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?

lamp.jpg

Advertisements

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.

Seattle Part 6: the HMO

October, 2014

On my first day, it took me nearly an hour to get to my new job, though it was only about 8 miles distance from my residence. I had to drive down a long, narrow, busy Seattle street through traffic and stoplights, then get on a congested freeway. Traffic moved very slowly across the lake, and there was no other way to get there.

I worked on the top floor of a medical clinic, the local face of a busy HMO (Health Maintenance Organization). The mental health clinic employed around ten therapists, and we were all kept significantly busy. Clients who held a particular insurance were given good rates to see a doctor or a counselor at the HMO, and they were charged a lot of out-of-pocket expenses to see anyone else, thus we always had a long list of people waiting to be seen by a provider. Someone might call in in some sort of crisis and then not be able to see a counselor for six weeks afterward, based on current openings.

I had worked at community health centers before, so I understood the medical model of therapy. I was a clinical social worker, or LCSW, meaning I could get higher than standard reimbursement rates through various insurances, including Medicare and Medicaid, and the company seemed happy to have me there. But this place worked at a much higher pace than anything I had ever experienced before.

First of all, consider therapy itself. A counseling session requires the therapist’s all. There can be no distractions, no phones or music or computers. It’s just the therapist and the patient. There can’t be errant thoughts, or outside stressors, or headaches, or upset stomachs, or sleepiness. The therapist can’t yawn, or stretch, or eat a snack. The client requires one hundred per cent of the therapist’s focus, as well as their clear memories of past therapy sessions, like names of loved ones and therapeutic goals. On top of that, therapists are often dealing with clients who have extreme trauma issues. They hear stories about combat, suicide, rape, abuse, grief, and pain. And when one client leaves, the next is generally waiting, and the therapist can’t still be thinking about the first or she won’t be able to focus on the second.

Doing three or four therapy sessions in a row requires a tremendous effort; doing seven or eight becomes downright exhausting if not impossible. The HMO required more. And doing that day after day, well, it’s not for the faint-hearted. In standard clinics, even busy ones, I became accustomed to doing four therapy sessions, having an hour lunch, then doing three more, with the last hour of the day being reserved for case and progress notes, treatment plans, and correspondence. It was already at a taxing schedule.

But at the HMO, the expectations were much higher. They had competitive wages (about 45 dollars per hour, consistently, on salary) and a great benefits package. But they had their therapists on a very rigid schedule, seeing a patient basically every forty minutes with no time for case notes built in.

A standard schedule might go like this, for one day:

8 am: ten minute staff check-in

8:15: first patient (let’s say an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s whose husband just died)

9: second patient (a teenage girl who recently attempted suicide)

9:45 third patient (a refugee worried about her loved ones in her home country)

10:30: fourth patient (a couple going through extreme marital issues)

11:15: fifth patient (a veteran struggling with PTSD issues)

12: thirty minutes for lunch

12:30: sixth patient (a single mother of four processing stress)

1:15: seventh patient (a woman with a new baby, struggling with postpartum)

2: eighth patient (a mother processing stress over her son coming out of the closet)

2:45: ninth patient (a man referred by his boss for losing his temper at work)

3:30: tenth patient (a ten-year old boy whose parents recently divorced)

4:15: eleventh patient (a woman with borderline personality disorder, recently out of the state hospital following a suicide attempt).

Then, after that, once your notes were finished, you could go home for the day. Every other week or so, there would be a staff meeting of some kind. And every second or third day, a client might cancel or not show up, giving a chance to catch up. But that many patients per day, every day, four days per week, generally meant between 36 and 45 people seen per week. Sessions had to be shorter and more goal-directed, and a failure to adhere to the schedule meant knocking multiple clients back. If a client came in in crisis, very little could be done to manage it without having to cancel another session afterwards completely, and openings after that became hard to find.

I came into the job with boundless enthusiasm. The team of people I worked with were amazing, funny, friendly, and supportive. The agency had great diversity representation, several gay therapists, and a good camaraderie. But as I finished my first week of work, beaten down, grey, and bitter, I began to realize how tired everyone was. It was like working in an emergency room, without breaks, day after day, every day. With an hour’s drive each way.

In Utah, my therapy work had almost exclusively been with LGBT people who were struggling to align their sexuality with their Mormonism. Here, I was seeing people from every walk of life, all struggling with their own sets of problems. The word Mormon wasn’t being brought up anymore, but there was constant depression, anxiety, trauma, grief, and emotional pain. And within two weeks, I found myself unable to offer my client’s my all any longer. Instead of being an incredible therapist, I was becoming a mediocre one, simply to survive the rigorous page.

