No Homo: when straight guys flirt

Flirt

“I’m straight. But for tonight only, you can do whatever you want to me.”

The guy had wrapped his arms around me at the bar, while I stood waiting for my drink, and he’d whispered those words in my ear. “Whatever you want,” he repeated. I pried his arms loose and turned to face him. He was handsome, looking like a surfer out of California, with a skinny build, a beanie with long blonde hair spilling out, and an impressive jawline. He was clearly drunk.

While he was certainly good-looking, I did not take him up on his offer. I prefer some conversation and connection first, not drunk-in-the-club hook-ups.

But even now as I tell this story, years later, it makes me laugh that he felt the need to point out that he was straight first, when he was clearly looking for a very gay connection.

Then again, straight guys have been flirting with me for years.

I can conjure dozens of stories from the time I was in the close where men, in high school or in college or even when I was a missionary, wanted to cuddle or asked for a back massage or complimented my body, always with the assertion that the were straight.

“Dude, I’m into girls and all, but you look damn good right now.”

Back then, when I was closeted, these interactions were lifeblood for me, giving me just enough male attention to excite or arouse without full exposure that I was gay. I rarely, if ever, reciprocated the flirting, afraid of being exposed as gay, but the encounters were relatively frequent.

But when I did flirt back, I usually experienced frightening rejection.

There was the massage therapist who kept complimenting my body as he touched me everywhere but who grew offended when I complimented his back, the guy in Elders Quorum who said it would be totally cool to share a changing room at the locker room and even suggested we shower together but then told me to make sure to keep my eyes to myself after he noticed me looking, the friend in high school who cuddled up next to me under a blanket during a movie with a hand on my leg but then pulled away in seeming disgust when I placed a hand on his.

Reactions for me back then were always met with an internal flogging, me calling myself stupid and feeling humiliated. To make sure they knew I was not gay, I’d generally respond with an assurance that I was only into girls and then brag about some made up date I’d recently gone on. And, I realize, that is exactly what they are doing by asserting that they are straight.

I remember one night as a Mormon missionary where, with the room dark, a good-looking 20 year old lay in his bed inches from me graphically describing a time he had had sex. As he talked, very dirtily, we both began masturbating and both of us knew that was happening, under the cover of darkness and bedding. We made eye contact for a moment before he turned his head away, but he didn’t stop. Then, when all was finished, he said, “That was cool bro, good night,” and turned toward the wall to sleep, leaving me wondering what had just happened.

Since I’ve come out, now much more comfortable in my own skin, I’ve been hit on by many seemingly straight guys over the years. One straight friend told me how lucky I was to be gay and have sex so easily, hinting that he might be down some time for that. One straight guy over social media told me how he has a wife and kids but how he thinks about guys sometimes. One straight colleague told me how he’s been straight his whole life except for those few years he was in prison.

It seems to be every gay guy’s fantasy, at least in some context, to fool around with a straight guy. (And I know many friends who have had a lot of sexual encounters with straight guys over the years. In Provo, Utah, for example, most gay social media apps seem to be overwhelmingly full of married Mormon men with families who are looking for sexual encounters with men on the side).  Guy friends hook up on camping trips and business trips, during massage appointments, or while having a few drinks. Each situation seems fraught with tension and confusion as everyone wonders who might make the first move, and no one quite knows where it is going to lead.

Me, I’m a naturally flirtatious person, and I embrace that about myself. I offer compliments freely and frequently. Sometimes people flirt back, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes others initiate the flirtations. And lots of times, those guys are straight.

Years ago, I had a straight friend who told me that when on vacation with his family, he liked to walk past the gay beach so that he could be complimented by guys. He always felt flattered when they whistled or cat-called, and one day when they didn’t he’d wondered why. He told me he had no interest in men, but he liked having their attention.

A friend confided in me recently. He is a very handsome gay man who is only recently out. A straight friend of his had been flirting with him in texts and conversations for months, and my friend had flirted back. But recently, in person, when my friend flirted, his straight friend put up major boundaries and let my friend know how uncomfortable the flirtations made him, telling him he needed to stop. My friend left that conversation shaken, humiliated, and ashamed, feelings I know very well from past interactions.

The culture of masculinity in our country dictates that it is unacceptable for men to flirt with men, because if they did they would likely be made fun of by other men. But I think every man out there experiences attraction to some other men, even when it isn’t sexual attraction. Most men are far more comfortable using ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ labels rather than ‘bisexual’, but it could be argued that every human has just a bit of bisexual attraction.

There are men who like men, and men who like women, and men who like both. And then there are men who like women who also seem to like men who like men.

I’ll close this blog with a conversation I overheard while on a college campus recently. Two good looking fraternity guys were sitting outside on a bench as I walked by, and I heard one say, “You know, it would be kind of cool to share your girlfriend sometime. I mean, I’m secure in my masculinity, bro. No homo.”

 

Disclaimer: (Keep in mind that flirting words, texts, or behaviors never imply consent for action or even exchanges of pictures and words. Consent must be a part of any action, otherwise the result is harassment or assault. And women deal with this much more than men, but that is an entirely different conversation.)

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the Gay Identity

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“So I’ve decided that I’m not gay,” my friend said.

“Wait, what does that mean? You’re in a relationship with a man,” I said back.

“Well, yes, but I don’t have to call that gay. I’ve dated women before, so why can’t I just be dating a man now? It’s no one’s business, and if I’m just dating a man, then I don’t have to do the whole coming out of the closet thing. That is exhausting, and it is nobody’s business.”

I gave him a skeptical look. I’d only been out of the closet a few years, but I could feel my defenses rising internally, unexpectedly.

“Well, you can. It’s just–”

“I mean, gay is just a label, right? And I don’t like labels. Labels carry weight and connotations with them.”

I swallowed, annoyed. “What kinds of connotations are you talking about?”

“It’s just–well, the word gay makes people think of rainbow flags and marching around in your underwear. It makes people think of fags and sissies who talk with lisps and have limp wrists and who carry purses and can’t play sports or whatever. I just don’t want to deal with all of those stigmas in my family or in my professional world.”

