Pill-Popper

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“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.

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What We Survived

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“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.

 

Emotionally Obese

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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).

Judy/Frances

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This morning, I finished the biography of Judy Garland. Man oh man, was it sad.

Judy died at the age of 47, of a pill overdose. She had been using pills for three decades–pills to wake up, pills to fall asleep, pills to quiet pain, pills to numb depression. She developed a dependency on them in her teenage years when, in her mid-teens, she was signed by MGM and was told she was homely and overweight. The studio began restricting her food and feeding her pills to get her to slim down so that she could properly play the girl-next-door, the one with the pretty voice that the leading man could fall for instead of the beautiful girls, like Lana Turner. By the time she made her most iconic movie, the Wizard of Oz, at the age of 16, she was already extremely addicted.

But Judy Garland wasn’t her real name. Judy Garland was a guise she created for herself, both outwardly and inwardly, a person she could be that the public wanted to see. Judy Garland was the heartfelt, soulful girl-next-door with the voice that could make you feel everything, who could then stand up and smile and dance and make your heart skip with joy. Judy was a character, a mask she wore.

Deep down, she was Frances Ethel Gumm, the youngest daughter of Frank and Ethel. Frank had owned theaters where Vaudeville performers could show off for the public, and Ethel had been a domineering mother who had had her own aspirations to be a star. Frank liked young men, and had trysts with some, leading him to move from town to town when he was exposed. And Ethel dressed up her daughters and had them sing for money, performing for strange men in bars and small town theaters. Little Frances had been a performer, surely; she loved to sing and she loved to show off. But ultimately she was a child with deep insecurities and a desire to be loved by her mother and her father. But Frank died, and then Ethel depended on Frances to be the breadwinner of the family. So she became Judy, and then spent a lifetime searching for Frances.

And thus began the regimens of pills, 16 hour work days, consistently competing for roles against beautiful women while being told she wasn’t pretty enough and that she had to keep her weight between 96 and 98 pounds, and public appearances non-stop.

While Judy sang and worked, Frances looked for love. She married five times, each time believing in the beauty and purity of love and newness, and each time quickly having her heart broken. And Frances didn’t do well when left with her own demons. She spent more than two decades smiling for the public while falling deeper into debt, being ravaged by taxes, and screaming for the attention of her husbands (two of whom were gay). She had multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, public and private suicide attempts, collapses on stage, medical complications, and near overdoses. Judy, her appearance ranging from skeletal to obese, strutted and sang for the public as flowers were tossed at her, while Frances was torn apart in the newspapers. Judy put forth the image of the perfect family while Frances struggled to know what it meant to be a mother to her three beloved children: Liza, Lorna, and Joey.

Although it sounds a bit stereotypical, since I’m gay, I have always loved the Wizard of Oz. But it wasn’t the movie that enchanted me initially. In fact, there are many movies from my childhood that remain very near and dear to my heart (Labyrinth, Annie, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Clue, Pete’s Dragon, the Sound of Music, and many others). It was the Oz books that drew me in, the epic fairy tale stories from L. Frank Baum. I loved all of the books he wrote on Oz (more than a dozen) but it was the first three that captured my childhood and left me plotting sequels on notebook paper.

I didn’t resonate with Dorothy the character all that much, but I loved her as the heroine in the first Oz book. Not a super man or a private detective, but a simple little girl from Kansas whose most heroic traits were her determinedness and her ability to win over friends with logic and a good heart. After reading the books and then going back to watch the film, it is easy to see Judy Garland’s talent at acting and singing and dancing and stage presence… but the vulnerability, the raw quality that makes Dorothy seem both brave and sad and relatable all at once? That wasn’t Judy. That was Frances.

And so as I finish her story now, I’m left feeling a bit empty and sad, like I just finished an intensive therapy session. Her younger years, she was the product of a deadly system and an unsupportive family. And then she grew into a woman who was her own worst enemy and who just couldn’t break the habits, addictions, and depressions that took her life.

