Depression, as a Responsibility

Okay, hear me out.

I’m going to go with heart first, and then head.

Heart:

Depression is real, and it is crippling. It is fueled by anxiety, and stress, and chronic pain, and trauma. It can come in waves, from mild to severe, and it can last a day or (seemingly) a few years. It shreds self-esteem, it takes away joy, it leaves you feeling numb and empty and without hope that things could ever or will ever change. When I conjure an image of depression, I picture the time when everything in my life appeared to be perfect: wife and home and kids and church and job, that time when I kept a giant smile plastered on my face, but on the inside I felt unworthy of love, isolated, torn to pieces. I felt like no one could or would see me, and I truly believed that happiness would forever elude me. I know what that dark, soul-crushing space feels like, and I know it can last for so long. Empty prayers, empty heart, empty rooms, empty me. I was merely existing. I once wrote suicide notes in that space. I know what depression feels like. It is real.

And now, Head:

Depression is a condition. A medical condition. It has a place in the medical books with a list of symptoms that follows it. It’s something that happens to people, most people if not all people, at some time in their lives. It’s a human condition, and thus part of being human. Some people struggle with it mightily and for their whole lives, while some only have depressed days or periods from time to time. Just like some people are born with a genetic predisposition to diabetes or asthma or heart disease or addiction, some might be born with a predisposition for depression. It’s a condition, and one that must be managed, with personal responsibility. And that requires an education, and understanding, and healthy life management around the condition.

Example: Diabetes has everything to do with blood sugars, and can be regulated with food intake and exercise. In some more extreme cases, it requires medication, or a doctor’s care, but these conditions too can be managed, even if it means facing some life alterations or restrictions. Managing diabetes requires being educated about diabetes. It means learning what to eat, and how. It means knowing when to rest, and when to exercise. It means carrying insulin or fresh fruit or juice or candy to help manage the condition when it is out of control. It means educating others about the condition. It means… being responsible for it. For those who don’t manage it, who indulge and give little thought to consequences, they become burdened with the symptoms of the disorder, with low energy, frequent cravings, chronic pain, etc. For those who manage the disorder, despite the struggles that accompany its management, the burdens become easier to bear along with the healthier habits.

And in that same context, depression has everything to do with how the brain produces endorphins. It can be regulated with healthy relationships, nutrition and exercise, hydration, sleep, pain management, stress management, and coping mechanisms. And in some more extreme cases, it requires medication, or a doctor’s care, but these conditions too can be managed, even if it means facing some life alterations or restrictions. It must be managed.

There is a line from a Jason Mraz song that provided me with a lot of comfort when I was coming out of my own depression. The song is called Details in the Fabric, and it eloquently states in the chorus:

“If it’s a broken part, replace it.
If it’s a broken arm, then brace it.
If it’s a broken heart, then face it.”

If we as humans are responsible for ourselves (and we have to be!), then part of that means managing our own conditions. Whatever it is that is causing the depression has to be faced up to. Poor nutrition? An unhealthy relationship? An unfulfilling career? A disability? Chronic pain? The loss of a loved one? Too much stress? A lack of friends? Cold weather? An addiction? A broken heart? A low self-image? A traumatic childhood? Whatever it is, we have to take care of our own struggles and push through. We have to learn to get better. We have to be responsible for our own conditions.

In therapy, I frequently coach clients on how to get through the little tough moments. Little activities they can participate in to increase endorphin production in the brain. They don’t fix trauma or mend a broken heart, but they do help get through tough moments, hours, and days. And over sustained periods of time, we can break bad habits and start climbing out of the depression. The days get a bit easier a bit at a time. This is a ‘lose one pound per week for fifty weeks’ approach, as opposed to the ‘lose fifty pounds in one week’ approach that many hope for. Fixes aren’t often quick. New lifestyles take time to sustain.

Here’s the list. The brain naturally responds with serotonin and dopamine when we engage.

  1. Healthy eating. (Try being happy when you’re hungry or eating the wrong things).
  2. Water. (Try being happy when you’re thirsty or drinking only soda or coffee or energy drinks).
  3. Exercise. (Try being happy while consistently sedentary).
  4. Healthy human contact. (Friends! Therapy! Opening up and sharing with others!) (Try being happy when isolated, in stressful relationships, or while only engaging with others on social media).
  5. Sunlight. (Try being happy while remaining in dark rooms with the shades drawn).
  6. Achievement/getting things done. (Try being happy while constantly overwhelmed by what isn’t done, or while bored and lacking purpose.)
  7. Sleep. (Try being happy when sleeping too much or too little).
  8. Anti-depressants. (Medication isn’t always required, but vitamins and positive supplements are important. This also means avoiding stimulants and depressants, like too much alcohol and coffee, or other chemical-altering substances that exacerbate depression. Alcohol is the worst decision here).

We can not always control life circumstances, or even whether or not we have depression, but we can choose to participate with ourselves in our recovery from it. My depression, when I struggled with it, came from a combination from many things. My father had depression. I was sexually abused as a kid. I grew up gay in a world that told me gay people weren’t welcome. I grew up in a religion that had very high expectations, and left me feeling empty when I couldn’t measure up. I was physically abused by a step-father. I had scoliosis, and struggled with chronic pain. All of that, plus family stressors, before I was 18. I wasn’t responsible for any of those things. They were things that happened to me.

But somewhere along the way, given the stack of cards that I was dealt, I had to choose how to handle those things as an adult. I did a lot of things right: college, friends, therapy. But I did a lot of indulgent and difficult things as well, like too much food, further participation in the religion that was hurting me, and struggles with reconciling my own sexuality. I chose to get married and have children. I chose to keep eating, even when I became obese. I felt like there was no hope to make changes, and I participated in that hopelessness. And thus passed my 20s. A decade spent, responsible for myself and not handling it correctly. Wasted years. Good things came out of those years, like my college degree and my children, but they came from inauthentic spaces.

The process to healthy living for me required owning my past, my hurt spaces, my sexuality, my religious upbringing, my family culture, my food habits, my approach to relationships. It required exercise and healthy habits, therapy, journaling, financial responsibility. It required being a grown-up who loves themselves. It took work. And it got a bit easier, a bit at a time, over days, and weeks, and months, and years.

It required me loving myself, putting me first, along with my children, and healing from my past. It required me managing money appropriately, spending time with friends, learning how to process difficult feelings (like lonely and scared and angry and sad), keeping my home clean and tidy, exercising. It required me being responsible for me.

No one will just come along to save you. No prince will ride up on horseback, no surprise job will give you purpose, no lottery winning will take all your pain away. Because with the depression, even the magical things that happen feel like too much. The prince, the job, the lottery winnings, they feel just as hopeless as the rest.

And so back to heart: I know what it is like to live without hope. And I know what it is like to live happy. Life isn’t always easy. I have tough days. But it’s different. It’s so different. Struggles are manageable, temporary. I have tough hours or days, not a lifelong struggle of feeling broken. I got here. I did it. And now I’m working every day to stay here.

