Silent witness

As a therapist, it is part of my job to sit with people during their trauma and to witness it and then, as much as I can, guide them through it. But at the end of the hour, my job is done. The people that I’m helping have to leave and walk away with their own trauma, living with it on their own. I absorb the pain. I listen. I witness. I validate. I comfort. Then they leave, and I have to find a way to be okay, to be able to move on to the next person. I have to be ready to witness trauma again.

But while I am a therapist at work, and while that is a hat I’m honored to wear, I’m not a therapist in my off hours. I’m a human male with a partner and friends and a family. I read books. I experience history. I watch the news and react emotionally to the stories. While I believe in the strength of people, I sometimes lose faith in the world. This last five years has been rough on me, emotionally and spiritually. I can’t comprehend so much of what is happening, and I don’t now, despite all of my skills, how to even process some of it. I react with pain and emotion, and I try, as much as I can, to be okay at the end of the day just like anybody else.

Some news hits me much more profoundly, on a deep trauma level, than others. The Congressional testimony of Christine Blausey-Ford hit me deeply and painfully. The storming of the Capitol Building left stones in my stomach for days. The video depicting the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin caused me to weep tears of deep grief. I try to teach other people how to process their pain, but far too often I can’t even process my own.

I can’t rationally comprehend the country I live in sometimes. I can’t understand it. It hurts, in enrages, it aches. I can’t understand how we are still blaming victims of sexual assault for their own assaults. I can’t understand why we are still having conversations about gun violence in a country that is plagued by hate crimes. I can’t understand those who excuse police officers for executing men and women of color, or anyone, when other options were available at all. These hate crimes hit me as hard as the news of mass shootings. I don’t understand how everyone is not up in arms and ready for change. It’s horrifying, and humiliating, and painful. My heart is broken, and I’ve grown numb to the sensation of my heart being broken. It’s been a daily barrage of all of this. I’m exhausted. We are all exhausted.

I am in Columbus, Ohio for a weekend. My hotel room is right down the street from the Capitol building. On my first night here, I walked past a painted mural dedicated to the memories of George Floyd (with the words “I Can’t Breathe!”), Breonna Taylor (“I Can’t Sleep!”), and Ahmaud Armery (“I Can’t Run!”), and the memories of so many others showed up in my head, and the heavy gut-wrenching pain showed up back up in my deep stomach. I don’t know how to sit with pain like that. It just aches. Days before I arrived here, Derek Chauvin was convicted of George Floyd’s murder. Daunte Wright was killed in the same city during the trial. And just after that, right here in Columbus, 16-year old Ma’Khia Bryant was killed by police during a mental health episode.

I stood among a crowd of hundreds, unexpectedly, just outside the capitol in a silent protest. Incredible and eloquent black leaders stood in the middle with megaphones, shouting words of pain and hurt and righteous anger. Armed officers surrounded the building itself. The protest was peaceful, and went long into the night, with marching in the street with cars driving up and down the roads blaring horns. And I wept.

A few years ago, I went to the African American History Museum in Washington D.C. and inside lay the coffin of Emmett Till, a young teenage boy who was killed by white men in the South years ago. They killed the boy because he allegedly whistled at a white woman. The men were arrested, put on trial, and acquitted. It… hurt to view his coffin. It hurt. That’s what this rally felt like.

Over the past several years, I spent untold hours making a documentary about a young man, Gordon Church, who was brutally killed for being gay. There was justice in his case, but researching was far from easy. It hurt as well. That’s what this rally felt like.

I’m aching to build a better world or my sons. I so badly want mass shootings and police killings to end now. I’m tired of aching. Everyone I know is tired of aching. I want a better world. And I want the pain to go away.

I’m tired of hurting.

a roll of the dice

            When I was a child, I had a love of dice. I loved the idea of things being randomly determined, rules being set in place by the roll of the dice and then having to be followed. I might make a list of activities to do in a day and then roll the dice to see what activity I might actually do. As I grew older, I became aware of probability, realizing that sixes and eights were rolled far more frequently than twos and twelves. So instead I would cut up strips of paper, fold them evenly, and drop them in a hat, drawing one out at a time. I’d leveled the playing field, making the determination more random. 

            The idea of this, of creating rules about chaos and living with the consequences, always tickled the edges of my brain, gave me a sense of whimsy, of adventure, around things as mundane as what book to read or what chore to do. I’ve carried that with me into adulthood. I still love the sense of random determination. I don’t wonder why I am this way, I just embrace the sense of self-determination that comes with it, the awe and sense of being alive that comes with it. 

            When I got a little older, and childhood melded into adolescence, when I became aware of the dark things in the corners of my life that I was seeking to escape from, I leaned in to the random just a bit more, needing it to keep me sane and okay during difficult times. I needed escape, to move to that part of my brain that so desperately needed to be inspired. Dice and folded strips of paper allowed me to avoid the trauma of growing up gay and hidden, the feelings of heaviness that accompanied the abuse, the indoctrination, the shame within me.

