Adult Puberty

There has been an interesting and unexpected component to coming out of the closet later in life… a delayed adolescent development that I couldn’t have predicted.

The early days after coming out, I had a frantic need to connect with other humans, to be accepted and validated by my peers, and to feel attractive and desired. I wanted to call in sick to work so that I could go camping with the cool guys, I wanted to stay out until 2 in the morning dancing in the clubs, I wanted to learn how to drink, I wanted to fit in. These needs for connection at times over-powered my rationale and responsibilities.

And it wasn’t just the need for connection, I had to learn how to be lonely, how to experience rejection, how to fall in love, how to express interest, and how to tell someone I wasn’t interested. It was an exhausting process, one I still feel that I’m navigating sometimes.

I felt like a 13 year old the exact moment I finally came out of the closet. It came with a shared kiss. I was 32 years old, and I had been drawn toward a man I met at a conference. We had talked for hours and I had been crushing hard on him. When we finally kissed, in many ways it was my first kiss, and it had instantly felt right on every level. I remember thinking as our lips parted, ‘Oh my word, that was electric. So this is what people have been talking about my whole life. This is what is is supposed to feel like.’

And so I started the adolescent development I had missed out on during my actual adolescence. While other kids had their first kisses and temptations, while they fell in and out of love and learned what it meant to be attracted, I learned to hide. In fact, I perfected the art of hiding, both within and without of myself.

CrackingEgg

My first few years out of the closet, navigating raising two children while maintaining a full time job, I made all kinds of mistakes. I got too drunk once and had to crash at a friend’s house after throwing up. I danced with the wrong person in a gay club and had my wallet stolen. I fell in love with the wrong person and hoped over and over that it would all turn out okay if I just loved him enough. I openly rejected someone really wonderful because at the time I didn’t think they were cool enough. I was a college professor, a therapist, and a father who was going through the growing pains of someone in sixth grade. And it was exhausting.

Fast forward a few years. I met this guy at an event. He was crazy handsome and brand new out of the closet. He was still going to Church and still deciding if he was gay. He hadn’t been to a gay club before, he’d never tried alcohol, and he’d never kissed a man. And despite myself, I fell head over heels for him for a time, though there were plenty of red flags along the way. I was his first date, I was his first kiss, and I figured maybe things would turn out a bit differently this time.

It only took a few months. We had endless discussions about coming out, navigating faith and family through the process, and trying out new experiences in small doses, but ultimately he needed to run off and have his own adolescence. He needed to break some hearts, have his heart broken, get drunk and pass out for the first time, and have his pocket picked. We all have to have those experiences.

As a therapist, I see this trend over and over in the gay community. I see the guy who is out for a while fall in love with the guy who is newly out. One is ready to settle down, the other is emotionally volatile and needs the opportunity to explore and gain his sea legs, if you will. It’s a painful process for both parties, who love each other quite a bit and yet who don’t seem to have their timing quite right, and both generally end up hurt.

I see the same trend repeat itself for those just leaving the Mormon Church, or even for those just finding their way out of polygamist families and communities; for those who married too young and are now finding freedom; and for those who make it out on their own for the first time.

Adolescence, in all of its messy, painful, jagged-edged processes, is something that has to be experienced. It can be tempered, contained, waylaid, or even delayed, but it is crucial for long-term happiness and survival.

And so, to all of the people out there just finding themselves, be prepared to make mistakes and to stumble along the way. And to those of you falling in love with those newly out, be prepared for the same.

Healthy adulthood doesn’t happen without healthy adolescence first.

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the Hand-holding Experiment

hands

Having a boyfriend is a new thing for me. After years of exhausting first and second dates, I’ve had someone showing up consistently for a while now, and it’s been going really well. We’ve been doing things as a couple recently, going to parties or events, having friends over, making dinner and watching a film in the evenings, and it’s been kind of nice.

Recently, a few of the big moments have been navigated: I met his family (and his 91 year old grandmother asked me how long I’ve been gay), he made dinner for me and my children (and my 8 year old made himself throw up rather than having to eat the dreaded homemade pizza), I played the boyfriend at his birthday party, and he played the boyfriend at my public reading event. It’s been a positive and consistent change, nice to have someone around, someone that is handsome and amazing and who thinks I’m handsome and amazing, too.

On Sunday afternoon, the boyfriend and I went for a walk in my new neighborhood. The last few years, I’ve been living in the more urban areas of Salt Lake City, in decent apartments with ample space but in somewhat unsafe areas. My last apartment, the one I just moved out of, had had several problems over the last several months, including (but not limited to): a homeless couple dry-humping on my front porch, neighbors who had their dogs use my short patch of green lawn as their personal toilet, 4 am truck noisy deliveries at the nearby grocery store, a drunk man two doors down who liked yelling at the sky at night, an overflowing dumpster next to my car that was a constant attractant for dumpster divers, and very thin walls shared with very loud neighbors.