And I believe you can too. Be responsible for you, even when your insides tell you that you can’t. It’s so worth the effort. After all, what’s the alternative?

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Defining Marriage

The definitions of marriage have changed. But has the definition of happiness changed as well?

For a few generations, in the youths of my parents and their parents, traditional and conservative values were prioritized above all else. The man meets the woman, they court, they save themselves for marriage, she takes his last name, they move in together and he works while she bears and raises the children. It was culturally frowned upon for women to work outside the home, even as things like domestic violence were often shrugged off and overlooked. Infidelity was expected, at least at times, for men, but strictly forbidden for women. Women were property, to be dominated and owned, even as the conventions behind marriage stated that women were to be loved and cherished. Men were brought up to be strong and to seek riches and success. Women were brought up to be cultured, modest, and demure, and to seek themselves a man.

There was certainly a lot of convention. It was relatively common a few generations ago for older men in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s, to marry much younger women, even teenagers, and for them to have two or three marriages in a lifetime. It was almost unheard of for older women to marry younger men. Women were the nurturers, and men were the breadwinners, and that was simply the way of things.

And nearly anyone can recite a form of the marriage vows. “I, man, take you, woman, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, as my lawfully wedded wife, till death do us part.” It was a transaction, a legal and binding tie that was meant to last a lifetime. The kids, the assets, the money, and the bed would be shared, and everyone would live happily ever after. And of course, a lot went wrong with these institutions, but the ideal remained. Handsome young man meets beautiful young woman and they fall in love and stay in love through decades, no matter what life throws at them. Cue every Hollywood movie ever made (well, 95 per cent of them). Cue the Notebook, and Cinderella, and Sleepless in Seattle and every feel good film that leaves you feeling like love and happiness are just around the corner if you just meet the right person.

If I’m honest, though, this describes about zero per cent of the marriages I’ve seen in my life. Both sets of my grandparents remained married until they died, but from what I know, they had years of staying loyal to each other even while not liking each other very much. There was depression, and problems with kids,  and fighting, and drinking, and the sacrifice of careers. There were extreme hard times. But they stayed together, and that was the ideal, the one we keep falling back on.

But not so much in my generation. My parents divorced. Most of my siblings divorced. I divorced. It didn’t work. The world had changed. (I mean, gay marriage is legal now.) No longer does the message seem to be to just stay together no matter what. But the ideal hadn’t changed, and thus we ended up with a generation of people feeling like they had failed, like they hadn’t done it the right way. And that sense of failure stays with you, particularly when you are connected by children. Divorce is an ugly, violent process that results, frequently, in depression and pain and bankruptcy. But also liberation, a new beginning, a fresh start, a leaving of the past and a building toward the future.

I’m 40 now, and I’ve been divorced for 8 years. And I’m noticing that the trend has shifted again. What I see now is a generation of people who are not saving themselves for marriage, who are not willing to sacrifice their happiness, or their aspirations, or sometimes even their family names. I see people who expect more out of life than to just fall in love and stay there (hopefully) for a lifetime. I see people staking their own claims. They date, and they have sex, and they pursue their careers. And they might fall in and out of love. They regret the one they loved who didn’t love them back, even as they reject others who they don’t love back. And then they turn 30 and wonder what has happened, because they didn’t achieve that ideal that they were seeking for all along: that one person they hoped to love and stay with forever. That’s right, they changed the rules about how they live their lives, and then wonder why their lives didn’t turn out like their parents did, while openly admitting that that wasn’t what they were looking for in the first place.

What I’m seeing far more frequently lately, in my personal life and in my therapy office, are single people who are angst-ing at the universe about their lack of success in relationships, and people in relationships who are angst-ing about their relationships not being what they thought they would be. For those who have partners, they seem to wrestle with depression, wondering why things haven’t turned out perfectly. Why isn’t the sex happening enough, or why is their boyfriend so quiet all the time, or why isn’t the house as clean as they thought it would be? I think they make the mistakes of assuming that relationships will be easy. On paper, in theory, they state that they are ready for the hard work that relationships will bring, that the love will be enough to see them through those tough times, but in execution, it is much harder than they realize, and they aren’t sure how or if they can make things better. The grass is always greener…

So I find myself asking others, what is the kind of relationship you are looking for? The ideal one? The one where you meet someone and fall in love and stick it out no matter what, during time of stress and pain, sickness and depression, money and trust and communication issues? Or the one where you have an independent life with personal happiness, a fulfilling career, friends, and travel, and one that you share with someone who also has an independent life? And if it is the second one, are you prepared to realize that those independent lives will not always intersect? Sex, and aspirations, and travel, and career, and goals… they won’t always be in line? Are you okay with mixing these two together and creating a new definition?

What if the ideal relationship in today’s times means a composite of these two worlds? What if you fall in love with someone who loves you, cuddles you, someone you find beautiful, someone independent and engaging, and you build something long-term, but then over time, those things change, and you with it? How does sex, career, money, family, aspirations, trust… how do all of those things change when you want the best of both, a happy you and a long-term consistent relationship? Is this the new ideal? Is this the recipe for happiness, someone to share life with even as you find your own happiness, even through major trials and struggles? Is that how it will be now? Can you remain happy and good in your own skin throughout the process of building something with someone else? Because that describes nearly every happy couple I know, at this point. that blend of baby-boomer and millennial, that solid ground assurance mixed with the murky and tenuous unknown.

Which is it you are looking for? If you are living like a millennial and looking for the baby-boomer definition of a relationship, frustration and angst are the likely results.

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Naked, with grace

“When was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror, naked?”

My friend giggled, perhaps embarrassed that I’d said the word naked in a public coffee shop. “This morning.”

“All right. And what did you think when you looked?”

She raised an eyebrow in confusion. “I don’t think I did think about it. I mean, I saw my reflection, but I didn’t really look. I just did my hair, put on my make-up, got dressed.”

I sipped my coffee. “Okay, let me try again. When is the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror naked?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, God, not only do I not know, I don’t think I want to do that.”

“Why?”

“Cause ew.”

Now it was my turn to laugh? “Ew? You’re so profound.”

“I don’t want to see that!”

“And yet you see it every day.”

“But like, I don’t want to see see me naked!”

“Hmm.” I responded.

“Oh stop it!” She flashed me her death glare from across the table. “I hate when you do that thing where you act like you are in a therapy session and you want the client to reveal something about themselves through your casual observance.”

I wiggled my eyebrows. “When I do that, how does it make you feel?”

She laughed louder. “Stop it!”

“I’m not your therapist. But I am therapist. How does that make you feel?” We both laughed again. “Okay, but honestly, as your best friend, can I just say that if the thought of looking at yourself naked makes you say ‘ew’, what kind of energy does that put out there into the world? How does that influence how you think men see you, or your own self-confidence and energy?”

Her eyes narrowed, playfully, but I could tell she was thinking that through. “I hate you so much. Okay, Mister Therapist, when is the last time you looked at yourself naked?”

