Maintaining optimism

8 months ago, the Corona Virus vastly changed my American way of life. One day, everything felt normal. I was dropping the kids off at school every day, working from my therapy office, planning trips and vacations a few months in advance, and enjoying weekends with my little family. My partner and I had a robust social life, going out with friends, double-dating, hosting movie nights, seeing movies and plays and live music. I went to the gym five times per week. I spent 6 to 10 hours per week in coffee shops, writing about my life or researching passion projects, like the one that became the documentary Dog Valley.

And then one day, everything was cancelled. School was out, and restaurants were closed, and gyms were closed, and coffee shops were closed, and suddenly it felt unsafe to go into the office. I had three trips planned that had to t cancelled as well: a family vacation to Cancun that the kids had looked forward to for months, a trip to show my partner New York City for the first time, and a week in Winnipeg with my best friend, one we had just booked after weeks of talking about it. The kids couldn’t see their friends at recess and had a hard time understanding why. I reassured them that it would all be over soon.

And then Salt Lake City was struck by a few earthquakes. And then school got out for the summer. And I closed my therapy office and began working from home, which meant seeing clients over a computer instead of in person and also keeping small children entertained all day. I couldn’t travel, and without the space to travel or even go to coffee shops, my writing inspiration went silent. I suddenly had nothing to write about. I needed to reassess, to stay happy if I was going to keep happiness in my home, and that meant changing the way I cope with everything. I’d have to change me first, then set the new trend for my family. And then there were the crazy hurricane winds that blew over ancient trees all across the city and knocked out power for days. We just went numb after a while.

Now normally, my kids had very robust social lives themselves. Play dates, painting classes, trips to the zoo and aquarium, weekly visits to the swimming pool. With everything closed, we had to change it all up. I began planning little ‘event nights’ for most nights during the week. A solo dad day for each son during the week, where we could focus on doing something they loved one on one. A Disney movie night. A board game night. A night where we ordered take out. A craft night. A coloring night. A Smash Bros tournament night. Nights of home-cooking meals together. I signed both boys up for some monthly ‘subscription’ boxes, where crafts and projects would be mailed to them. We started doing yoga at home, going to the park more, and taking one night once per month to go stay in a hotel nearby somewhere just for fun, a safe change of scenery that would allow us to continue creating memories.

And my own self-care began to shift as well. I started taking long bike rides, long baths, reading comic books more, thinking about new things to research down the line when it was safe again. I got mediocre equipment to start working out from home. I chose some shows to watch that I’d wanted to see for years and began powering through them a few episodes per day. I started taking long baths, and cooking from home more, and getting high more often, which meant my sleep was steadily improving. I saw clients over my computer from my own home, and found myself busier than ever, which meant more work but also more money coming in. Instead of spending time with lots of friends, we started hanging out with just two, another couple we had known for years. And then that couple broke up and we were spending time with only one person, my best friend Kole.

And then summer changed to fall, and the balance was disrupted again when we made the decision to not send the kids back to school. So suddenly it wasn’t just entertaining kids during the day while working impossible hours from home, it was now keeping them on task with school work while their anxiety soared and I was unavailable for hours at a time. Every moment I wasn’t doing therapy, I was suddenly helping with homework, playing the roles of teacher and tutor and parent all at once, while trying to get dishes and laundry done and bills paid. My bike rides slipped, the event nights stopped happening, and stress climbed slowly and steadily. Coping became much more difficult.

And so the conversation shifted. Again. If this was going to last a while, how do we make this better for my little family, keep optimism high and routine consistent? And so plans that were probably five years down the line suddenly became present-tense. My partner and I had talked about buying a house together somewhere in the future, having a garden in the back, maybe some chickens, and even getting a puppy. But with us both working from home and schooling the kids, the space and the change suddenly became a need instead of a want, and we opened ourselves up to the house hunt. And after all the searching, the appraisals, the financial and background paperwork, we found a cute little home that seemed perfect for our family. And then there was all the packing and sorting and storing, the cleaning and moving, the unloading and unpacking.

We spent three days in our new home, painting the kids walls and setting up furniture, getting used to where the new light switches and water mains were, learning about the water pressure in the shower and the length of the stairs in the dark. And then we got a new six-week old puppy, perhaps the cutest thing on the planet, and accepted all of the sleepless nights and responsibility that came with that. Covid numbers were going up, and here we were, ready for a new beginning, with space and solace to expand in.

And then the next day, the first one after the new puppy, I came down with Covid symptoms. And then Mike did. And the kids had to stay elsewhere for weeks, unable to enjoy the new home and bedrooms and puppy. And I was on the couch with fever, headaches, body aches, and extreme lethargy as a small puppy needed a tremendous amount of attention and to get up multiple nights per week.

Well, it’s been a few weeks since then. The Covid is gone, but the residual fatigue remains, making me so tired every evening that I want to go to bed at 7 pm–I understand this can last for a few months yet. I have an understanding of how this disease impacts human lives heavily and swiftly, and it has made me more afraid of it, because it could so easily strike my mother or another loved one. 300,000 American lives and millions worldwide. And I’m flummoxed at how callous most people are being about this. The virus continues to rage and claim lives.

It’s a few weeks later and we are in the throws of a Presidential election with consequences so vast on either side. I gladly call myself a liberal, and to me, Trump winning signals the end of democracy as we know it, as I see him as much more of a Hitler than a Roosevelt. But for many of my sane loved ones who voted for Trump, they have a similar fear of socialism, and they feel that voting in Biden may mean the end of their own version of democracy. The stakes are high and the battle lines are drawn and the whole world watches with eager anticipation. Me, I have an undercurrent of anxiety that won’t seem to go away.

It’s a few weeks later and the puppy is a slightly bigger puppy, who is playful and tired, sweet and aggressive in equal measure. We are absolutely enamored of him. The house needs a lot of attention and set-up and it has come to feel like a refuge for all of us in many ways. The kids are falling into a consistent routine. We made a happy little Halloween for us right there in our home, and we plan to do the same for the upcoming holidays.

And so six plus months have passed, and we have grown into new people. And we will continue to do so. But I find the best tool to combat all of this, the best thing to make it all okay, remains that routine, that daily focus on making life okay for all of us one day at a time. With that, we can use the optimism and consistency to recognize the people we are becoming. And, with all things, trials do their best to tear us down, and it is our skills in climbing back up that teach us new things about ourselves.

I hope when all this madness emerges that me and my family emerge from the ashes stronger and more hopeful than when we went into the fire.

August 26, 2020: I miss being hungry

I haven’t been writing lately. Like at all. No poetry. No stories. No blogs in five months. I even quit keeping my journal. The creative processes in my brain has quieted, shifting into the day to day routine and monotony of this Covid world we are living in.

