the Nightmare After Christmas

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My sons and I took turns selecting Christmas carols to sing. I kept mine simple, just some of the basics. Jingle BellsWe Wish You a Merry ChristmasRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And they surprised me with more complex choices, songs I didn’t know all the words to but they did, songs they must have learned in school or a church choir. I Heard the Bells on Christmas DayOh Holy Night.

As we sang, I drove the car slowly and evenly down the mountain pass. It was the day after Christmas, and we had just spent two incredible days together in a mountain cabin near a ski resort, a nice little chalet kind of place with a full kitchen, high-speed internet, a gas fireplace, and a hot tub. We had arrived on Christmas Eve and had had a wonderful evening soaking and laughing and playing. We cuddled together in front of the fire and sang Christmas carols until it was time for bed.

The next morning, Santa Claus arrived, leaving a small pile of gifts for the kids. I told them I had written him a letter, telling him where to find us. There were only 3 small gifts for each of the boys. They had been opening a gift a day leading up to Christmas from me or other family members rather than one massive pile on Christmas morning, and they still had another Santa visit at their mom’s house to get to in a few days. I tried to spread their Christmas out, giving them time to enjoy things. It wasn’t until after breakfast that we had opened the blinds to see the massive piles of snow outside. The snow had been unexpected. It blanketed the hills around us, burying cars and picnic tables, and I couldn’t make out the sidewalk or the driveway.

And so the kids and I had spent one more day in the cabin, creatively finding ways to spend our time. Drawing contests, pretending to be hunters, strapping on gear to help some other folks build a snowman, then switching to swimsuits for more time in the outdoor hot tub. We foraged vending machines for a creative dinner, using the leftover food from the night before along with it. We took a long nap. We watched the same movie in front of the same fire. It was an unexpected and perfect Christmas Day.

As I sped down the hill, singing, a strange terror gripped my heart. Two thoughts cascaded into my brain all at once, out of nowhere. One thought was on the realization that I was blissfully happy in this particular moment, and the other thought was a terrible realization that sometimes people die in these exact moments. My heart rate increased and I gripped the wheel tighter. I steadied my breathing and forced rational thought, still singing.

I spend much of my career responding to the scenes of crises, working with those who have been impacted by tragedy. I have delivered the news to teams of people about the heart attack of a coworker, I have held hands of the widow who found her husband after his suicide, I have born the grief of the grandmother who has lost four family members in in three months time. I’ve become desensitized to death, and I’ve accepted it, and the grief that follows, as natural, normal, happenstance. None of us are immune. Death hits suddenly, and it hits hard.

I suddenly remembered a strange conversation I had had with a client in trauma recently, about the tragic death of her dear friend, a man who had dropped dead of an aneurysm, leaving two children behind, fatherless. I remembered hearing her cry about what a good person he was, about how he made everyone’s day brighter and cared about those around him. And I remembered being with her and saying all the right words while inwardly sorting out how much easier grief is, how much more natural, when the death is medical instead of due to suicide or violent crime. Then I remembered how clinical that thought felt, how dry and sterile and mundane as I sat with this woman in pain.

I looked in the rear view mirror and looked at the faces of my children. We had stopped singing now. My 8 year old was looking out the window at the passing scenery, and I could see his little brain absorbing the beauty of the world around him. My 5 year old was telling a lengthy story about a spider who lived in a mitten and how the spider had killed a woman with a bite before a group of super heroes and monsters stopped it, the story stretching into several minutes as he kept adding more and more details, and I gave half-hearted ‘hmms’, ‘wows’, and ‘whoas’ as he spoke to keep him engaged.

It certainly wasn’t my day to die, not on this perfect Christmas weekend. Yet no one ever thought it was there turn. I breathed deeply at perfect peace despite the morbidity of my thoughts. I am fulfilled, balanced, happy. My sons are thriving and I’m growing into a new era of my life, one filled with power and accomplishment. And life felt wonderful.

And then my brain went two directions again, seamless and at once.

“I miss you, Kurt,” I thought, thinking of my best friend who died in a car accident earlier this year at the height of his life.

And I spoke, “Hey boys, whose turn is it? Let’s sing another Christmas song.”

 

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Minty, Harriet, and Moses

Her parents called her Minty. Their names were Rit and Ben, and they only met because their mutual owners had married each other, placing the two on the same plantation. Minty knew who her mother and father were, but she didn’t belong to them, she belonged to her white owners. In her younger years, she was fed and clothed and housed, an investment for a few years later when she would be required to work for her masters, like the other pieces of property she lived among.

Rit’s mother, Modesty, had crossed the ocean on a slave ship the generation before. Rit herself would work mostly as a cook and would go on to have nine children, Minty being one. Three of Rit’s daughters were sold to other white owners and never seen again. When a man came to take away Rit’s youngest son, Moses, Rit hid him for an entire month, and she threatened to split the head of her owner if he took her son away, though she could have been whipped or killed for her resistance.

As a young child, Minty was loaned out to a white woman named Miss Susan, who had a new baby. Minty was whipped when the child cried, even at night, and whipped again when she couldn’t clean something to Miss Susan’s liking. As an old woman, decades later, Minty could still show others the scars she still bore from those beatings she received as a child. Minty was regularly beat as a child by her white masters. As a young teenager, one man hit her so severely with a metal weight upon her head that it did permanent brain damage, leading others to believe she was slow. For the rest of her life, Minty had headaches, seizures, and powerful dreams and visions. She was only 5 feet tall.

A deeply religious woman who believed in deliverance, Minty spoke often to God and believed that he answered. She saw her father join the ranks of free black man living around them when he reached the age of 55, he having been manumitted, or set free by his previous owner through a stipulation in the will. Minty’s mother was later freed by her husband, who purchased his wife’s freedom for $20, hard-earned.

