06/13/2013 05:40 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

You Can Handle the Truth

Remember when Lucy lost that bet and had to tell the truth for a day? She told Ethel her true hair color was mousy brown, her real age was 33 and admitted she'd described Carolyn Appleby's new furniture as a nightmare you had after eating Chinese food. She started to enjoy telling the truth so much that her friends couldn't wait for her to start lying again.

I used to lie. I used to lie a lot. One could even say I lied professionally. (No I was not a lobbyist.)

I grew up in a very wholesome family in the 60s and 70s, but discovered soon enough that adults lied all the time. They lied about previous marriages and out-of-wedlock children, about infidelity and money. When I realized members of my own sex excited me sexually, I knew instinctively to lie about it. By the time I reached my teenage years, this became an understanding that to tell the truth about a fundamental part of myself represented a loss of power.

Once I came out I realized how hard it was to have all the sexual partners in New York City that I wanted to have and still have a boyfriend. So I would lie to the tricks about having a lover or to the lover about having tricks. Increasing consumption of alcohol and drugs just made the lying easier, and then of course I lied about how much I got high. I said stupid things like "I work hard and play hard," or "I'm a weekend warrior, " even though waking up every day with a hangover is plain and simple alcoholism.

AIDS happened and there was a whole new level of lying to get skilled at. You had a tight circle of friends who knew everything, and then the wider world with whom you had to be very careful. You could face job loss, or freak out your family. In mine, the worst eventually occurred. My brother, who was also gay, died of AIDS, and my parents and siblings prepared for me to be next. I had no intention of living out the rest of my days on a budget, so I took my brother's credit cards and neglected to tell the banks that issued them that he was dead. Then I discovered crystal meth and couldn't think of any reason not to enjoy it. The complicated web of deceit that followed lasted for ten years and ended in prison. (Part I of A Liar Out of Me has just been published. Part II is on its way.)

In the midst of the NSA eavesdropping revelations, I've been thinking a lot about why exactly we don't want to be overheard. Few of us are planning any criminal act, much less terrorism. In the age of the Internet, we are more likely to seek publicity than shun it. Is it really the loss of privacy we fear, or something else? Could it be that wiretapping represents something far more implicating -- the silent witnessing to all the lies we tell?

I started my first honest day in decades in front of the judge. I was guilty all right. Then, in prison, I never claimed innocence, like so many other inmates. When I got out, I started with "My name is Mark, and I am an alcoholic and addict." Since then, I am literally amazed at how rarely I ever feel the need to lie.

I have a fantasy of a national day of utter truth-telling. I'd love to hear a birther admit his real problem with Obama is skin color, or Eric Cantor to cop to what a brown-nosing sycophant he is. I would like to see every man attracted to another man admit it en masse, and I want every HIV+ person to say so before they have sex. I want gun-enthusiasts to acknowledge they find non-violence evidence of weakness and not strength, and I think every woman virulently opposed to abortion should admit she had moments where she considered the option herself. (My certainty about how others are lying to themselves is obviously colored by my own bias and ideology, of course. I would bet many a Southern Baptist is quite positive I am secretly sure I am a sinner who will burn in hell.)

Putting politics aside, there are many millions out there who yearn to tell more truth than they do because they are so afraid of being judged for it. They want out of bad marriages, or into good ones; they want to reject the tyranny of shame, of victimhood, of being as sick as your secrets. Rather than send anonymous postcards to websites they ache to say out loud: "This is what happened, this is what I feel bad about, this is what I want."

"The truth hurts" goes the saying; and another is; "the truth will set you free." Unfortunately, the fear of one often stops people from experiencing the liberation of the other. But as painful as it is sometimes, it is definitely worth it. Take it from someone who knows.