The routine is a blessing some days. A challenge others. And some days, it is a drudgery. My spirit moves from soaring self-determination to quiet self-criticism, bordering on light depression at times.

I am richly blessed with a beautiful life. I have a lovely home, a handsome and dedicated man at my side, two curious and wonderful children. The bank account is doing great, considering I’m not traveling or spending money on things like entertainment. I’m working from home now. My therapy office is closed, but I’m busier than ever doing remote work over various computer platforms. I’m spending more time with the kids. We are coloring pictures, playing video and board games, reading books out loud, taking lots of walks. We are making plans to purchase a home and plant a garden and to get a family dog. All of those things make me soar with joy and light.

The most momentous thing to have happened since the quarantine measures, I mean besides the cancelling of school and the cancelled vacation plans and the cancelled story-telling events and not seeing friends or family for months… the most momentous thing is that the documentary I made was finished and it has debuted at various festivals. I’ll write more on this another time, but I’ll say that while it happened in a far different way than I once hoped, it has been a wonderful experience to see the story come to light.

Sometimes Covid has felt like a great opportunity for myself. I can read more. Really focus on nutrition and exercise, something I’ve been wanting to do for years. Build a few close friendships. Spend more time in my own skin. Write like never before. Make my house immaculate. Come up with a massive project that would inspire me for the next year.

But the opposite has happened, at least partially. I’m not laying around depressed every day or anything, but I’ve gone quiet on the inside. My perspectives have changed. My family relationships (boyfriend and sons) are stronger than ever. But my spirit has gone mute. I’m reading less. I’m watching more TV. At the start of the pandemic, I was riding my bike and doing intense workouts… now I’m doing lower intensity workouts and staying in to avoid the heat. I’m getting high more often, just enough to quiet the brain. Weirdly, I’m also sleeping better (maybe not so weirdly). I’m reaching out to friends less. My libido is lessened. I’m eating less junk food, but I’m not hitting the nutrition goals. I’m reading more comic books and finding silly projects to write about in order to avoid my brain getting crazy.

I miss being hungry. I miss telling stories. I miss having my feet on unfamiliar streets. I miss friends. I miss dancing. I miss live theater and music. I miss seeing clients in person instead of over a computer screen.

I don’t have a lot to say today, but I needed a place to voice my thoughts. I needed a spot to write down, to have a record of my experiences. I want to jump start my brain again. I want to be excited about life, to find poetry in the world. I want to form more healthy habits.

Life is absolutely wonderful. I am safe and well and loved. And yet it is important to let the soul express the rest as well. Maybe writing more regularly will awaken my hunger in other areas as well.

I miss being hungry.

Corona 2: the Lonely

The news seems to get more intense every three hours. I woke up to news that the gyms were closed. And as I prepared to adapt to the kids doing school from home, the news came out that certain cities in the United States are on complete lockdown. I continue seeing clients (from a distance or on video chat), and I’m hearing reports about grocery stores only letting 25 people in at a time, and small business worried about being shut down and being unable to last. It is downright frightening.

But most of my heart goes out to the lonely. Everyone on this planet has struggles and problems. Those problems existed the day before all of this happened, and they were intensified by the news of social distancing and the impact on the planet.

Some problems are frustrations but ultimately of little impact. People had to cancel vacations, alter plans, or temporarily withdrawn from budding relationships. Others are growing stir-crazy or don’t like the people they live with. These issues can certainly get worse.

When I begin feeling isolated, I take time to visualize the elderly living alone. People isolated in tiny cruise ship rooms and unable to leave due to quarantine. Men and women told to stay in their prison cells. This affects all of us.

Then there are those with more extreme struggles. The woman struggling with the cancer diagnosis. The man who just found out his wife has been cheating on him. The woman taking care of her elderly mother. The man wrestling with deep and abiding chronic pain. The child that feels unsafe in her own home. The woman ready to give birth any day. The man who was already struggling with crippling depression and suicidal thoughts. The woman who just lost a son tragically in a car accident one week ago. The man facing bankruptcy.

Each and every human is going to struggle with isolation and depression in some measure over the coming weeks. This is going to shift routines and impact financial wellness. Travel and social gatherings are restricted. People will be working from home. And for many, depression is going to be a harsh reality.

For those who are going to struggle, let me offer two major pieces of advice, one that should feel like a big hug, and one that should feel like a small but swift kick.

First, sadness is normal in times like these. Struggle is real and you are not alone in that struggle, nor are you fully responsible. It just is what is. It’s painful, and isolation can further depression, and it can open up old wounds, the parts of us that ache from long ago. It’s okay to grieve, to hurt, to feel that pain. It’s okay to ask for help as you move through this. It’s okay to struggle to find the light sometimes. But the light is there. Routine and consistency are going to be crucial during this time of struggle. Find the good things and hold on to them tightly. So many people out there are wiling to be there for you. Depression is a real force, as is loneliness.

Second, you have to be responsible for you. Your pain is internal and asking for help during this time is going to be crucial. You are responsible for your decisions. Drinking yourself to sleep, numbing your pain with drugs, locking yourself inside and never venturing outward–these things are guaranteed to make the pain worse. You have to take responsibility and work to better your situation. The food you eat, the way you exercise, the people you associate with, and how you spend your time are things that are in your control. Be there for yourself, be there for others, and then appreciate when others are there for you as well.

Loneliness is real. And it is a sign of depression. Think of those people in your life who need you, a little extra love and support. Arrange check-ins and phone calls. Help when you can in what ways you can. I believe it is in times of pain and struggle that the best of humanity can show up. The ways we reach out to each other, and to this struggling planet, during these times, can make all the difference in the world for someone. And do this every day. Being there for others makes us less lonely, and it helps them as well.

And as far as those personal struggles you are wrestling with, well, things don’t change overnight, but they do change incrementally a little at a time. Practice healthy habits, now more than ever.

We need each other. You aren’t alone, even when physically alone. I’m here. We’re all here. And we are all going through this together.

When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high, and don’t be afraid of the dark. 

At the end of the storm is a golden sky, and the sweet silver song of a lark. 

Walk on through the storm, walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown. 

Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone. 

You’ll never walk alone. 

Corona 1: the Anxious

The world has gone a little crazy this week. The slow build in the news about the Corona Virus taking place over the last few months felt remote. Foreign. It was a thing that other countries were going through. It was a news article I paid attention to with interest, but casual interest, figuring it wouldn’t impact me all that much. It felt like political news, or news of Australian and Amazon wildfires. And then it started hitting the news more locally, like Seattle and New York City.

And then, four days ago, it exploded. There was an onrush of news about flights and vacations being cancelled, major events like South by Southwest and March Madness being delayed or shut down, and theme parks closing. And within hours, it spread to school closures and local venues (like the swimming pool I frequent) being closed.