I leaned back in my chair, a wave of discomfort passing through my stomach. All of the years of programming passed through me, all of the times I had been taught to be ashamed of the word gay. Deep internalized homophobia that for years wouldn’t accept that word as part of me. During those years, when I wasn’t denying being gay completely, I would adopt safer terms that didn’t feel as dangerous, like ‘bisexual with a preference for women’, or ‘same-gender-oriented’, or ‘same-sex-attracted.’

Once when a therapist had told me I might be gay, I had walked out of the office in anger. When my little sister came out of the closet as lesbian to me, I’d told her she was just going through a selfish phase and that she just had to try hard to change. When I’d finally come out my self, and told my stake president at the time, he’d warned me against using the word gay to identify myself as it might make others think things about me that weren’t true.

Now I was an out, proud, gay man, a father with kids, and here was a friend, one who had a boyfriend with whom he was having regular sex, that the word gay made him uncomfortable.

Over the next hour, we had a long conversation about the word, and why it was important to me. He listened, a bit impatiently, understanding that this was an important thing for me.

“There isn’t so much a gay identity,” I had said. “Or even a definable community. Gay people are every color, every socio-economic status, every profession, every religion. We are a cross-section of all of humanity. And yes, bisexual is a thing, but being disgusted by the word gay just reinforces the very thing that unites us as a community: our disenfranchisement by the majority population. Whether you are a medical doctor in India or a cocaine addict in Los Angeles, if you are gay you very likely grew up knowing you were different than others and experiencing pain from that. And for those who survive that, for toss who come out, to be treated as less than for being feminine or outrageous or flamboyant, it just reinforces stigmas and triggers and pain. And we all carry that pain around inside of us, we are homophobic for ourselves. We are ashamed when we feel rejected, we are ashamed when we feel different, we play little games in ourselves that tell us we are better than others or not as bad as others. Instead of accepting each other, we divide each other. We body shame, we reject, we push away.”

I went on with my impassioned speech for a time until I ran out of steam, and he listened, patient but frustrated.

“I hear you, but it sounds like you are reading from some textbook. But that isn’t me. I don’t judge other people for being gay, or trans, or feminine or whatever. I think everybody should just work about themselves. But none of that is me. I’m not gay, I just like men, so your speech just doesn’t apply to me.”

Later, as I walked, I gave more thought to the label gay and what it means. It’s a part of my identity, and it influences every part of my life, because of what I went through to come out. But it was also unfair of me to expect everyone to have the same connection to the word. I had to find some sort of balance in being secure with using gay as part of my vocabulary while letting others not use it as part of theirs, and not feeling personally attacked when they chose not to. Homophobia was inherent in society, just like sexism and racism ageism and transphobia and body-shaming, and I couldn’t delete that outwardly.

But I could own it inwardly, and accept all of the complexities of the reality of the world around me, with myself a part of it working to make a difference one conversation at a time.

Asking for Money

money

I hate asking for money. I’ve never been the type to ask for money. I’ve always been the kid who paid his own way and who contributed to others.

As a teenager, I worked after school to save up money for my mission. On occasion, I would slip extra money into my mother’s purse to help her pay for groceries. Sometimes at work, I would clock out early and keep working because I felt like it would help the owners out. I even made a deal with my local comic book shop where I would work for free and be paid in comic books, so I could keep reading them without spending money.

In college, I used student loans for my tuition and books, and I had a full time job to pay for my housing, meal plans, transportation, and leisure. It took me years to pay all those off. Even now, in my 30s, I run my own business and pay all of my bills on time, helping out others when I can.

I don’t think I’ve ever, as a standard, asked for a cent or expected anyone to provide for me.

But making art is impossible without money.

Years ago, I wrote a comic book. I hired artists myself and printed the book myself. But when expenses ramped up, I asked for financial help for the first time. I ran a campaign through the website Kickstarter and promised people prizes in exchange for donations to printing the book. I was able to raise about $1000 of the $5000 I needed to print the book, then I charged the rest on my credit card. The money I made from book sales barely paid my card off. Overall, it was an exhausting process, but I got to see my book in print and share it with others, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Now, a few years later, the Mushroom Murders remaining copies fill boxes in my basement.

And now I’ve reached a place where I’m not asking for $5000, I’m asking for a few hundred thousand dollars. I’m making a movie, and movies take money.

A few years ago, I discovered a forgotten man, a gay Mormon guy who was violently tortured and killed for being gay, back in the late 1980s. No one remembers him, and I want him to be remembered, because he was special and authentic and his life was cut short, and because no one ever deserves to die like that. I started seeking out his loved ones. I researched the lives of the men who killed him, and I started meeting their loved ones as well. The story is insane, with so many twists and turns. It’s a story about being gay and Mormon, about murder, about the death penalty, about miscarriage of justice. It’s a story about people whose lives were altered forever because they lost a loved one, or they saw a loved one go to jail, and it’s a story about how they moved on with their lives and yet how they never moved on.

The last few months, I’ve travelled all over Utah, and into Nevada and into Montana (where I write this from) to interview these amazing, brave people. I have a professional film crew at my side, talented filmmakers with top-notch equipment, and they believe in the project too.

Making this movie fills me with passion and creativity. All of my skills, as a father, as a social worker, and as a writer, come to the forefront as we tackle this wonderful and painful project. I shed tears and my heart aches as I weave these pieces together, but I come alive doing it because it is work that simply must be done.

This is a story that has changed my life, and has placed an entirely new path before me. This is a story that can change the lives of others, one that when they view it will alter their views, make them reach out to their loved ones with messages of ‘I love you’, one that will help them live for today and want to make a difference in the world.

Yet, without money, I’m self-funding the project, charging trips to my credit card because I believe in it, because I believe in myself. With this approach, the project will take years instead of months. And facing that fact gives me angst and anxiety.