Now I find myself in the more rural rich part of Salt Lake City, up in the hills where the homes are several thousand square feet, the yards are large, and the fences are high. I’m renting the big beautiful basement of a big beautiful house and its well-lit and quiet and spacious and perfect, complete with a fenced yard and a hot tub. I’m still adapting to the new space, still unpacking boxes, but it has been a wonderful adaptation.

As the boyfriend and I walked, we passed beautiful homes. The house across the street from me is some sort of polygamist home (no, really), where there are several women with several children living with one man; the children are home-schooled but they play in the yard in their Amish-looking clothing, the girls growing their hair long. As we walked, I wondered how many other homes like this housed polygamists. We walked higher into the hills, where the streets bore the names of Greek gods, and saw the homes get nicer and more opulent, and we talked about those who lived within, older couples who had been there for decades and wealthy people who wanted privacy. Some of the homes had unused tennis courts, some had lush green lawns, some had ornate fences eight feet high, some stood as beacons higher in the mountains with long nearly inaccessible driveways leading up to them.

The boyfriend and I usually hold hands while we walk, but I found myself nervous in a neighborhood like this. We were never shy about it in public spaces or in urban areas, but something about this very Caucasian, very dare-I-say wholesome neighborhood found me unwilling to offend their sensibilities. I hadn’t felt nervous like this in some time.

We’ve only been dating a few months, and we have already had a few jarring experiences holding hands. A few weeks ago, while walking to a play (where dozens of other gay people attended), we held hands and a truck drove by loudly blaring its horn in an angry demonstration against us. More recently, while headed to a friend’s house for dinner, we held hands and a man angrily shouted out the window of his car ‘get a room!’, as if we had been grossly publicly displaying our affections.

Other times, others will go out of their way to reach out in kindness, waving enthusiastically at the gay couple or rushing over to talk to us and make us feel welcome. I appreciate the smiles and love of those who want to make us feel welcome, but more than anything I like those who see us and don’t react, just seeing the two of us as regular people who fit in just like they do.

We talked it over as we walked, and I refused to feel like I was hiding any longer, something I did far too long in my early life. I reached out and grabbed his hand. And over the next few minutes, cars drove by and nothing happened, so I relaxed.

We crested the hill and saw the street names turn extra Mormon. The roads bore names like Cumorah (the hill where Joseph Smith claimed to discover the golden plates later turned into the Book of Mormon) and Zarahemla (the capital city of the ancient civilization of the Nephites, the righteous heroes of the Book of Mormon who allegedly lived in ancient America). The homes got bigger, and the traffic got a bit busier. Still we held hands, and still I felt nervous. I had to remind myself that there were gay people living among these homes (just like they do everywhere) and that the people here had gay friends and family members. I grew frustrated with my own nervousness, but still I clutched his hand.

Several people took notice of us with no reaction. A few saw us, looked briefly surprised, and then quickly looked away, pretending they hadn’t noticed in the first place. One group of girls in a car at a stop sign near us began openly giggling when they saw us.

We walked back down the long hill home and returned to my new beautiful apartment and I somehow felt triumphant, like I had crossed a barrier within myself that I hadn’t realized was there.

Then the boyfriend and I went inside and continued pursuing our ‘gay lifestyle’: eating leftover pizza, folding laundry, and scanning Netflix selections undecidedly before going to bed at 10 pm.

the Rock Path

RockPath

I stood on the edge of a world, if not the world itself, and felt the cold Atlantic breeze blow right through me. Gorgeous blue water stretched far ahead and the smell of frozen salt and ocean assaulted my nose.

Far ahead in a long straight line was a rock path. Giant stones with flat surfaces stretched ahead, constructing an unexpected walkway to a sandy island, perhaps a half mile away, and on the island itself were lighthouses. It was still light out and the lighthouses had a single red light on the top that kept turning around, flashing gently on the horizon from time to time.

The path was beautiful. And it simply had to be walked on.

My sister Sheri and I bundled up, she with two hoods pulled over her head from her sweatshirt and jacket, and me with a stocking cap on my head, a pink one that she had in her car leftover from her participation in the women’s march a few months before. I kept my hands in my pockets as we walked, with car keys in one pocket and cell phone in the other.

The hike across the rocks was surprisingly difficult. Well, more like intermediately difficult. Large steps across large gaps, sharp edges to rocks with a steep decline to either side, into the ocean, four to six feet down on either side. But the path was clear, just required some navigating.

As we walked, I was overcome with the beauty of life in all its forms. Gulls and cormorants and ducks above and on the water, carving out little nests in places along the rocks where weeds had been stuffed and arranged to provide warmth; crabs scuttling within and below the rocks, foraging for food; kelp and seaweed along the surface of the water against the rocks, moving with the currents; clams and oysters just below the surface, with fish all around; insects along the surface of the water, spiders building webs to catch them between the rocks; lichen and moss growing along the sides of the damp rocks; bacteria within and without and around. All forms of life preying upon every other, staying alive, mating, providing, foraging, the circles and cycles of life around and around and around. Farther out to sea, whales and dolphins; farther in to land, raccoons and hawks. What a supremely beautiful world.