And with the reality of the new job settling in, Seattle didn’t feel quite so magical. It felt wearying, and expensive. Some cracks in the foundation of my dream life began to show.

And every night, there was the phone call to my sons, who remained far away, and who I missed very, very much.

Seattle Part 1: the News

September, 2014

“I don’t make this decision lightly. In fact, this is one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made.” My hands clutched my coffee mug tightly, absorbing the warmth. My insides were churning.

Maggie, my ex-wife, the mother of my children, sat across the table from me. Her face was all-business, but I knew it guarded a mixture of anxiety, pain, anger, and compassion. “So that’s it. You’re going to leave your children behind, just like your dad left you? I don’t mean to be cruel, but that’s what it sounds like.”

I paled, and closed my eyes in shame. I had come out of the closet three years and six months before this. After the birth of our second son, Maggie and I had divorced, sold our home, and moved to Salt Lake City to start a new life. Despite the difficult negotiations of parenting in two different households, finding a new steady job, and making new friends, I had grown to love Salt Lake City in many ways. But this past year, life had gotten more difficult. There was something about this place that was infecting me, and I couldn’t seem to shake it.

How could I explain it to her? Would she understand? Every time I left Utah, even for brief weekends, I came alive. I felt free and clear, full of hope and potential; yet every time I returned, I was full of dread and pain, like shackles were being placed around my ankles. I wasn’t sleeping in my bed anymore, I had a permanent place on the couch, because my bed felt so lonely. I felt lonely when the kids weren’t with me, and lonely when they were, and I felt constantly guilty for realizing that just being a dad wasn’t enough for me. The constant barrage of Mormon everything around me was traumatizing, bringing back all those memories of pain. The men I dated were Mormon or formerly so, the clients I saw were the same. And every few months, the Mormons had something painful to say about gay people, and it haunted me. Mormon culture felt like the air I was breathing, and I had no idea how to stop breathing it. After all the work I had done to come out and face my life with grace, it felt like I was just constantly surrounded by the very things that had hurt me. I wasn’t dating now, and work felt empty. My sons were my sole solace, and it wasn’t enough.

But it was more than that. I was 36 years old and I hadn’t lived yet! When I came out, I had two children, and financial obligations. I hadn’t come out as a teenager. I had spent two years on a mission, then six in college, then seven more married to a woman, all of those years dominated by Mormon expectations. It wasn’t until now that I was seeing myself as someone capable of being happy, some who could believe in himself and see potential in the future rather than only dread. I couldn’t reclaim my 20s, or my teenage years, but I could try to live now, try to find myself now. I needed to grieve, I needed to learn to live for me. And I believed I could do it with honor, with integrity. But it meant leaving, and that part made me feel selfish and ashamed.

“I’m–I won’t be like my dad,” I promised. “He left and he was gone. He was depressed. There wasn’t child support, or phone calls, or visits. I will be in constant contact with the kids. Letters, phone calls every day, monthly visits, holidays. And I’ll stay up on my child support. I know this puts a ton of pressure on you, but I’m hoping with your parents here to help you, and with me visiting every month, that it might be okay. I know this is a huge risk. I need this. I need it for me. I need this opportunity. In fact, weirdly, if I stay I worry I’m more like my dad. In some ways, it feels like leaving will help me figure out how not to be that way.”

Sighing, Maggie peppered me with a few dozen questions.

“Why Seattle?”

“I was offered a place to live for very affordable rent. Remember Rob, my gay step-brother? He’s a doctor there. He has an open room.”

“If you don’t have a place here when you visit, where will you stay?”

“Kurt, my best friend, told me I could stay there on my weekends in town.”

“Do you have a job lined up?”

“I have some interviews scheduled. I won’t go without a job in place.”

“Our sons are 5 and 3. J is just starting kindergarten. How will you tell him?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’ll find a way. I’ll be open and honest. I think he’ll be okay, honestly. I will miss them more than I can possibly express. It makes me want to sob, nothing seeing them every day, not holding them. But I will write letters. I’ll FaceTime with them every night. I’ll be a daily presence in their life. I’ll be there for them, I promise. I promise. I just, I need a chance to make me a priority also. I’ve never done that, ever. I’ve never put me first. You know me, better than anyone. Trust me. Give me this chance, and I promise I’ll show up, I’ll do this with integrity.”