            As a young teenager, I had dreams of just moving away somewhere and starting over. I had visions of just getting in my car and beginning again in a new state, a new city. I thought of rolling a massive amount of dice and driving that number of freeway exits and then pulling in to a new city. I’d find an apartment and a job. I’d read books and make friends and no one would know me. I could start my life over, have a fresh beginning. At the time, my perspective of the world was small. I was only accustomed to small towns and farming communities. Idaho Falls, Idaho felt like the biggest city possible. I soon realized the dice were too confining once again. Maybe I’d generate a random zip code instead. Five numbers pushed together that would dictate where I’d begin again. Fargo, North Dakota or Savannah, Georgia, or Olathe, Kansas. 

            I got my first chance to start over at age 19 when I went on a Mormon mission. I was a quiet, compassionate, curious gay Mormon teen, so busy being ashamed of myself that I couldn’t see past the horizon. I ended up in big and small cities in Pennsylvania, and Delaware, and Maryland. Random determinations as I had no control where I would be or who I would live with. And I grew in ways while shrinking in others. It was a new beginning, but one with confining and difficult rules, and tremendous amounts of painful growth as I tried to shove me, the square peg, into the round hole of Mormon obedience. I hated myself there just like I’d hated myself at home because I wasn’t what everyone expected me to be. And there can be no healing when you hate yourself for all the reasons they tell you that you should hate yourself. 

            I repeated this pattern for the next ten years. I went to a Mormon college and worked Mormon jobs. Even when I had fresh starts, it was under the guise of Mormon expectations. Then I tried the Mormon marriage. And one of the things that kept me sane and alive during those years was random determination. I used dice and folded pieces of paper to keep me entertained. Books and music and household chores were constantly determined by the fate of random determination. In some way I can’t articulate well, when I surrendered to this random nature, I didn’t have to make decisions by myself. I could put away those parts of myself that felt shame, that yearned for something else, and I could just go on autopilot and somehow be okay. I wasn’t okay, but I could convince myself that I was. 

            I’ve been out of the closet for ten years now, and I’ve changed everything about myself. I’ve worked hard at bringing all parts of myself to the table, without judgment, and embracing those parts of me. One part that I accepted long ago is my love of random determination. I don’t use dice or slips of paper any longer, but I accept that there are times in my life when I need to just be tossed by the cosmic winds. I need to create space in my life to just let opportunity find me. Most of my favorite memories over the past decade have come from these times. I plant myself in a new location, a city I’ve never been to , and I see what I find. I just… exist. I fill my time by letting the world spread out in front of me, and I just see what I find. 

            In the past decade, I’ve taken myself to Juneau, Alaska, and Portland, Oregon, and Charleston, South Carolina, and Brattleboro, Vermont, and Portland, Maine, and Sante Fe, New Mexico, and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and Halifax, Nova Soctia, and a dozen other cities off the beaten path. I buy airfare, and I book a centrally located room, and then I make no plans. I take a few books (usually randomly selected), and my laptop, and then I just find what I find. I’ve ended up at concerts and plays, sipping drinks and bars, at museum exhibits, at poetry readings, at local drag shows. I have walked alongside rivers. I’ve started conversations in coffee shops. I’ve carried notebooks and written poetry. I’ve made time for myself to be centered and creative. A part of me comes alive. I write, and think, and center, and observe. I feel at peace. My demons can come to the surface and I can face them head on and create peace around them. It’s my new religion in a way. It’s my sanity. Not an escape any longer, just a part of myself that I need in order to be well. A part of me that refuses to be closeted any longer. 

             A year ago, Covid hit. And everything changed. I began home-schooling my sons. I closed down my office and began working from home. My gym closed. My planned trips were cancelled. My story-telling performance nights were cancelled. I sat at a computer for six to ten hours per day, and spent the rest of the time doing school lessons for my sons. Social events were cancelled. And I stopped writing. The parts of my spirit that sing, the randomness, the spiritual aspects of my nature, disappeared. They were lost to the expectations as the world shut down. My solace became walks outdoors, quiet moments at home with doors closed. And so I put all of my energy into making myself the best home environment I could.  We purchased a home and got a dog, and I took on more clients and responsibilities. And my inner core withered away. It went silent. It cried for release, but I had no room to give it voice. I had plenty to be grateful for (my amazing children, my wonderful fiancée, my adorable dog, a few close friends), but I had no solace for myself. My spark went out, and my creativity went away. 

            Until this weekend. Weeks ago, I booked a trip to Columbus, Ohio, and booked a room to stay in, and then I made no plans. My goal for this weekend, as I spend some time alone, is to rediscover myself. To talk. To observe. To drink coffee and put blank sheets of paper in front of me and then to just… be. To find what I find. To come alive again. To start my spark again. To dream and center and push forward again. 

            So here I am, universe. Guide me forward and help me find what I find. Toss the dice, fold up the paper, and help me find myself again.