I non-chalantly sipped. “This morning.”

She laughed. “Oh fuck you. And how did that make you feel?”

“Well that’s why I brought it up.” We both laughed, and then I grew serious, sober. “Okay, so first it dawned on me, historically I have never given myself a good look. I’ve avoided looking. And most my life, I’ve just been hard on myself, like feeling ashamed about how I look naked, but also not wanting to look at myself naked because then I would have to feel ashamed. Does that make sense?”

“Oh my God, yes. But I think you just described everyone, ever.”

“And, like, what does that say about me? It’s just easier not to look, so I just won’t look? Because if I do, I might be ashamed? That’s gross! I hate thinking that way. So I gave myself a good look this morning. And my very first impulse would be to be super hard on myself. I have a few inches around my stomach. Like I’m strong, but I have fat deposits there, and they are jiggly, and there is some extra skin there from when I used to be fat. And when I turn around, I can see where my spine curves, and my ass only looks great if I stand at just the right angle. My feet are flat. There is a space next to my chest by my armpits where there is just some skin there and it doesn’t look like I’d want it to ideally look. And I have grey on my temples.”

She stared at me. “Okay, I know I’m married and straight, and I know you’re gay, but you know how much I love the gray on your temples. You’re giving me all the right daddy vibes.” We both laughed. “And to hear that you are being that tough on yourself, when I look at you and think you are super hot, it pisses me off.”

“Yes! Me too! It pisses me off! Also, thank you! I am super hot!” More laughter. “But isn’t that what you’d do, automatically see the flaws when you’d loo? If you’d look?”

She bit her lip. “All right. I’ve had kids. I’d see stomach fat, and stretch marks, and my boobs would be saggy because I’ve breastfed kids. And I’m sure I wouldn’t like the rest. This sucks, I don’t want to talk about it.”

I gripped her hand. “And so whenever your husband sees you naked, you just assume he’s going to look at those things, or that he will just purposefully look past them. Like you’d be mad if he noticed, but you’d also feel ashamed. Like self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Yes! Yes! Okay! You made your point!”

I laughed again and winked. “I haven’t even started to make my point yet. I feel the same way! Like all this body shame that I want to avoid thinking about! And I have those same expectations from my boyfriend cause he basically looks perfect naked.”

“So does my husband! Damn we have good taste in men!”

“Or they have great taste in us!” I countered, and we laughed again.

She laughed harder. “I fucking love you.”

“I fucking love you!” I countered. But then I sobered a bit. “Have you ever gotten angry with your husband for not loving you in a particular way? Like you inherently expect him to see past your insecurity and just make you feeling fucking beautiful. And you’re hurt and angry when he doesn’t. Like because he doesn’t make all your pain go away, then he needs to be punished.”

She glared. “You already said that. Well, kind of.”

“Hey! I’m processing here! And do you ever find yourself resenting someone who you think looks great, and you are mad at them because they have some sort of insecurity? Like I have this friend who has literally done underwear modeling, and I saw him once and told him he looked incredible and he was like ‘don’t say that, not today. I don’t feel good about myself’ and my natural instinct was to be like ‘fuck you! you aren’t allowed to be insecure when you look that good! Only I get to be insecure!’ but instead I was like ‘oh man, I’m sorry you are having a tough day’. And he actually gave me a hug and said ‘thank you for letting me be human and have insecurity for a second. No one lets me do that.’ Like am I the only one allowed to be insecure? It’s an actual human trait. We all experience it. And we waste all of this time and money on shitty behavior that we think will make us feel better because we aren’t at some standard of beauty that society has branded into us! We can only be successful if we are this particular definition of hot!”

“Okay, now you are just ranting. So what is the point of all this?”

I took a deep breath. “So this morning, instead I tried the opposite. Looked at myself in the mirror with grace instead of judgment. I was… kind. I thought of all the time I’m spending in the gym. I looked at my massive arms, my thick shoulders, my back, my muscular legs and calves, my ass, my stomach, my smile. And instead of feeling ‘ew’ I felt… happy. I felt driven. I felt like I wanted to eat healthy and exercise and see what I’m capable of. I thought of how my partner sees the best parts of me, so why would I see the worst parts? Why would I waste time either not looking, or just hating what I saw? Why would I do that?”

And then I leveled my gaze. “And why would you? You’re gorgeous!”

We talked about our naked selves for a while, laughing and connecting, because that is the kind of friends we are. We smiled. We discussed loving ourselves, with grace, not with judgment. We talked about how we want to raise our kids to do the same, and then laughed about how we can definitely not talk to our kids about nakedness cause that’s weird. But then we talked about wanting to use grace more, with all the parts of our lives. About our jobs, and our friendships, about our writing and our families. About our personal journeys. We talked about using grace and not shame as a way to motivate ourselves, to find love and self-acceptance. We talked about how confidence is the very sexiest thing.

Because if we can’t look at ourselves naked, how can we expect anyone else to?

 

2019 ‘I Wills’

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Emotional (Feelings and Relationships)

I will trust, when trust is warranted, and I will hold my truth close.

I will make time for feelings, for sad and mad, scared and guilty, happy and joyful, grateful and proud and secure. I will process them and give them the space they need and choose what to do with them.

I will invite and extend, and I will thank those who show up and especially those who reciprocate.

I will be honest with my intentions and be accountable even when others are not.

I will reach out and message back. And I will pull back as needed.

I will remove negative influences from my heart and spirit.

I will prioritize the friendships that prioritize me, beginning with myself, my sons, my boyfriend, my mother, my best friends, my siblings.

I will offer and accept compliments.

I will banter, and flirt, and laugh, and love.

I will clear my heart and give to myself.

I will ask for what I need. I will listen.

Mental (Achievement, Work, and Money)

I will love what I do.

I will give my all to my clients, though I will not work harder on them than they work on themselves.

I will be prompt and honorable with my schedule.

I will be honest with my dealings.

I will charge a fair rate for my services, and offer a quality product in return.

I will research, and read, and learn.

I will pay my bills promptly.

I will plan leisure activities, indulge, and spend on myself.

I will plan for the future and be wise with my money.

I will spoil my children just the right amount.

I will work, but not too little and not too much.

Spiritual (Peace and Purpose)

I will have integrity. I will hold myself accountable.

I will speak out against injustice. I will stand for social justice, equality, feminism. I will embrace the outcasts, whose tribe I have always been a part of.

I will be open to criticism and feedback.

I will not measure my success and happiness against that of others.

I will make my time with those around me, especially my children, quality and focused. I will take similar quality time with myself.

I will put my phone down more, and turn off all screens more often.

I will be outside more, and I will absorb and observe the things around me.

I will tell stories with other storytellers.

I will continue to reach high and find projects that arrest, fascinate, and motivate me.

I will travel and explore.

I will love with as much of my heart as I have to spare at that time.

Physical (Body)

I will improve my sleep.