A myriad of emotions have set in since then. In me, in my children, in my family and loved ones, and in the general public. The world suddenly feels like a very small place. News feels familiar instead of foreign when I realize we are experiencing in Salt Lake City what they are experiencing in Seoul and Wuhan and Florence. It is a big world full of people, and we are much more the same than we are different.

This morning, I stopped by a coffee shop that I frequent. I go to this place twice a week. I know the baristas by name. I can sit there for hours and read and write. Today, everything was different. It was like an alternate reality. I walked in to see the tables empty of chairs (to enforce social distancing) and the chairs empty of people. I walked up to the counter, and the barista seemed nervous about handing me my coffee. She was anxious about taking my card to pay for the coffee, and sprayed down the counter and area with a sanitized rag, then she immediately washed her hands. It seemed physically painful for her to be there. It was… sad.

Last week, after school got cancelled, I had to sit down with my sons and talk to them about the realities about to face us. They won’t be seeing their friends at school. They wouldn’t even be going back on Monday. They might be out for days, or weeks, or the rest of the school year. I needed them to understand the seriousness of all of this, while at the same time helping them stay calm. I tried to implement a balance of social responsibility while assuring them that everything is going to be fine. I want them to be careful and realistic, but also optimistic and playful. It’s a delicate space to dwell in. This is hard for me to understand at 41; it’s an entire reality shift for them at ages 8 and 11.

But I think it is important for all of us to find that balance. There has to be a healthy space between socially responsible and mentally well. We humans are social creatures. We swarm to restaurants, movie theaters, bars, and concerts. We thrive on game nights, house parties, and social ventures. (Well, many of us do). To be suddenly removed from all of that, and left to our own support systems, it strikes up a deep and primal fear for many. We are worried about our medically vulnerable loved ones. We are worried about our food supply. We are worried about our ability to pay our bills if there isn’t consistent pay or work coming in. We are worried about being exposed to the virus. And we are worried because many other people don’t seem worried at all.

I think we need to be careful to let that worry have its place. But we can’t let it go too far. Worry should spark us toward social responsibility, not toward paranoia. I’m avoiding shaking hands with others, and hugging anyone but my family. But I’m still happy to see friends in small gathering, to visit local businesses for fast transactions. I’m still exercising, eating healthy, and seeing clients (though some in remote sessions), while frequently washing my hands and wiping down surfaces. Social distancing does not mean self-quarantining.

When I’m working with clients who have anxiety, I reassure them frequently with the Serenity Prayer (though many of them just ignore the God part). ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ It applies here. We need to be responsible for ourselves and our activities. We need to listen to the medical professionals. We need to take care of ourselves and our families. But delving into panic, into hoarding goods, into catastrophizing and making things out to be tougher than they actually are, well, those things don’t help.

The number one tool in combating anxiety is BREATH. Breath and mindfulness. Slow, measured breathing when things feel impossible. Careful consistent planning. Long walks in the sunlight. Drinking water. Moving our bodies. Staying connected with friends. Working on projects. Staying task-oriented. Setting new routines.

The truth is, there is a lot up in the air. We don’t know what headlines will hit the news tomorrow and inspire a fresh wave of nervousness. But delving into the anxiety too far is not going to change things. This is a difficult time, and we will need to support each other through it.

When I break anxiety apart, I find fear and sadness underneath. This is a time that is scary and difficult. And it has to be experienced just a few hours at a time. That is what we have control over. A few hours at a time, leading up to a day at a time.

Take a deep breath. We are all going through this together.

Learning to Leave

Learning to Leave

When I was 12 years old, I sat with my family on the back row of the middle section of the chapel during sacrament meeting. My sister Sheri sat to my left, barely 9, and my mother sat to my right. And as Sister Stratton bore her testimony from the pulpit, I watched my mother turn ashen gray.

She started with the standard ‘I want to bear my testimony that I know this church is true’, followed by professions of belief in the prophets and the scriptures and the love of God. And then her tone changed to something sicky-sweet, words so sincere that they sat like a piece of undigested roast beef in my stomach.

“Brothers and sisters, I want to bear my testimony on the blessings of temple marriage. I met my husband when I was 18 and he was 21, just off his mission. My father promised us back then that if we followed the teachings of God and honored our temple covenants, our lives would be blessed beyond measure. We now have seven beautiful children and are so happy. I want to promise you that if you follow the counsel of your leaders and marry in the temple, you can have what I have, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

She returned to her seat on the second row and snuggled up next to her husband, their children on either side of them taking up the entire bench. On the back row, I watched my mother swallow hard and close her eyes tightly as big tears formed and began cascading down her cheeks. She let out her breath slowly and more tears followed. Despite her best efforts, she was soon openly crying. She excused herself as I sat there, not knowing what to do.

My mother grew up in the 1950s in potato country, Idaho. Even the mascot at the nearby high school was a potato. She was the middle daughter of a farmer and a teacher, the only one in the family with blue eyes and blonde hair. They were the perfect Mormon family, descended from pioneers and strong in their faith. Her beauty blossomed in her teenage years, when she learned to style her hair in the perfect beehive. She was asked out constantly, and even years later, she bragged about ‘kissing up a storm’ with her high school boyfriend in the back seat, but never taking it so far that it would disappoint her father. She turned down several marriage proposals before she finally said yes to my father.

He was the good-looking son of a sheep farmer, with four older brothers and one baby sister. He was a returned missionary, and a veteran, and he had a strong testimony of the gospel. When he proposed, he was 25, and my mom just 20, and they were blissfully happy. They had children, finished college, built a house on the hill, started their careers, had a few more kids. My mother had four daughters and a son, the same composition as her family growing up, and she loved dressing them up for church every Sunday and parading them in to fill up a row, just like Sister Stratton’s family would years later. Perhaps she even bore her testimony about the blessings and happiness of marriage back then. Maybe she made promises that others could have what she had, through righteousness and obedience.

But then, when she was in her early 30s, my father started growing quiet. A darkness was developing within him, and she couldn’t make sense of it. When he grew distant, surly, and critical, she threw herself harder in to church service and raising the perfect family. Scripture study, fasting, prayer, and temple attendance weren’t working. He wasn’t getting better. Her testimony remained solid, but he grew darker. And then she started finding out about the credit card debt and his losses on the stock market, things he kept secret for years.