Sheri and I talked as we walked. We talked about how far we’ve come, about her progress in school, about coffee, about family, about loss, about living for now, about my sons, about where we saw ourselves in the near future. We talked about our history and the state of our world, and all the while the wind buffeted us, unrelenting and furious and persistent.

I stopped in wonder as I saw a bone-white seagull grab an oyster off the side of a low rock. The gull flapped lazily into the air, several yards up, then dropped the oyster to the rocks below, presumably to crack it open. The gull landed to claim his meal, but a grey gull swooped in quickly, stealing the oyster for himself, and the white gull landed, calling out shrill protests too late for his meal was lost.

We continued walking, and several rocks were covered in broken oyster and clam shells that crunched and broken under our feet, and I now realized how they had gotten there; this was a favorite feasting area for the gulls. I heard Sheri give a loud groan as she saw some dismembered crab legs, shells, and claws, and I began to notice them among the discarded shells on the path.

I stepped over puddles of ocean water, stepped over gaps in rocks, and ascended or descended on rocks that were uneven in size, getting ever closer to the lighthouse island ahead. As I listened to Sheri tell a story, I lost my footing briefly and stood quickly with arms out to balance myself. The jostling of my body sent my cell phone cascading out of my pocket and I watched it bounce on one of the rocks ahead of me and then slide slowly, as if in slow motion, between the cracks of two of the rocks and into an inaccessible chasm beneath, one that I couldn’t even fit my arm down.

Swiftly realizing we couldn’t reach the phone, Sheri and I began to turn back, ad I was surprised at how peaceful I felt about the whole thing. That small piece of expensive technology, and how attached we get to it. Photos, text messages, files, Emails, apps, connections to Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook. All of those little pieces of technology would be available in any other space. My life backed up on an iCloud, my log-ins preserved with passwords and usernames that could easily be downloaded into another expensive piece of flat-screened technology.

Somehow, as the ocean stretched out around me and the lighthouses turned and turned with their blinking lights, with an oyster shell crushed underfoot and a gull overhead, and with the sun setting over the sandy shore in the distance and the waves washing in and out, in and out, I felt very small, of little consequence. I felt temporary. Yet that realization warmed my heart, it didn’t sadden me. Temporary is the state of all of us. And to be at peace with that felt wonderful somehow.

And still the rock path stretched both before and beyond me.

Present is Past

I remember watching the presidential debates of 2016 with such fascination. I was brimming over with frustration at outrage at the antics of Donald Trump, the defensive platforms of Hillary Clinton, and the division of the country’s denizens who rose up to support one candidate or another or who chose not to be involved altogether. Then I remember the night of the election, sitting back and seeing Trump elected on a non-majority electoral vote, defying all predictions and polls, and going to bed with an empty spirit and a sinking heart.

I remember the hours leading up to the birth of my oldest son, the sheer drama of slow walks down the hospital hallway as Megan struggled to prepare for labor, navigating the advice from others on how to get the baby to come: try spicy foods, walk with one foot on the curb and the other on the road, sex, jump on the trampoline. And I remember holding him squealing and screaming little form in my hands for the first time and realizing with wonder that my entire world view could now be held in the palms of my hands.

PresentIsPast

I remember taking two full hours on a rainy Thursday afternoon my sophomore year of high school to write out my inner most secrets on lined paper, setting my homework aside for later. I wrote how selfish I was for continuing to notice handsome boys in my high school class when my mind should be on the things of God. I remember committing to God that I would be better, be stronger, and then ripping the paper to shreds so that no one would ever, ever find out.

I remember stepping on to a stage for the first time, finding confidence in front of an audience, abandoning my self-doubts and becoming, for a few blissful moments, into someone else. I remember capturing that essence through song later, and later still on paper, using my own truths to tell a story through words and songs and movements and phrases. I remember belonging there, outside my own skin.

I remember knocking on the doors, delivering the messages of Jesus Christ to the residents of poverty-stricken homes on the streets of Philadelphia, stepping over roaches and abandoned diapers and excrement and shattered glass to tap-tap-tap. I remember clutching the black books of God tightly in my hand with memorized speeches about how they had changed my life and brought me truth, truth that I could bring to them, if they followed the rules, gave up cigarettes, and paid ten per cent of all their earnings.

I remember lining up my action figures, He-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, arranging the heroes and villains in small rows, determining whose powers would work best together. I remember mounting rescue missions to save April O’Neil from the dank depths of Snake Mountain, and envisioning hordes of Foot Clan soldiers marching into Eternia. I remember waking the next morning with Orko in one hand and Baxter Stockman in the other.