Minty married a free black man named John Tubman, and she changed her name from Araminta, for which Minty was short, to the more Christian name, Harriet. Free black men and women lived all around the slaves in their community, there for the slaves to watch and envy. Harriet knew that any children she had would be born into slavery despite the free status of her husband, based on her laws at the time. Considered of low value because of her health struggles, Harriet faced being sold to another plantation in the deeper South and away from family, and instead she risked her very life and chose to run. Using the informal Underground Railroad, she found help from slaves, free men, and abolitionists like the Quakers and, avoiding the slave catchers, found her way to the free North.

Within a few years, Harriet became known as a veritable legend, a secret woman who led escaped slaves through the wilderness with her quick and careful pace and her gospel songs. Harriet soon became known as Moses, leading her people from captivity to the promised land: freedom. Though most of her adventures remain private, it is estimated she guided several dozens of slaves to freedom, and none of them were ever recaptured.

Harriet saved fathers and mothers, children and infants, who she sometimes had to drug during the long journey so their cries wouldn’t alert nearby slave hunters. She saved some of her family members, those who wanted saving, including brothers and nieces, but her husband married another woman (and was later killed by a white man in a dispute). It was only decades later that Harriet gave interviews about her time on the Underground Railroad. She shared only a handful of stories, highlighting the hopes and the dangers.

Moses planned her escapes in the uncomfortable winters, when slave hunters would not want to follow, and she generally left on Saturdays, since missing slave notices wouldn’t show up in the newspapers until Monday. She hid and slept during the day, and walked endlessly at night, over hundreds of miles, dozens of times, to the North, often all the way to Canada. Moses blended into crowds when she needed to, using disguises and props to lower suspicions. She carried a revolver for protection, and would threaten to kill any slaves who wanted to turn back as that would put the entire group at risk.

Years later, during the inevitable Civil War, Harriet provided intelligence to abolitionists and even lead armed assaults in a battle or two, saving thousands more lives. While on a military trip, white men in a train assaulted her, breaking her arm.

In her older years, Harriet was lauded as a hero, but she lived most of her life in poverty, giving much of what she had to others. She married Nelson Davis, two decades her junior, and they stayed married for decades, even adopting a child. Harriet went on to fight for women’s right to vote alongside Susan B. Anthony and others.

Harriet Tubman died when she was in her early 90s. Despite her poverty status, she inspired the opening of a home for the elderly who were in poverty.

The 5 feet tall disabled black girl grew up being beat by masters, told she was worthless and never good enough, and she went on to save hundreds of lives. Heroes show up in the most unlikely of places, and I am thrilled to call Harriet Tubman one of my heroes.

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Wrong Sides of History

I believe in the fundamental goodness of people. I believe that even when people act in a sense of self-preservation for self or family, that they believe they are doing the right thing. I also know that there are individuals and organizations in the world that are fundamentally evil, that are willing to exploit, corrupt, steal, and murder to gain power. I recognize that all individuals are not part of these organizations, yet that these organizations, at times in history, influence public opinion in such dangerous and terrible ways.

As an American citizen in 2016, I sit with a sense of panic about the days ahead. This week, Donald Trump was officially put in place as the President Elect by the Electoral College of the United States. I am not the only person to be outraged and saddened by an election. I am not the first person to see progress seemingly stunted or halted temporarily. I look backwards at some of my heroes, like Gloria Steinem, who fought for the perfectly reasonable Equal Rights Amendment, tirelessly and for years, only to see it ultimately fail. (It still hasn’t passed). Abraham Lincoln had to take the country to war to end slavery, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, yet racism still exists in many forms. Malala Yousafzai only recently became an icon after being shot in the head for being a Muslim girl who wanted the right to learn, yet many Middle Eastern girls are still denied access to education.

Ultimately, we only dwell in the present. In the present moment, we experience and feel, looking backward to the past, while fearing and hoping for the future. And in the present, we justify our actions, our votes, our decisions with our present reality, and can only look back later with hindsight.

We sometimes throw around the phrase “the wrong side of history”. What that fundamentally means is there are a lot of people, looking backwards, who made decisions in their present realities, things that with a slight amount of historical perspective can no longer be understood.

Overlooking for a moment the corrupt organizations referenced above, let’s look at the individuals along the way who have been fundamentally good, who were only dwelling in their present and wanting to do so with as much ease and grace as possible, but who ended up on the wrong side of history.

Look at the bus driver who told Rosa Parks to give up her seat at the back of the bus to a white person, and called the police when she refused to.

Look at the first President of our country, George Washington, who made sure to move his group of slaves South every so often, to make sure they didn’t qualify for freedom by staying the North for too long.

Look at the county clerk in Kentucky who simply refused to give a marriage license to a gay couple, choosing jail over compromising her personal principles.

Look at the German family who turned in their neighbors for harboring a Jewish couple in their basement, afraid for their own lives if they didn’t speak up and were thus held as complicit.

Look at the young black female who turned in her older brother to the plantation owner after hearing her brother’s plans to run away, knowing that her brother would be punished, but not wanting the rest of her family to be punished after he fled.

Look at the early American settler who believed it was more humane to sterilize the Native American population, to force them to become Christians, in an attempt to save them from their own savagery.

Look at the house wife who scoffed at the Suffragettes for fighting for female equality, chanting that these women should know men were better suited for the work outside the home, that women should know their proper place.

Look at the judge who found the young man innocent of savagely stabbing a gay man who had flirted with him, believing that the gay man should have known better and not wanting to ruin a young man’s life for one moment of insane and violent passion.

Look at the woman who served lemonade to her friends and neighbors, smiling and laughing at jokes while the tree branches strained to hold the bodies of two lynched black men above them.

Look at the schoolteacher who told her students to never shake hands with a gay man or they would get AIDS, the disease God sent to punish sinners on Earth.

Look at the father who dropped his pregnant teenage daughter off at the nunnery, crying as he hugged her goodbye forever, unable to forgive her for the unpardonable sin of premarital sex.