In the mid 1970s, my father abruptly announced his plan to move the entire family to rural Missouri, where he saw a chance to get rich quick. My mother, ever the good wife, acquiesced and packed up their entire lives into a truck. They sold their home and left their parents, foraging into the great unknown, like their pioneer ancestors before them, but for entirely different reasons. Once they arrived, my mother, now more isolated and fighting off a building panic, saw things get worse for my father, as he fell farther into debt and depression. And with her old children now hitting early adolescence, she got pregnant again, this time with me. And then again, with my little sister. And suddenly, it was the mid-1980s, and she had seven mouths to feed, ranging from baby to pre-teen, with maxed out credit cards and a house payment due. All that plus a husband full of darkness.

My mother stayed for far too long. Quiet painful hours in her marriage balanced by the joys she found in her children. Those hours stacked up to years. Two years turned to 5, then 8, then 12. The debts mounted from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds. The older children started struggling with decisions, going off the deep end, straying from her deeply held beliefs. She continued making the dinners, doing the laundry, paying the bills, cleaning the house. My father worked too much, and then came home and locked himself in the bedroom to cry. Well on the days when he wasn’t mean and critical, blaming mom for everything, leaving her lists of all she was doing wrong while telling her that if she was a better wife, then maybe the Lord would bless the more. He closed off, refusing to talk to her, to open, to touch her. She took on a part-time job, then another. My dad went to therapy and to treatment multiple times, but he never listened, it never worked. He grew darker still. I grew up with a mother who was attentive, loving, and playful, and a father who barely noticed I was alive, who sucked all of the energy out of the room.

It wasn’t until 1990, when my mom got spiritual confirmation while visiting the temple, that she knew she needed to leave my dad. Divorce didn’t come easily to her. It had long-term spiritual ramifications, eternal ones, as she felt that leaving her marriage meant severing sacred family bonds that were meant to extend into forever. Marriage was the most sacred institution, and she felt as if she hadn’t been strong enough to make it work. The consequences were astronomical and eternal. But after over a decade of increasing pain and unhappiness, she’d realized that the consequences for staying might be worse. And so she’d boldly packed the truck once again and drove thousands of miles back to her roots.

In her mid-40s, my mother moved back in with her parents. She took a teaching job and eventually started renting a home. She showed super human strength in rebuilding her life in the state she’d left behind. To me, age 11 at the time, my parents’ divorce came as a relief. Finally, I thought even then. Finally.

I grew protective over my mother in the following years. I was the man of the house now. I would set my alarm early and shovel the sidewalks, clean the kitchen, scrape the car windows, all before she woke up. I made myself the moral authority of the house, lording it over my sister. I took jobs doing paper routes and babysitting, and would often sneak the money I was making into her purse to help. Seeing her walk out of the chapel that day with tears in her eyes, hearing Sister Stratton profess how happy marriage was if you just followed the rules, well, it broke my heart for my mom. I had no words. All I knew was that my mother was the strongest and most Christ-like person I knew, and those things hadn’t worked out for her, despite the prophetic promises. I realized even then that sometimes breaking the rules requires more courage than staying miserable ever could.

I wish I could say life got easier after that. My mother fell in love again a year later, and then spent a few more years with a man who used fists, insults, and control to terrorize us. She had seven children, and she would see seven divorces among them happen in the following years, while many grandchildren were born. My father, though distant, would remain a painful presence in her life. And then her youngest two children would come out of the closet. Health scares mounted as well. But over the years, I watched her maintain her church attendance with grace and dedication, all while balancing out her love for her children, even those who left the faith she believed so strongly in.

I once saw my mother get a Priesthood blessing, on a night after my stephfather had hit her. The bishop laid his hands on her head and promised her comfort, then he told her that in the pre-existence, before she came to Earth, she had agreed to give these two men that she’d married the chance to redeem themselves during mortal life. That day, I watched her go ashen again, and that night was the only night I ever saw her go to bed without praying first.

My mother always called me her Nephi, her stalwart one, and I did my best to be that for her. She wrote me literally every day for two years while I was on my mission. And we talked often while I was in college. At a certain point, she started opening up to me about my father and stepfather and why the marriages had gone so poorly. At the time, I was going through training on how to be a therapist, and I was facing some deep depression of my own. I’d grown up believing that following the rules meant happiness and miracles, I’d even been promised a cure for being gay, and I didn’t know any other truth, not yet.

And in time, I recommended that my mother do some therapy of her own. I needed to be her son, not her confidant. Though initially heartbroken, my mother did sign up for therapy. She listened and learned quickly, and I watched a transformation happen. I watched a woman in her mid-50s learn that happiness is a personal choice, and that it does not come simply as a reward for obedience. She learned that staying in impossible situations, even marriages, is sometimes the wrong decision. The consequences for staying can last generations. She learned how not to hold on to pain for so long. And by learning to properly heal from her past and confront her pain, I saw her move forward with new light and strength. She faced life with an internal grace I’d never seen in her before.

I’m 41 today and my mother is 76. She has been happily married to her third husband for many years, and they have been sealed in the temple. She is a loving mother of seven children, and they range from a stake president’s wife to an ex-con, right on down to her two youngest, the gay ones. Sometimes we talk about bravery, and we draw the comparison between her hard choice to leave my father, and my hard choice to leave the closet and religion behind. And though I’m certainly not her Nephi any longer, at least not in the way she’d once hoped, we respect each other. We understand each other. And she remains the best example in my life of courage, grace, power, and love. From her, I learned that sometimes it is far braver to leave than to hold on so tightly to what hurts.

 

Hibernation

Maybe I should start writing again.

Six weeks hardly feels like a long time, but considering that, not long ago, I used to blog every day, 40 days without writing anything feels… sane. I miss that feeling I used to get when I’d witness something, feel or experience something, and I couldn’t wait to get to my keyboard and share my insights with the world. I miss utilizing those parts of my heart and brain. I got rather good at it, and it felt good to do it, to share, to put myself on paper like that. It gave me a continuity.

But lately, I’ve been in hibernation mode. The failure to measure up to some undetermined form of success has been weighing on me. I grew weary of asking for help,  of expecting a particular audience size, of waiting for books to sell. The documentary has taken much longer than I thought, the book has gone quiet, the crowd sizes at story-telling events are in the tens instead of the hundreds. My love for writing and creating has been replaced by pain over a lack of results. And so I face either trying to reformat, again and again, in hope that the numbers go up, or I just let myself go numb a bit. Stop caring about the results and just enjoy the process. Either that, or… I just… don’t. Don’t write. Don’t let my brain get busy and divided. Don’t dream up projects I’ll never finish. Don’t let my awe get inspired by stories I wish I could tell. Because if I dim the frustration, then I can just, maybe, be a peace for a while? But that also means dimming the dreaming. And who am I, who is this new me, without all of that?