Maggie gave me a level look and nodded. “I get it. I never thought you’d be that guy. This isn’t fair, and I don’t like it, but I understand it. I can’t stop you. Our divorce paperwork says we will give each other notice, and you’ve done that. But you’ll be the one to tell the kids, not me.”

I thanked Maggie and watched as she left. I sat there for another twenty minutes, full of hope and dread. I was doing this. I was going to do this. I was going to move to Seattle, away, on my own. I was 36, and I was going to take a risk on myself, knowing I might crash and burn. My sons would have a father in another city. Was I only making excuses for myself, finding reasons that things would be okay? What if it was all a big disaster?

I owed it to myself to find out.

What to do with Outrage

Outrage

I keep a little list of things I want to blog about tucked into my folder. There are titles for stories, representing key development moments from my past or amusing little anecdotes with my children, there are inspiring topics about human progress, and there are things that inspire me about the world. I’ve stopped blogging about whatever book I’m reading, or whatever little historical nugget I’m learning about, and instead focus on what is in my soul as I sit down to write. This is why I need to make time to blog, I need time with a cup of coffee, a glass of water, and an open computer screen, so my fingers can channel the things that my spirit wants to convey. When I sit down, I then can choose a topic off the list, pick which story I want to tell. Sometimes, though, I don’t end up taking one of these topics, and instead I write from wherever my head is at, from whatever is most relevant in my brain and heart at that moment. (The discipline of writing, for me, is equal parts dedication, healing, and heart. It fulfills me in a way nothing else can).

And that brings us to today.

My older blogs contained a lot of my intellectual thoughts, and a lot about my thoughts on politics. During the Trump/Clinton election, I can see several blogs in a row that convey my outrage and pain at the very idea of Trump being the candidate we were considering, given all he represented to me. Then after he was elected, I climbed within a hole within myself, because talking about it hadn’t seemed to do any good. I processed my pain quietly, instead of publicly, and grew determined instead to focus on change with me, my friends, my kids, my clients, the places that I can have a positive impact.

I keep hoping that we, as Americans, hell as a human species, will come around. We will stop repeating our greatest atrocities and instead learn to love our world and ourselves. I keep picturing the weaving plot lines in Game of Thrones, where all the egotistic murderous rulers battle through politics and warfare for moments of power while the threat to them all looms just over the borders. We are squabbling over Democrat versus Republic, all while war is raging, people are starving, racism and sexism run the world, animal habitats are being wiped out, and the ice keeps melting as the temperature raises.  And even now, it seems my country is the one withdrawing from the ones trying to make positive change in the world, and instead is forming bonds with the tyrants and warmongers, and I don’t know how to process that. I’m having a crisis of faith.

I am exhausted from remaining silent. I am so weary of this temporary outrage culture I’m living in, where whatever is most currently in the news becomes the thing that the entire world rages over, but only until the next headline, when the outrage moves on to something else and the last thing is forgotten, filed away on an unmanageable list.

But the stakes feel so high! The transgender military ban, the Muslim ban, black men being kicked out of Starbucks, the Parkland shooting, the Las Vegas country concert massacre, the Pulse shooting, the gay wedding cake debate, police brutality against black civilians, overstocked for-profit prisons, the latest celebrity accused of sexual assault, the United States pulling out of the Paris Accords, the arrests of Trump’s allies, collusion and obstruction, private Email servers used in public positions, government employees spending fortunes on furniture, the G-7 summit, the North Korea leader meetings, Obamacare, the porn star pay-offs, the floods, the wars, the corruption.

And now, we rage over these children being removed from parents at the border, and the debate turns to border security, family trauma, war crime victims, asylum, criminal prosecution, human decency. And it hurts me, deeply.

But then I realize I will only be outraged about this for as long as these headlines are there, and then it will be on to something else. Lately, I’m almost constantly outraged. Ignoring it doesn’t help, avoiding it doesn’t either, but neither does publicly screaming about it.

Even now, I could scroll through my Facebook feed. Most of my social media contacts are liberally minded, so I will see the same god-damn scream of outrage, cry for validation, over and over again. It’s a constant barrage.

“I am so angry/furious/outraged/horrified/baffled by the forced separation of kids from their families/the Pulse nightclub shooting/the callous murder of Trayvon Martin/the Bill Cosby rape scandal/the Michael Cohen porn star payoff! We need better gun control laws/more women in government/environmental policies/voter security systems! And if you disagree with me/voted for Trump/blame women for their own rapes/don’t support equality, then unfriend me and get out of my life right now! I’m serious! I mean it! I’m moving to Canada!”