Look at the nurse who performed her twentieth clitorectomy of the day on a five year old African child, mutilating her genitals, knowing the girl would heal and develop scar tissue and then save herself for her husband, never enjoying sex as the custom dictated, the same procedure the nurse had undergone as a child.

Look at the young small town man who stood guard at the gates of the internment camp, making sure no Japanese American citizen could escape as they might be a spy and could forever endanger American lives.

Look at the proud father who refused to share his wife’s bed after she had given birth to a third female child, forever shaming him in the eyes of the community around him, now seeking a new and worthier wife who would deign to give him a son.

Look at the teenage girl who carefully watched her classmates for signs they might be a Communist, looking over the checklist of signs given out by her school, scared that one of them might be among her.

 

My politics are not the politics of all good and decent people, I know this. Nor are my morals, my values, my ethics, my beliefs. I will not vilify someone for not wanting change, for wanting peace and security for their family, for voting for someone who stands against the things I hold dear.

But I will dwell in my present and stand firm. I will look backwards at those who sought the easy way for themselves and their families and who ended up being on the wrong side of history. I will learn from them as I view the world around me.

And I will look forward with hope, knowing that the future has yet to be written.

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Balls to the Wall

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On the second season of I Love Lucy, Lucy Ricardo gave birth to little Ricky Ricardo, making her husband Ricky, the Cuban band leader, a proud father. An estimated 70 per cent of the American public tuned in to watch, more viewers than the inauguration of President Eisenhower on the same night.

When Lucille Ball became pregnant during the filming of the show, she and Desi Arnaz fought to allow her character to become pregnant as well. The Ricardos were to sleep in different beds, and they couldn’t possibly use the word ‘pregnant’ on television, it was too suggestive and immoral. Still, they fought, and won, and “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” became one of the most viewed episodes of any show in television history.

They timed the show just right, and around the same time, Lucille Ball gave birth to her younger son, Desi Arnaz Jr. During the first season of I Love Lucy, she had been pregnant with her daughter, Lucie Arnaz. And the pregnancies themselves were as miraculous as Lucy and Desi’s sudden rise to fame; Lucy had had several miscarriages early on. At this point, she was in her forties, and her marriage had been falling apart from the start.

On the small screen, Ricky Ricardo was a patient and persistent husband who was charmed by his red-headed wife and her screwball antics, finding joy in all of the schemes she adopted to get into show business. In real life, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III was the son of a prominent Cuban politician who had been jailed in the revolution. Years later, in the States, Desi turned to show business, singing and leading bands, enchanting crowds with the Conga dance and Latin flair. He landed a few small roles in films before meeting a talented and hilarious older woman that he couldn’t take his mind off of.

On the small screen, Lucy Ricardo was a charming and emotional housewife, constantly in trouble and in over her head, in chocolate factories, television commercials, and wine vats. In real life, Lucille Ball was a dedicated actress who had spent years honing her craft in dozens of films and shows, never making her big break. Her dad died when she was young, and she had a difficult childhood, and in her first years in the business, she had taken to modeling, even posing nude from time to time. She acted in vaudeville shows, starred in radio shows, and performed in the streets. She was scared of romantic commitment, and tended to date men that were non-threatening or perhaps a little bit scandalous.

And then she met Desi, and Desi proposed, and they were swiftly married. And she loved him, she did, deeply and passionately. She loved him enough to ignore, for the most part, his dozens of affairs, his jealousy of her success, his excessive gambling, his Latin temper, and his mounting alcoholism. She fought back sometimes, and they both got violent from time to time. But they loved each other. And with an unexpected hit television show, two unexpected children, and a suddenly thriving production company, divorce just wasn’t a feasible option. They were the most beloved married couple in America, and they had a reputation to uphold.

They named their company after themselves, like they had named their children after themselves. Desilu.

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They finally divorced in 1960, after ending their show on a high note. Desi went on to marry Edith, and they would last for over two decades together. He put on weight, he gambled, he cheated, he caroused, he traveled the world, he wrote books, he drank, and he struggled to stay on top of his bills and, as often as possible, to stay famous. He eventually died of lung cancer at the age of 69.

Lucy went on to marry comedian Gary Morton, who would be at her side until her death 29 years later. She described Gary as a faithful and true husband, and created a home life with him, and he helped raise the children. She took over the company and was harsh and cutting at her job. The public accused her being a communist, of being a taskmistress and a bitch, of being a fading talent who just needed to retire. But she kept making television shows (the Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, and Life With Lucy) and movies (Yours, Mine, and Ours and Mame). She accepted awards and gave interviews. And the syndication of her original show ran every day on television stations throughout the world, immortalizing her bright red hair, here wide open eyes, her classic crying wail, her cartoon facial expressions, and her brilliant physical comedy forever.

Lucie and Desi Jr grew up, as all children do, and both went into acting. Desi Jr started a band and struggled with drugs while Lucie became a well known actress. They married and divorced and had children, and married again, and Lucy, in her older years, enjoyed being a grandmother. Now the children manage the estates of their parents, and keep their legacies immortal.

And we remember Lucy as the ditzy funny redhead with the funny faces. A deeper look reveals her as a mother, a survivor, a trendsetter, a brilliant business woman, a wife, an actress, a comedienne, a grandmother, a troubled soul, and an all around powerful woman with both a fiery temper and an enormous heart.

In an interview, Lucy once described herself best. “I am not funny. My writers were funny. My direction was funny. The situations were funny. But I am not funny. I am not funny. What I am is brave.”

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Mentally obese

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Stress wraps its invisible fingers around our insides and begins to squeeze. We don’t notice it at first. It starts out subtly, slithering and silent. It coats our stomachs and wraps around our brains, until one day, we realize our food isn’t digesting properly, our heads ache more often, and we aren’t sleeping well.

Like any kind of weight, stress comes on a spectrum of mild to obese. Mild stress can result in small frustrations, avoidance in relationships, and poor habits and decision-making. Major stress can lead to mid-life crises, abrupt changes in life like divorce and quitting a job, and an inability to rest and relax. Crippling stress leads to constant illness, severe depression, and a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. And people who learn to live with stress begin to think of it as normal and natural.

