone the way I had loved him. Or if maybe I could love anyone differently, the way I secretly longed to. What if I couldn’t do it? I had no woman in mind when we split, no crushes. All I had was a knowing and the irrevocable process of expansion happening in me whether I liked it or not.

If transformation and expansion are hard, freedom is even harder. It is easier to be guided by the forces we know, even if we do not fully trust them. Maybe this is the mammal in us, the pack animal. Stay secure in what you know. Do not dare too far from the fold.

But a truth we all know is that once we have seen, we cannot unsee. We cannot go back. The freedom in a wide, unknown future is that it hasn’t been written. There are no prescriptions yet unless we take them with us. And it belongs to us, to each of us, this untethered possibility.

If the happenings in life are hard right now, know that the freedom afterward will be harder still. There will be uncertainty every day. Life without a plan. There will be missteps and great, soaring leaps. The toppling of false prophets and the steady forever that is the heart, leading. I choose to believe there will also still be an us. Still here and still feeling our way into free.