Here’s the thing, though. I feel all of this outrage. It physically hurts me. I hate it. And yet, participation in it doesn’t help. Screaming into the air doesn’t make me feel any more validated. Arguing with people I love with endless paragraphs in the form of a comment on social media posts doesn’t help. It doesn’t take my pain away. And I fully realize, when I remove myself from the box and look at the system from the outside, that I’m being manipulated by media machines, by campaigns and ads. I become aware of human trauma, crying children, and insane atrocities, and…

my life doesn’t change. At all.

I still get up every morning, brew my coffee, see my clients, exercise, take care of my children, try to improve the world around me. And that is the privilege talking, because other people don’t get that same luxury. And that fuels my outrage even more.

So I’m a solution finder. I don’t like to just complain about problems. I want to find clear paths forward, and that is what I help my clients do as well. And my solution, for me? I need to do something with this outrage. I want to stay informed, not by drowning in manipulative media, but by being aware of the world around me, and then I want to do what I can to make a difference.

I can support businesses that share my standards, and especially those that are run by or employ women, immigrants, people of color, and LGBT people, and who give more opportunities to women. I can go out of my way to better the world around me with handshakes, hugs, love, and support. I can drive less and recycle more. I can avoid eating meat, and purchase food and goods that come from ethical businesses. I can vote for officials who support an ethical and fair world. I can instill ethics and values in my children that teach them to be themselves, to love everyone, and to live healthy lives. I can donate money to worthy causes and charity. I can write.

And just typing that last paragraph shifted my energy from one of pain and anxiety (what I feel when I focus on the problems) to a space of calm, healing, and hope (what I feel when I focus on the solutions). I choose to use my outrage to create a better world around me. Losing sleep, pulling out my hair, giving myself ulcers, and screaming into the social media void about the terribleness of the world will not help. Teaching my sons about equality and justice, seeing my clients through their pain, and being good to the Earth will.

So come on, outrage. Come join me, and let’s go make a difference in this world.

Envying Happy

34459640_10160572618885061_4541135369499836416_n

Last weekend, my partner and I attended the Pride parade. We walked down the road, holding hands, my sons J and A gripping our hands tight. To all, we looked like a happy family. Many, seeing a gay couple out and proud, with kids at their sides, gave ‘oohs’, and ‘so cutes!’ as we walked by. (They were right, we are cute.)

One friend, though, messaged me later that day. “I saw you with your family at Pride and I couldn’t say hello. I was too sad.” He went on to explain that while he was genuinely happy for me, and that he knew I had worked hard to be where I am in life now, but that he envied the things I have, implying that happiness may elude him forever.

To this friend, one I care about a lot, I want to say ten things.