And so a big part of my journey in 2017 has been learning how to ask for money. I’ve had dozens of meetings with influential people who I hope will share my passion on the project. I’ve enthusiastically and passionately described my journey and the told the story with conviction. And literally every one of those dozens of meetings has ended the same way. Every person has said some variation of this:

“Wow, Chad, this story must be told, and you are the one to tell it. I don’t think I can help you, but I think I know someone who can. You need to speak to this person. Let me get back to you.”

And then crickets. Silence. Attempts at follow-up resulting in avoided phone calls, unanswered texts and Emails, and general silence.

Yet still, I’m moving forward. The interviews we are gathering on film are so authentic and powerful and real, and we will keep going forward.

Asking for money is painful and aggravating. It’s so difficult to not get discouraged. I keep finding ways to maintain my passion and enthusiasm. It feels like going through an endless maze and I just keep hitting dead ends, requiring me to retrace my steps and find new paths only to hit more dead ends. I’m determined, and I won’t quit, but I find myself regularly stalled and flummoxed when I want to be moving forward, ever forward.

And this, I realize, is the plight of the artist, the dreamer. Every writer, actor, musician, conductor, filmmaker, painter, sculptor, public speaker, and inventor who has a similar passion has to find a path forward against the odds until they find someone who shares their passion. They want a platform, an opportunity, and a benefactor to help them live their dreams.

I won’t quit. And I’ll keep asking. Because the alternative is not asking, which means the dream dies.

And this story must be told. I’m honored to be telling it.

Missoula

View of Missoula from Mount Sentinel, in Missoula, Montana.I could smell the smoke in the air the second I stepped off the plane. Wildfires in the hills nearby, I’d heard, and the wind had shifted the direction of Missoula. But soon, heavy rain came in, and I found myself driving in my rented car toward my rented room with the windshield wipers on full speed.

I was staying in the basement of a home that had a backyard full of chickens. When I entered the small room where I’d be sleeping, I killed a giant spider first thing, with a hastily grabbed paper towel, and I watched it kick its legs for dear life as it flushed away.

I found a trendy little coffee shop full of hipster students, all plaid and beards and nose rings, and I did some writing, tapping into a story from my adolescence, one about not knowing how to receive. But my mind kept wandering. My entire married life had been just hours from here to the west, just a few hundred miles. I’d passed through Missoula a dozen times without ever spending time here. A quick Google search of the town revealed that no historian was quite sure where the name of the city originated from, that the city boasted over a hundred thousand people and was the second largest in Montana, and that there were two universities and a decent acceptance of the LGBT population here.

Back on the road, back in the rain, I drove north, passing through the city and turning onto a state highway. The clouds clinger to the hills here, soft rolling white against the deep thick evergreen rows, all against the grey sky. It took my breath. The rain washed out all of the smoke and the land felt new. I drove through small towns, one that boasted it’s wide diameter trees on the welcome sign, and soon arrived at a bar-and-grill in the middle of nowhere.

I stepped inside and found everything made of wood, tables and chairs and walls and bar and decor. A few old cowboys in ten-gallon hats and boots sat at the bar with drinks in hands and three 30-something plump women in tight T-shirts and jeans waited behind it. I took a table in the corner, somewhere private, and set out my laptop and a pad of paper.

I moved back to the restroom where a sign hung over the urinals.

“PLEASE

Don’t write or Carve on walls

Or 

Spit Chewing Tabaco in the 

urinals, it plugs them up. 

Thanks…”

I laughed out loud with delight at the sign, so perfect and characteristic. It captured the ambiance of the place better than anything else. I wondered if they meant Tobacco or Tabasco, with a grin, and thought that these things must be actual problems in this establishment to warrant an actual laminated sign.

Back at the table, the waitress, who had a name tag that read “Mayzie” delivered a menu and a glass of water, then told me about the beers they had on tap. I had some light conversation with her and learned she was a mother of four, and I noticed that she didn’t have a ring on her finger, leaving me assuming that she was a single mom.

My eyes scanned over the menu, where everything seemed to be either alcohol or some beef product, with many variations on steaks and burgers in every form. Steak salad, patty melt, twelve different burger options, steak and potatoes, steak and coleslaw, steak and corn. I saw one item on the menu called the Vegetarian, that replaced a beef patty with a portobello mushroom cap, so I ordered that with a side of slaw. Mayzie seemed disappointed, but jotted the order down. A moment later she returned.

“Oh, I forgot. We are all out of mushroom caps. Almost no one orders that. But what we could do is chop up a bunch of little mushrooms and just put them in a sandwich?”

I laughed, un-enthusiastically, and accepted her offer. The sandwich came out thirty minutes later on toasted bread, and it was strictly mediocre, but I was hungry and consumed it quickly.

By then, I was deep into the interview that had brought me this direction in the first place. I was talking with a woman connected to a thirty year old homicide in Utah, a story I was working hard to make a documentary about. It had taken me months to earn her trust, and she was now openly discussing this ancient history that had taken place when she was only 21. She talked freely about her life, even the hard parts, and about the impact of the homicide on her family and path. She talked about the different directions life could have taken her with a mix of pain and clarity, and shed tears as she talked about it.

When I drove home, the skies had cleared, and I wound the same highway curves in the dark. I arrived back at my rented room and did a scan for spiders as I turned the lights on. I showered, then wrapped myself in the covers on the bed for warmth. Outside was silent. No cars, no electric buzzes, no chickens. My brain was struggling to stay awake, buzzing with the experiences of the day and all the new information I’d gathered, but the body won out and soon i settled into sleep, leaving the brain to work out its obsessions with bizarre dreams that flooded my consciousness.

Hours later, the rooster outside crowed, and I brewed coffee, rushing to my keyboard to capture my thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bag of Treats

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“Welcome, Chad, I bought you a bag of treats. It’s on the floor back there. Make yourself at home!”

I climbed into the back seat of the car and noticed the bag on the floor, then smiled up to the front seat, where Evelyn could see me in the rearview mirror. “Thank you, I appreciate it.”

“Just look through it and see what you like. And don’t forget to buckle up!”

