Seattle Conclusion: Homecoming

April, 2015

Outside of a few goodbye dinners with friends, and one last night spent with Zhu, leaving Seattle was relatively anticlimactic. I carried my clothes, pictures, and few supplies down the stairs and loaded them into my car. I went to bed early the night before, woke and had one last cup of coffee on the balcony overlooking Lake Washington (my how I would miss the view over the lake), showered, dressed, and left. I was on the road by 5:30 am, ready for a long day’s worth of driving ahead. I almost immediately realized I wouldn’t miss it. I had taken what I needed, and now I was ready to leave.

I tried to leave the city with the same sense of adventure and hope that I’d arrived in it with. As I got on the busy interstate toward Utah, I contemplated the new reality that awaited me back home. I had taken the biggest risk of my life in moving here, and ultimately I had only lasted six months. I didn’t feel like a failure. I wasn’t coming home to Utah with my head between my legs. Instead, I was returning changed. And I had a long day of driving to figure out what those changes meant for me, and what they were.

The storm within me was quieter now. I was safer in myself. I had left Utah with so much anger and sadness, emotions that came from an unsafe place. But now the feelings were quiet within me. Their expression was more normal. I could get mad, or sad, or scared; I could feel anxious or guilty; I could grieve, or hope, or strive, and the world felt possible and safe. I knew how to feel now, and how to process the feelings. They were gifts now. They didn’t overwhelm or incapacitate me as they once had.

Leaving Utah had allowed me to find myself. It taught me that happiness wasn’t right around the corner, it was already within me. Utah no longer felt like me being shackled in place, instead it was a place where I had friends, where I felt it home. It now represented ground that I could build from, instead of the shattered ruins it had felt like when I left.

My children were six months older now. I’d seen them every month, and spoken with them over video chat daily, but they were older. And so was I. My friends had changed too; some had moved away, some had ended relationships, others had new jobs or homes or boyfriends. And yet Utah would feel exactly the same, just without the sense of threat that it had before.

Perhaps most dramatic of all, my ex-wife, my children’s mother, had evolved as well. She was no longer attending the LDS Church, for her own reasons, and I think that I had proven to her that I was a consistent and involved father, even from farther away. She was kinder now, in a way, and perhaps she blamed me less for the end of our marriage. And maybe that was the most healing thing of all. Maybe I finally could let go of my shame there, and stop living with regrets; maybe I could march forward with my life in peace and with hope now.

Ultimately, my time in Seattle had been… simple. The lessons I learned there were things most people learned in their teenage years and in their twenties. I learned that finding love wasn’t so easy, that family was the most important thing, that loving yourself was crucial before loving others. I learned how to prioritize health and self-compassion. I learned that I didn’t want to live with a bunch of guys in a fraternity setting, and that I didn’t want to make more money if it meant selling my soul and my own mental health. I learned that debt, and struggle, and pain follow you, even if you move to a new horizon. I learned that no one gets to the destination without putting the hard work in first.

Back in Utah, I had secured an apartment downtown. A brand new beginning in a new part of town. I was taking over the lease from some old college students. When I arrived, I found they left just a few things behind: a container of protein powder, a pull-up bar, a box of Stevia packets, two folding chairs, and seven unused condoms. Within days, I would have the place stocked with furniture and bunkbeds for my children. I would need to find work quickly in order to survive. There was a gym in the basement to work out in, and my social work license was still active, so I could launch right back into life. My friends were there. In fact, Kurt, my best friend, was planning a welcome back party for me, even though he had just thrown a going away party for me six months before.

I drove toward my sons, toward my future, having no idea what’s next for me. I had projects in mind, research and writing projects, things that I wanted to do. I wanted to travel, and to get in the best shape of my life, and to achieve financial freedom for the first time. But I was beginning to believe those things were possible. I was free from the shackles of the things that had held me back before, and I was learning that only I could put restrictions on myself. I had just the right ground to build from.

I pulled into my new place and, over a few hours, unloaded my car into the new apartment. Tonight, I would sleep on the floor, with pillows and blankets. In the morning, I would go grocery shopping, and then pick up my sons, and they would come over and play with me while I unpacked. It was a new beginning. Another one.

The next morning, I knocked on the door of my old apartment, the one my ex-wife had moved into when I’d moved to Seattle. My sons were inside waiting for me. The door opened, and my five year old yelled out, “Daddy, you’re home!”

And as I gathered him in my arms, his brother toddling over right behind him, I said “I am home, my boys. I am home.”

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the Dowels: Grown-ups Throwing Fits

Wood Dowels

“#$%^! Holy #@**! I got a– Ouch! &!(@!”

I stood there, helpless, holding my side of the large bed frame as I watched my boyfriend fall down on the jagged stone steps. His knee hit one side and it scraped, then he landed on the other. I immediately knew there would be bruises. Mike set down his side of the bed and limped off the steps and into the yard. There was at least one open cut. I stood there helplessly, supportive and in crisis mode, as I waited for his adrenaline spike to wear off.