And so, I’ve gone quiet lately. I turned 41 a few weeks ago, surrounded by friends at a party I hosted for myself. My boyfriend of nearly 3 years and I took a wonderful vacation to Thailand for a week and I had some of the most foreign and unexpected experiences of my life. My children are stable and content, thriving and happy. I’ve organized the house. I’m setting goals for the new years. My business is doing very well and in a nice building phase. My boyfriend is working from home now. It is nearly 2020, and the news cycles pass by with increasing speed.

I have so, so much to be grateful for. And I am. But that dreamer part of me, the part with more expectations, has gone quiet. I’m at peace, and it is… comfortable. A thousand things I could be writing about, yet I’m not writing. I’m not depressed. I’m not bitter. I’m perhaps a little tired, and maybe a little scared.

There. That right there. That’s why I write. It sorts me out. I just realized I’m scared. I couldn’t have verbalized that before, but now it is so apparent to me. I’m scared of that ongoing unsettled feeling. I’m scared to trust more people who will, in whatever form, let me down. I’m scared to ask for help. I’m scared to expect things from others. And I’m scared that I’m going to remain scared of those things, that I’ll grow callused, sealed up, unwilling. I’m scared that these failures, these inabilities to achieve “success” in its various forms, is going to result in me no longer doing the things that I love.

But there he is, the dreamer. He’s sleeping. He’s gone quiet, but he’s there. Because who else but me would willfully say he is hibernating in one sentence, say how he has gone quiet lately, how he is not writing lately… and then write about not writing in the next.

I miss questing. I miss the process of building the documentary, unearthing mysteries one interview and newspaper article at a time. I miss crafting stories. I miss outlining plays, comic books, projects in my brain, and wondering when I’ll find time to write. I miss the unrest. And it is baffling to realize that, but it makes sense of me. I come alive during those times. Those who love me can see it. My boyfriend can see it. When I come home with that light in my eyes and I have the craziest story to tell him, with the most enthusiasm in my voice. I don’t love the painful parts, but I need them to give me the drive. I need the striving back. I’m not so sure I was made for hibernation, for contentment. (But maybe I can carry some of these lessons with me moving forward…)

So maybe I start writing again. Maybe I don’t care about the numbers of people who read it. Maybe I grow discontent again, and I don’t get so threatened by that. Maybe I stop being afraid of being afraid. Maybe I’m more disciplined with my time. (And who I trust, and my money, and my nutrition consistency, and…) Maybe I lean into dreaming again, into a new project that I can pour my love into.

Maybe.

Maybe it’s time to wake up.

Damn, I didn’t sleep very long.

Cartoon Devil

October 2015

“I’m here! Plaid shirt and blue jeans, corner table, what can I order you?”

I had butterflies when I sent the text message. I hadn’t been on a date in a few months and it was nice to be back on the market. I was so, so sick of dating. It exhausted me. Maybe I was picky or impossible, or maybe I kept hoping to find that unobtainable unicorn out there. I wanted someone with a job, who took care of himself physically, who was good with kids, who was charming. I also wanted someone with some self-confidence, and a sense of humor, who was out of the closet, and had themselves figured out when it came to their family and religion. Utah was so full of these guys who didn’t like themselves, who berated themselves because of their religious upbringings. They were the way I used to be, but once you have got your own shit together, there is nothing quite so threatening or annoying as someone who hasn’t.

By this point, four and a half years after coming out of the closet, I’d had dozens and dozens of terrible and weird dates. Admittedly, sometimes I was the terrible and weird date. I went through a phase where I was too codependent, or where I expected others to put in all the effort while I coasted along. I fell in love too quickly a few times, and fell apart too quickly a few others. I even turned down a few really amazing guys in the hopes that I might find something just a bit better out there. But I was now ready for something to stick, to last more than a few weeks. I think seven weeks in a relationship had been my longest record since coming out, with someone who was 14 years younger than me, but that hadn’t worked out either; he moved to another state to go to college, and there was no way I could do long distance while I had two little kids.

And so, for a time, I had given all of my energy to just being single. I focused on my career, my hate crimes research, my blog, and went to the gym. I took myself on dates and little trips. I spent time with friends, I hosted my own movie nights, and I, of course, spent every possible moment with my incredible sons, at this point ages 7 and 4, two little men who delighted me constantly. They were with me every other weekend and a few nights per week. I loved my time with them, but I also grew to love my time flying solo.

Tonight, this was my first attempt back into the dating scene after over two months of focusing solely on myself. I met the guy over OKCupid just days after I’d reactivated my account. My first impression of his pictures elicited an out loud ‘DAMN!’ I sent the first message and he answered within minutes. He was witty, funny, handsome, employed, cute and fit, but in that guy-next-door kind of way, not in that ‘I stare at myself in the gym mirror for ten hours per week’ kind of way. And then on day three of chatting, I invited him out for coffee. He responded with enthusiasm, in an “I thought you’d never ask” kind of way. I hired a babysitter, got to the coffee shop ten minutes early, and texted him promptly at six that I was there.

6:10 rolled around. 6:15. 6:20. No message, no word. People played chess at a nearby table. Other people studied. We were getting past the point where it was acceptable to be late without some sort of notice. I sipped my decaf coffee and waited, wondering if there were too many red lights maybe, or maybe he’d forgotten an appointment. But maybe he was just standing me up. Lord knows this wouldn’t be the first time.

Finally at 6:32, my phone dinged. I grabbed it in a hurry. The text said, “This is terrible, but I can’t do this. I went there, but I couldn’t go in. You’re a good guy, Chad, but I’m still in love with my ex, and this isn’t right. I’ll understand if you never want to talk to me again. Best of luck, Chad, I don’t expect to hear back from you.”

I felt my upper lip rise into an involuntary sneer, and my nostrils flared with frustration. And then I set my coffee down, put my head in my hands, and… pouted. The old interior voice I had worked so hard to contain came back with a vengeance. All of my demons came back to the surface.

You’re pathetic. You knew it would be like this, but you tried it anyway. There are no good men out there, none. And if there were, do you think one would want to be with you? A guy who waited until he was 32 to come out? You have two kids, you’re in debt, and you are hardly in the best shape of your life. Why would he want to be with you? And of course you’d pick a guy who is still hung up on some guy. If there’s a pathetic guy out there, you’ll find them every time, it takes one to know one.

I lifted my head, pursed my lips, furrowed my eyebrows, and said, “No!” out loud, but not loud enough for anyone else to hear. That voice inside was dark. It was that little devil that appeared on Bugs Bunny’s shoulder in the old cartoons. I instead willfully gave voice to the angel, invisible on my other shoulder.

No! You’re a good guy, Chad! You get to be happy! You don’t get to beat yourself up for trying to find someone! Now you don’t give a second thought to that loser. You live for you! You hired a babysitter, you can do whatever you want tonight, you just enjoy your own company.

Yes. I would do that! I would take myself on a date! Fuck that guy. I was allowed to be happy.