I slid my seatbelt across my frame and clicked it closed, then set my backpack and pillow on the seat next to me. The drive ahead was only four hours, but I didn’t want to get bored, so I’d packed a pillow in case I wanted to sleep, a notebook in case I got any story ideas, and three different books, though I knew it wasn’t likely that I would finish even one of them. Two of them were Choose Your Own Adventure books, where you could read and make choices for the characters, your decisions leading you to different parts of the book where you might meet a tragic end or wind up making yet another choice. I loved those books, and had even written a few of my own, starring my favorite cartoon characters. I’d also packed a Nancy Drew book, taking it from my sister Susan’s collection. She didn’t want me to touch those books, but I loved them so I would often sneak them away and return them a few days later, hoping she wouldn’t notice. I was trying to read them all in order.

The car was quiet for a moment as Evelyn guided it down the road and turned toward the freeway, passing the Snake River and miles of potato fields along the way. Evelyn was a nice woman in our ward, or local Mormon congregation, one I didn’t know very well. She was in her early 70s, and had agreed to give me a ride to Salt Lake City from southern Idaho when my Mom had asked.

“Are you excited to see your father?” Evelyn smiled at me again in the rearview.

“I guess so,” I smiled back. I said I was, but I really wasn’t. My parents had been divorced over three years now, and I’d barely seen Dad since the divorce, since we moved from Missouri to Idaho. He’d moved to Salt Lake, just a few hours away, but he hadn’t made much effort to spend any time with me. He was living down there with some college aged guys, I’d heard, and was working at some menial job now. I was 14 years old and I didn’t feel like he really even knew me. “It will be good to see him during summer break. Mom will come down and get me in a few days.”

Evelyn laughed, I couldn’t really say why, and accelerated the car, headed south now. “Well, do you see anything you like? In the treats?”

“Oh,” I said, “Let me see.”

I picked up the bag and set it on the seat, opening the plastic sides of it. It was a Wonder Bread grocery sack, from the store in Idaho Falls where they sold packaged sugary treats and breads. The bag had no less than eight separate packages of processed pastries, and one can of Shasta, black raspberry flavored, a carbonated sugary punch that could be purchased for a quarter from the vending machine in front of the local grocery store. I thumbed through the different treats. Twinkie. Hostess Cupcakes. Ding-Dongs. Ho-Hos. A fudge brownie, an lemon frosting pie, powdered donuts, and chocolate donuts. My mouth salivated over all of the sugar available, having no thought for Calories or content, only wanting to sink my teeth into any and all of the treats.

“Everything looks really delicious. But I’m not hungry just yet. I’ll just lay back and read for a bit if that’s okay.”

“Of course that’s okay, dear. I’m just going to turn on some gospel music, if that wouldn’t bother you.”

“No, go right ahead.” Evelyn turned on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as I placed the bag of treats back on the floor and arranged my pillow behind my head. I thumbed through my pilfered mystery novel and found my place, beginning to read.

My stomach rumbled, but I resisted the urge to reach for a treat. It was always best to sacrifice needs and to be unselfish, I reminded myself. Evelyn was really nice to have purchased these things for me, but if I didn’t eat them, that meant that she could enjoy them, or she could share them with someone else, someone who might need them more than me. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, sacrifice was a regular part of my daily religion, something that God expected. I thought of several scriptures that backed that up.

Where much is given, much is required.

The natural man is an enemy to God. 

Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of Heaven.

If I didn’t eat the treats now, that would be another sign to God that I served him and deserved to have him in my heart. I tried regularly to keep him securely in my heart, though it wasn’t always easy. I was starting to notice boys more, and I was very scared of getting caught looking at someone handsome walking by. So I’d developed a mantra of always keeping a hymn and a prayer in my heart. I could sing one of the religious songs to myself, like “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done” or “Called to serve him, heavenly king of glory, chosen heir to witness for his name” or “Sweet hour of prayer, they wings shall my petition bear” or “Nearer my god to thee, nearer to thee.” I found it easier to stay focused on God when I had him on my mind, just like the prophets had taught me since I was a young boy. I tried hard to follow all of the rules, including morning and nightly prayers, daily scripture study, weekly church attendance, and payment of ten per cent of all my earned money from my paper route to the tithes of the church. That also meant fasting to improve spirituality at least once per month.

Mormonism was the central theme to my existence. My family’s rituals were molded around it as were my daily activities, my thoughts, and all of my plans for the future. Months before, I had been ordained a Teacher, an office of the Aaronic Priesthood for all worthy young men ages 14-16. It entitled me to bless and pass the sacrament and to go with older Priesthood holders into the homes of members as a home teacher, where we would check on the welfare of the families monthly and teach them gospel lessons. At 16, I would become a priest, and at 18 an elder of the Melchizedek Priesthood, then I would get to go through the temple for my endowment, serve a two year missionary service wherever I was called in the world, and finally marry a woman in the temple and begin my family. I loved my church, and everything in my life revolved around it.

I fell asleep for a time, and Evelyn drove smoothly, making great time. When I woke up, she asked how I was, and asked if I might like to enjoy a treat now. She reminded me of my grandmother in all the best ways.

“I’m okay, maybe in a little while.”

Besides stopping for gas briefly, we drove the rest of the way in silence. It was early afternoon when we pulled into Salt Lake City, in a spot downtown near Temple Square, where the very origins of my beloved church were on display in museums and visitor centers all placed directly around the Salt Lake City Temple itself. My dad would meet us there soon.

I climbed out of the car and pulled my backpack and pillow with me, leaving the treats on the floor in the bag. My stomach grumbled with hunger, and I wished again for a treat, but I didn’t want to take something that Evelyn could use for herself later.

Soon, my dad arrived and Evelyn drove away with a friendly wave.

“What would you like to do?” Dad asked, his voice its familiar quiet.

“Can we get something to eat?” I asked. “I’m starving!”

the Band Bus

 

 

 

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As the bus sped along the southern Idaho freeway, hurtling toward home, I looked outside at the dark horizon and yawned. I was exhausted.