I remember my first alcohol haze, in my mid-30s, learning how to pace myself and drink responsibly and enjoy the rich and delicious headiness of a good solid buzz, where the sounds and colors of the world pop and a smile spreads on my face and I just want to move my body for a time and be close to others. I remember the need for water and sleep that followed after, and the lesson learned the next morning about limits and the support of friends.

I remember sitting in the hot sun in my not-air-conditioned shoddy apartment as the seconds seemed to drone by. My toddler slept in one bed, my infant in another, and I knew in moments they would be awake and I had no idea how to fill the long afternoon hours as the temperatures soared to over 100 degrees. I remember wondering how long this impossible stretch of life would last, having so much to be happy about yet so little ability to enjoy it.

I remember standing on the front of the boat as it slowly trawled over the ocean. A light rain fell on me as the sun set over the glowing city of Seattle over the horizon. I leaned back against the hull, closed my eyes, and placed my palms out and forward as the world moved against me. I remember the gulls and the cold and the laughter and the salt, and I remember I knew perfection.

I remember putting fingers to keyboard, typing the title ‘Present in Past’, and then filling in the space below with my variable truths from my variable lives.

ex-Mormons in the Boston rain

Boston

“I bet you spend a lot of your time talking about Mormons now,” I smiled as I sipped my water.

“Well, we tend to talk about Mormons more when other ex-Mormons are around,” Alice admitted with a smile.

I dug my fork into the delicious mixture of brown rice, almonds, tofu, broccoli, legumes, beets, and other delicious vegetables blended together with savory sauces, and thought about the truth of that statement. I spoke through my large bite of food, trying not to spray food while I talked. “Yeah, I guess that is true.”

Alice placed her hands around her drink, thinking as she looked down. “Growing up, I didn’t know much about Mormons at all. I just thought of them as some weird cult out west. They used to do the plural marriage thing and they send those guys out in shirts and ties to knock on doors.” She paused, adjusting her scarf on her neck. “I grew up Catholic, which I used to think was pretty much the same, but it is totally not the same. And now my best friend and roommate is an ex-Mormon, and I get it on a whole different level.”

I took another sip of water, then laughed. “You remind me a lot of my sister-in-law. My sister Sheri and I both grew up culturally  Mormon in a very Mormon family, but in Missouri, not Utah, and those are very different places to grow up Mormon. We moved to Idaho later on, and that’s a lot more similar. Anyway, it totally influenced everything about us, and it took us years to change our way of thinking. Sheri got married to Heather a few years ago, and Heather is kind of a no-nonsense, I-love-and-support-everyone Massachusetts woman like you, and when Sheri and I talk about our Mormon upbringing, Heather will have this strong ‘what in the hell!’ kind of outraged response when she hears about the Mormon collective culture. It’s kind of adorable actually.”

We shared a laugh, and Alice took another sip. “Massachusetts is the most accepting place I have ever seen. It’s still very culturally divided in many ways, but we widely embrace other cultures, and especially the LGBT community. We fight for refugee rights and work hard on equality for women. We still elected have a habit of electing Republican governors, though, it must be kind of a checks-and-balances thing in our souls. We elected Mitt Romney. Come to think of it, that was the first time I really looked at the whole Mormon thing.”

Gary rejoined us at the table, having refilled his drink. An old college friend of mine, Gary and I hadn’t seen each other in nearly 15 years, but here I was in his new city, Boston, and I had met he and his roommate Alice for dinner. After some basic conversation starters like ‘so what do you do for work’ and ‘so how are your kids’ and ‘so tell me about your dog’, we had easily shifted into college reminiscences and then the Mormon talk started. ‘Remind me where you served your mission?’ and ‘so how long ago did you leave the church?’ and ‘how does your family feel about you leaving the faith?’ and ‘do you miss being Mormon at all?’

And then we had spent several minutes talking about our exits from the church, our uncovering of controversial issues in church history that we hadn’t known about in our up-bringing. We talked about the rape culture at BYU, and LGBT teen suicides, and the failure of the church to appoint black leaders, and Proposition 8, and Joseph Smith marrying other men’s wives. As we talked, it dawned on me that these aren’t topics that I spend time on in my day-to-day life and thinking patterns, but they are topics that get covered often when I am around other ex-Mormons. It’s like we need to share our experiences, join in our past pain, and seek validation through explaining it to others.

This was a human thing, I supposed. Humans always spend time talking to people from their pasts about their shared pasts, and humans always seek validation from others about painful parts of their lives that we they have been through. Recovering alcoholics find validation from other recovering alcoholics, returned veterans from returned veterans, refugees from refugees, trauma survivors from trauma survivors. And ex-Mormons from other ex-Mormons.

Gary has really made something of himself. I remember him back in college with his wide smile and easy laugh and cool confidence. Now he’s running a business and living a very happy life that I never would have predicted for him.