And so I close this with what I find to be the most iconic quote attributed to Judy/Frances. Ironic because perhaps if she could have been a little more Frances and a little less Judy, then maybe her story wouldn’t have been so sad.

“Always be a first rate version of yourself instead of a second rate version of somebody else.”

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Porn: the Public Health Crisis?

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Within the past few days, the Utah legislature passed a bill that declared pornography a public health crisis.

This is so painfully ironic on so many levels.

Point 1: No other state in our country has ever made an initiative like this.

Point 2: This year, the Utah legislature voted down a hate crimes bill (you know, hate crimes, where people are attacked, beat, stabbed, raped, or killed for being gay or transgender or handicapped or Muslim or Colombian or anything else that sets them apart from the majority).

Point 3: This year, the Utah legislature also voted down a medical marijuana bill, leaving those suffering from cancer, major depression, chronic pain, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and other painful conditions the same options to use major addictive pain killers that provide little relief, and ignoring the fact that medical marijuana has been proven in research to have positive impact on every level for these patients.

Point 4: Utah’s sex education plans are almost non-existant. Mixed in with this abstience only approach, where kids don’t learn about sex and then are thrown into marriage relationships early on… well… that leads to other topics entirely.

Point 5: Utah is among the states with the highest depression rates, and anti-depressant use, in the country. Go ahead, look it up. Utah also ranks among the highest for suicides.

Point 6: Utah has the highest rate of pornography subscriptions in the country. Seriously. Even though porn on the Internet is free, Utahans are number one in the nation for people who PAY and SUBSCRIBE to porn. It has jokingly been called the porn capital of America.

So… a public health crisis? Look at this quote from Mormon leader Jeffrey Holland just a few days ago. “Society must see this evil like the epidemic it is. This ought to be seen like a public health crisis, like a war, like an infectious fatal epidemic, like a moral plague on the body politic that is maiming the lives of our citizens… We do need to see this (pornography) like avian flu, cholera, diphtheria or polio. It needs to be eradicated.”

Now I grew up Mormon, though not in Utah. As a young Priesthood holder, it was beat into our brains that pornography was the worst. That once you saw a pornographic image, it was melded into your mind, a permanent image you could never get rid of. That it gave unrealistic expectations for sex, and it ruined relationships, that it wiped out the spirit of God in the home.

If anything, all that talk about porn made me more curious about porn. I mean, I was a gay kid not allowed to look at or think about boys, no less date them, and I wasn’t allowed to watch them on the Internet either or my sole would be destroyed.

Is it like polio or avian flu? Is it killing people, wiping out generations, leaving people permanently damaged? There are entire mental health clinics set up here in Utah set up to treat sex and pornography addiction. And they do well in business. Parents catch their teens watching porn and take them in for sex addiction treatment.

When I was 12, a bishop asked me if I masturbated. I had to ask what that was, and he told me, so I went home and tried it. What curious kid wouldn’t?

When I was 16, an older man at church taught the boys about chastity. And I quote, “Gentlemen, we all know it feels good to touch our peckers. But we mustn’t for it isn’t of God.” Then he taught us how wet dreams were normal and natural, and not to feel guilty as long as we didn’t “interfere” with ourselves. Meanwhile, my sister was taught to protect her virtue for an already chewed piece of gum is less valuable than a fresh piece.

I avoided pornography like the plague growing up, just knowing it was evil and dark. But you can only fight off such drives and curiosities for so long. My hormones would build, and the computer and keyboard were right there. I remember wondering why a God would make boys go through puberty  and give them such powerful drives, only to teach them that those very drives were evil and wrong.

Now, I think porn is fun. A safe, easy way to explore fantasies and options. There are a million kinds of them out there. And I’ve done some research into sex. So many research studies show that sex education leads to better decisions regarding sex including abstinence, that masturbation is healthy for the body, and that pornography is only considered an addiction when the individual feels compelled to watch it for hours and hours in one sitting, a drive that is often fostered by religious shame issues.