I will manage my pain by healthy living, through stretching and chiropractics and massage.

I will listen to my body more mindfully.

I will rest.

I will learn to be hungry.

I will not eat animals. And I will make room for my inner animal.

I will learn to eat the right things, and in the right quantities. I will learn to indulge when it is right, but only when it is right.

I will exercise, often.

I will achieve the goals for physical fitness now that I am 40 as I have frequently fallen short. I will allow my mantra for ‘slow change over time’ to apply to me, but I will not use that mantra as an excuse to fall back on old habits.

I will love the me that I am even as I seek to change and grow.

Ocean Lonely

The sky is gray and rain is pelting my skin. The wind is heavy against me, but somehow I’m not cold. I’m standing alone on the bough of a ship, right at its triangular peak. As I stare straight ahead, the ocean is all I can see. It takes my breath. It always will. The water ripples powerfully, more water than I can ever imagine. And far from here, as far as my vision extends, the Earth curves, and it is ocean and ocean and ocean.

It overwhelms me, this sight. Rarely do I feel this small, so aware of myself. It its simplest form, this complicated set of feelings, this sense of myself, it just feels lonely. But of course it is more than that. I’m channeling the experiences of the past few days and the fullness of the world within me, one that is both at peace and at unrest. I don’t know what else to call it but existential.

In the waters beneath me, there is a massive and incomprehensible eco-system. Various life forms at every level of the sea floor, each with their own complex set of rules. Thousands of life forms, millions of them, cohabitating carefully. Plants that feed on light, fish the feed on plants, larger fish that feed on smaller fish, and thousands of breeds of each of them.

Just yesterday, we spent six hours, only six hours, in another country, a small island colony called Grand Cayman. Fifty thousand people on this beautiful stretch of land, and all I saw were the docked cruise ships and the jewelry and souvenir and seafood shops catering to the tourists. Just a few hours in the capital city, Georgetown, and I wanted to spend a week but already know I’ll probably never make it back there. My boyfriend, my two sons, my sister, her daughter, and I, we joined a small group of tourists at the back of a bus, and we rode to a beach where we boarded a boat that took us out to a nearby sandbar. There, a group (a pod? A school? A cluster?) of Southern Atlantic Stingrays had gathered. I look it up later and learn that a group of rays is called a fever. A fever of rays. And that stuns me as much as the creatures themselves. Dozens of other rays have other habitats in the area, the Lemon Ray, the Manta, the Spotted something. They feed on smaller animals and sharks feed on them. There were about 150 humans in the water, each carrying a bucket of squid guts to attract the Rays. The females of this species grow to have wing spans as wide as a grown man’s outstretched arms. They are accustomed to humans, to our grouping hands, our bouncing presence on their sand bar, to the sounds of boats. We were lectured on how to approach them, how to pet them, what parts to avoid. We donned vests and masks and we stepped into water. My children held tightly to me as I walked them toward an enormous ray, one that a man from Argentina from our boat was holding closely. We reached our hands out and we stroked its soft wing, its rubbery stomach. We looked it in the eyes. My youngest son started with fear, and then enthusiastically rubbed it, wondering if he should call it Fluffy or Flappy. And again, in the distance, the ocean curved, except this time I could see the island that I wouldn’t get to explore.

Before we stroked the rays of the wings, I give my children an encouraging lecture about how to approach the creatures. I invite them to describe how they would approach an unfamiliar puppy, or kitten, or bird, or fish. Every creature is different, I explain, as is this one. We only touch certain parts. We are calm and careful. We respect them. This reassures my kids and they gently rub their palms over the wings of the ray, respectful and kind, as they cling to me so the ocean won’t whisk them away. I clutch them tightly until we get back on the boat.

Shortly after that, at a local restaurant, I looked over a menu, one that brandished names of local creatures that could be purchased and consumed. Snappers, Groupers, Flounders, Lobsters. Crabs scuttled over a nearby rock. Gray-green iguanas sat in a nearby tree. A local told us how the invasive green iguanas were taking over the territory of the blue ones, and now the blues were in danger. I keep hearing roosters in trees and occasionally they strut by; my son is thrilled that there are wild chickens, and he wants to count ever one he sees. I ask the waiter what other animals exist here naturally and he sadly tells us that the others were mostly wiped out in the hurricane in 2004, nearly 15 years ago. He says there were snakes and rats that kept the chicken population under control, but when the waters rose, everything that couldn’t fly or climb just drowned. So now there are chickens everywhere, he says, and they breed too quickly and they are left searching for ways to survive because there are so many. They even eat themselves, he says, they eat the discarded waste of the Kentucky Fried Chicken downtown.

And I grimace, because we are the same. I immediately think of all of the tourists on the cruise ship. The humans with money who are looking for the perfect vacation, and so they spend thousands of dollars to ride a ship and eat too much food. They push others out of their way and wait in lines impatiently. They breed too quickly and have no natural predators, and they eat not what they must but what they can, long past the point when it is healthy. They roam and strut and crow in trees.

The ship itself is supposed to be indulgent, fancy, luxurious. But it feels sad to me. All of those employees, all of them from different countries, with huge smiles on their faces. 1100 of them on one ship. 1100 humans who just work there, live there, day after day, week after week. Every five days, thousands of new impatient and indulgent roosters climb on board and expect to be catered to. The workers sign six month contracts and work long days, 10 or 12 or 15 hours. They share rooms with others. They leave behind their families, their homes, their children. Some do it for adventure, others for survival. And each of them have stories, tragedies, places they come from, streets they have walked. They hail from Cuba and South Africa and Tobago and Herzegovina. They take these jobs and then break their backs at them for months at a time for, what I must presume, is a competitive wage. They fold clothes and cut vegetables, they swab decks and clear plates, they massage aching shoulders and stack chairs, they restock feminine hygiene products and they sing and dance on stage. Day after day. The ocean curves for them too.

And because that is how my brain works, I immediately start thinking of all of the things they must see, all they must have to deal with. On a ship this size, with this many people interacting every day, there must be so many protocols in place. How to clean bloody nose stains off of pillows. How to handle drunk and irate and aggressive men. What to do if a sea-bird lands on the deck and gets into the restaurant. How to handle a woman who has just suffered domestic violence. How to smile when a customer complains too loudly. How to handle the couple who is having sex on the deck near the pool. How to do CPR after a heart attack. How to handle the customer who attempts suicide by jumping off the edge of the boat. What to do with confiscated cocaine. How to handle the international person who tries to sneak on the ship during port. How to entertain 3000 people when the storm rages on for three days and the pools close down. How to disarm the man who snuck the gun on board. How to process the shoplifter. How to handle the customer with stomach flu or peanut allergies or a motorized wheelchair or cerebral palsy or anemia. How to assist the woman on her honeymoon who just found out her husband is cheating. How to break up a fight at the bar. What a complicated reality this all must be. And what must it be like to work in human resources on a ship like this, with a crew this size, with international people. How to handle the affairs, the depression, the illnesses, the complaints. What a massive operation it all is.