The conversation broke for a moment, and Gary looked over his coconut milkshake at me. “Let me ask you a weird question,” he said in a soft voice. “Do you still consider yourself Mormon at all? I don’t. I don’t feel like any part of me is Mormon any longer.”

I had an answer ready. I have been asked this many times before. “I consider Mormonism to be my  heritage. Some people are Irish or Somali or Greek. I’m Mormon. My family line goes back generations. My grandparents’ grandparents were pioneers who gathered from all around the world. I’m Mormon, in many ways, more than I’m American. It influenced my cultural upbringing and my family on both sides. And Mormonism is the heritage of my sons.

“But I no longer consider it any part of my belief system. It gave me what I thought was solid ground in my childhood, then it hurt me for a long time, then I left and I had to think about it a lot. But now I don’t really give it much thought, except in conversations like this. It’s where I came from, but not where I am or where I am going.”

Minutes later, the three of us joined outside with hugs and laughter and ‘great to see you’ and ‘nice to meet you’, and then I turned and walked down the cold and rainy Boston streets, finding a bit more of myself with each step, Mormonism behind me yet somehow always around.

Bloodkill and Bobcat Man

bobcat

“Dad. Dad! I saved your life!”

My eyes blinked away suddenly, and I quickly became aware of my surroundings, out of a sudden sleep. I was in my room, in my bed. It was dark still, cold with the window open, and I could hear birds outside, so I assumed it was early morning. My eyes flashed to the clock and I saw it was 5 am. I shifted my attention suddenly to my five year old, A, standing at my bedside.

“I saved your life, dad,” he repeated himself, waiting for me to acknowledge him.

“What do you mean you saved my life?” I asked. I was surprised he hadn’t awakened me. On nights when my sons are here, I’m hyper-aware of every sound. A squeak of the bed, a car horn, a scratching on the wall, the sound of their door opening… I usually shoot awake before they can get out of bed. But he had snuck into the room without me noticing. His brother must still be in the next room sleeping.

“Well, it’s simple.”  He raised his voice a little bit, full of a quiet morning energy. He had been burning to share this information with me, and I guessed it was all based on a dream he had had. “I heard some bad guys outside of the house, so I waked up and became a super hero to save your life. I growed a cape and a mask and I flied out the bathroom window and I fighted all the bad guys away with my fists!” He punched the air as he pressed his body down into a fighting crouch, springing up to uppercut an imaginary villain.

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I sat up a bit in bed, turning to face him. I reached a hand out in the grey dark room and rubbed a finger against his cheek in an ‘i-love-you’ line. “Oh, you turned into a super hero, and then you saved my life? Thank you, son. What was your super hero name?”

He furrowed his brow and narrowed his eyes, giving his fiercest ‘tough guy’ look, and then lowered his voice to a harsh whisper, speaking like Batman does in the old animated series we watch together sometimes.

“Oh, that’s easy. My name was Bloodkill.” He emphasized the first part, then drew out the last syllable a bit, making it sound more dramatic. He shot away from my hand, doing some uncoordinated gymnastics, moving about the side of my bed with a few crouches, kicks, and punches to the air again. Oh to have that kind of energy at 5 am.

Wait, strike that. I don’t want that kind of energy at 5 am.

“Bloodkill?” I yawned, stifling a smile.

“Yes. And Bloodkill hunts!” He still had his Batman voice.

I turned on my side, laying down, my head propped up on my elbow now, and yawned again.

“Listen, buddy, thank you for saving my life. But it is way to be someone named Bloodkill. Can you think of a nicer super hero name for the early morning time?”

A stood now, flummoxed momentarily. “Well,” he negotiated, “I can be Bloodkill later, how about I can be the Killer Shark Man!”

I smiled. “Something a little nicer maybe.”

“Well, I can’t be a zombie or a vampire then. Maybe I can think of something.”

“How about a different animal man?” I asked. “You know, like Batman or Catwoman, but a different animal that hasn’t been used before.”

He put a finger against his lip, thinking briefly. “I’ll be Bobcat Man!”

I smiled. “Perfect. What is Bobcat Man’s powers?”

“Well,” now A was climbing up into the bed with me, finally looking for his morning cuddles. He spoke quickly as he climbed. “Bloodkill could fly from his cape and he had sharp claws on his gloves and some weapons on his belt. But Bobcat Man is kind of the same except different. He has his own claws and he is so fast in the air and on the ground, and he can turn little or big but not too big. And, well, he can still have a cape.”

He laid against me now, his little body fitting perfectly, his head on my chest, his arms around me, his legs stretched all the way down to my knees.

“That’s perfect,” I smiled. “Thanks again for saving my life. But how come you are up so early, buddy?”

“Well, I wanted to tell you all that, but maybe we can cuddle and go back to sleep now.”