  1. I know how you feel! I spent so many years watching others be happy, and feeling like I could never be! I remember as a teenager, seeing straight guys get to actually date girls while I could never date guys. I remember seeing people who were fit during the time when I was obese and envying how ‘easy’ it came to them. When I was closeted, I remember seeing happy gay couples, just knowing that would never be me. When I was in debt, I saw those with financial freedom with absolute heartache. When I was single, I saw happy couples sometimes almost with derision, wondering constantly why I could never find that. I know how you feel!
  2. Things aren’t always as ideal as they seem. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with my life. But you saw us around, what, 10 am? The morning before that consisted of breakfast for four people, showers and getting ready, and packing bags, the kids both having separate fits because they couldn’t play longer, one kid sticking his hand inside a garbage can and subsequently putting it in his mouth, the barista being completely untrained and not understanding what a drip coffee was, and me forgetting the sunscreen. In fact, the reason we were walking like that, with the kids on either side, was to keep them from fighting. What I’m getting at is, yes, I’m happy, but it is a lot of work. (I mean, the child support payments alone). I’m just saying, the richest people still have problems, and the happiest couples sometimes fight the most.
  3. Ten years ago, I was depressed, obese, childless, in an unhappy marriage, and broken. I believed I could never be happy. My path ahead sixty hour work weeks, debt, empty church service, health problems, and more depression. My journey forward started by exercising, then coming out, then learning how to be an out gay man with children and debt. Even after that, I was single for 6 years. I turn 40 this year, and happiness was hard won.
  4. Even now, I’m happy, but I’m not. I have things I’m dissatisfied with. I set goals constantly. Bad things happen to me, I have bad days, and I get sad, angry, and scared quite often. I’ve learned to be kind to myself on tough days, and I’ve learned to accept that being dissatisfied is part of being human. I love parenting, but I don’t love everything about parenting. I love my job, but I don’t love everything about my job. I love being in a healthy relationship, but I don’t love everything about being in a relationship. I’m consistently striving for bigger and better. I am constantly working on my own happy.
  5. Happiness is fleeting. It comes in short bursts. It takes effort and consistency, just like fitness and financial freedom do. It means a lot of hard internal work. Healthy doesn’t happen without good nutrition, a whole lot of physical effort, and consistency. It doesn’t take personal trainers or the perfect genes, it just means super hard work. I did that work on my outsides (I still am!) and I did that work on my insides (I still am!)
  6. Everyone’s happy is different than everyone else’s. There is no perfect recipe for happiness. A boyfriend or husband, a better job, a million dollars, a home, a child… those all bring their own struggles and concerns. Happiness needs to be found in the present, and then it changes with us as we grow and alter and age. You don’t want my life, or my happy, you want your own. And that means figuring out what that is for you.
  7. Before I could be in a relationship, I had to learn how to be single. That meant learning how to be my own favorite person, my own best friend, my own motivator. I used to go to parties or events and feel pathetic for being solo; I got over it. I started to date myself: plays, movies, concerts, trips. I was honest with myself, I held myself accountable. I worked on goals (getting braces, paying off credit cards) and I was kind to myself when I made mistakes or had bad days. I still like my own company. I genuinely like myself and I’m my own favorite person. This was the best work I ever did.
  8. To be blunt and honest, the world is frequently a shitty place. We humans complain about most anything, from the weather to how long our coffee is taking to brew, but the world is full of real problems and struggles outside ourselves. Just scanning the periphery of my brain, the words human-trafficking, rape culture, school shootings, lava flows, and immigrants having their kids taken away pop up. You can’t scan the news without abject horror clouding your landscape. Happiness has to be a choice in spite of all of that, whether the pressure comes internally or externally. The only thing you have control over is you. And happiness can’t be found by ignoring the world, only by embracing the world with its flaws and being happy in spite of it, all while trying to make the world better around us.
  9. Depression is a real thing. And when someone is depressed, happy not only feels impossible, it feels like a real chore. It feels like ‘it’s impossible’ and ‘what’s the point’ all at once. Depression hurts, and it’s miserable, and it sinks into your soul. But it can be temporary. It takes work to climb out of it. I did, once, and I try to help others do so. And if you have depression, well, then, you can too. I’m here anytime you need to talk.
  10. Lastly, I wish you could see you the way others see you, the way I see you. No matter how sad you might feel, it doesn’t make you any less amazing. You make art, and you see the world with an artist’s eye. You have survived unbearable things, and you have gone on to inspire others. You have restarted your life, shed your past, and began again with a new name and a new beginning. When a friend was hurting, you gave of yourself to help this friend in a way that very well may have saved his life, and that meant a lengthy healing process for you afterward. What you did for him is super-human. You have an enormous heart, and endless potential. Take a moment to look outside in, and do so with love and understanding, because you are incredible.

Don’t envy my happy. Instead: Be happy! Be you! Find your happy! Start today! I’m here, and I’ll be watching. And next time you see me walking down the sidewalk, don’t be sad. Instead, come out and say hi. I’ll have a huge hug waiting for you.

A Place I Used To Live

IMG_2357

Back then, the word ‘Gay’ was tossed to the side, put in a dark place in my brain. It represented selfishness, debauchery, sin, darkness, and evil. It belonged on a list of words that represented similar ideals, words like Abortion, Alcohol, War, AIDs, Drunkenness, and Democrat.

I had been raised to love all people, it’s true, and I was taught that God loved all people the same, but still, those who were Gay, those who chose such a lifestyle, they were to be kept at arm’s length, they belonged over there somewhere. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I could tell them with words that I loved everyone, but I was not to allow them to influence me, to be a part of my life, or I could be tempted too far, influenced too much.

And so, when I arrived in Philadelphia in early 1999, at age 20, I got off the subway with my new companion, Elder Shoney, and I wheeled my suitcase behind me down the concrete paths toward my new home. I had a backpack over my shoulder, filled with my scriptures and journals, and containing a glass jar in which my pet fish Caliban lived. (The fist was against the rules, shhh. Missionaries aren’t supposed to have pets.) Sweat dripped down my back, under my white shirt and garments. Although I had been a missionary for a full year at this point, I hadn’t ever been to a city this size, and it was completely overwhelming.