I was 16 years old, and a sophomore in high school. Early that morning, all of the members of the high school pep band had gathered at the high school and boarded the bus, and then we had driven several hours from south-eastern Idaho to south-western Idaho, where we played upbeat songs for a sports team during their match. The school fight song, “Wooly Bully”, “the Hey Song”, and other inane tunes still blared in my brain during the long drive home. My clarinet was safely tucked into its case underneath the seat.

Sarah sat next to me, a senior. She played the flute. I didn’t know her well, but I’d always found her nice. She was quiet, a good Mormon girl, modest, friendly. Pretty in a homely kind of way. Toward the back of the bus were the more raucous kids, wild with laughter and teasing each other, blasting music and playing cards. Sarah and I sat at the front of the bus, among other kids who just wanted a quiet easy ride. The unspoken rule was that the more well-behaved students sat closest to the bus driver, and the more wild ones sat farther away.

The bussed had lulled into a steady dark drive, only occasional chatter now. I wasn’t really aware of anyone around me. I just felt the vibrations of the wheels against the road and listened to the sounds of traffic, and I pulled the pillow I’d brought from home up next to me, resting it against the window and pressing my head snugly into it. We wouldn’t be home until past 2 am, and I hoped to sleep the rest of the way. Sarah had a pillow also, and after trying it out behind her head and then on the seat in front of her, she asked nicely if she could rest it against my arm.

“That’s fine,” I yawned again, and she pressed the pillow against me and was soon sleeping. I fell asleep not long after that.

A few hours later, I woke up as the bus pulled into the high school parking lot, a building designed, on purpose, to look like a spud cellar, a building that housed potato on farms. Our high school mascot was a potato, and the architect had apparently felt this would show school spirit. I slowly came aware and realized that Sarah’s pillow had shifted downward until it was in my lap, and she lay there sleeping soundly, bent at the waist. My pillow, meanwhile, had moved to her shoulder, and I had been sleeping soundly there. I tapped her on the shoulder, indicating that we had arrived, and we both gathered our things and got off the bus, stretching the kinks out of our backs and necks along with everyone else. It the the middle of the night, and winter, and I pulled my coat tightly around me. As pre-arranged, a friend gave me a ride home, and I immediately went inside, changed to pajamas, and went to sleep.

School was back in the next day, so I only slept a few hours. I woke up at 7, got ready, and headed in for my usual schedule of classes. History, Math, English, Economics, lunch, Seminary, Band, Theater. The day felt a lot like it normally did, routine and easy. I did my homework, bantered with my friends at lunch, and visited my locker to change books between classes.

It helped that things at home were quiet right now, routine. It had been a few weeks since Kent, my step-father, had lost his temper and thrown all of my mom’s things out on the front lawn, screaming insults and terrible things to her while Sheri, my little sister, and I had cowered in our rooms. Usually, after one of his violent and angry spells, things got really good for a while. Kent was a great father figure in between those spells. He made meals, took us to movies, and planned family events. There was always the threat of another storm, but for now things were okay, and being at school felt safe.

And then it was time for band class. I entered and took my seat in the row of clarinet players, getting out my instrument, assembling it, and attaching my reed. With the flutes in front of me and the saxophones behind me, we waited for the band leader, Mr. Marr, to begin class. He walked out of his office, took his place in front of us, and then started to yell.

“It has come to my attention from those who chaperoned your pep band trip that some of you in this room took advantage of the fact that I was not there to engage in inappropriate behavior! The things I heard about some of you doing on the bus last night were unacceptable! Reports like the ones I received, they do not reflect the morals and standards of this band at this school! And if you think I don’t know your names, then you are wrong, I hear things. I know what happened between people like Chad and Sarah on that bus!”

He continued yelling, but I didn’t hear another word. My head filled with cotton and my stomach immediately became nauseous. What was he talking about? What had he heard? That we fell asleep in the same seats? Had someone made up a rumor about us? My heart was thudding wildly as he stopped yelling and angrily lead us through our band routines for our upcoming concert.

For the rest of class, I only pretended to play. I couldn’t calm down. I’d felt all those eyes on me, some of confusion, some of concern. A few times, Sarah had looked back at me, her face pale, and we’d exchanged looks of utter bafflement. What had he heard?

In time, the bell rang, and people made their way out of the room toward their next classes, having only four minutes to get there. I put my instrument away and waited as the room emptied. Then I walked over toward Mr. Marr’s office to ask him what he had heard.

Without even waiting for me to speak, he looked up at me from his desk. “I don’t want to hear it, Chad. What you did was not okay, and today is not the day to talk to me about it. Try next week when I’ve calmed down.”

My mouth was dry. “But, sir, I didn’t do–Sarah and I barely even– we didn’t–” I was stammering, unable to finish a thought.

“I said not today! I don’t want your excuses! Now go!”

He shouted and I rushed from the room. My fingers were shaking as I fumbled at my locker, putting my instrument away and grabbing supplies for my last class. I felt like running away. Being yelled at like that, it felt too familiar, like everything that was going on at home, me being screamed at when I hadn’t done anything wrong. I walked on autopilot into the theater class, seventh period, and took my seat in the front row. The bell rang and students around me were laughing and chatting. I just clutched the desk, my heart in my stomach, my skin tingling, feeling nauseous.

Mr. B, the drama teacher, stood in front of the class to introduce what we would be doing that day, but he didn’t get far before the tears started falling from my eyes. I sat there and wrapped my arms around myself, hoping no one would notice, but then I started crying harder. Little gasps escaped my mouth, and a sob escaped my throat, and suddenly I was sobbing, quietly and then more loudly. I gripped my desk and bent my head forward and just sobbed, my body overcome with anxiety at the same time. And then the sob was a small wail.

Mr. B emptied the classroom quickly, moving everyone into the auditorium, instructing my friends Lynda and Jill to stay with me. One grabbed tissues while the other rubbed my back, telling me it was fine, it was fine, what’s wrong, you’re okay, it’s okay, calm down, you’ll be fine. A minute passed, then two, and then my stomach seized, and I bolted out of my chair and rushed down the hallway, making it to the bathroom just in time to vomit.