For me, this vacation represents relaxation, and family, and adventure. It represents giving my children something that I never had. It demonstrates love to them in a way I always hoped I’d be able to show, by showing them the world, by spoiling them, by allowing them to indulge. I planned this trip two years in advance. I want them to play and sing and leap and explore. I want to show them different foods, ways of life, and shores. I want to spoil them just enough. Just once in a while, I want them to feel like they are spoiled. I want them to grow up and tell stories about that time Dad took them on that epic vacation. And that feels wonderful, that part.

But this trip also quiets the distractions. Despite all the food and noise and entertainment, I’m cut off from the outside world for a time. I have to set my phone down. No constant media updates, no clients to listen to, no consistent routine. I’m here, instead, surrounded by indulgent tourists and cruise workers who have huge smiles on their faces. Everything feels like a transaction. It’s disorienting, in both good and bad ways. It’s uncomfortable. My insides rock and bob with the movements of the ship. And when I disembark, my body will be disoriented again, wondering why the ground has stopped moving.

Tomorrow we will eat more, and bury each other in the sand, and spread our toes in the soft silty soil as the ocean tides lap over us. And the day after that, we will pack up, get on a plane, and go home.

But for now, I stand here with the wind and the rain, in contemplation, and all I’m left with at the end is the curving and turbulent ocean.

And somehow that’s enough.

ocean

Self-disclosed

Part of being a therapist is being absolutely elastic. Clients come in with different motivations, some of them outwardly stated and some silent and under the surface. They are paying for a service (or sometimes their insurance, or some benefactor is paying for them) and they want to receive that service in a unique way. The most difficult part of the job is knowing how to meet that for each person. This can wind up leaving me feeling like I am auditioning over and over for people, trying to convince clients that I’m a valuable practitioner, who is worth their time and money. It can be an uncomfortable reality in my field. A lot of clients want a particular result without having to put much effort in. It can be exhausting.

I often meet new clients with some sort of introduction that can prove my worth. “Hi, I’m Chad. I’ve been doing therapy for this many years, and I specialize in these types of services. I try to utilize an approach that meets clients where they are, validates their pain, and also pushes them into positive growth, but this can often take time. The therapeutic relationship forms over a period of weeks. I’m here for you. Now tell me what brings you in?”

I like to think that I’m an effective therapist in most situations, and I think most of my clients would agree. I continually ask myself what my role in a given situation is, and in these situations I have to remind myself that my job is to be the therapist my client needs me to be during the time that I’m with them. They live their entire lives before and after our sessions, and there are no quick solutions. I have to listen, be attentive and consistent, and push hard, but not too hard.

I’ve had a number of clients complain about me over the years. These are isolated experiences, but they do happen. And I’m human, so every time, the negative feedback leaves me sad, frustrated, self-critical, or vulnerable.

self

“I felt you weren’t listening.”

“You were too tough on me.”

“You weren’t tough enough on me.”

“I told you I was suicidal and you didn’t take me seriously.”

“You should have realized I was suicidal even though I didn’t say anything.”

“You were too critical of my life choices.”

“You told my wife to find a safe place for the night after I hit her, but you didn’t even hear my side of the story.”

“You aren’t competent enough in _____.”

“You shared too much about yourself.”

“You are too closed off.”

And on and on.

On days where I see many clients in a row, I feel different parts of myself being challenged each time. Some need a coach, some need a best friend, some need a kid brother, some need a confidant, some need an emotional sponge, and some need a parent. Clients may come in and willfully withhold information, testing to see if I can sense that they are hiding something. They may come in aggressive and take out that aggression on me, their nearest target. They may come in silent, or sleepy, or in pain, and expect comfort, or nurturance, or challenge. And they expect the therapist to be fully present and adaptable to those needs, spoken or unspoken, no matter what the therapist is going through personally. (And trust me, therapists get headaches, and get sad, and have family problems, and…)

On top of that, the therapist has to be able to manage time. Sessions last for fifty minutes. Clients need a balance of reporting HOW they are doing, while being kept on a continuum of working toward their goals. (And some clients have VERY specific goals, while others have NO goals).

Most clients expect some kind of therapist who has life experience with struggle. They want to know their therapist has an understanding of depression, and anxiety, and addiction, somewhere in their personal lives, but they also don’t want the therapists to have ANY problems currently. And so self-disclosure becomes necessary. I use self-disclosure sporadically with clients. I use it to demonstrate understanding of a particular issue, to create a bit of a personal bond with a client, or to increase empathy between us. Self-disclosure is expected by most, if not all, clients, at least to a degree, but it has to be brief while also being frequent.

These interactions with clients get extremely complicated given three basic facts: 1. I am a human, who has human problems and human emotions. 2. I genuinely care about my clients, each and every one of them, even when they get on my nerves. 3. I have feelings, and I won’t always do everything right, even when expected to.

A few examples of self-disclosure follow.

“I know what that feels like. Before I came out of the closet, I went through a period of deep depression. It can be so hard to do the work it takes to get out of it, but it is so worth it. It’s the difference between hope and despair. What do you think would help you move forward?”

Or “I hear you! Being in a relationship is so hard! My partner and I fight over the stupidest things sometimes, and we see things completely differently. Communication means compromise, though. Meeting in the middle. The other day we argued about ___, and then we got through it by ___. Tell me about your last fight.”

Or “Maybe taking a break from church is a good idea for a while. You are talking about how conflicted you feel when you attend every week. I wouldn’t recommend quitting all together, but taking a few weeks off so you can get some clarity. When I was in my faith crisis years ago, I needed room to breathe, and it helped immensely.”

Self-disclosure in therapy can become tricky. It builds bonds, but those bonds have to be kept within certain boundaries. The client can’t feel like the therapist is over- or under-sharing. There needs to be a friendship without the two being friends. Co-dependency can form, as can romantic attraction, or emotional distance, or overstepping bounds. In fact, because these are human interactions, not only can they happen, but they will happen, and then they have to be managed along the way.

After 16 years in this field, I’ve learned a few things, but above all else, I’ve learned that I have to be organic. My job requires me to be knowledgeable, competent, kind, and consistent, to manage time and goals, to be accepting of everyone, to be both soft and hard in approach, to keep clear boundaries, to be human, and to be adaptable. And despite all of that, I have to realize that I’m human, that I’ll make mistakes, that I can’t help everyone always, and I certainly can’t please everyone always. I also need to know that it’s okay to say sorry, to receive criticism, and to trust myself all while doing my best to help those in front of me.

I love helping others, which is why I do what I do. It’s a calling. But it is also a job, and just a job. And I have to leave work at work and then go home. And so, like every other day, I’ll do my very best, one client, one hour at a time.

With Resolve

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The best way to measure where we are is to look back at where we were.

