the intersection of dreams and reality

As a therapist, I regularly tell my clients that sometimes the best way to appreciate where we are in life is to look back at where we were. 

And I hold myself to this frequently. I regularly look backwards so that I can properly assess my current standing and then look forward to the paths I should be on. But lately this has been a struggle for me, in some unexpected ways.

First of all, sometimes I don’t know how far I should be looking back. Do I consider the lonely teenager who was writing ideas down in a notepad yet never really writing anything, that boy who was so strongly holding tightly to Mormonism that he couldn’t see a future ahead in which he was happy? Do I look back to the married Mormon father, who was running a business and writing comic books, yet feeling completely unfulfilled and wondering when he might be able to overcome life’s challenges and actually come out of the closet? Both of those past versions of me clearly give me perspective in the present. They ground me. I look at how far I’ve come and I see my world around me and love the person I am and the life I’ve created.

But my current struggles are far removed from those, in some ways. They are far beyond. They stem more from five years ago and the risks I took back then, and the ways that they have paid off, or not paid off, into this current present.

Five years ago, I took major stock of my life, and I decided to take some huge risks. I quit my job and I launched a personal business, doing therapy for clients on an hourly, private-pay basis. I began sub-letting an office, I upped my rates, and I believed I could do it. I came up with a formula to keep myself financially afloat, and I set big goals to eliminate all of my debt, and to put savings and emergency funding in place should I ever need them. And with hard work and consistency, I achieved these goals, and then set others, like establishing a retirement account and getting better health insurance.

From there, I started listening to what my internal dreams are. Many of them, those that didn’t directly revolve around my children, focused on travel, research, and writing. I started small, taking short weekend trips and reading about things that interested me more often. And then the goals grew bigger and loftier as I started thriving. Travel became more frequent and more adventurous, and I began making a list of places that I had always wanted to see but hadn’t. As I saw more places, the list grew longer. And along the way, I met my boyfriend, and had someone to share this with.

Then I set a lofty goal. I determined that within four years, I would be making a living as a writer and storyteller. I just had to figure out how to do it.

Channeling my love of research and writing, I started doing daily posts on LGBT history, a huge personal passion. Eventually that turned into themed research, and then I turned that into a YouTube station. I started seeing a vision of the future in which I could share my passionate research, in spoken word format, with audiences who would be hungry to learn what I was learning. So I began putting my personal money into web developers and graphic designers to build a platform and an audience to share with. For the following year, I continued to pour money into this venture, loving every moment of the research, and agonizing every moment when the videos were only getting a few dozen views. I was putting money out, and watching numbers in the double digits roll back, and I took it personally. It hurt that I believed in myself so strongly and it wasn’t paying off in the way I’d hoped. My love of research and writing was becoming dominated by the lack of success, and I began to doubt myself.

And so I closed the YouTube channel down. I stopped researching for a time, and I did a lot of self-assessment as I tried learning tough lessons. And then I refocused and tried again, this time on a new project.

I started researching gay hate crimes in Utah. I found a list of names and I started asking questions. I copied court records, make extensive notes, drove throughout the state, and started looking people up. I found graves, recorded memories. And I felt my passion for research returning. I came alive with joy as I began finding stories to tell. Eventually, my primary focus landed on one case, that of Gordon Church, a young man killed in 1988. His murder resulted in two trials for his killers, and one of them ended up on death row. Months went by as I lost myself in this research, and in time, I began thinking that a documentary about this content would be ideal. I found a film company who began working on the project with me, and we completed dozens of interviews, gathering dozens of hours of amazing content. Over a period of 18 months, I watched the project come to fruition, and a film that would end up altering lives would soon be complete. I was on fire.

Until it boiled down to money. Without funding, we couldn’t go forward to editing the film. We needed a minimum of one hundred thousand dollars to finish, though closer to five hundred thousand would be ideal. Believing I could do anything with a project this valuable, I started holding meetings and pitches, even fundraisers, to find the necessary cash. I asked benefactors, support agencies, film studios, and especially local people who had funds and might share my passion for this project. I had dozens of meetings, with politicians and millionaires and everyone in between. Many turned me down. Many said they’d think about it. And a few said they would love to fund the project, but then kind of faded into the distance. And with every failed meeting, my aggravation, pain, and self-doubt returned. I wasn’t finding the right audience, and again, the passion I wanted to share with the world was being replaced by the reality of the world in which I was in. (Note: the film is still in the editing phase, which will take many more months without funding. While I believe it will be finished, it is on a much longer timeline than I had anticipated).

And so, while working on the film, I began seeking out other projects that would help keep my passion and love for research and writing alive. I maintained a blog (trying hard not to get frustrated with the low numbers of readers). I wrote a book, Gay Mormon Dad, and self-published (and tried hard not to take it personally when sales remained abysmally low despite reviews being incredibly high). I formed a monthly story-telling group called Voices Heard and began collaborating with dozens of incredible local story-tellers to share with assembled audiences (and struggled to remain positive when audience numbers remained small when I hoped we would have sell-out shows). These struggles have been manifesting

And now it is summer of 2019. And I’ve been in an emotional spiral these past few months as I’ve considered what to do moving forward. And so, with a bit of perspective and focused attention, I can boil it all down to a list of facts, as I seek to make sense of all of this.