Jill and Lynda waited for me outside and walked me back to the classroom, where Lynda asked me, “What in the hell is going on?”

I bit my lip, unsure what to say. “Just, things aren’t great at home, and just got in trouble in band for something I don’t even know what, and I’m tired and–”

Within 20 minutes I was home. I ignored Kent when I entered, said I wasn’t feeling well, and went to bed, my puppy sleeping on my knees. Sarah and I never talked about what happened. I never again asked Mr. Marr what he heard. And while I’d never had a breakdown like that before, I still had a few more to go before Kent was out of our lives once and for all.

IT and our childhood fears

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Recently, I saw the movie, IT, based on the classic Stephen King book. While I’ve read several King books over the years, I’d never read this one and didn’t know much about it except that there was a scary clown who goes after children.

(Spoilers below for those who haven’t read the story).

In a small town in Maine, a parasitic creature wakes up and needs to feed, and what it eats is fear. Using some sort of telepathic abilities to read the fears of children, the creature then appears as their very worst fears and terrorizes them before consuming them, distorting reality around them as it becomes what they are most afraid of. For one kid in the film, its zombies, literal creatures from the undead. For another, he turns into a leper, representing the boy’s fear of germs and disease. For one girl, he is a creature of hair and blood, somehow manifesting her fear at the hands of abuse from her father. For the young boy at the opening of the film, the creature becomes a friendly stranger, who then does harm to the boy.

As I watched the movie, trying to figure out its secrets and intrigues, I grew fascinated by this concept, and my brain immediately began going back to my own childhood, and I wondered what fear the creature would have manifested for me. When I was six, I was convinced that there were ghosts living in my mother’s closet upstairs (and no, the irony of the closet here is not lost on me). When I was ten, I was constantly afraid of rejection by my peers, being picked last at recess for team sports or being called a sissy for not knowing how to ride a bike. When I was fourteen, I was frightened that my friends might discover I was gay. At sixteen, I was most afraid of condemnation of God.

I wondered how IT would have shown up at each of those stages: the ghosts in my mother’s closet escaping me and pulling me inside; my peers morphing into horrible creatures who made fun of me and exposed my secrets; the vision of God himself shunning me and striking me down.

And yet the fears for everyone would be different, at differing ages. My mind wandered to my clients, my loved ones, my children, wondering what they might be afraid of. It was a brilliant, and absolutely horrifying concept.

The creature took his primary, and preferred, form as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. And he was damn scary, with frightening off-centered eyes, flaky white face, and dripping red lips, standing there creepily with a single red balloon.

I sat next to my boyfriend Mike in the film, and part way through, when a needle came out for an injection, I watched him squirm like he hadn’t before. “I hate needles,” he muttered, and later, during a scene with lots of blood, he similarly exclaimed, “I hate blood.” Out of all the scary things we were seeing, from demons in basements to headless running creatures, it was the needles that got him.

I began wondering what my own current fears would be, and it immediately hit me. The thought of my children being in danger with me unable to help them, that filled me with a dread I could hardly comprehend.

Ad it was around that time that I noticed the small child sitting behind me. The movie was about one hour in when I heard a mother in the row behind me whisper, “Cover your eyes on this part, honey,” in reaction to a bully in the movie literally using a knife to carve his name into the abdomen of another child. But before this, there had been severed arms and horrifying clown monsters, and now this mother was asking her daughter to cover her eyes.

I turned my head and saw a young mother with a few friends, and her three-year old daughter seated next to her. And suddenly, I was overcome with fury. How could someone drag a three-year old child into a film like this, filled with blood, gore, dismemberment, and death? Did she assume the child wouldn’t remember? Maybe they watched frightening movies at home regularly. I mean, as a parent, she had the right to make her own decisions, but I couldn’t imagine my children in this room, withering and crying out of fear, and the nightmares that followed. For the rest of the movie, I was aware of the child sitting behind me, and I wanted to snatch her up and cover her eyes, and also to yell at her mother.

As the final credits ran and the lights came up, I sat there. I turned my head, making eye contact with the mother for a moment and conveying my disapproval, but she averted my gaze and quickly got her child out of there.

Mike and I sat in silence briefly.

“Um, that was good.”

“Yeah.”

“And scary.”

“Yeah.”

“And I’ll be thinking about that for like three days.”

“Yeah. I’ll probably have nightmares.”

(And later, he did. And so did I.)

Mostly Vegetarian

MEAT

“Meat!”

My brain was screaming for meat as I continued on the elliptical machine, straining with the pace at the highest setting. I was dripping with sweat, my heart was thudding wildly. I watched the red digital numbers on the screen, my heart rate showing at 158 beats per minute, my ‘Calories Burned’ numbers raising by one every six strides or so, the timer ticking closer toward my goal. I still had ten minutes left.

Before this, I had lifted weights, focusing on chest and triceps, and I looked forward to the muscle burn that would set in. Between the weights and the elevated heart rate, and the fact that this was my third day of hitting the gym in a row with this intensity, my caveman tendencies were kicking in again.

“Meat!” my brain screamed again, and little cartoon images of KFC chicken breasts, turkey sandwiches, and honey-glazed ham began swirling around my brain, all with little smiley faces plastered on them.

“I don’t eat meat,” I reasoned with my brain, but my heart was pounding too swiftly to do much good. I was ravenous for protein, and desperately wanted to sink my teeth into cooked animal flesh.

“Meat!” It screamed at me a third time, and I practically salivated at the idea of an extra-crispy chicken breast, barbecued.

My heart cried back one more time. “No. No, no, no. That is a chicken! Not some food category called chicken, but an actual chicken! It was a walking, clucking creature covered in feathers, and it was probably kept in some terrible cage on some industrial farm somewhere, where they fattened it up without giving it space to walk or even healthy food, and then they cruelly slaughtered it. That is what you’d be eating!”

“Meat! Extra-crispy meat!”