So if you are one of those people who think that watching a couple have sex is sort of like being infected with malaria, and that cancer patients should have to cry themselves to sleep, and that lesbian teenagers who are attacked for being gay don’t deserve extra protections… well, come on over to Utah.

Like they say, this is the place… for crazy.

We are Miracles, All

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One of the great lessons I have learned as a therapist, hearing human stories from every age and perspective, is simple:

In any given moment, we are as authentic as we know how to be. And the only moment we have is this one.

Picture a piece of string, fixed to one wall and stretched to the other.

This is your life. One small strand, whether you live to be 2 or 102.

We have a certain amount of control over that life span, with healthy living choices and self-preservation. Yet we are very fragile creatures, subject to injury and disease and depression, and sometimes to the poor or violent decisions of others.

And that timeline string follows rules. You can only move chronologically along it, from left to right, like flowing water. Each moment you exist feels real and vibrant and full with whatever you are feeling and experiencing. And then another moment goes by and the one you were living becomes memory, for now you are living another.

Along this timeline, we can look back at what has passed, viewing it from our present. And we can look forward with wonder or dread, also from our present. But even those moments of reflection and wonder are quickly replaced by another.

And so we face each moment with the amount of authenticity we are equipped with at that exact moment.

When I was five, and I sat in the driveway at my house feeling like my world was going to end because my mom went to the store without me… well, that’s easy to smile about now, but at that time, the pain was intense and real.

And when I was thirteen and my face broke out in terrible acne, and I looked at myself in the mirror with horror and anguish, that was real.

And when I was twenty-two and felt overwhelmed by college finals mixed with a full-time job and mounting bills and religious obligations, and I felt I would crack, that was real.

And when I was thirty and held my oldest child, newly born, in my arms for the first time, and my heart expanded to twelve times the size, and I felt elation and fear and responsibility and love beyond anything I had ever known, that was real.

And when I was thirty-four and I dropped off the divorce papers to the courts, and I grieved my marriage and my faith deeply while looking forward with steadfastness and strength and resolve and hope, that was real.

And now I’m thirty-seven, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop, and it’s cold and dark outside, and a policewoman sits next to me looking weary, and my coffee is luke warm, and my soul feels inspired, and… well, this moment is real as well.

I have been through some terrible things in my lifetime. We all have. It’s part of the human condition. I have ached and cried and hurt and struggled. And I have been through some wonderful things in my lifetime. We all have. It’s part of the human condition. I have rejoiced and basked and thrilled and sang.

And each and every one of those moments are moments that I have lived, authentically. And each of them has passed, as they will continue to do so until my timeline is complete, and I know not when that will be.

And the end of life, people say the same things, lessons learned with full perspective: that we should live for the now, that we should live without regrets, that we should be ourselves and be true to ourselves, that we should embrace our loved ones and spend time with our friends, that we should travel and love and dance and climb.

No one, with perspective, wishes they had spent more time in pain, more time grieving losses, more time surrounding themselves with those that do not love them, more time in debt or disease or obesity or anguish or abuse.

We must, simply put, lean ourselves toward love.

I have had times in my life where I felt I wasn’t worthy of love, happiness, or peace. I felt burdened down by financial expectations or weight or religious requirements or relationship responsibilities or physical constraints. And there will always be things to hold us back. It takes a very careful balance to find love and peace for the beings we are, and to work on changing and amending our beings toward happier realities over time.

For if it took me four years to put on eighty pounds, it will certainly take me more than four days to lose it. I can’t erase tens of thousands of debts overnight. If I have suffered from heavy depression for years, it may take several months to get used to feeling hope and joy again. If I have hurt others with my choices, it will take time to reestablish trust. And if I have lost a loved one, a period of grief is necessary for healing.