I tossed my remaining coffee in the garbage, marched myself right outside, and noticed the movie theater next door. I would do that! I would go to the movies! I triumphantly entered, got the attention of the man behind the counter, and triumphantly said, “I’ll take a ticket to whatever movie is next, please.”

I was in the Tower, an old indie theater with broken seats, sticky floors, and a balcony. And I was about to see a movie at random, this was my kind of adventure. “And I’ll take that bag of popcorn,” I said.

The ticket agent explained that the next movie would be the ‘Oscar Animated Shorts’, or short cartoons that had been nominated for an Oscar in the upcoming season. I had a night out and I was going to see… short cartoons, apparently.

The devil returned. Oh my god, cartoons, you loser! It’s a Wednesday night! You’re going to the movies by yourself on a Wednesday night and you’re going to see cartoons! You could be doing that with your kids! You’re going to die alone!

No! No, no,  no! You are brave and courageous, and you are doing something nice for yourself on a hard day! You are a good person who deserves to be happy!

Apparently unable to see the talking devil and angel versions of me on my shoulders, the ticket agent took my money and handed me the random bag of popcorn I had pointed to. Then I noticed the flavor. Coconut curry. Well, what the hell.

The movie was starting in 15 minutes, he said. I went in and took my seat, my brave face was on. I was determined to enjoy myself this evening. I opened my phone and played some Pokemon Go  as I sat there, feeling like a real winner. I would watch cartoons and play Pokemon Go and eat Coconut Curry popcorn instead of bantering with a handsome man like I’d planned. Positive self-talk was working!

In minutes, the lights dimmed and I looked up to see the screen come on. There were multiple previews for upcoming indie films, and none of them looked interesting. As the film prepared to start, I opened my bag of Coconut Curry, and it gave off a loud crispy plastic sound. I quickly looked up to make sure I hadn’t disturbed anyone. Then I realized there was no one else in the movie to disturb.

Oh my god, you pathetic loser! You are in a movie theater, seeing cartoons, after getting stood up by a date who is still in love with his ex, on a Wednesday night, planning to eat an entire bag of popcorn, and you’re the only one here! What the hell is wrong with you! You’re going to die fat and old and alone, who lives like this!

No! No, you are a brave and beautiful soul who deserves the very—

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” I told the angel voice. I grabbed a giant handful of salty disgusting popcorn and shoved it into my mouth until my cheeks puffed out, and then I ugly cried as a Dutch cartoon called ‘the Single Life’ started on the screen.

Spirit 7: Truth or Consequences

When I was an infant, my proud parents held me up in front of a church congregation so the assembled Mormons could coo at the new baby boy. I wore all white. A group of men, some related by blood and some by belief, stood in a circle and placed their hands on my head to give me a blessing. They did not bless me to go forward and change the world, or to live my best life, or to find happiness on my own terms. They blessed me to be a good Mormon boy, to embrace the true gospel, to be a missionary, to marry a woman in the temple, to have babies, and to spend my whole life serving god. That was the path, the one for every Mormon boy. It was the true path, the right one. Anything else was deviant.  And I understood that right from the beginning.

Growing up, once per month, meetings at church were reserved for members to go up and bear their testimonies of the truth of the gospel. It was an act of boldness, of solidarity. Sharing beliefs according to the pre-established formula, in front of your like-minded peers, was to be admired. They all followed the same format. I was four when I tried it myself for the first time.

“I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I love my mom and dad and my brother and sisters. I know the Book of Mormon is the word of god and that Joseph Smith was a prophet, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

Some small variance from this format was allowed, but not much. This profession of beliefs was a tried and true process, and there was a right way to do it. That single opening phrase was uttered more than any other. I KNOW (not believe, not hope, not think, but KNOW) that THIS CHURCH (this one right here, the Mormon one, the one we are in) is TRUE. The word true here is the operative one. In Mormonism, the tenet that if one part was TRUE then it was all TRUE. It was a power word, something to evoke loyalty, pride, ownership, a depth of power and rightness, and above all, conformance. It was a word like Freedom, or Justice, words used regularly in the American vernacular. For if Mormonism was true, then everyone else was false. If Mormonism was true, that meant it was all correct, all right. The bad parts were worth overlooking to focus on the greater good, because of TRUTH.

And so all the little rules blended in to the TRUE. Many Christians hold on to their understanding of the Bible, as justification for even unkind behavior. “I can believe this/do this/act this way because the Bible says it’s okay.” Mormons take that a step farther. They have a prophet who leads and guides the church, and one who communes with god. He has 12 apostles at his side to back him up, just like Jesus did. He gives regular addresses in which he uses prophecy and revelation to tell people what god wants them to do, to believe, to say. Thus if I say it is all TRUE, that means the prophet speaks TRUTH, and I have to follow his directions because it is what god wants.

And so, people pay ten per cent of their income to the church. They saved themselves for marriage. They marry young and have babies early. The devote two years of their lives to unpaid missionary service. They try and convert their friends. They go to church for three hours every Sunday. They wear the sacred underwear, and keep their haircuts and clothing styles in particular ways, and women avoid having more than one piercing per ear. They keep their sins secret and repent of them as needed. They conform, and blend in, and feel special for doing so, because they are part of the TRUE church, the only one who has it right. And, in many cases, they sacrifice happiness as they try to follow all of the rules.

This concept of TRUTH was huge for me, for all of them, because there consequences attached. If I didn’t follow one of the rules, that meant I was a sinner, that I was denying truth, that I wasn’t conforming or fitting in. Everyone would see, but worse, god would know. Some sins, some small rebellions, could be easily shaken off, like missing a church meeting, or wearing a blue shirt instead of white, or missing a month of home-teaching. But others had vastly greater consequences: sexual activity outside of marriage, NOT going on a mission, NOT marrying in the temple, turning down a church calling, or, the worst possible scenario, being gay. If the rules weren’t followed, that meant there was a denial of truth, that one was turning their back on god. Sometimes this resulted in minor consequences (a conversation with the bishop or not taking the sacrament for a time) and sometimes in more severe ones (being disfellowshipped or excommunicated). And even worse, sinning in this life meant an inability to be with family in heaven in the next life. An entire eternal heritage cast aside for laziness, or orgasm, or the easy way out.

When I was actively LDS, I looked at those who were sinners, who were cast out, or who didn’t conform which such sadness and disregard. I saw them as failures, as selfish, as weak, as poor in spirit. Look what they gave up, I’d think. Look at all they cast aside. How sad, how pathetic. There were believers and sinners, the righteous and the apostate, the member and the non-member.