It isn’t.

Stress is a natural condition for moments, for short durations, during a college final or a work deadline; it is not natural as a perpetual state of living. Being overwhelmed is directly equitable to being mentally overweight or obese.

Mental obesity can also show up in the form of boredom. Humans have a need to be challenged, to be mentally stimulated. A lack of these leads to itchiness, frustration, and dissatisfaction. Education and engagement are crucial to mental fitness and human interactions.

As a therapist, I frequently see clients who are over-burdened by their jobs, or bored with their lives. They struggle with finding any hope in their future, dwelling firmly in the fact that they aren’t happy with their lives or stations now. And when someone is dissatisfied in their jobs, when their talents aren’t being utilized, when they are unemployed, when they feel their boss is constantly breathing down their neck, when they are putting in 80 hours a week and can’t get ahead… when these things happen, humans have health problems and unhealthy eating and exercise habits, they have dissatisfying relationships, they struggle with depression, and they lack purpose and inner peace.

Humans also need to regularly achieve. They need lists to check things off of. The perfect remedy to being bored is to get up and do something; the perfect remedy to being overwhelmed is to choosing one task at a time and completing it.

Another form of mental obesity is extreme debt. We live beyond our means, make big purchases, and charge up credit cards, and then work too much in a constant state of stress while living from paycheck to paycheck and barely managing to pay off the interest payments.

Being mentally fit requires mental discipline, vocationally, financially, and academically.

Somewhere along the line, it was bred into me that there is only one way to be successful. I threw myself into high school, completing difficult homework assignments, sometimes loving the knowledge I was acquiring, and sometimes being so overwhelmed by it that I couldn’t retain the algebra equations and history dates and chemical compositions. In college, I worked full time and would take between 15 and 21 credit hours, and I saw that impossible learning regimen as necessary for adulthood, while sacrificing my emotional, physical, and spiritual health. As a young social worker with a masters degree, I grew accustomed to doing ten hours of therapy for low levels of pay, going home physically and mentally drained each night, and dreading work the next day. Over time, I lost sight of why I got into social into the first place, and began to feel like a cog in a machine that was being aged prematurely.

Around this time, I was receiving steady paychecks, and writing out regular bills, for health insurance, for cable and internet, for electricity and gasoline, for food, for car payments, for medical insurance, for automobile insurance, for cell phone, for tithing, for student loan debts, for college education funds for my sons, and, most overwhelmingly, for mortgage. I would sit down and budget each month and become overwhelmed by the massive amounts of responsibility. Later, after my divorce, this only mounted when child support payments were placed on the top. And I couldn’t even mentally factor in the amounts going toward income taxes, property taxes, state taxes, and federal withholdings. I remember that old pit in the center of my stomach.

I was so constantly overwhelmed by the stress of my job and the responsibilities of my financial debts that I had little opportunity to find things to achieve. I had forgotten the wonderful feeling of finishing a book, the interest I could throw into a research project, or the simple sensation of setting a goal, working on it, and ultimately achieving it. Accompanied by depression, a lack of purpose, and physical weight, the mental stress compounded, feeling like it would overwhelm me and shorten my lifespan.

My mental weight took me much longer to shed than the others. After losing my physical weight, coming out of the closet, grieving my past, discovering my spiritual health, and forming true friendships, I could start to examine my actual stress levels. It was a few more years of maxed out credit cards and working 60 hour weeks before I realized that I was stressed, overwhelmed, and consistently complaining about my financial responsibilities.

My mental health came through exhausting areas:

  1. Making regular time for myself to learn, read, research, and write.
  2. Taking a careful look at my financial situation and preparing a careful plan to relieve financial debt and plan for the future.
  3. Remembering what I love about my professional field, finding a way to make myself happy in my field, and finding a way to make enough money to support myself while doing what I love.

I began organizing my schedule differently. I quit my job and became self-employed, and I began diversifying my services. I advertised. I started with lower rates and then began to charge more. I did regular self-inventory to make sure I was happy along the way. I began limiting my expenses and putting my extra money toward debt. In a year, I was able to pay off one of the credit cards, then my car, then the other cards. I was able to establish a savings account. I began actively learning, and writing about what I learned. I began setting and achieving goals that would have felt impossible years before.

Now, I love what I do. I engage myself intellectually. I challenge and push myself. I take time off when needed, and I don’t let myself get bored. I recognize when I’m overwhelmed and I nurture myself into health again. I budget and plan things out financially. I recognize my needs, and I take care of myself. And, most importantly, I recognize that stress, exhaustion, and boredom are not my natural state; fulfillment, accomplishment, and satisfaction are.

 

(This concludes my writings on obesity. Previous blogs on emotional, physical, and spiritual obesity were previously submitted).

 

 

Emotionally Obese

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When someone comes out of depression, they have to learn how to feel all over again. It isn’t some magical shift, where the depression is replaced by joy and ease. Those positive feelings are there, sure, but the negative feelings have to be felt as well. There is a learning process to feeling sad, scared, mad, and guilty again, and then learning how to use the emotions to create positive experiences.

Somewhere along the way, we grow to believe that “emotional” means “weak”. We say things like “My husband just died, but I can’t let the kids see me cry. I have to be strong” and “I know I was diagnosed with cancer, but I’m not going to be scared. I just have to stay positive.”

We expend exhausting amounts of energy toward avoiding feelings that make us uncomfortable, feelings that are a natural part of the human spectrum. We can’t avoid feeling those feelings any more than we can avoid feeling hungry or tired; we can pretend all we want, but the feelings will come regardless.

