I don’t remember dialing my sister’s number. It was the Saturday of Ivies, and under whatever influence I was under, I unintentionally came out to her. So when she told me she was coming the next week to talk, I was afraid—I had let my walls down for half a moment and didn’t know what the repercussions would be.

My sister and I don’t talk regularly. We realized we were very different people early on and it’s not unusual for us to go months at a time without speaking to each other. When she arrived in Brunswick that rainy Wednesday afternoon, she said she had known all along and asked for explanations—what other things did I keep locked inside? I felt helpless and exposed, in a way that makes me still cringe. I wasn’t used to the words coming out of my mouth—honest, open and vulnerable. After 20 minutes—the longest conversation we’d had in five years—there was a silent and mutual understanding that the process of opening up had been hard for both of us, and she dropped me off before I realized I had forgotten to tell her how much her visit meant to me. To be honest, I didn’t really know how.

This weekend is Family Weekend and I’m thinking about how my family is 3,000 miles west. This weekend, I’ll see countless pictures of families smiling against a backdrop of autumnal colors. I’ll meet parents and tell them my major, my ambitions, how I found Bowdoin. This weekend will be another quiet reminder that my dad doesn’t even know what my major is and that the last picture my mom took of me on campus was in 2012, on move-in day. This weekend I’ll be thinking about when, and how, the communication broke down.

I was 12 when I first started developing feelings for other boys. I was entering a new school and at the age when being different resulted in being excluded, I masked how I felt with fake female crushes. I was an obedient and good kid—my grandma’s favorite, the young artist of the family—and I didn’t want to cause any unnecessary drama in my devoutly Catholic home, so I chose to keep quiet. I was young, I was confused and I was alone.

I came to terms with who I was by the time I entered high school, a feat that was emotionally and mentally taxing. I believed that unless I was strong, everything would fall apart—happy home would be no more. I understood strength as having tough skin and thought that if I evaded my emotions, they wouldn’t bother me. So in turn, I piled on the extracurriculars and coursework and built an image of myself that was composed and collected. I built walls in an attempt to protect myself (and my family) from the truth—and I shut my family out.

It’s hard for my Bowdoin friends to believe that my parents don’t know I’m gay, and I can see why. Bowdoin was a fresh start, in every cliched sense of the phrase: I was free, for the first time, to openly be whomever I wanted and could write my sexuality in capital letters onto my identity. I could walk around campus confident and proud, and I think my friends will agree that my footsteps are loud and my opinions are even louder. I didn’t have to hide.

I’m always nervous before boarding the transcontinental flight home for breaks. Family get-togethers are nice, until family members begin disparaging same-sex marriage and relentlessly asking what kind of wife I want. In my youth, I shrugged these things off. But recently, my strength has failed me, and their anti-gay sentiments have began seeping through the cracks of my tough exterior. I’ve recently begun feeling guilty and a little lost whenever I see the Out Peers list on a bathroom stall, wondering what my parents would think if they saw my name on there when they come for graduation in May.

It took leaving home for four years to understand the importance of being open with the ones you love. I once thought that the continual act of suppressing emotion after emotion and not talking about how I felt would make me more resilient and stronger, but it made me callous, cold and silent. I didn’t know how to converse with my family anymore because I was always fearful of revealing something and being disowned. There were no thoughtful discussions over meals, no heart-to-hearts for nine years and slowly, the periods of time between check-in phone calls and texts grew.

There will always be things certain families do not discuss—how much junk food you actually eat, what you spend your money on, mistakes you make on the weekends. But my family has been shut out of too many things for too long. They don’t know what I did this summer, where I want to be after college, or that I had my first art show this year. In the nine years I spent hiding myself, I stopped being a member of my family.

There’s still a lot I don’t tell people, and I’m certain everyone on campus has secrets and issues they don’t want to or don’t know how to talk about. But I’m starting by breaking down the walls I built when I was 12 and allowing myself to be vulnerable and open. In doing so, I’ll finally confront the pent-up feelings and take the right steps forward. 

If love inherently comes with acceptance, then I’m grateful that my sister made that visit. I’m grateful that my parents still call to check in every few weeks. And I’m grateful that I’ll have the community I’ve made here when the process of coming out and returning to my family gets difficult.