And yet if I turned my gaze inward, I didn’t fit either. God had made a design flaw. I was gay. It took me years to sort this out, but there were deep psychological wounds that formed within me because I was born wrong. I was born gay, and I knew it early. And so I didn’t fit the standard. I couldn’t conform naturally, I could only do so by hiding in plain sight. I held on to the rules tighter than most. Any aberration, any entertaining of alternate thought, meant denying what was true, and that meant losing everything. I held on tighter than almost anyone I knew. I had to be the best if I had any hope of belonging at all. (I would learn later that many other gay men held on in similar ways).

Whenever I bore my testimony, I held tightly to the truth, and I never spoke the doubts out loud. “I know the church is true.” What I could have spoken, what I should have spoken, was an entirely different sort of testimony.

“I desperately want to believe the church is true because I so badly want to fit in with all of you. I’m afraid I can’t, and that I never will. I’m different on the inside, I’m gay, and I am worried that by telling you that, I won’t be accepted here, that you’ll look at me like you do the other sinners. If I admit I’m different, I’m afraid god won’t love me and that I won’t have a place in my family. I’m following all of the rules because I want to be what you are, I want to have what you have. I want to feel sure, but I don’t. I have doubts. I don’t believe deep down that it is all correct. I think that there is some good here, in this church, in these meetings, but as I look around, there are a lot of people in pain here, and I think all of you have doubts as well. I think our leaders get things wrong, and I think that people get hurt because of it. And I think that people here are so focused with fitting in that they allow themselves to compromise their own morals, and then they convince themselves that these actions are sanctioned by god. And I’m worried that I’m going to grow up and have to redefine every one of these beliefs, every aspect of truth, and that is going to cause me to leave the church I love, both because I won’t believe it anymore and because I won’t fit here anymore. And there are consequences for that, according to your rules. I stand to lose my salvation, my family, my entire belief structure.

“But I’m worried that one day, I’m going to have to ask myself the opposite. What are the consequences for staying? And I don’ think any of you are going to like the answers I find.”

Spirit 6: Inspiration

The Catholics call it the Holy Trinity, or the Three-In-One. The Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. They are easily understood with clearly delineated roles, yet they are impossible to understand. They are the same and yet different, and it is in the mix of understanding and non-understanding that the beauty of the belief exists. At least, that’s house I understand it. I was never Catholic.

For the Mormons, the three are separate and distinct entities. The Father is the god of heaven and all things, the literal father of every spirit on Earth. The Son is the son of god, Jesus Christ himself, who came to earth and died for the sins of man. And then there is the Holy Ghost, an ethereal presence that is everywhere on earth at once, in the heart of everyone  simultaneously.

The Holy Ghost was difficult to grasp when I was a child. It sounded like some haunted being in a church, but it was the most sacred of things. Words in the scriptures called him things like the comforter, who was there to teach and warn. It was explained to me that every human had access to the holy ghost, through the “light of Christ”, which was never really explained to me, but that believing faithful Mormons who had been baptized had a honed access, a special receptor if you will, an ability to commune more directly with the spirit itself. Mormons were baptized at the age of 8 and then, after they had been purified in the water, there was a laying on of hands by someone with the priesthood who confirmed them a member of the church and gave them the GIFT of the holy ghost. After that, it was up to each member to stay worthy of the gift by doing things that god commanded, being obedient, following all of the rules, and then the spirit would guide them in their daily lives.

The holy ghost was supposed to warn of danger and evil, to provide comfort, and to whisper direction, but it could only dwell the loudest in places of reverence, love, and kindness. I mean, it dwelled everywhere and always, but could only be felt most acutely in places of obedience, of holiness. I was taught early to watch for this spiritual guidance form this holy entity. We sang songs like “Listen to the Still-Small Voice” and “Sweet is the Peace the Gospel Brings”. We were trained to search for a “burning in our bosom”. We were taught repeatedly that following the rules would elicit the spirit in our lives and result in happy, positive choices that god was proud of. Tell a lie, fight with your sister, or disobey your mom, no spirit. Tell the truth, get along, do as you are told, the spirit is there.

It was all rather esoteric, and there was a whole level of bizarreness beyond that, subtle mentions of the dark spirits of the devil constantly trying to tempt you into doing wrong. Always follow the right path, hold to the rod, listen to that still-small voice, otherwise you are giving in to the devil and god will be disappointed.

Mormon conversions are almost solely based on this spiritual concept. Non-members are challenged to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it. I handed out dozens of copies of the Book of Mormon as a missionary, and I always highlighted the same verse at the end of the book. The verse basically invited people to read the book, then think and pray about it with “a sincere heart and real intent”, and then the spirit would teach them if it was true or not. How did it do that? By bringing peace. If they felt peaceful and good about what they read, it was true. And if it was true, it was ALL true, every part of the church. The priesthood, the baptism, the tithing, the policies, the requirements, every ounce of it. If it feels good, it’s true, and if it’s true, we are right about everything. And if you didn’t feel peaceful or good about it, well, you didn’t try hard enough so try again.

What I didn’t realize until later is that feeling peace, experiencing conscience or internal thought, experiencing a gut reaction to something… that are HUMAN qualities. They aren’t divine messages from god through an ethereal spirit. They are just human nature, impacted by nutrition, sleep, endorphins, and weather. And what Mormons have done, what many religions have done, is the taking of these HUMAN principles, bottling them as a product to ensure religious conformance. If I stand on a pulpit and tell you that you are special, and if that warms your heart to hear that you are special, then that means I speak for god because you felt warm, and now you have to follow my rules.

Holy ghost? Holy shit, it’s just the normal human brain, and I believed in some godly alien entity who has no form and dwells in the hearts of billions, but mostly those following the rules. How did I believe that? How did I teach that to others?

But the Mormons take it one step farther. They teach that those who feel the holy ghost are also entitled to “personal revelation”. In other words, god will give direction and guidance through his spirit to help people make decisions. Women can get guidance for themselves and their children. Men can receive it for themselves and their families, and their revelations supersede the others because they hold the priesthood. Bishops get it for their wards, and so on and up to the prophet, who gets revelation for the church. A man can get a revelation that says his wife should have another baby, or his son shouldn’t go to college, but he can’t receive it for the neighbor family. Mormons use this spiritual guidance constantly to reaffirm their own decisions and lives, sometimes positively and sometimes otherwise. “I prayed and God told me I should have soup for lunch/ should quit my job and go back to school/ should ask Sally to marry me/ should take a different road to work today/ should try to convert my cousin.” And I’ll notice people who grow up Mormon using the same spiritual feelings to justify their decisions later, even when they are entirely contrary to Mormon rules. It’s a bizarre form of programming that takes people years to clear their heads from.

I listen to my gut, my conscience, my inner thoughts all the time now. It’s crucial for me to hone in on that inner guidance system. But I no longer think of these parts of me in accordance with ghosts, or rewards for obedience. I don’t use my guidance system to justify my bad behavior, or to judge others by. Instead, I use it to try to be the best version of me that I can. On my terms.