“Babe, I’m so sorry you fell. What can I do?”

In a few minutes, he was inside rinsing out his cuts and doctoring up the wound while I finished moving the bed frames down the curvy stairs and into the backyard. Mike calmed down and bandaged up his knee, then tried helping me get the bed frames into the living room and down the hallway. The top frame was a complex piece, about 16 pieces of wood carefully assembled into frames and slats, with screws, dowels, and brackets holding it all together. A curved piece at the top of one slat made it impossible to navigate a particular corner, and a patch of paint was scraped off the wall as we tried to maneuver. I kept calm, moving the frame back into the living room and retrieving a screwdriver, allen wrench, and hammer.

For the next forty minutes, I carefully removed a dozen screws, straining my wrists as I turned the allen wrench around and around. Why were some of these wedged in so tight? I finally got all the pieces out, just to remove the one curved side, leaving the rest intact, then struggled to pull the piece off, dowels tight in the wood and not wanting to let it go free. I gave a mighty yank, a frustrated and angry “Rrrragh!” escaping my mouth, and it finally came free, with two strips of wood along the edge completely breaking off, jagged and threatening as they fell to the floor.

Now it was my turn. I let loose with a string of expletives, like the father in the Christmas Story over the broken heater.

“%&!(! It’s a %(@*ing piece of wood! Why the @+@# is this so &#)@ing hard to move around the !++( corner!”

Hot tears stung my eyes. I looked at the broken pieces on the ground and had hit my limit. Part of me wanted to start kicking the bed frame, smashing it into little pieces. Part of me wanted to grab the edges and just yank it through the wall, tearing pieces off in order to get it down the hallway and into the bedroom. Instead, I chose the less aggressive approach.

I sat down on the floor, put my head between my knees, and cried my eyes out. For about ten seconds.

Soon, the boyfriend was sitting on the floor next to me, his arm around my shoulders, muttering that it was fine, that it was just a piece of furniture. I breathed, calming myself, and snuggled in, hating that I’d lost myself for a moment over something so trivial.

Furniture assembly has never been my thing. I think it stems back to childhood. I’ve always had a more compassionate, creative brain. I liked drawing, story-telling, singing, performing, and sharing. I liked helping people feel better. But furniture assembly represents the part of me that could never measure up. I couldn’t ride a bike, climb a tree, or set up a tent. I was picked last for the kickball team, couldn’t get the basketball through the hoop, and came in last in sprint relays.

No matter how much I heal from having grown up a gay kid in a straight world, there will always be pieces of me that feel like I don’t measure up, like I’m not good enough, and that makes me furious. My rage shows up in strange moments, like this, when a piece of assembled wooden furniture can’t fit around the corner, and I’m not good at taking it apart and putting it back together.

After I calmed down, Mike grabbed the other side of the bed and, with bandaged knee, helped me maneuver it down the hall and into the bedroom. Fifteen minutes later, I had the bed reassembled, and ten minutes past that, it was all set up in the kids room, looking perfect. I couldn’t even see the small jagged pieces that had broken off.

I had a major headache after that, leftover stress from my small fit on the floor. I popped some Tylenol, took a ten minute siesta, and then felt completely better. I sat up on the couch, my head clear, and began to laugh. It was suddenly hilarious that a grown man, a father of two, a man who just published a book and who spends hours in therapy each week teaching others how to have healthy communication patterns, was ready to smash a piece of furniture apart. Where had my self-care skills gone?

I looked over at Mike, realizing we had both lost our cool that day, and yet we had both been there for each other. And suddenly it felt so safe and nice to just be human. And being human sometimes means being weak, irrational, and ugly, and it sometimes means having a tantrum.

Emotionally Obese

emotionalobesity

When someone comes out of depression, they have to learn how to feel all over again. It isn’t some magical shift, where the depression is replaced by joy and ease. Those positive feelings are there, sure, but the negative feelings have to be felt as well. There is a learning process to feeling sad, scared, mad, and guilty again, and then learning how to use the emotions to create positive experiences.

Somewhere along the way, we grow to believe that “emotional” means “weak”. We say things like “My husband just died, but I can’t let the kids see me cry. I have to be strong” and “I know I was diagnosed with cancer, but I’m not going to be scared. I just have to stay positive.”

We expend exhausting amounts of energy toward avoiding feelings that make us uncomfortable, feelings that are a natural part of the human spectrum. We can’t avoid feeling those feelings any more than we can avoid feeling hungry or tired; we can pretend all we want, but the feelings will come regardless.