“No!” My heart was outraged. “That extra crispiness? It’s breading that has no nutritional value that they deep fry! And they just roll it over the skin. Actual skin! They pluck the feathers off and fry the skin!”

“Ooh, a cheeseburger!” My brain yelled. “Doesn’t that sound yummy? Ketchup, pickles, onions, cheese, a nice thick bun, and meat!” And I could feel my stomach rumbling in response.

My heart was calm in its response. “And that is the actual muscle lining of an actual cow, another living creature. We can get our protein from other sources, easily.”

“But, meat! Meat! Come on, I know we are usually vegetarian, but we’ve taken breaks before.”

The heart ignored this reasoning. “Only by shutting down our very ethics. There are black beans, whey protein, peanut butter… so many great protein choices that didn’t once have a heartbeat.”

“Pulled pork sandwiches! Sweet and sour chicken! Steak!”

“No, no thank you. We can be patient.”

“Bacon! Bacon, you dumb bitch!”

My stomach made an even louder gurgling, audible to those working out near me, and I gave an embarrassed shrug. I technically still had five minutes left, but perhaps I should stop now and get some food.

I stepped off the machine, heart still thudding, and grabbed my towel to wipe my brow with, then rushed over to the counter to purchase a whey protein bar.

“Meat! Meat! Meat!” my brain screamed at me, but I unwrapped the bar and swiftly devoured its sugary goodness in three giant bites, shoving it down my gullet at an unhealthy level. Barely tasting it, I felt my digestive system give an immediate sigh of relief.

My heart slowed, my head quieted, my stomach relaxed. I sat on a nearby stool and felt hungry still. I needed a meal, something with sustenance. I needed carbs and protein and fat.

I planned out my meal in a hurry, and my heart felt grateful that I was vegetarian.

Well, mostly.

Repressed Memories

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“So I have this client who thinks that something might have happened to her when she was a kid. She wonders if she might have been abused or something, but she doesn’t have any specific memories.”

I nodded. “Okay, and is that something you are exploring in therapy?”

The clinician I was supervising tapped his pen against the pad of paper, collecting his thoughts. “I’ve been looking into it some. If there are repressed memories, it seems there are a number of ways to discover them and heal from them. Hypnosis can work, dream journals seem to help, regular meditation. I’m just not sure that I’m all that equipped to help her. I’m brand new in this field.”

“The operative word in your previous paragraph? If.”

I watched him write the word IF on his paper. “If. If there are repressed memories.”

“Right. She doesn’t know if there are or not. If there are repressed memories then hypnosis and those other methods might help. If there aren’t?”

“Then there wouldn’t necessarily be anything there. Okay, interesting.”

I let him collect his thoughts, then began asking questions. “So the first thing to wonder, why does she think she might have repressed memories?”

He smiled, enthusiastic. “I actually asked her that question. She had a decent childhood, so far as she remembers, but some traumatic stuff happened to her later on. Now she is realizing there are blank patches in her childhood memories, so that leads her to wonder if something bad happened and her subconscious mind blanked it out.”

“Okay, good job exploring that with her. There certainly could be repressed memories. In times of trauma, for adults or kids but particularly for kids, the brain can enter a mode where the person shuts down for a while or where they kind of leave their own body in order to survive. There are also times when the brain can hide or omit memories from the consciousness as they would be too disturbing to the person. When those memories show up, it can be in the form of flashbacks or panic attacks, and it usually happens after something triggers the trauma memories, or, ironically, the memories can show up during times of safety, when everything feels comfortable and okay for once so the memories are able to finally come to the surface.

“But the key here is she doesn’t know if she has repressed memories. She might and she might not. She’s simply wondering at this point if there might be. During the 1990s, there was a lot of repressed memories topics showing up on talk shows and soap operas, and suddenly everyone was coming forward as having repressed memories. It became kind of a craze. But wondering if something bad might have happened in childhood, or even wondering if more memories should be there where there aren’t any, that doesn’t mean there is any evidence of repression.

“Of course, it also doesn’t mean that there isn’t.”

The clinician clicked his pen in frustration. “So what do I tell her to do?”

I smiled, knowing this would annoy him. “What’s the first question we always ask ourselves?”

He rolled his eyes. “‘What is my role here?'”

“And your role in this case?”

“Is as her therapist.”

“So what is your job regarding this?”

“My job is to help her meet her goals. We are working on getting through depression and PTSD.”

“Right. So your job is to help her talk about it. Which you are already doing. Help her talk about her trauma, about why she thinks she might have oppressed memories, about her actual childhood memories. Then explore with her the options of other treatment methods if she feels they can help. There is hypnosis, there are mindfulness groups, there are dream journals. All of those take effort, time, and money, and she can pursue any of them that she wants to. But regardless, your job is to be there with her, week to week, whenever she is in front of you and needs help.”

“Okay, right, but are repressed memories an actual thing? Is that something you have come across?”

I moved my tongue along the inside of my cheek for a moment, thinking of the best way to answer. “Well, yeah. But it isn’t as simple as all that. Trauma can impact a person in a myriad of ways. It can show up as anxiety, as depression, as apathy. It can result in withdrawing from relationships, in sexual promiscuity, or in crippling fear. We can research trauma for years, but we can never have a clear mapped path that shows its results on a particular person. Even if we understand how a trauma effects someone, that effect can change with age or time or stress. Someone can live with trauma unseen for years and then have it show up much later in life.

“Here, I’ll use a personal example. When I was a kid, I went through a period of sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. For years, I didn’t understand how serious that was. As a kid, I also knew I was different from other kids, but didn’t know what that meant. As an adolescent, when I began to realize I was attracted to boys and not girls, I didn’t have any context to understand this, so in the beginning I automatically assumed that the abuse was causing the attractions, when in fact there were no direct correlations.

“When I was 20, and on my Mormon mission, I hit a slump of pretty low depression. Life was very much routine. I was mugged and knocked unconscious one day, which was its own separate trauma. But something about that particular incident seemed to knock something loose, pun intended. I began getting flashbacks after that back to the abuse from when I was a kid. Full on trauma flashbacks. Like in my brain I was the young kid for a while, then I would come back into my own adult skin. I wrote down everything that was happening, in detail, to get it out of my system, and after a couple of weeks, the flashbacks went away.