I remind my clients of this principle often, in my therapy office. When they come in with small frustrations (the flat tire, the grumpy kid, the demanding boss), I sometimes remind them of where they were last year with larger struggles (the cheating spouse, the bankruptcy notice, the suicidal thoughts). With a bit of perspective, our current problems sometimes don’t feel as overwhelming.

And that is the perspective I choose to view 2018 with. This year had plenty of frustrations for me, but overwhelmingly, this was a year in which I achieved many goals and accomplished some things that I never thought were possible.

In 2017, I became financially solvent. I got health insurance for the first time in years, eliminated debt, and developed a savings account, which gave me the ability to start traveling a bit for the first time, and I continued that in 2018. With the ability to work remotely (somewhat), I was able to take several short trips, where I could stay in inexpensive accommodations and explore new cities while staying on top of my business prospects. I took four solo trips this year, to Phoenix, Arizona; to Calgary, Alberta; to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico; and, the most epic, to Juneau, Alaska. I also took four trips with my partner, romantic getaways where I could still work while we were gone; to Philadelphia, Philadelphia; to Palm Springs, California; to Seattle, Washington; and to New Orleans, Louisiana. All of these were incredible trips that resulted in a lifetime of memories and many new friends, but Juneau held the most magic for me as I saw an entirely different part of the country. I look forward in 2019 to more travel and exploration.

In 2017, I talked constantly about wanting to do more writing and performance. And so I launched a monthly story-telling night. It grow, steadily and smoothly, and I kept it running in 2018 with 12 more performance. We switched the format, adding more readers, and after a time, we started selling tickets to the event. It has grown into something that I adore, and look forward to every month.

In addition to that, in 2018, I did the impossible. Multiple times. I finished filming a documentary that consumed my time, attention, and creative energy for over two years. (The film, Dog Valley, remains in the editing phase, and likely will for several more months, but filming is complete). And I published a book! I published a memoir, Gay Mormon Dad, in which I boldly tell my story of coming out, and leaving religion to find myself. It’s a work I’m incredibly proud of, and the feedback and reviews on it were overwhelmingly positive. Ultimately, it only sold a few hundred copies, but I remain overtly proud of the work. It was a life accomplishment, something I’d want mentioned in my obituary some day.

2018 also became a year with HUGE unpredictable events, most of which had very little yield as a result. I started keeping a list of opportunities that presented themselves, almost all of which had no follow-through, and about half way through the year, I had to work on strategies to free myself from the emotional stress of all of this. I participated in five interviews on major podcasts and broadcasts about my book, my therapy work, and my story-telling. I think these interviews helped others, but I’ve only received sporadic feedback from them overall; still, all were wonderful experiences. I had several offers for other interviews (including one from a media celebrity), but none of them panned out. I appeared in a different documentary about gay Mormon issues, but not many attended the premiere. I had about ten different potential offers to fund my documentary (Dog Valley) and held many different meetings regarding funding, but only one of the offers turned out to be serious, and it is still pending at the time of this writing. In addition, I had a few different book companies show interest in taking my book to a higher reading audience and promotion platform, but all of these yielded no fruit. Huge offers kept coming, and I responded enthusiastically to each one, but ultimately, nearly all of my answers received no replies. I type this now without bitterness, but the wrestle I had with this over the past 12 months has been a mighty one.

2018 had a few very tough emotional wrestles for me as well. I have more self-confidence, belief, and esteem than I ever had in my life span, which is wonderful, and I saw my kids thrive. I had a second wonderful year with my boyfriend, and we grew together more tightly, working through issues and falling more in love. And I watched my sons thrive in their new charter school, turning 7 and 10 this year; they are incredible and wonderful, now more than ever. Despite all of these positives, I was hurt very badly by two people that I trust very much this year. These events resulted in me learning more than ever about trust, vulnerabilities, forgiveness, and recovery. These isolated events led to lots of tears and tough life lessons. The good news, though, is that I learned from both and came out stronger and, I hope, with more compassion and grace. I went to some therapy myself to sort out some of these issues, and I’m a better person because of it.

2018 also led to me getting into much better physical shape. I grew more consistent at the gym and reached a place where I can look in them mirror and feel wonderful about the attractive guy I see looking back at me. I look forward to further progress this coming year.

In 2018, I read a lot of books, wrote a lot of stories, and watched a lot of television and movies. I moved into a new place, and took in a new roommate. I drank so much coffee. I made some new friends. I completed hundreds of therapy and crisis intervention sessions. I laughed so much, and I smiled even more. And strangely, I grew more internally quiet. I stopped expecting so much from the world, and instead grew at peace with my attempts to find it and do what I love. I stopped, for the most part, comparing my success to that of others. And I watched the people around me, those I love and trust the most, grow and change along with me.

I ended the year with some sobering personal revelations as well, all of which will help fuel me as I set goals this coming year. But the place realization is looking back to where I used to be, then seeing where I am now. And now, at year’s end, I can say I’m living my dream and enjoying the journey. It isn’t without setback or frustration, but I’m doing things that I love and that I’m passionate about, I have a solid court of lovely people who I support and love and trust to have my back, and I genuinely like who I am and what I am doing with my life.

And thus begins my 40th year. And I can’t think of a ground to build from.

Frickin’ Frackin’ iPads

apple

My sons seemed a bit underwhelmed when they opened their new iPads on Christmas morning. I mean, they appreciated them, they are gracious kids, but there were so many new toys to focus on. Pokemon figures, Kirby figures, books and art supplies. They rushed from the room to play with toys, and stayed up there for several hours, getting along and having fun together. It was a veritable Christmas miracle.

And so, the iPads remained untouched most of the day, still in their packages. I’d kept the receipt, of course, the one that showed the warranties I’d purchased for far too much money. I cleaned the house, had a short nap, cooked lunch with my boyfriend. After lunch, the kids wanted to play video games, and they spent a few hours playing Kirby Star Allies, their current favorite. That’s the game the toys they were playing with came from. It was around dinnertime they wanted to use their new IPADs finally.

“Okay!” I responded with enthusiasm, glad they were remembering their most expensive gift. “Just give me a few minutes to set them up!”

I opened the packaging on the first one, pulled off the plastic pieces, set aside the instructions, assembled the charger and plugged it into the wall. I pushed the bottom button and the white apple icon showed up on the screen. Technology has come a long way since I was a kid, I thought.

I followed prompts, indicating English as the language of choice and that we resided in the United States. Then the iPad instructed me to hold my own iPhone over the iPad so that it could connect to my account through the Wifi and download my information automatically. A few minutes later, the iPad mirrored my phone itself, complete with text messages and call history, a larger replica of my phone. Which was cool, except I didn’t want an iPad for me, but for my son. I looked up a series of prompts on how to create a family account for my child, and began following those instructions. And about ten minutes later, it needed me to verify a text message code sent to my phone and then enter it onto the iPad so that I could prove that I was the parent. But the text never came. After some investigation, I realized that the text had been sent to a phone number that I hadn’t used in over 8 years and no longer had access to. Aargh!

