Love Note For Prodigals: When You Break a Cycle, You Set Generations Free
Originally posted 3/27/2018 on my former blog, Max Goes Godless.
Author’s note: This is a republishing of a post from the “Love Notes to Prodigals” series on my original blog Max Goes Godless. It has been edited to include my current journey.
For all the joy and peace and adventure and freedom I’ve found out in building a new life beyond from the only community I once knew — it’s still tough sh*t sometimes.
Sometimes I wish there was some kind of field guide to building life on your own. Like, where’s the WikiHow for prodigals!? But then I think, the only one we’ll have is the one we write.
So I’m starting a series! On the hard nights, I write myself letters. To remind myself of how far I’ve come. To clock the loss and name it. To catch my doubts and soothe them. And I’m rewriting these letters for anyone else who has faced family judgment, tension, or rejection for living authentically. This is for my cult survivors, recovering fundamentalists, queer black sheep, abuse survivors, life chasers, and trailblazers.
I’m calling this series Love Notes for Prodigals. It’s for you. It’s for us.
This is the one for anyone who’s broken a cycle in their family.
Shame, abuse, stigma, and indoctrination do not have to be our inheritance.
At the ripe old age of 11, I stood on tiptoe behind my church’s pulpit and shared my testimony with my entire congregation, hands shaking as I read off the printed paper. This was the story, 11 years running, of how I felt God had saved and changed me, and why I wanted to get baptized, like everyone in my church did when they came of age. But as I stepped up to join this tradition, I also shared something that broke it: I was struggling with depression.
I didn’t realize how ground-shaking this was until my aunties came up to me in the hallway afterward, one by one, and said things like, “Thank you for saying that.” “I’ve been depressed for years and it’s been so hard.” “No one talks about depression here and I’m glad you said something.” Decades of silence, and I had broken it without even realizing it was there.
In a Chinese American Baptist church that believed Jesus is the only Wonderful Counselor we need — and in a family so ashamed of mental illness that I didn’t know my mom had an institutionalized second sister until I was helping my newfound cousin zip up her wedding dress — interrupting this norm was like injecting fresh air into a cramped closet.
But breaking cycles of silence in a family or community isn’t often received well. And this, my dear one, might be something you know well.
Every time we break a generational cycle, an ancestor sighs in relief and a future descendant gets a little more free.
It’s lonely to be the only one in your family breaking a tradition — whether you’re leaving a cult, daring to explore beyond your faith’s borders, being honest about your sexuality or gender, or speaking openly about your mental illness.
Our families can react explosively when we break norms our elders passed on for generations. It sends a ripple down the line of time. And sometimes, a lot of the time, we can get saddled with the blame for the conflict, the tension, the uncomfortable-ness that comes rushing up.
“Why are you doing this to us?”
That’s what my mom asked me over the phone, just a few minutes after I came out to her.
The night I blurted out to my parents, “I’m bisexual and I don’t believe in Christianity anymore,” I broke their hearts. As Chinese Americans who see duty and obedience as expressions of honor and love, my parents saw this as a declaration of disrespect.
The words continued to flood out from my mom that night in confusion and pain, and two years later, they continue. “You’re destroying the family.” “You’re tearing us apart.” “Don’t you think of anyone other than yourself?” And there is one fear-fueled accusation swirling at the center of them all:
Is that something you’ve heard too?
Selfish for causing controversy. Selfish for hurting someone’s reputation. Selfish for stepping out. Selfish for leaving behind.
When I came out, it WAS about me. I came out because, after years of grieving the knowledge that the people I’d grown up with wouldn’t accept me if they knew one little fact about me, I couldn’t take a day more of hiding. I came out because I knew I deserved a life of joyful openness, and I wanted it more than anything.
For a long time, I did buy into the idea that I was being selfish. I felt ashamed. It took me a year to realize that the shame I felt for being queer and open about it — it wasn’t my own. It was passed down to me.
We don’t just inherit secret recipes and the family china; shame, abuse, stigma, indoctrination, and silence are all generational too. Sometimes shame is just a relic of past generations that we never put down. But we don’t have to take it with us. And we don’t have to pass it on.
And when I realized that that shame wasn’t about me, I realized that my pride wasn’t just about me, either. See…
You are not shaming your family by telling the truth, by leaving a group, by exploring your beliefs, or by living as you are.
You are honoring future generations. You are showing your ancestors a new way. You are redefining your family’s “possible.”
Sometimes I wonder: how many of my ancestors were queer? How many were spirited women prevented from being independent, strong or smart? How many doubted their culture’s beliefs? I think every time I break a cycle, at least one of my ancestors sighs in relief. I believe that’s true for you too.
May I honor them by finding the freedom they may not have been able to. By speaking my mind the way they all deserved to. By breaking cycles of abuse and shame they may have lived and died under. And if they too stepped outside the lines, hell: I’m just carrying on the tradition.
And when my twin’s children and my cousins’ children and my friends’ children are born, how many of them will be queer? How many will be women? How many of your next generation, too?
As for me: Let no future child in this family ever be told that being queer is disgusting; let no future child learn to “die to self” from a holy book; let no future girl be trained to be pretty and submissive. Let us be enough. Let us be all we are. Let us be free.
When you break one tradition, you create room to build a better one.
Shame is generational. So is the courage to tell the truth.
Homophobia is generational. So is pride and self-love.
Stigma is generational. So is education and the value of curiosity.
You get to build your own inheritance now. As for me? I hope that that my future generations’ homes will be safer because I told the truth, challenged abuse, and let shame go. And they will always have a home with me.
Let my future family know: Max Tang, born Daniella Grace, kissed girls and disbelieved. She told the truth. She left her parents’ house. And she lived. And she was okay. And my God, she was happy.
Maybe you’re the only person in your family breaking that cycle: living openly, speaking up, stepping out.
But by being the only person now, one day… you’ll just be the first.
Love from my whole soul to the onlys and the firsts.