The human spectrum of emotions is beautiful and complex. There are the feelings we enjoy, like happiness, gratitude, peace, joy, and security; and then there are the feelings we believe are unhealthy or unpleasant because they bring with them a bit of pain, like sadness, fear, guilt, and anger. When people deny themselves the ability to feel and experience those emotions in healthy ways, they are dumping half of the crayons out of the box, and restricting themselves to the other half of the box. Black just doesn’t work as well without the white to contrast against, and red in only one shade isn’t nearly as beautiful as an entire spectrum of red.

Like physical and spiritual obesity (discussed in previous blogs), emotional obesity sneaks up on you, slowly over time, one pound of emotional weight added at a time. For years, I didn’t let myself feel sad or scared or angry. In fact, I believed it was unhealthy, selfish, even indulgent to waste time on those emotions. I kept a bright smile on my face while I was miserable on the inside.

It took me several years to learn a very fundamental lesson, that pushing away sadness, guilt, anger, and fear didn’t eliminate those emotions or mean that I didn’t feel them; the emotions were still present, pushed deep down where they did damage and caused pain. The only possible response to pushing emotion away is depression. Depression comes in many forms, from moderate to severe to crippling.

There are classic signs of depression: disinterest in pleasurable activities, poor sleep habits, poor nutrition habits, isolation from loved ones, lack of self-esteem, a lack of motivation, a lack of purpose, feelings of shame and worthlessness, and even recurrent thoughts of death and dying. Someone who is mildly depressed may grow to feel that walking through life sad and empty and numb is normal and natural; someone with severe depression may grow to feel that the world would be a better place without them.

My years in the closet were fraught with varying levels of depression. I grew accustomed to feeling sad and empty. I had a wife, a child, a home, a calling in my church, and a successful career, and I felt empty and numb on the inside so regularly that I thought I would never feel anything different. I even grew to believe that that was what God expected of me: to be sad until I died so that I could be happy finally.

I remember a particular time being at Disneyland with my wife, and seeing a gay couple nearby cuddling during the fireworks show. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. They looked so happy. I muttered something about being disgusted that they were being affectionate in public, while on the inside I envied them, knowing deep down that I would never have that, that I would never be able to find something like that. Looking back and realizing that I once saw no happiness in my future, well, that just breaks my heart.

Turns out, depression isn’t a natural state. Emotional obesity is a learned behavior, something we choose to participate in, just like physical obesity. Depression is a real and powerful force, and it literally steals lives away. People sometimes spend their entire lives feeling trapped by their environments and situations. Women stay in codependent relationships for decades, where they are abused or confined, because they convince themselves they can’t be happy outside of it; really, they won’t let themselves feel scared and do something with the fear. Men spend lifetimes lonely and feeling unworthy of love; really, they have never learned how to experience sadness and do something about it.

I had to learn, slowly and steadily over time, that emotions that are perceived as negative are truly beautiful. They are unique, and they are crucial to survival.

I love my sadness now, in all of its powerful forms. I love being able to be blue and lonely,  I love grief, for myself and others, the ability to look back on the difficult hand life dealt me, to be able to miss my best friend, to regret the years lost, to feel a bit empty after something I hoped for didn’t turn out like I had hoped. I think my sadness is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

I love my anger now, in all of its powerful forms. I love being able to be frustrated when I hit the tenth stoplight in a row, the ability to feel and express the full spectrum of annoyed to enraged when injustice happens around me, to clench my fists when someone I love is hurt, to feel steel in my stomach when I experience rejection or betrayal. I think my anger is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

I love my fear now, in all of its powerful forms. I love listening to my mild fears and discomforts in uncomfortable situations, the ability to embrace nervousness as anticipation or dread and confronting those feelings head on, to feel gooseflesh and heart thumps when I worry about a result or a reaction. I think my fear is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

I love my guilt now, in all of its powerful forms. I love listening to the unsettling parts of myself that have a lesson to teach me, the parts that regret a bad food choice or a harsh word, the parts that ache over lost years and missed opportunities, the parts the deliver hidden messages from my deepest core and help me to course correct and make authentic choices. I think my guilt is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

Being emotionally fit means not only listening to my emotional spectrum, it means embracing it. It means opening my arms up to the wind and loving my life in all of its forms. It means putting myself first before seeking to make those around me happy. It means choosing healthy, balanced relationships. It means keeping every crayon in the box, and using all of them often to color the most beautiful pictures possible.

 

(Final obesity blog coming soon on being Mentally Obese).

21 Steps

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The soldier’s gait was careful as he took his 21 steps, clearly rehearsed, from one side of the black mat to the other. His legs seemed to move on their own as his torso and head remained rigid with perfect posture. His footfalls were exact, measured and thorough. He stopped at the other end of the mat, clicked his heels together ceremoniously, and held his gun over his shoulder. After several seconds, he turned his body to the side, shifting his weapon. And shortly after, that, he took another 21 steps to the other side.

I watched the soldier for a dozen or so minutes and felt the solemnity of his position, the exactness of his duty. The entire scene was picturesque and the atmosphere was heavy with the responsibility of it all. The pavement around him shone in the light rain, and I could see his reflection perfectly in it. He marched repeatedly in front of one stone tomb, a single monument to the tragedies and consequences of war. The hillside rolled out from there beautifully, with dense dark trees, now leafless as they awaited snowfall, to the grey expanse of sky beyond.

The walk to the Tomb through Arlington National Cemetery had been haunting. The perfectly manicured rows of white graves, lost soldiers remembered by names, ranks, and dates etched in stone. President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and two of their children were buried just yards from this site, a speech of his captured in stone around him as a small flame burned eternally over his grave. Hundreds of graves stretched in every direction, as far as the eye could see, through sloping hills and valleys.

I had heard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier prior to this, but I had never known much about it. The Tomb contained just a few remains, the bodies of randomly selected unidentified soldiers, American casualties of war from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Viet Nam War. These four bodies, brought to America to represent all of their fallen soldiers, and entombed here.