The quest to find ourselves in a happy present is a noble, difficult journey. And once the present is found, we have to continue finding it, for it is always new.

But oh, what a worthy journey, when we find ourselves on new horizons with the sun on our skins and the air in our lungs, for we are miracles, all.

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the Problem with Monogamy

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The truth is, most humans are boiling pots of unmet needs.

As a therapist, I constantly see people come in whose lives are out of balance. I help them list and recognize their needs by using a Medicine Wheel, a Native American spiritual construct that divides Needs into four areas: Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual.

Physical represents sleep, fitness, nutrition, hydration, and health.

Mental represents being challenged, achieving things, and making progress (including areas related to work and money).

Emotional represents basic human feelings and complex human relationships.

Spiritual represents purpose, inner connection, and involvement that brings balance and peace internally. (Spirituality is separate from religion).

simple-medicine-wheel

When all the needs are met, the four quadrants of the wheel are in perfect balance and all the same size. When one is out of balance, it negatively skews the capacity of the other three. Picture four balloons tied at the center that share a limited supply of air; they are only balanced when the air is perfectly and evenly distributed, yet the air is always shifting as needs are met and then unmet.

For example, if you have a poor night’s sleep (Physical), you are at less capacity to do work tasks (Mental). If you are feeling dissatisfied with yourself (Spiritual), you may find yourself withdrawing from your best friend (Emotional).

Small needs are relatively easy to meet and amend. Feeling stiff and sore, then stretch and work out: Physical balance restored. Feeling bored and uninteresting, then select a simple task and achieve it, something easy like washing the dishes or reading a chapter of a book: Mental balance restored. Feeling lonely on a Saturday afternoon, invite a friend to go on a walk: Emotional balance restored. Feeling conflict and confusion within yourself, go outside and soak in the sunlight: Spiritual balance restored.

Moderate needs take more time to meet and lengthier amounts of amendments and self-care. Losing 15 pounds (Physical), surviving a difficult semester at college (Mental), working through some coping mechanisms that have stopped you from recognizing your anger (Emotional), or realizing that your prayers have felt empty lately and you feel far from God (Spiritual).

And Major needs require much longer as we do our best to maintain balance during those times of major difficulty. Recovering from a surgery (Physical), trying to reduce $50,000 in credit card debt (Mental), learning a spouse has been unfaithful (Emotional), or realizing that you no longer believe in the religion you were raised with (Spiritual).

The greatest lesson I have ever learned in my lifetime, after doing therapy for others for over a decade, is that I have to take care of my own needs, and I can’t expect any other person, situation, job, status, or religion to do it for me.

Most humans (particularly Americans) began using “If… then” statements regarding their own happiness and balance.

IF I could fall in love, THEN I would be happy.

IF my spouse would pay more attention to me, THEN I would feel like he loves me.

IF my boss would show me more appreciation, THEN I would start to like my job.

IF I pray every day, THEN I will feel God’s love more readily in my life.

IF I could get pregnant, THEN I would find purpose.

All of these statements set us up for failure, because as humans we fail to recognize that we will ALWAYS have needs. The second we find satisfaction, we have something else we are dissatisfied with. That’s the very nature of humanity: we eat, we get hungry; we have sex, we get horny; we feel connected to our Higher Power, we feel distant again; we learn something fascinating, we get bored.

And so we fall into situations where we stay desperately and painfully out of balance for years at a time. People stay in abusive or loveless relationships, desperately hoping day after day that something will change. People gain forty pounds, then fifty, then one hundred, and they wait for something that will inspire them to change. People continue the same faith practices they have found unfulfilling, feeling selfish and unworthy for even feeling dissatisfied, and hoping they will change. People go to the same job day after day, miserable every night they come home, feeling like there is no hope of change.

They get stuck… and they stay there.