Soon he was softly snoring against me. The room was still dark and the birds still chirping, and I was smiling silently about Bloodkill and Bobcat Man having adventures in his brain.

the price of faith in Utah

inversion

“Salt Lake City is a complicated place,” I told the crowd. “It is a land of harsh contradictions.”

“Contradictions like what?” one of them asked.

“Well, this past week the government made two notable new law changes. On one hand, it is no longer illegal for teachers to mention being gay in public schools. On the other hand, we now have the lowest legal driving alcohol limits in the country, lowering the protocols from .08 to .05.

“Last year, a major street in the city was renamed Harvey Milk Boulevard, after a gay icon. Around the same time, the governor announced that pornography in the state is a national health crisis, and health funding dollars would be placed toward combatting it, loosely reinforcing the local cultural belief that viewing pornography is akin to sex addiction and requires treatment.

“We elected a lesbian mayor who is a single mother of an adopted African American child, and her office is just down the road from the leading authorities of the Mormon Church, a group of over a dozen elderly white straight men.

“Our incredible landscapes of mountains and incredible views are capped for half the year with poison as air pollution rises to the highest in the country during those times.

“It is an absolute land of contradiction, balanced by the strange coexistence of right and left, red and blue, Democrat and Conservative.”

I remained quiet for a minute while the crowd digested that information, chewing on the substance of it.

“So let’s take a minute to look at how that impacts the LGBT community itself. Salt Lake City has an enormous LGBT population, one of the highest in the country per capita. We have been rated as the gayest city in America before, and Utah boasts the highest percentages of gay parents in the country. Does anyone know why that is?”

Members of the crowd shook their head, confused.

“It’s because gay men and women marry someone of the opposite sex, have children, and then come out later in life. So we have people who come out of the closet with 2 or 5 or 8 kids already in place. I bet we have the highest percentages of mixed orientation marriages as well, and the majority result in divorce.

“On the flip side of those facts, we recognize that Utah leads the nation with suicide being the leading cause of death among teens, and much of that is due to a combination of religious shame about being gay or trans, and the pressure to conform. We also have tremendously high rates of LGBT teen homelessness.

“Other related facts, Utah has tremendously high rates of depression and anti-depressant usage, particularly among women, and tremendously high rates of pornography addiction among men, combined with extremely high divorce rates.”

I let all of that sink in for a few moments. Several in the crowd looked distressed, some were scribbling notes, others had their heads bowed as they contemplated.

“So what do we do with all of this information?” one person asked.

I cleared my throat. “Well, earlier we talked about the presence of shame. The idea of measuring our own worth at impossible standards, and experiencing depression and anxiety and a general sense of feeling broken when life doesn’t turn out the way we were promised. When you are taught your entire life that following a particular path leads to a particular result, and life doesn’t turn out that way, it leads to cognitive dissonance, divorce, pain, and sometimes even suicide.”

We pursued that topic for a few minutes, relating our own stories and experiences to these statistics and topics. Several in the room grew emotional, sad, frustrated, angry, even despondent. Some of them were struggling now with depression, or knew others that were; some knew others who had taken their lives, and some had made attempts on their own lives.

One man pressed his hand into the air, a burning question on his mind. “What I don’t understand is, if there are these statistics available, then why don’t they make changes?” By ‘they’, I assumed he meant the local government and, perhaps, the leaders of the Mormon Church.

I took in a deep breath. “It is difficult to convince others to see things our way. We have an entire society built on the basis of ‘faith’, or believing without seeing. Belief in God and all of the things he teaches through church institutions. And Utah has much higher percentages of this than many places. So when you measure moral beliefs against documented evidence, it doesn’t stack up or merit. It’s the same argument that leads some cities to push for the teaching of creation instead of evolution, because creation matches their beliefs and evolution, despite its scientific evidences, does not.

“For example, there are hundreds of studies that show that teaching sex education in school and providing contraception and birth control significantly risks teen pregnancies. Yet we have many states, Utah included, that teach abstinence only, and the teen pregnancy rates go up in number. The evidence of the scientific studies is ignored or set aside by the ‘faith’-based majorities.

“This same political cognitive dissonance applies to mass beliefs on Planned Parenthood and abortions, gun control laws, gay marriage, transgender bathroom issues, equal pay for women, ‘illegal’ immigration, the connection between Muslim religions and terrorism and a thousand other controversial topics. Evidence is ignored in favor of moral belief structures.

“But in many cases, the results, for many, in places like Utah, is often shame, depression, broken marriages, and, in the most tragic of cases, suicide. We live in a state where men in their fifties and sixties come out of the closet for the first time, where STD rates go up due to lack of sex education, and where believing women in church-funded colleges are blamed for the sexual assaults they recently suffered at the hands of believing men.”

The room stayed silent for a bit. And then one last question.

“Well, what do we do with this information now?”

I nodded, solemn, and clasped my hands. “That’s up to each of us, individually, to decide.”