“So using that example, we can see the impact of trauma on development, and we could run down the list of trauma symptoms. Yet those symptoms showed up differently in childhood and adolescence than they did in adulthood. And a separate trauma caused me to have flashbacks of my childhood trauma.”

The clinician was scribbling notes. “So would you call those flashbacks that you experienced repressed memories?”

“I wouldn’t, actually. But some could. They were memories that, for whatever reason, I had to relive in order to move on. And they were repressed. But they weren’t forgotten, or omitted by my subconscious. I had no sense that parts of my childhood were missing, yet they were also memories that I avoided completely because they caused me discomfort.”

“Okay, okay.” He underlined something on his paper. “I get it. It’s complicated. We can study the topic, but it’s gonna show up for the individual person in different ways at different times. And my job is to be there with them, talk it over, help them meet their goals and explore their options.”

“Right.”

He gave a deep sigh. “What we do isn’t easy, is it?”

“It most certainly isn’t. But we get to help people who ask for help. And that makes it worth it.”

EMDR

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“Chad, listen, I’m thinking of becoming certified in EMDR therapy. What do you think about that?”

I looked out across the room full of new social workers I was supervising and nodded, thoughtfully. “I think it’s a great idea. Why do you want to?”

“Well, it’s new and people seem excited about it. It seems to be getting good results for a lot of people.” Several of the others agreed, showing new interest in a potential certification. “What do you think about it?”

I felt a bit nostalgic, remembering when EMDR had first been introduced in a class I was taking back at Boise State University in 2003. My teacher back then, an eccentric woman named Alberta, had sung its praises.

“EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing,” she’d explained as I’d taken notes. “It was developed by Francine Shapiro. Basically, after a human undergoes trauma, there are altered memories and pathways in the brain that form, and the trauma memories then cause symptoms to show forth generally in the form of PTSD, which can include anxiety, depression, flashbacks, depersonalization and derealization, anger, unhealthy relationships, and on and on. EMDR is designed to alter and heal the pathways in the brain that were negatively impacted by the trauma.”

She went into much more detail before describing how EMDR itself would work. Basically, in a period of therapy sessions, the survivor of trauma would sit before a trained therapist and discuss specific trauma memories and events in a safe environment. Then, wearing headphones that pulsed soothing sounds from left ear to right ear, or left brain to right brain, the therapist would do trauma recovery work while tapping the left and right sides of the survivor’s body, and have them alter the disturbing memories to more safe spaces, allowing the trauma symptoms and triggers to diminish over time. While the therapy itself was highly controversial in some spaces, it had proven extremely effective among those who had utilized EMDR for healing, with long term healing results reported and great reductions in their PTSD symptoms.

I turned back to the group. “What do I think about it? I think it can be very helpful. There are lots of studies that show it’s valid.”

One of the group members smiled. “I sense a but coming.”

“But… I think it is like any kind of therapy. It’s going to be super-effective with those who utilize it well and who are ready for it. It’s like the gym or nutrition analogy. You can develop the knowledge on how to work out and eat right, and even show up at the gym, but that doesn’t mean you are working out effectively to achieve results. I think EMDR can be very effective for those who are ready for healing and put it into practice. But it isn’t the miracle cure that people often think it is.”

The group had heard my philosophies on therapy many times over and they were familiar with my approach toward healing. I’d seen people viewing EMDR as something magical, but I knew from personal experience that it didn’t always work.

The room grew silent as I formed my thoughts. “I’ve shared a lot of my personal story with you guys in the past. When I was married and Mormon, after the birth of my first son, I got really fat and really depressed. I was working more than full-time as a therapist helping people solve their life problems, but I felt broken inside. This was just a few years before I came out. I had come to think that my being gay was something that was broken inside me, and I had given up on trying to find a cure spiritually because there just wasn’t a cure.

“So I figured it must be something emotionally wrong with me. I read a few books that backed that up. I read in some texts (books that I later learned have absolutely no scientific basis) that homosexuality was caused by unmet emotional needs, and that through therapy and effort ‘heterosexuality could be restored’, as one book put it.

“And I remembered what my teacher had said about EMDR being a healthy treatment for trauma. So I found an EMDR therapist, a really nice woman named Jenelle. She spent the first few sessions (I was paying 100 dollars per session, by the way, and I wasn’t telling my wife about them) taking down my history. I told her pretty much everything, except that I was gay. I simply couldn’t admit it. I told her about stuff from childhood, like abandonment and abuse, but I didn’t tell her the real reason that I was there, to stop being gay.

“So after that, we did six separate sessions of EMDR. In total, I spent almost a thousand dollars on the process, but it didn’t do anything for me. I mean, it was nice to talk to someone, but I wasn’t prepared to discuss my real traumas, and EMDR couldn’t possibly do anything for me. You can’t cure something that can’t be cured.”

There was silence in the room as everyone digested the information, and I smiled. “So learn EMDR. And be prepared to use it. It helps a lot of people who have been through terrible things. Combat veterans, sexual assault survivors, people who have lost loved ones to suicide. But know that any kind of therapy has to be individualized for the person. There is no wonder drug out there, and there is no wonder therapy, that magically will cure all ails.”

Soon, the group ended and everyone walked out. For a moment, I closed my eyes, and I pictured being back there with Jenelle. I had headphones on and the sounds of ocean waves were rushing into my ears through head phones, alternating right and left, right and left, and she sat close and tapped my knees, right and left, right and left. She’d told me to talk about a particular trauma, and I’d chosen a memory from childhood where I’d felt isolated and alone. She’d had me observe the trauma from afar as I talked about it, picturing myself on a train that was rushing by so I could observe the events and leave them behind as the train slowly sped by. Right and left, right and left. Somewhere inside me, the old prayer had still been alive, the one begging God to make me whole. Right and left, right and left, right and left.