So I called Apple technical support. After a ten minute hold, the man looked up my account and listened to my struggles. He estimated that the number was used because it was connected to my Paypal account, which was set up on my source, and he instructed me to log in to Paypal to change my user information, then reboot the iPad again. So I accessed Paypal, which would only allow me to change my number after I verified my personal identity, a process which took another ten minutes. I logged back into the iPad, started the process again, and got the same prompts.

“Dad, can I use my iPad yet? It’s been an hour.”

“Just a bit more time, buddy,” I replied, feeling my stomach acid start to build up to uncomfortable levels, and my heart rate increase. I called Apple support again.

“Oh, well if that isn’t working, just create an entirely new profile for your son. You can reboot it and he can just have his own account.”

“I can do that even if he is only ten? And my other boy is seven?”

“Yes, sir. Just go to this link.”

I’ll fast forward here and simply say that I spent nearly 40 minutes setting up those accounts, only to get told that because the kids were not 14, they weren’t allowed to have their own accounts. They had to have profiles created through family sharing on my direct plan, which is what I’d tried to do in the first place.

“God damn it!” I screamed while bringing my fist down on the table.

The kids were shocked, and I immediately apologized. It had been nearly two hours now, I explained, and I was getting frustrated, but I didn’t want to ruin Christmas. My boyfriend calmly offered to help, but I was stubborn and wanted to do it on my own. I retreated to the bedroom and closed the door as the kids kept playing video games.

I took several calming breaths, but I felt my fury bubbling. This should have taken ten minutes. I started the process all over, with both iPads running this time. I used my phone to create the duplicates of my account, then I created a family account for each one of them. And for some reason, this time, it sent the text to my own phone number, my current one, despite my having rebooted the iPads twice before. Once I verified my identity, I was able to create accounts for both kids to play in, and I set up the appropriate parental controls. Another thirty minutes had gone by.

“Dad, we are still playing Kirby. Are you almost done?”

“Almost, monkey! Be patient!”

Then I got into the space to download apps for the kids. I chose a few simple free ones for now, Animal Jam, and Youtube Kids. Both of them required me to send a permission request to myself, presuming I was the kid using the iPad accounts, and I clicked yes on both iPads. An approval link then showed up on my laptop and on my phone, both in my Email and text indicators. Wow, very thorough, I thought. I opened the link and clicked yes for my approval. Then I got a new indicator that stated I needed to receive a text verification code to enter I was really their parent in order to approve the apps. And the text verifier was sent to… you guessed it, my old phone number from 8 years before.

I then entered full meltdown mode. I shook so hard I was crying. I fought the temptation to throw the iPads against the wall and shatter them to little pieces. Why was this so futzing difficult! I felt like the dad on Christmas Story, who takes a wrench and beats the heater in the basement every time it breaks down. I couldn’t believe how aggravating this was!

Somehow I worked through my fury and rebooted the iPads yet again. I created the accounts, I downloaded the apps, I sent the approval notices, and this time it worked. I proudly called the kids into the room to show them their brand new iPads, and then showed them how they worked.

“You can create little animal characters and play this game! You can watch cartoons! You’re gonna love this!”

Both boys were thrilled. They got on their pajamas and then sat next to each other on the couch, the same places where they’d been playing Kirby just a few minutes before. Independently, they each opened YouTube Kids. Then they each, without speaking to each other, looked up ‘Kirby Star Allies’ on the app and began watching someone else play the video game on their screen. They did this for the next 90 minutes, watched a stranger play video games on the internet, on their brand new iPads that had cost an arm and a leg each.

Then at 9:30, they both turned off the devices and gave me huge hugs, thanking me for a perfect Christmas. I tucked them in, sat down on the couch wanting to cry again, and found myself still wanting to smash the screens in with a hammer. All that so they could watch video games that they had already been playing all day.

But I didn’t give in to my violent impulses. Instead, I did what any sane adult would to. I opened a bottle of red wine and closed Christmas out in style.

Cracked Earth

CrackedI forget to look up sometimes

Clouds, horizons, sunsets, if only I’d raise my eyes

The cracks in the earth distract me

and I rage at the imperfections of the ground

for feeling unsafe beneath me

It should be whole, solid, unbreakable

and I wonder what kind of world this is

when even the ground cracks

At my center, my spine curves, and my foundation with it

skeletal structures compensating with distentions and altered planes

crooked all the way through

It leaves me wondering at my very existence

Sometimes, at least, I seem able to find only

the broken, within and without

And then I remember

that the ground breaks apart and the earth extends

for everyone, and not just me

And then my head raises forward

And I move, aware of the broken

and choosing to forge ahead

Ghost of Christmas Past

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During my social work education in college, I took several classes that focused on tools related to understanding complicated families. One of those tools is a genogram. Squares represented men, circles were used for women. Lines connected romantic relationships, and little dashes meant children. An X over a person represented death, a double line through a relationship represented divorce. I’ve used genograms with hundreds of clients over the years now. Some families look clean and organized on paper: father, mother, brother, sister.

My family genogram ended up looking like a massive printer malfunction, or like someone dropped a pizza on the floor. It was rampant with divorces and remarriages, couples who had kids that were his hers and theirs, and adoptions. If I could add slashes and dashes for prison sentences, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, faith crises and drug addictions, well, we’d have Picasso’s Starry Starry night in family tree format. Beautiful, but far too much to take in one glance.

But each little square and circle on that paper represent a human fixed in time, someone with experiences, heartbreaks, setbacks and successes. And each of those people, most of them related to me by blood, have their own changing stories, their own epics. For most, the endings remain unwritten. But even the youngest of my siblings is in her late 30s now, so there is a lot of history to draw upon.

And that takes us to 1985.

Back then, my family was my entire world, that and religion. We have one family Christmas video preserved now. It’s beloved to me. It was made in December, 1985, when I was newly 7 years old. I was the little brother, the sixth of seven children. Back then, Mom and Dad were still married, if unhappily. My little sister Sheri was three, and she had thin yellow hair that grew down past her waistline. (Many years later, Sheri and I would be the ones who came out of the closet). And all of the older kids were there, ranging from 11 to 20 in age at the time. Grandma and Grandpa were there, my mom’s parents, and my oldest sister’s boyfriend. The video shows us all around the Christmas tree, singing songs, laughing, performing special talents for each other, opening gifts. My mom and sister Kara played the nose harps as a joke, someone did a piano solo. We each took a day of Christmas and sang all twelve verses in little one-line solos. The camera pans around the room as we each share what we are thankful for. At one point in the video, I take out my recorder from school and I play a carol for the family, not actually playing the instrument but more realistically just blowing notes through it, generating the sound with my voice and sounding like an eerie robot. Later in the video, I ask if I can lead the family in a song. I stand in the center of the room, right in front of the camera, and I lead the music, just like I’ve seen Mom do in church a thousand times, except I forget to bend my elbow. I lead on the right cadence with my wrist hinging in every direction as my family laughs at me, and at the time I didn’t understand what was so funny. I was beaming. Family, music about Jesus, Christmas. It was perfect. I’m smiling from ear to ear.