The tomb guards have been here on vigil since 1948. With their polished uniforms of black coat, black hat, black sunglasses, shining boots, blue pants with yellow stripe, devoid of rank to show respect, gun placed carefully on shoulder, the guards constantly patrol in shifts, day and night. They patrol in heat, in rain, in snow, and in high winds. They patrol on Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Years and the 4th of July. They patrol when tourists gather to watch them, and they patrol in the dark of night, standing constant respectful vigil. The position of tomb guard is highly revered within the army, and requires its own intensive training. When the guards here are not standing vigil, they are performing other duties, such as acting as honor guards at military funerals. They work consistently, and rotate through their shifts, in this honorary and ceremonial position of valor, standing over the unknowns.

I scrolled on my phone, curious about many things, learning that the first African American guard had patrolled starting in 1960, and the first woman guard not until 1997. As I read about how the guards had chosen to remain stationed even during hurricane level weather a few years back, I grew distracted by a few women next to me, laughing and chattering lightly. I looked up to see them, mildly frustrated by their disrespect, when I saw the guard take two steps off of the black mat and change his stance. He faced the women without looking directly at them, and spoke loudly. I can’t remember his exact words.

“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a place of silence and respect!”

He paused for a moment, then took his 21 steps to the other side, where he began his vigil again. My heart was pounding nervously at the intensity of the moment. The women immediately quieted down and stood respectfully. Minutes later, I heard the man speak once more, when a child, who had been mimicking his march and movements for several minutes, leaned his body on the railing. Again, the man stepped off the mat and spoke, this time more softly. “Do not lean on the railings.” A further phone search said the guards only spoke when people were breaking the rules of the area, and that when people tried to cross the barrier, the guards could take action.

The rain picked up in intensity as a loud clock chimed a dozen times nearby, each chime resounding with weight over the cemetery. At the hour turned to noon, two more men carefully joined the guard on the mat and completed a classic changing of the guard. At one moment, when all three men turned to face the Tomb, and the commanding officer quietly raised a hand in respect, I got chills down my spine.

I walked away from the Tomb after that, thinking about the men standing guard and the men memorialized inside. I wondered who they were, where they were from, what their families were like, what legacies they left behind. I wondered if DNA technology now could take their genetic markers and find their families and identify the soldiers, and I wondered if this could be done for all of the rest of the lost, providing closure to families decades later. I wondered if it ever would.

I thought of war and atrocity, and when war is for the right reasons. I thought of political battles, and men with their guns. I thought of mothers worrying over their soldiers. And I drew strange comfort from the fact that I knew, here forward, that guards would be standing over the men in those tombs, every hour of every day, for years to come.

Esther Bigley

2002

“I think I’ll call you Esther Bigley,” I said as I pushed the paddle in the lazy river, directing the canoe straighter in the water.

Esther turned toward me in the boat, laughing. “Okay, but why?”

“I was in a story-telling group at BYU-Idaho when I was there. The director wrote all of these funny little one-off stories about monsters and fairy tales. And in one of them, there was a townsperson character named Esther Bigley. Just seems like a fitting nickname.”

She laughed and gave me a challenging look. “Okay, fine. You can call me Esther Bigley if I can call you Chad Bigley.”

I extended a hand, in a mock formal fashion, and shook hers. “You have yourself a deal.”

2016

“Chad Bigley! You’re in Washington D.C.! We must get together!”

I had spent the morning walking miles, seeing sights and reflecting along the way, looking at the grandeurs of Union Station, the Capitol Building, and the Supreme Court. And now, standing there in the promenade, was my old friend Esther, who I hadn’t seen in 14 years. She looked gorgeous, thin and athletic, with beautiful blonde hair and a stylish white rain coat.

I gave her the hugest hug. “Oh my god, you look incredible!”

“So do you!” We were practically shouting as we embraced. We walked across several blocks together, talking about our life changes, and how happy we both are with our lives. It felt absolutely wonderful seeing her after all this time.

2002

That summer at Mack’s Inn Dinner Theater had drug on and on, through rehearsals and work days. Esther was playing the lead character in Calamity Jane while I played the cross-dressing actor Francis Fryer, and we both had parts in the other show, the Unsinkable Molly Brown. The cast was a group of mostly Mormon kids, struggling to fit in, a group of cool kids and nerds, jocks and returned missionaries. We put on our shows for older crowds of people and families who were camping in the Idaho forest. They crammed their plates full of food then sat at tables and watched our productions from uncomfortable chairs.

Esther and I became friends early on, somehow feeling like kindred souls, a bit older and wiser in ways than the others. We made buttered toast and played board games, drove to local cities to explore, and talked about life.

She had come to Macks Inn from BYU-Provo, where she had gone to school in theater; I had come from BYU-Idaho, where I had been a social work major who had also acted in several productions. Her family was from Pennsylvania, where I had served my mission. We had a lot to talk about.

Once, while sitting at a table next to Esther during a rehearsal, our hands touched, and neither of us moved our hands. As the director droned on, I had thought about how this would be the perfect little summer romance, this cool theater girl who was quirky and hilarious and who seemed to like me, and how our hands touching like this should have sent sparks. But I kept finding my eyes drawing to the director himself, a straight married man, as well as a couple of the other actors, both who had girlfriends. I had mentally kicked myself, wondering why I couldn’t just make myself like girls, why I couldn’t just be normal.

I pulled my hand away.

2016

“Tell me about your life! I want to know everything!”

Esther picked a French fry off her plate and dipped in ketchup while I took a large jaw-full of black bean burger. She lit up as she told me about meeting her new boyfriend and how she had just moved into a small Virginia town to be with him. She talked about the insanity of pursuing an acting career in an insular town for over a decade. She told me about her work, and about his work, and about her family.

A moment of silence passed and I smiled at her. “You look happy. More than just happy. Like you are happy with your life, and you are also doing things that challenge you, and that you are loving your present. The boyfriend, the job, the challenges, the world around you, all of it. Your countenance, it’s–you look great.”

She smiled broadly. “I am happy! But you look happy too!”

