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.