I looked like I was 16 then. I was sad inside, shut down, fractured. I was going through the motions, embracing the ideals I was raised with. Prayer, scripture study, knocking doors, teaching when I could, more prayer, more study. I knew I was gay by then, but I had long given up finding a cure.

Elder Shoney and I walked through the narrow streets of Germantown, and I realized that I saw no white people here. There were black people everywhere, women, children, grandparents, families. I occasionally saw someone Hispanic. But no white people there, just us, just these two young boys. We walked farther, past storefronts covered in graffiti, with garage door-style bars that would lock securely to the ground at night to protect from theft and vandalism. Elder Shoney told me that we should be in by dark every night, “cause that’s when it gets dangerous in the streets here.”

We walked over a street and into the nicer area of town, where the houses shifted from stacked row homes into larger structures with porches, windows, and backyards. A kind and successful black attorney owned the home where we would live. I wheeled my suitcase up the front steps of the house then carried it inside, up two more flights of stairs, to the apartment where I would spend the following nine months. I wasn’t excited,  I wasn’t scared, I was just ready to continue the monotonous daily work of the missionary for another year until I could finally go home and start my life.

Fast forward to 2018.

20 years later, I found this same house, the one I lived in back then. I stood on the sidewalk in front of it. On one side of me stood my sister Sheri, my gay sister, taking a few days away from her wife to come and see me during my vacation in Philadelphia. On the other side of me stood my boyfriend.

“This is where I lived,” I told them. “For nine months. I thought I would be here four, maybe six maximum, but some special circumstances kept me here for nine, then I finished my mission out in northern Delaware. Twenty years ago. Man, twenty years.

“That’s the mailbox where I’d get between two and eight letters per day, making my companions jealous. I walked up and down this street hundreds of times. Down there, I would catch the train to the subway to the bus that would take us to church, and it would take an hour each way. That two mile radius over there contains what we naively called ‘the ghetto’, filled with these beautiful African American families, and so many churches, and so much poverty. It was so unsafe for us! There are good people here, of course, but there are also gangs, and we had no protection and no training.”

My mind raced with the memories. “I lived here with four different companions. Elder Shoney, who was a basically like a brother to me; we had so much fun. Elder Borne, my greenie, who was so clearly gay; we knew each other were gay, and we were both so depressed; he thought our home here was such a disgusting mess until he saw where the other missionaries lived; he threatened to throw himself off the roof just so he would have a reason to go home, and eventually he did, and when he left, I just stopped caring.  Elder Donner, who was such as asshole, so holier-than-thou, so bossy; he once kicked a door while yelling ‘Fuck you, Anderson!’, and that was the day I got mugged and knocked unconscious. Elder Sanders, who was so-so nerdy and hilarious.

“I baptized three people in this city. William, a 13-year old boy whose mom had died and whose dad was in jail, and his grandmother Clarice, the woman raising him. She was so sweet, and she had no teeth, and she wanted her grandson to have a church to go to every week with kids like him. (Boy did she pick the wrong one). And I baptized Nyoka, a gorgeous college student. I don’t know where any of them are now.”

I went quiet for a moment and turned around, pointing down the street. “See that hair salon? That used to be St. James Chapel Fire-Baptized Congregation Holy Church of God of the Americas. We went to so many churches here! I learned so much about religion! Race! Privilege! Life and ethics and fairness. This city taught me so much, but I was a scrawny little Mormon white closeted kid here, with no perspective, no experience. What was I doing here?”

I turned back to the house, letting the memories wash over me. I put my arm around my boyfriend, pulling him in close. Sheri and I talked casually about all of the changes we had been through. And then we turned away, hungry, ready for lunch somewhere.

I turned back to the house, giving it one last look. It didn’t feel like home. It never had. It was just some place I used to live.

EMDR

EMDR.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pill-Popper

pills

“So it’s chronic pain that brings you in?”

Dr. Mary looked up from her clipboard, a smile on her face. She tapped a pen against her chin as she listened.

“Yeah, I think that’s the problem. The pain levels are worst in the mornings. And then I sit for my job most of the day, so the pain just kind of intensifies throughout the day. It gets better a little bit when I move around. But definitely worse in the mornings.”