I ate another huge bite and finished chewing before I spoke. “I am. It has taken me years to get to this spot. But life is good now. I’m out of debt, the kids are thriving, and while Utah isn’t ideal, I get to travel often and find connections like this wherever I go. I am making up for all that lost time.”

“Isn’t it crazy that we had to wait until our late thirties to find happy?”

“Yes! But late 30s is so much better than 50s and 60s.”

We shared a smile and kept eating.

2002

One day, hanging out on the couch with Esther after a show, we were watching Strictly Ballroom, one of her favorite films. She was working on her college thesis, an in-depth examination of all three of Baz Luhrman’s films, including Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge. She talked about her theories of his film genius often.

Esther and I sat near each other, but not overly close. She started talking again about the acting community at BYU, and how it felt to be one of the older girls in the program (though she was only 25) and the pressure there was in the church college to marry and settle down. I laughed with her, and shared my usual story of being so focused on school that I didn’t take a lot of time to date, and how the gospel was the most important thing, and that I would get married eventually.

“You know, I knew a couple of gay guys at school. Close friends of mine. They aren’t out or anything, you can’t be there, but there are a lot there, especially in the theater program.”

I got goose bumps on my arms and my heart started thumping. Could she tell I was gay? I was so careful at hiding it. I mentally cursed myself–this is why I didn’t let people get close to me. There is no way she could tell, could she?

Esther kept talking. “One time a gay friend and I made out. It was fun, just pure fun. I mean, I know he isn’t into girls, but we just did it for fun. He was a good kisser, too.”

My brain was spinning a thousand miles an hour. Why was she telling me this? Was she saying that she could tell that I was gay and that she was cool with it and maybe she wanted to make out? I still hadn’t kissed a girl, should I? Or was she just talking, being friendly?

I stood up abruptly. “Well, I better get going, I’m feeling pretty sleepy, good night.” I rushed out of there, into the dark mountain night, kicking myself and wondering if I would ever have a first kiss.

2016

I gave Esther a big hug after zipping up my jacket.

“Do you want a ride?” she asked me.

“No, I want to walk through the city some more. It’s my last day here. But it has been amazing to see you. Truly. This was wonderful.”

“You, too!”

We made promises to get together next time she was in Utah. I turned back as I started walking away.

“See you soon, Esther Bigley.”

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Trump Towers

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“Well, there it is,” the older woman said in her thick European accent. “Trump Tower.”

“Well, it’s more like a hotel. Do you think it will be used for hosting foreign dignitaries?” The younger woman looked sad as she said it, snapping a shot of the building on her phone. “I didn’t realize how close it was to the White House.”

“I’m sure many diplomats will try to stay there to impress the president. But maybe he will let them stay there for free.”

Both women stood thoughtfully silent for a moment before I chimed in. I had been standing nearby, on a long walk through the streets of Washington D.C. I had taken my own photos of the Trump hotel as they had been talking.

“I don’t think he will be letting anyone stay for free,” I scoffed.

The older woman laughed. “We can pretend. I’m trying to comfort my daughter. She is college-aged and living here in America currently.”

The daughter continued staring at the building. “I just can’t believe it is happening. I keep looking at all of the states, even here in the District of Columbia, and I see how the majority supports Hillary Clinton. How could this man have won?”

“Well, speaking for a lot of Americans, we can’t believe it either.”

I introduced myself to the two women, Annaliese, attending college locally, who was showing her mother Linda around the city. Both women were from Armenia. I explained that I was a tourist to the city also. There was heaviness in the air as we became basically acquainted. They asked what I had been doing in the city, and I told them about my adventures.

“And then yesterday, I went to the Holocaust Museum. Have you been?” I asked.

Linda looked down, a sadness heavy on her face for a moment. “I have no need to go there. My mother’s generation was that of the first genocide, the Armenian genocide.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say, and there was a pregnant silence for  a moment. Then Annaliese asked me what I thought of the museum. I looked back over at the Trump hotel, and sighed.

“The first part of museum was dedicated to the political circumstances at the time. It told of Germany, struggling with political sanctions after World War I, and how the economy was slow to rebuild and the people were dissatisfied. Despite all of that, Germany had a lot of cultural things happening. It was becoming a safer place politically for homosexuals and for women, for Jews and other religious groups. It seemed to be changing, slowly, for the better. And then Hitler happened.” Both women looked at me and seemed to want me to continue. “Watching those exhibits, I saw how Hitler surrounded himself with people who admired and emulated him, and how he used the plights of the average German to propel himself into power. He used propaganda and political loopholes within the German system to seize larger and larger pieces of political influence. He exploited crises to gain sympathy and seemed to operate on a message of ‘Make Germany Great Again’, and then he took over and appointed others just like him into positions of power. And then the world watched what happened next.”

Annaliese looked at the hotel and then at me. “That sounds painfully familiar.”

I nodded twice. “Yeah, the museum was extremely uncomfortable for me. I must have had 75 moments of ‘oh my god, that sounds like America right now’. Political campaigns built on propaganda that exploit the disenfranchised. Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women. Fear-mongering and gas-lighting.”

Linda stuffed her hands in her pockets, avoiding the cold wind. “And the rest of the museum?”

“Well, the rest of the museum was all that happened next. I cried lots of times reading about the people killed, and how they were killed, the people experimented upon, the ones who barely escaped with their lives. It was horrible. The museum was so beautifully built, and we must remember what happened, but it was horrible. I’m sure it was similar to the stories your mother told you of the Armenian genocide.”

We stayed silent for a moment again, and I felt the need to clarify. “Look, I don’t think we are headed for genocide in America. I don’t think that would happen again. But I do worry about what comes next for us. It’s a heavy time here after things have been going so well.”

The conversation lightened up for a few minutes and we talked instead of food and music and entertainment, of aspirations and climate and family. And then the women headed along their way, after having me take a photo of them in front of the Trump hotel.