That was over 30 years ago. 33 Christmases ago, to be exact. That realization startles me. And in another blink of an eye, it will be 30 years from now and I’ll be seventy and my children will be men.

But what if I could go back? If I could time-travel, step back into that room as a grown man and just watch it all as it happened… I wouldn’t be able to experience the family just then, in the present like that. I have too much perspective for that. I’d see everything that lies ahead for each person in that room as I watched them. If I wanted to, I could tell Grandma and Grandpa the days they die on. I could tell Mom that she only had to put up with my dad’s anger and depression for five more years before she would finally choose to leave him. But then I’d also have to tell her that her next husband would be worse, he would use fists and control and insults and profanity to terrorize her for a few years. But then, I could tell her, then she’d meet the man of her dreams. She’d be 60 by then, but he would make her so happy for the rest of her life. I could tell my dad that he would never really change, that in 30 years he would be nearly 80 and still sad and quiet and angry and morose. I could look him in the eye and tell him how I felt about his depression and the way it ruined him, and about the impact it had on me.

Would I change anything if I could? Would I want to? Would I warn them about their futures? Would I grab my oldest sister in a hug and tell her that she wouldn’t be able to have children, but that she would finally choose to adopt three when she was in her mid-40s, and that it was definitely not going to be easy after that? Would I tell my second sister that she would meet the love of her life at age 18 and they would go on to have six children together, but also tell her that this picture perfect world would not be easy, that it would be full of health struggles and financial burdens? Would I warn my only brother to stop touching me in our bedroom when the doors were closed tight and no one could see? Would I tell him to stay off the drugs and to change his ways before his three marriages, his criminal charges, his domestic violence issues, his animal cruelty issues? Would I tell him that he would father three incredible children, and that all three of them would turn out great not because of him but in spite of him? Would I grasp my middle sister, Kara, and tell her that she’d have to put up with 15 years of two terrible marriages so that she could have her four children, but that if she could just put up with the abuse, drugs, and anger from her first two husbands, she would finally meet the man who would make her happy? Would I tell her that her kids would add up to seven before she was done, and that she’d have her youngest child around the same time she became a grandmother? Would I warn the sister just above me in age to never start smoking, never start drinking, as those habits would dominate the rest of her life?

I love all of my family, of course, but when I watch this old video, I see Sheri and I the most. Sheri was the baby of the family, the quiet, introverted, and obsessive little girl would grow up to be a kind, loving, incredible woman. But first she’d have to get through her boy clothes wearing and no makeup high school years, and then brave coming out of the closet in her early 20s, and it would not go well at first. If I could change things, I’d want her to do it early, to not wait until she was in her 20s. I’d want her to save herself the years of religious indoctrination, to not waste a single moment thinking she was anything but amazing. Maybe instead I would just reassure her without changing events. She has a future, I would tell her, one with a wife, a full-ride college scholarship, a life full of opportunities. I’d tell her that in many ways she would grow up to be my greatest example, despite being younger than me.

And then I look at me. If forty-year old me could go back in time and spend an afternoon with seven-year old me… my heart breaks just thinking about it. I have a son that size, just 7 years old. He’s so small. He watches the world around him with hope and wonder, and he sees the best in everyone. Someone being a bully just breaks his heart. He has so much to learn. I see him in 7-year old me. I’d wrap little me up in a giant bear hug, and I would ask me how I was feeling. I would ask, and I would listen. I feel like no one ever asked me back then. I would ask the questions no one was asking me then. How do you feel about your dad’s sadness? Do you like church, do you believe in it, what do you like about it and what don’t you? Do you know it’s okay to have doubts? I’d ask what was happening behind those closed bedroom doors, and tell him that that isn’t okay for someone, anyone, to touch him like that, and I’d encourage him to speak up and I would tell him I was there to protect him. And because he would be too young to understand, I would try to find a way to tell him how my life has gone. I would tell him that gay people are normal, and that anyone who tells him that he is broken or an abomination or that he can be cured or that he should just ignore it and hope that it goes away, that those people are wrong even if they don’t mean to be. Believing those things would take some of his best years away from him. At worst, those people are big homophobic meanies, and at best they are just misinformed. I would tell him to come out, early and to the right people, and that he should spend his adolescence being real, learning how to love himself and take care of himself, learning how to fall in love and make friends and how to dream big. I’d tell him to love church but recognize that it is flawed and that it doesn’t have all the answers, so he should keep the good and let go of the rest. I’d tell him to eat well, to exercise, to find healthy outlets for his emotions. I’d tell him to not waste two years in missionary service, that he’ll regret it later. I’d tell him he is beautiful just the way he is, all the parts of him, the compassionate and the creative, the social worker and the storyteller, the singer and the quiet thinker. I’d tell him to not be so lonely in his 20s, to not wait so long to kiss, to hold hands, to fall in love, to have sex. I’d tell him to never compromise and marry a woman just because he believed it was the only possibility for him, because both he and she would end up hurt.

But then, I’d take it all back. I’d regret every word. He’s 7, and telling him all of that would put far too much weight on his shoulders (and goddamnit, he was carrying too much weight as it was). If I told him all of that, I’d want to run screaming into a corner, because if he changed anything, If he didn’t spend those years thinking he was broken, if he never served a mission, never learned to believe God hated him, never married a woman… that if he came out of the closet even six months earlier, than his two sons wouldn’t exist. And they have to exist. The world can’t BE without them.

Instead, I’d have to tell him to be strong. To hold on. To know that his suffering in the long run would pay off, because he would eventually come out, he would eventually find love, he would eventually learn to love himself. He would be 32 when it finally happened, so he only had 25 years to be depressed, then he could learn to live. And in coming out, he’d break some hearts, he’d have to redefine everything, and he would have to navigate a new life with two beautiful little boys, and it was going to be so hard for a while but it would be so worth it because those little boys would be the lights of his entire world, and he would learn how to see himself as a light as well. And I’d tell him that the greatest payoff of all of this, all the years he spent hurting, is that he would raise his sons to have all of the things he never had.

I can’t change then. But I can change now. I can give my sons what I wish I could go back and give to me then. I can ask questions and listen to their answers. I can talk about hard things. I can teach them about nutrition and exercise, about compassion and kindness and integrity. I can teach them to love themselves, to follow their dreams. I can teach them about taking care of the planet, being kind to animals, and reaching out to the underdog, the outcast, the misfit. I can teach them to be themselves, to love themselves, and to follow their dreams. And if I can do all of that for them, then I don’t need to change the past.

Because someday, 30 years from now, perhaps my boys will look back to this time in 2018 and wonder what could be different. Maybe they would choose to come back and give warnings about dire future events, or give hints to themselves about how they can have happier lives if they make different choices. But my greatest wish would be for them to look back to now, right now, and see it as one happy Christmas in a long life full of happy Christmases, with nothing they would want to change.