And I still balk at what it was I used to believe in.

Spirit 5: Chastity

Sex was always the most taboo of subjects growing up. It was forbidden to even talk about it. The only understanding I had about sex at all growing up was in accordance to the rules around it. The older I got, the more those rules stood out, but it was always about the rules.

I knew sex was to be saved for marriage. I knew that babies should only be born to married couples. And I knew that families meant fathers and mothers and kids; there were simply no other alternatives. Men held the Priesthood and were to provide for their families. Women were to be in the home and raising children. That was simply the way of things.

I learned about masturbation at the age of 12. The bishop asked me if I followed the law of chastity and I asked what that was. He then asked me if I masturbated, and I asked what that was. And then he told me. But it turned out that I already knew. An older sibling had molested me when I was younger, had had me do that very thing to him. Lots of times. It had never occurred to me to try that for myself. After the bishop told me, I went home and tried it. And, god, was it amazing… but the release was accompanied by a deep and abiding shame and nausea. God was disappointed in me.

Between the ages of 12 and 18, almost every conversation at church for my age group seemed to revolve around chastity and morality. I couldn’t have even defined the words, but they were part of every conversation. And every conversation was about the rules. Never be alone with the opposite sex. Kissing was fine, but it must be chaste. Only date other Mormons, and then only in groups. Women should be modest. When dancing, it was always best to keep space between the two people. No dating until 16. No “heavy petting”, no “dry-humping”, no removal of clothing, and definitely no intercourse. Pregnancy before marriage was the ultimate shame, except for homosexuality itself. And definitely, definitely no viewing of pornography. Porn was talked about almost more than anything else. “One single image of pornography will seer itself into your brain forever and ever and will never leave. Even one second, and you are permanently tainted.”

Strangely, there was no sex education. There was no talk about consent, or avoiding disease, or self-defense, or a sharing of statistics about the rates of sexual violence. Only those same lines, over and over again. Modesty. Chastity. Purity. Repentance. Sexual six was among the greatest of sins.

As a teenager, I was a part of groups that received lessons about spirituality. The men were told repeatedly to avoid temptation. And the women were told that their virtue was their single greatest asset. They must save themselves for their husbands. If there was a plate full of un-chewed gum, and one single chewed piece, everyone would take the un-chewed pieces. If a girl wanted a good husband, a worthy priesthood holder, she should never let herself be, well, pre-chewed. Damaged goods worth less than the other pieces.

I turned 12 in 1990. In the following 7 years, I was given multiple books that preached against the evils of sexual sin. I was told constantly, almost obsessively, that I needed to avoid being alone with women, avoid pornography, avoid masturbation. If I was good and faithful, as a priesthood holder and as a missionary, a beautiful wife would be my reward. The prophets grew bizarrely specific at times. They said that singing hymns in your head constantly was one way to keep your thoughts pure. They said that having wet dreams was normal, but touching yourself was not. One prophet suggested tying your hands to your headboard at night to keep from touching yourself. (I tried it once). They emphasized that all sins could be forgiven, but sexual sins carried greater consequences.

And the words they used to describe me, a boy who was attracted to other boys, were harsh. They called homosexuality aberrant, a crime against nature, the sin next to murder, a perversion, an abomination. I was evil, sheer evil, just for being different, and I could never, never act on that sin.

As I grew older, I began to realize how obsessed with sex the Mormon church seemed to be. The founders of the Mormon church bartered for wives. The first leaders had them by the dozens. The gave counsel to the women to submit to their husbands, to follow the commands of god. They wanted to not only acquire women, but to control them, to obtain and rule over them. Seventy year old men with 30 wives, some also 70 years old, kept marrying young women, ages 22 and 19 and 15. They possessed them. They at times promised destruction by the swords of angels if these women didn’t submit.

But it started long before then. Men in the old testament were granted concubines, harems, and handmaids to do their bidding. Jesus himself was born to a virgin. The bible obsesses with sex like all the rest.

Heavenly father, or god, was to be revered and praised and worshiped. Heavenly mothers, all the millions of them, should never be discussed or mentioned. Women belonged behind their husbands, in clean organized lines. Male children got to become like their fathers, female children like their mothers. Save yourselves for your husbands, then belong to them forever.

In recent years, these topics are finally being talked about, and outrage continues. The issues are still there. The rules are still in place. Just a few days ago, the current prophet gave a speech about how he can’t apologize for these words as they are commands by god. Homosexuality remains forbidden; gay young men and women are meant to be celibate to be right before god. Abortion is forbidden. Sex education and consent and pregnancy prevention topics are still frowned upon. And the abuses of men in power, in the Mormon religion and others, are being exposed, with the reaction being those of outrage and deep pain.

Statistics are showing that 1 in every 4 women (some statistics say 1 in 3) are subjected to sexual molestation or violence at some point in their lives, and almost always, almost universally, by men. And it is 1 in every 6 for men, also hurt by other men. And these statistics increase in societies that are highly religious. And Utah is very, very religious. I could comment a lot about other societies out there that have strict sexual purity or morality laws. Issues like rape, genital mutilation of women, the killing of “sexually impure women” and homosexuals, and domestic violence are part of the very foundation of these societies.

The world is slowly, slowly changing, slowly beginning to understand, that protecting children doesn’t mean protecting the religious definitions of virtue and chastity, but instead focuses on fair health care, education of women and girls, sex education, conversations about consent, etc. The world is getting there. But far too many are being hurt.

I am one of seven in my family. There are two boys and five girls. I’m gay. I also have a gay sister. So far as I know, I’m the only one of we seven who was sexually abused. Despite being so different, so damaged, so tainted, I held tightly to the sexual purity laws implemented on me. I did my best as a teenager to avoid pornography and masturbation, I considered sexual sin to be horrible in god’s eyes, I even avoided being attracted to others. I felt impure just for existing. I never kissed a woman until I was 27, and I never kissed a man until I was 32. I felt divided, at war with myself, for all that time.

But since then? Since leaving it all behind? I am a sexually active male, and sex is incredible. I don’t follow any of the church’s rules any longer, and I don’t judge others for doing so. I still focus on morality, on clean ethics, but by entirely different definitions. Consent, communication, fair treatment, kindness, love, consideration, education, equality.

I have a new religion. And it has nothing to do with keeping women and homosexuals in their place with strict rules. Instead, it creates entirely new seats at the table. It understands history, learns from it, and seeks to change the future. A future where we are outraged not by whether or not women are “pure” until marriage; instead we are outraged by child abuse, by rape, by societies being subjugated, and we are outraged by the men who are causing the harm.