“Hm. And where do you tend to notice the pain most? And rate it on a scale from 1 to 10.”

I shifted my weight, hearing the rustle of the paper that lined the raised seat in the doctor’s office. “In the mornings, I’m stiff and sore from the scoliosis. I get back head aches and neck aches, and my back is really rigid and achy. More like a 6 to 8. Then after I eat and shower, it gets a little bit better, closer to like a 4.”

Dr. Mary jotted a few notes down. “And what helps to relieve the pain?”

“I usually take a few Ibuprofen in the morning, and a few more in the afternoon. That helps. And food and eating seem to help for some reason. Sometimes I use a heating pad on it.”

“What are your food habits?”

I clicked meals off on my fingers. “On a typical day, I’ll eat two bowls of cereal for breakfast plus a few slices of toast with peanut butter and a glass of orange juice. For lunch, maybe a hamburger and French fries, with maybe chips and a cookie. I’ll snack on a bag of microwave popcorn and a liter of Pepsi at work, and the caffeine helps the headache. And then dinner is variable. Maybe Little Caesers, or my wife might cook roast and potatoes and chocolate cake, it just depends on the night.”

Dr. Mary had me step up on the scale. I was 30 years old, I was 5 feet 11 inches tall, and I weighed 245 pounds.

“You’re a little overweight,” she said, when the truth was I was obese. “I think you might also be struggling with some depression. Between your job doing therapy for others, your Church callings, and your responsibilities at home with your wife and baby boy, I could understand that.”

As she tapped the pen against her chin a few more times, thinking through ideas, I wondered if there was anything she could do to help me. I felt like a shell of myself. I wasn’t sleeping, I didn’t like myself, and my marriage was beginning to feel a bit empty, a routine of church service and watching the DVR. Because of my weight, I was constantly out of breath and sweating all the time. I didn’t have any close friends, and I had just become accustomed to pretending I wasn’t attracted to men. Depression was definitely part of the picture.

“Okay, Chad, here’s what I think we are going to do,” she muttered while scrawling down a few things on a prescription pad. She was silent until she finished, then Dr. Mary looked up at me, the smile back on her face. “Trust me, I think this is going to help.”

Over the next few minutes, Dr. described the regiment of pills she was going to put me on. “I want you to start taking Cymbalta. It’s an anti-depressant. It should help your mood and your sleep. There can be weird side effects at first, some people feel electric buzzes in their brain at the beginning but it goes away, and it can result in more weight gain, but I think it will help.

“I’d also like you to begin a regimen of painkillers every two hours throughout the day. We’re going to go up to the maximum dose on those. Now, the warning labels scare some people off, but you can actually take a bit over that dose when necessary. But we are going to tackle this from two different directions. You can take up to 500 milligrams of Tylenol every four hours, and up to 800 milligrams of Ibuprofen every four hours. So I figure if you take the Ibuprofen with food and water when you wake up, say at 6, then at 8 you can take the Tylenol, and at 10 you can take more Ibuprofen, and you can alternate that schedule throughout the day. You don’t have to do this every day, but it will help on the difficult days.”

My eyes widened as she presented me with three prescriptions, for Cymbalta, for Ibuprofen, and for Tylenol, all prescription level doses that would have to picked up through a pharmacist. She told me that I might expect some digestion issues based on the high doses of Ibuprofen, and that the meds could cause long term liver and kidney problems, but that those weren’t things I needed to worry about for now.

And then Dr. Mary left, and I sat in the room for a moment, stunned. Pills. Lots of pills. An anti-depressant, multiple painkillers, and multiple anti-inflammatories every day. Would that help my headaches? Although I hadn’t had a clear agenda going in, I was a therapist by trade. My doctor had just diagnosed me with depression in a swift paragraph, yet she hadn’t recommended going to a counselor, and hadn’t asked me any questions. She’d noted that I was overweight, but she hadn’t recommended a diet or even limiting food, or exercise, or more regular physical activity.

Just… pills.

A few hours later, I had a new bag of pill bottles in my car. I sat outside the pharmacist and I placed my first Cymbalta pill on my tongue, swallowing it with a swig of Pepsi, then I did the same with the large chalky Ibuprofen. A few days later, the electric zaps in my brain that she’d mentioned would start, and the stomach issues would follow. My head aches and body aches grew numb with the pills, but they never went away. Within a few weeks, I needed the pills to feel normal, the pain intensifying without them. And within a few months, I gained another 10 pounds.