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And this is the problem with Monogamy. Or, frankly, any system that we believe should be the ideal. People develop this idea that they will meet one single person that will rock their world, charge their system, take away all their pain and struggle and that it will last forever. Wanting to be in a monogamous relationship is no problem; expecting a monogamous relationship to meet your every need is a big problem. (Replace “monogamous relationship” with any system in the previous sentence and apply it to you. Example: Wanting to be in shape is no problem; expecting being in shape to meet your every need is a big problem.)

I recognize that choosing Monogamy as the title topic here is controversial, but it’s meant to grab your attention. Did it work?

So Janie meets Charlie when they turn 25 and they have a whirlwind romance. The first year is wonderful. But she finds that sometimes, she wants to go out with friends and Charlie doesn’t like that, and she feels selfish for wanting time for herself with other people. And then Janie has a baby and she is a bundle of nerves and exhaustion for several months, so she and Charlie aren’t connecting and aren’t having sex, and she doesn’t feel beautiful. And a few years later, Charlie starts hating his job and Janie realizes there isn’t a lot she can do to help. And Janie is sometimes attracted to other people and feels terrible about herself, even though she has never cheated. And on and on.

People change over time, and their needs change over time. And the simple idea that one person (or job or religion or status or relationship) can meet every need a person has and can or will restore and maintain permanent balance does an extreme amount of damage, and it hurts all four of the medicine wheel areas.

Individuals who believe solely in a system (like monogamy or religion) tend to see these systems as ideal and the only paths for happiness. They develop the mindset that not achieving that status, within themselves or within others, means a person can’t be happy.

I grew up in a very religious household in the Mormon faith. I grew up believing that there was only one path to happiness: a man married to a woman, active in the Mormon faith, with children. And I grew up believing that wanting or needing anything else was selfish and against God’s will. I was permanently out of balance and I didn’t even see it, but constantly feeling dissatisfied.

And so it is that I share two great lessons with you here.

One: No one person, or system, or belief structure can bring you ultimate fulfillment and balance. You are a complicated universe of needs that require careful balancing and negotiation, day by day and moment by moment.

Two: You have to take care of you.

Maya Angelou once said, profoundly: “I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me ‘I love you.’ There is an African saying, which is Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.

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And so, it is up to each of us to draw out our own Medicine Wheels and to, bravely and courageously, determine what it is we are missing from our lives. Are we out of balance in small, moderate, or major ways, and what will it take to restore balance and peace? Do you need more hopes and dreams? More friend connections? More sex and intimacy? More excitement and adventure? More achievement? And are you at peace with the recognition that what you need today will not be what you need tomorrow?

You are not selfish, or shameful, or broken, or unworthy, or damaged, or hopeless, or evil for wanting or needing more from your life than what you currently have in it. You are a complicated human with complicated needs. The alternative to recognizing and addressing needs is remaining out of balance and dissatisfied in life.

The best kinds of relationships are those in which two healthy balanced individuals who take care of themselves choose to be together. Whether you are monogamous or polyamorous, single or married, surrounded by friends or relatively isolated, Christian or athieist… you can be happy so long as you are taking care of you. And if these two healthy people want to be Monogamous, then they work on it and the relationship can be healthy. Systems can only work when they are carefully chosen, in line with values, and worked toward as beings change over time.

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And yet, all that said, cheating, on yourself or someone else, is never okay. Needs must be met that are in accordance to our personal values, morals, and agreements. Lying to your partner about having sex with someone else is cheating. Convincing yourself you aren’t angry, then lashing out at another person with mean words and excusing your behavior is cheating. Setting physical goals for yourself, then shutting your brain down while you eat an entire pizza later is cheating. Judging others for “sinning” and then excusing your own “sins” is cheating.

Inner balance comes from careful, consistent negotiations and measurements. It is a difficult, and worthy quest. And the alternative is a steady and consistent unhappiness that can last years, decades, or even a lifetime. And life is too short to be unhappy.

I’m worth it. And I think you’re worth it. But then, you have to decide that for you.

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