I continued my walk then, past incredible buildings full of history. I saw names emblazoned in plaques and pavement: J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass. The sheer history of these streets. The sheer weight of the footfalls of the men and women here who have influenced a world’s destiny and changed billions of lives for better or worse, from right here on these streets.

I came around the bend and saw a few handsome Secret Service agents screening the credentials of four men and women dressed like Christmas carolers, admitting them to the White House grounds for some sort of event. I looked at a construction crew building a stage for the upcoming Inauguration of a new President. I watched a crowd of Americans gathered at the perimeter staring at the White House in all its grandeur, realizing, as I was, that it is just a building like any building, and a small building at that. A Muslim family stood arm in arm, the women with their heads wrapped, the men with heavy beards. A black mother held the hands of her three daughters, all in pink snow hats. A lesbian couple hugged each other tightly. An elderly father pushed a stroller while his daughter carried the child inside. We watched, all of us, the silent grounds around us, wondering in unison what the future holds.

Black Lives

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“The hardest part is seeing all these parents with their children.”

Gloria folded her arms and nodded. “Yes, but there is no other way. The children have to know.”

My eyes scanned the crowd, looking over a veritable sea of African Americans of all ages and sizes. In front of a large display of a man being lynched, a mother clutched her son tightly. I saw her place her hand over his eyes initially as if to shield him, then she slowly took it away and leaned down to explain why this had happened. I heard two ten year old boys near her debating whether or not the man in that photo had escaped his noose. A bit earlier, I had heard a boy of 12 brag to his teacher that “My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was a slave who fought in the Revolutionary War!” Although he had a few too many ‘greats’ tacked on, I was both thrilled and saddened that he knows his family heritage. I watched a mother hold hands with her two daughters, one on each side, reading a display about a black woman who was raped by policemen, men who were later acquitted of the crime, and wondered how she felt.

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I looked back at Gloria. “I was never sure I wanted children,” she said. “And then I had my daughter, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. She changed my whole life. And I learned that I couldn’t raise a black daughter without her knowing her history. Thing is, you can’t hide from history, and you can’t make the mistake of not teaching it.”

I nod, sullen. “I’m a dad, too. I try to teach my sons the things they need to know. I taught them about Martin Luther King, and they just can’t understand why another man would try to kill someone who stood for something so good.”

“I know. But our children go on to do amazing things. We teach them right, we raise them right, and then they surprise us.” A proud look came over Gloria’s face. “My daughter, she works in the White House now. That’s why I’m here in D.C. from my home in Atlanta, to attend some events with her. Just the other day, I got to meet President Obama, and let me tell you, he was the nicest man.”

“He has surely been our finest president.” We shared a smile.

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And that had been the very best part of being in this museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It had been an hours-long wait to get in. A large crowd of us had been lead into the deep basement level, where we learned about black history in the Americas from 1400 on. Beautiful and stirring displays, with perfect music and ambience and light and shadow, showed peaceful industrious families in African villages being kidnapped and forced on to slave ships. Those who survived the journeys were then owned for life, whipped and raped and beaten and killed and worked, for generations. Displays told stories of poets and statesmen, soldiers and teachers and martyrs throughout the sordid and violent history, through the Civil War and into freedom, through poverty and segregation, through the fight for Civil Rights to mass imprisonment. A woman on the ground floor had told me it would take a full 22 hours to go through the entire museum, reading everything. I had been here for 3, and my brain and heart were in a spiral. Yet at the top, I got to see black families standing in front of pictures of the Obamas, in a massive hall lined with black celebrities and powerful figures from history. I could feel the pride emanating there.

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I confided in Gloria a bit, as her friends stood near her. “I can understand all of this, but only on my own level. I am a gay father to two sons. They are amazing and wonderful and individual, but they are growing up with a gay dad. It sets my family apart, gives us difficulties. My own family doesn’t always understand me, and I’ve faced discrimination. But my skin is white. I could never understand what it is like in this country to face all of this. And I cant imagine how it feels now that Trump has been elected. To go from seeing the first black couple in the White House to seeing a candidate endorsed by the KKK.”

Gloria put a hand on my arm, less to console me and more to get my attention. “Look. You understand more than you think you do. People are people and should be treated as people. It’s 2016 and this museum is just now getting built. It should have been here years ago.”

My eyes lit up. “I can’t believe it is as close to the Washington Monument and the White House as it is!”

She kept on topic. “As far as Trump’s election goes, I fully believe that everything happens for a reason. We are going to learn the lessons we need to learn, and we are going to keep on going on, because what else can we do? We have to, and that is just the way it is.”

I nodded in agreement, but I couldn’t help but think of how different this place would be in a few weeks. Now it felt celebratory. Would it be like this after the White House was staffed with nearly all white millionaires? I sighed.

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The line shifted forward. I was glad it had moved slowly, because I wouldn’t have met Gloria otherwise. We finally entered the room where Emmett Till’s coffin was on display, with no body inside it. Emmett had been 13 when he had allegedly whistled at a white woman. A group of white men had kidnapped him and savagely beaten him before tossing his mutilated body in a river, where it was later found. Emmett’s mother, Mamie, had allowed the bloated body to be put on display for the public to witness the atrocity. The murderers were put on trial and all exonerated in the courtroom. Being here now, feeling this now, 1955 didn’t feel all that long ago. I could still feel the outrage.

A quote from Mamie Till on the wall brought me to tears. “Two months ago I had a nice AnAn ouapartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ Now I know how wrong I was.”

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An hour later, I walked away from the museum, after hours inside, contemplative and deeply moved. Images of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Bayard Rustin and Harriet Tubman and Barack Obama and Shirley Chisholm and Martin Luther King and Crispus Attucks and, most of all, Gloria, ran through my head. I thought of the real American history, and legacy, and the present, and the future.

I looked at the gorgeous architecture of the museum behind me. And then I looked at the placement of my feet on the ground beneath me. And then I looked up at the skyline ahead.

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