Mormon coffee talk

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“I mean, seriously, what a douchebag move, am I right? Why else do people go to weddings if not to get drunk? I mean, unless you are getting married yourself or you are like the mother or father of the bride, then you just go there to get drunk or to get laid or, I don’t know, to meet people and get drunk with them. It’s free alcohol. Everyone expects it. You drink and you flirt. And this guy, he refuses not only to drink with me, but then he doesn’t even want to talk to me because I’m a little bit tipsy. Who is he to judge me?”

This woman must be the most unhappy person I have ever heard speak, I thought as I tried to tune her out. She has been going on like this ever since I sat down. She won’t stop! She’s being so loud!

And then there is that stupid Mormon girl, the one bridesmaid who won’t wear the dress that the bride actually chose because she feels it is too immodest. The dresses were cute! They were pink and like sleeveless but this bitch feels like exposing her shoulders will give the boys around her unclean thoughts or whatever and she isn’t even that cute. So she has to go and ruin the wedding because she wants to wear like a sweater over her shoulders and she is the only one in the line who looks different than the rest, and she is like taking attention away from the bride which is basically the worst sin you can commit on someone’s wedding day, don’t you think?”

Stop talking stop talking stop talking. I sipped my coffee, trying to focus on the stack of paperwork I had brought to the coffeeshop with me. There was nowhere else to sit, and this woman was talking so loud. I thought about turning to her and asking her to be quiet. The friend she was with wasn’t even talking back, just making mm-hmm and oh-no and oh-yeah statements. Just breathe. You’re cool. Just focus on your work. I managed to turn her out for a few minutes before she got louder.

“So then I get back to work on Monday after and I’m still hungover and I’m still pissed, but then, bam, guess what, my manager puts me in charge of that work project we have been working on. Like I’m finally in charge of the stuff that no one wants to be in charge over. Probably because I’m the only one who gives a shit. And no on there in the whole company even cares about the little rules anyway, and how do you think they are going to feel when I start making them follow the rules. Like everyone takes drinks to their desks and they aren’t supposed to. How do you think they are going to feel when I start walking by their desks and taking their drinks away, one by one, and just tossing them right in the garbage. I mean, they are going to be livid. I can just see the one guy next to me like ‘hey, I just spent four dollars on that energy drink, don’t throw it away’ and I’ll be like ‘well, guess who’s in charge now, bitch!'”

Okay, I have to admit this is kind of entertaining, I thought. It is unlike me to get so annoyed with someone so easily, she was just so loud. I kind of like eavesdropping on people sometimes. Instead of working on my notes, I instead got out my computer and started writing down what she was complaining about. This woman is a character.

“I just, this isn’t where I thought I would be in my life right now, right? I thought I would meet some guy. Instead it is just me and my dumb dog. I say dumb but I love him, you know that. In fact, he is probably the love of my life. I am done with men, at least for a minute. Did I tell you about that last guy I tried dating, the one from the singles’ ward? I mean, I’m not active or anything but I still want a good Mormon guy. I should have known something was completely wrong with him based on the fact that he’s 30 and not married. I know I’m almost 30, but it’s different for girls. Guys can have whoever they want. I just haven’t had the right person come along yet. So anyway one day he lectures me because he sees wine in my fridge and we haven’t even kissed or anything and it’s like our third date and he wants me to be a good Mormon girl and I’m feeling embarrassed and tell him it’s not mine that I just keep it there for friends who come over and I’m lying of course and he goes ‘yeah, but you should avoid the very appearance of evil’. I’m all embarrassed but then a few days later I find out that he has a porn addiction problem. He tells me that he doesn’t want to get too serious with me before he tells me the truth. And I’m like ‘what a hypocrite’ and I ended things right there. ‘The very appearance of evil’ indeed. I mean, I deserve someone amazing, not just some guy. You deserve someone amazing too. I mean, everyone does, even gay Corey.”

Gay Corey? Who is gay Corey? The two women laugh hysterically for a moment, some inside joke between then, and then I hear a loud slurp as the woman finishes her iced latte, sucking the last bits of liquid from between chunks of ice. She stands up and walks by me, giving me a slight sneer-slash-smile before dumping her drink in the garbage. From behind me I hear her summon her friend.

“Come on, let’s go.”

Her friend says ‘oh, okay’ and quickly gathers her things before rushing out. My fingers are moving on the keyboard, and all I can think is, wait, what just happened? 

 

the unintentional hypocrite

door

before i went on my first date with a man, i did marriage counseling for dozens and dozens of couples

before i knew what i wanted to do with my life, i successfully completed six years of college with a 3.8 grade point average

before i considered myself authentic, i wrote hundreds of pages of journal entries and poems exploring my soul

before i knew how to tell my story, i published a book

before i had my first real kiss, i had a successful marriage to a woman, and everyone thought we were the perfect couple

before i knew what being mentally healthy was, i was the director of a community mental health center

before i understood my own spirituality, i completed a two year dedicated missionary service and baptized several into the faith i was born into

before i understood how to take care of myself, i was taking care of two sons who required my everything

before i lived well, i merely lived

 

 

Among the Unhealthy

Healthy

There’s something that happens when you become emotionally well. Suddenly, the emotionally unwell become toxic.