The human spectrum of emotions is beautiful and complex. There are the feelings we enjoy, like happiness, gratitude, peace, joy, and security; and then there are the feelings we believe are unhealthy or unpleasant because they bring with them a bit of pain, like sadness, fear, guilt, and anger. When people deny themselves the ability to feel and experience those emotions in healthy ways, they are dumping half of the crayons out of the box, and restricting themselves to the other half of the box. Black just doesn’t work as well without the white to contrast against, and red in only one shade isn’t nearly as beautiful as an entire spectrum of red.

Like physical and spiritual obesity (discussed in previous blogs), emotional obesity sneaks up on you, slowly over time, one pound of emotional weight added at a time. For years, I didn’t let myself feel sad or scared or angry. In fact, I believed it was unhealthy, selfish, even indulgent to waste time on those emotions. I kept a bright smile on my face while I was miserable on the inside.

It took me several years to learn a very fundamental lesson, that pushing away sadness, guilt, anger, and fear didn’t eliminate those emotions or mean that I didn’t feel them; the emotions were still present, pushed deep down where they did damage and caused pain. The only possible response to pushing emotion away is depression. Depression comes in many forms, from moderate to severe to crippling.

There are classic signs of depression: disinterest in pleasurable activities, poor sleep habits, poor nutrition habits, isolation from loved ones, lack of self-esteem, a lack of motivation, a lack of purpose, feelings of shame and worthlessness, and even recurrent thoughts of death and dying. Someone who is mildly depressed may grow to feel that walking through life sad and empty and numb is normal and natural; someone with severe depression may grow to feel that the world would be a better place without them.

My years in the closet were fraught with varying levels of depression. I grew accustomed to feeling sad and empty. I had a wife, a child, a home, a calling in my church, and a successful career, and I felt empty and numb on the inside so regularly that I thought I would never feel anything different. I even grew to believe that that was what God expected of me: to be sad until I died so that I could be happy finally.

I remember a particular time being at Disneyland with my wife, and seeing a gay couple nearby cuddling during the fireworks show. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. They looked so happy. I muttered something about being disgusted that they were being affectionate in public, while on the inside I envied them, knowing deep down that I would never have that, that I would never be able to find something like that. Looking back and realizing that I once saw no happiness in my future, well, that just breaks my heart.

Turns out, depression isn’t a natural state. Emotional obesity is a learned behavior, something we choose to participate in, just like physical obesity. Depression is a real and powerful force, and it literally steals lives away. People sometimes spend their entire lives feeling trapped by their environments and situations. Women stay in codependent relationships for decades, where they are abused or confined, because they convince themselves they can’t be happy outside of it; really, they won’t let themselves feel scared and do something with the fear. Men spend lifetimes lonely and feeling unworthy of love; really, they have never learned how to experience sadness and do something about it.

I had to learn, slowly and steadily over time, that emotions that are perceived as negative are truly beautiful. They are unique, and they are crucial to survival.

I love my sadness now, in all of its powerful forms. I love being able to be blue and lonely,  I love grief, for myself and others, the ability to look back on the difficult hand life dealt me, to be able to miss my best friend, to regret the years lost, to feel a bit empty after something I hoped for didn’t turn out like I had hoped. I think my sadness is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

I love my anger now, in all of its powerful forms. I love being able to be frustrated when I hit the tenth stoplight in a row, the ability to feel and express the full spectrum of annoyed to enraged when injustice happens around me, to clench my fists when someone I love is hurt, to feel steel in my stomach when I experience rejection or betrayal. I think my anger is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

I love my fear now, in all of its powerful forms. I love listening to my mild fears and discomforts in uncomfortable situations, the ability to embrace nervousness as anticipation or dread and confronting those feelings head on, to feel gooseflesh and heart thumps when I worry about a result or a reaction. I think my fear is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

I love my guilt now, in all of its powerful forms. I love listening to the unsettling parts of myself that have a lesson to teach me, the parts that regret a bad food choice or a harsh word, the parts that ache over lost years and missed opportunities, the parts the deliver hidden messages from my deepest core and help me to course correct and make authentic choices. I think my guilt is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

Being emotionally fit means not only listening to my emotional spectrum, it means embracing it. It means opening my arms up to the wind and loving my life in all of its forms. It means putting myself first before seeking to make those around me happy. It means choosing healthy, balanced relationships. It means keeping every crayon in the box, and using all of them often to color the most beautiful pictures possible.

 

(Final obesity blog coming soon on being Mentally Obese).

bitter/sweet

painters-palette.jpg

there is liberation in lonely.

confusion in cuddling a one-and-only.

confidence can be confining.

dedication denotes far too much defining.

strength stems from sadness.

you often find meaning just after the madness.

happy can leave you so horny.

magic moments pass by without warning.

disappointment, what a dream.

mediocrity makes you mean.

far too easy to forget the fire.

chaos rings loud from the chords of the choir.

vengeance is visceral, vibrant.

fear leaves you open to future and finite.

like a nip of chocolate with a chili bite,

i won’t go on without a fight.

Chili-and-chocolate