Before I quit the pills cold turkey, just three months later, I felt my depression get worse. The decision to quit the pills and replace them with nutrition, exercise, and therapy came suddenly.

But for that time before that change, I was just a typical American, as fat on the outside as I felt on the inside, and using pills to numb the pain.

IMG_0879

What We Survived

hill1

“What is the thing you are lucky to have survived? I want you to turn to the members of your small group and share with them, and later you’ll be writing a paper on the same topic.”

I felt nervous as I turned to the other three members of my group, already feeling like I didn’t fit in. I was 23 years old and, as far as I knew, the only Mormon kid in my college cohort of social work undergraduates. I was here at Boise State University in a room full of mostly white students, but there were only a handful of men. After high school, I had spent two years on a Mormon mission, and then another two years at a Mormon university. Now I was here among students who called themselves feminists and who sometimes drank alcohol and I didn’t know at all where to fit in. I felt constantly judged for being religious, and many of them felt constantly judged by me because I was religious, and both of those things were probably true. On top of it all, I was hiding the fact that I was gay, way deep down inside, not daring to tell anyone about my terrible shame.

I boldly agreed to go first, keeping eye contact with my group, hoping to find acceptance there.

“I, uh, went through some pretty tough things as a kid and teenager,” I said, sounding confident even though I wasn’t. I chose not to speak about growing up gay, or about my dad leaving, or about the sexual abuse, and instead focused on more recent events. “Um, when I was 16, I remember coming home one day and finding my 6-lb puppy, just this little black scruffy thing named Sammy, literally broken and lying on the floor in the frozen garage. During the day, my stepfather Kent said she had been causing trouble so he tried to toss her outside in the slow and then he slammed the sliding glass door closed on her on accident. He basically just put her down in the garage to freeze to death. I picked her up and could feel her ribs were broken and I cuddled her underneath the blankets in my bed. Kent came down angry and told me to put her back in the garage and I refused and for some reason he left us alone. He was violent and angry a lot during those years, but somehow that was the worst thing he had done.”

The other students in the group had pained looks on their faces, and they shared in this sadness with me for a moment, then took their turns in sharing their stories. One of the students shared a history of being sexually assaulted and then struggling with eating disorders and suicide attempts afterwards. Another student talked about being in the room when her own mother was murdered. The third talked about a horrific car accident that killed three other people and put her in the hospital, one she nearly didn’t survive.

A moment later, we opened the discussion up to the wider classroom and a handful of people shared their stories. One man had lost friends in combat only to be sent home when he was caught in an explosion, one woman had lost her entire home and everything she owned in a house fire, one had been married to a police officer killed in the line of duty.

I remember sitting there with a sense of emptiness and awe as I looked around this room of brave and incredible people. The only thing we had in common was being here in school at the same time, students in a university program. The professor talked about how humans are powerful and resilient and incredible, how we survive some of the worst things in the world and come out stronger on the other side, although we are forever changed. He talked about how, as social workers, we would be sitting with people in their most vulnerable and tragic spaces and helping them find their strength and their truth. And he talked about how even though we survive painful things, we likely have other painful things to survive in the future.

In many ways, this college experience launched my career in trauma work. Over the following years, I have sat with people in their greatest moments of pain, some of it unfathomable. I’ve sat with the woman who had a gun pointed into her open mouth during a bank robbery, the woman who watched her husband commit suicide with a shotgun right in front of her, the man who found his husband hanging over the breakfast table, the mother who woke up from a coma only to learn her entire family had been killed by a drunk driver, the man who lost his entire family during his 25 years in prison, the man who learned of his sister’s death at the hands of a serial killer, the woman whose husband came out of the closet after 40 years of marriage, the athlete who lost his job and scholarship because of one night of careless drinking, and the mother whose son took his own life because he felt rejected by a church for being gay.

If I were to sit in a group now and talk about what I survived, my answer would be much more recent. I would tell about being a home owner with a child, a pregnant spouse, a business, and major religious responsibilities when I came out of the closet and had to start my life over, rebuilding every relationship and learning how to live.

After I’ve worked in trauma several days in a row, I look at the world differently. I see people as survivors, and there is a weight to my eyes. A few days off with sunshine and fresh air, hugs from my children, laughter with friends, savory food, sweat, sleep, sex, wine, inspiration from history, and chocolate in some form or combination is needed to return the optimism.

It is at times a dark and difficult world. And it is a bright and beautiful one.

And we survive both.