As a therapist, when I work with clients who are unwell (in unhealthy relationships, anxious, depressed, at difficult jobs, etc), my first goal is to help them realize that they have the ability to be well, and then to help them draw upon their personal strengths to reinforce healthy living, no matter what is happening around them. Certain things are out of their power and certain things are directly in their power. I help them learn the areas of their life where they are able to take control and impact positive change for themselves.

I often compare emotional health to physical health–when we don’t pay attention to our physical habits, we can slowly and consistently become unhealthy. We put on three pounds, then five, then ten. At some point, we have to make changes, and it is a lot easier to lose five pounds then it is to lose forty, and easier to lose forty than it is to lose one hundred. The greater the weight, the longer and more consistent the change in response must be. Healthy habits must return, through nutrition and exercise, and the health will slowly and consistently return.

First clients have to learn what is in their control and what isn’t. Massive credit card debt can’t immediately be eliminated, but budgeting and earning and planning can easily happen. An unfaithful husband may not stop cheating, but the spouse can choose how to handle the emotions, the relationship, the communication, and the long-term plans of the marriage. Recovery from chemotherapy can’t be rushed or altered, but healthy habits and relationships and mental states can be fostered to help with the healing.

We all know what it feels like to be depressed, to feel like life is out of control, to feel like the world is crashing in. Humans have an amazing capacity to heal and change and survive. But at some point we have to choose what to do with it. We can wallow and give in and give up, or we can rise above and tackle and heal. People who are unwell often make the mistake of thinking they are alone, that their pain is more excessive than the pain of others, and that no one can understand them.

Which brings us to the topic of this blog, the healthy person who has taken time to heal and move forward who then dwells among the unhealthy, or those who decide not to make changes and work on themselves. We all have friends who have financial difficulties or health problems or work problems or relationship problems or faith problems, and they expend a lot of energy complaining about those problems, frustrated that their lives aren’t easy. They want an easy fix, a lottery win or a romantic interest with a lot of money or a weight loss pill, that will suddenly come along and make life simple, yet they refuse consistently to budget or to communicate with their spouse or to reach out for therapy or to exercise and eat right. The idea of getting healthy becomes threatening, and so they keep making unhealthy choices and complaining about their lives.

When describing healthy relationships to clients, I hold up two fingers. “A healthy relationship is when two individuals who are healthy and happy in their own skin decide to be together.” I then point those fingers inward toward each other, demonstrating balance and compromise. “If one of the individuals is happy and healthy and the other is not, there is an imbalance in the relationship, one that becomes unsustainable. It is customary for someone to be stressed or sick or sad or to have family problems, that is different than someone who falls into unhealthy patterns and consistently refuses to work on getting out of them, and then that person begins to blame the stable person for their inability to bear the extra weight of the relationship.” This model can apply to any close relationship, from best friends to spouses to parent/child to boss/coworker.

At the end of the day, the model is pretty simple: every person out there is responsible for their own happiness. And it is easy for the healthy person to want to help the unhealthy person, but only so long as the unhealthy person is also helping themselves; we can never bear the burden of another person long-term.

Another simple recognition: I am a better father, boyfriend, son, friend, worker, therapist, etc when I am happy and comfortable in my own skin. It takes a lot of work, but I’m at the stage in life where it becomes easier to maintain–it’s easier to lose one pound than it is twenty. But I had to do a lot of work to get here.

Sam is never responsible for his boss’s cruelty and harsh expectations; Sam is responsible for staying at the job and being frustrated by it daily.

Alice is never responsible for her husband’s name-calling and violent words; Alice is responsible for choosing to stay with him, for being depressed every day and not speaking up for herself.

Betty is never responsible for the diabetes she was born with; Betty is responsible for her food choices and her refusal to stop eating unhealthy sugary things because she feels she deserves them, even when they constantly make her sick.

Doug is never responsible for his church making policies that state homosexuality is a sin; Doug is responsible for choosing to attend the church each week and feeling broken inside and guilty about who he is.

Jack is never responsible for his wife’s health struggles and her mood swings; Jack is responsible for never talking to her about his feelings, never asking for help from professionals, and just remaining silent and unhappy in the marriage day after day.

A blog like this can be dangerous to write. Depression is real. Trauma is real. Pain is real. And there are many things in life out of our control. But we, each of us, have the ability to become healthy, through hard work and consistent effort. And once we have done it, once we have become healthy, we can certainly understand how it felt to be unhealthy. We can empathize and honor.

But there is nothing quite so exhausting as investing long-term in the person who won’t help themselves.