  1. Writing brings me joy. Research, blogging, outlining, interviewing, story-telling, performing, and even editing make me happy. They fulfill a particular part of me. They enrich my spirit. I don’t feel good when I’m not doing them. And writing has been part of me for as long as I can remember, from my very earliest days in childhood.
  2. I can do hard things! And it is good to be confident about those things! I wrote a book, and it’s good! I built and sustained a YouTube Channel for a year, and then made the hard decision to retire it! I researched, and collaborated, and nearly completed a film that is going to be revolutionary! I created, and collaborated, to share stories at a monthly event that I love, and that is so so so good, and I’ve maintained it for over two years now! Believing in myself in crucial, and I’ve shown myself that I can create and sustain things that I ove.
  3. I love collaborating with others. I love forming new friendships with talented people and working together. The men who have made the film with me are among the most genuine and talented individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and we have built something special over a period of years together. The story-tellers who perform with me at Voices Heard are so authentic and talented, they leave me stunned with every word; they are enthusiastic and kind and so good at what they do. And every person who has spoken to me about my book, my research, or my writing and has been excited, enthusiastic, and kind in response, to anyone who has believed in me, it has given me a confidence I never knew I was capable of.
  4. Trust is in short supply lately. I hate asking for money, and I hate paying the people for services that they can’t deliver on consistently. I’ve had over a dozen major disappointments over the past few years from people who promised something and couldn’t or didn’t deliver, including offers from publishing companies, major media presences, and benefactors who have offered to cover the costs of the documentary. I’ve reached a place where big offers leave my guard up, and I’m finding it more difficult to take it back down as time goes by.
  5. There are a lot of things I am terrible at. Marketing, graphic design, promotion, and fundraising top the list. Every time one of these topics shows up in my life, I want to scream in response. They bring up pain and insecurity because my failures in these areas directly impact the way I measure success in other areas.
  6. “Success” has become a word that is difficult for me to define. These products that I’m extremely proud of (Gay Mormon Dad, the documentary, Voices Heard, the blog) tend to have relatively small yield in profit, number of readers, or number in the audience. The documentary remains unfinished, I didn’t sell enough copies of the book to cover the costs of printing it (no less the time spent writing it), the blog rarely gets more than 30-40 reads per entry, and Voices Heard consistently only has 20-40 people in the audience (meaning I tend to lose money every month on the costs of putting it all together). It is hard to dwell in the space of gratitude and love that I feel when I write and perform, when I feel the financial and self-esteem hits when not many people are reading or attending the things I’m so proud of.

Writing all of these things down in one place is hard. It’s only after literal months of personal reflection and riding these waves that I’m even able to articulate what is happening within me. The intersection of the joy I get from writing, and the reality that I’ll likely never make a living doing it… sitting in that intersection and feeling both sides is difficult, but its the only way forward. I have to do what I do because I love it. I have to have hope that I can do more, that I will someday achieve the success I someday hope for, while simultaneously accepting that that may never happen, and still be okay and believe in myself while accepting that reality. I can’t give up on my dreams, yet I also can’t keep beating myself up when they aren’t achieved in a particular way. I have to change how I define success. I have to challenge myself at being better while accepting where I currently am. That intersection is uncomfortable, even painful, yet I’m working very hard to find peace with its existence.

And so, today, I sat down to write about it. I wrote about my journey, and what I’ve learned. I expressed my pains and doubts, my beliefs and hopes. And just like every time before, I feel better now that I have. I feel inspired. Capable. And soon I’ll click publish and know that only 20 to 50 people will read it. I have to embrace both sides of that. I knew that going in to this blog.

And I wrote it anyway.

And therein lies my lesson.

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Mentally obese

brain

Stress wraps its invisible fingers around our insides and begins to squeeze. We don’t notice it at first. It starts out subtly, slithering and silent. It coats our stomachs and wraps around our brains, until one day, we realize our food isn’t digesting properly, our heads ache more often, and we aren’t sleeping well.

Like any kind of weight, stress comes on a spectrum of mild to obese. Mild stress can result in small frustrations, avoidance in relationships, and poor habits and decision-making. Major stress can lead to mid-life crises, abrupt changes in life like divorce and quitting a job, and an inability to rest and relax. Crippling stress leads to constant illness, severe depression, and a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. And people who learn to live with stress begin to think of it as normal and natural.

It isn’t.

Stress is a natural condition for moments, for short durations, during a college final or a work deadline; it is not natural as a perpetual state of living. Being overwhelmed is directly equitable to being mentally overweight or obese.

Mental obesity can also show up in the form of boredom. Humans have a need to be challenged, to be mentally stimulated. A lack of these leads to itchiness, frustration, and dissatisfaction. Education and engagement are crucial to mental fitness and human interactions.

As a therapist, I frequently see clients who are over-burdened by their jobs, or bored with their lives. They struggle with finding any hope in their future, dwelling firmly in the fact that they aren’t happy with their lives or stations now. And when someone is dissatisfied in their jobs, when their talents aren’t being utilized, when they are unemployed, when they feel their boss is constantly breathing down their neck, when they are putting in 80 hours a week and can’t get ahead… when these things happen, humans have health problems and unhealthy eating and exercise habits, they have dissatisfying relationships, they struggle with depression, and they lack purpose and inner peace.

Humans also need to regularly achieve. They need lists to check things off of. The perfect remedy to being bored is to get up and do something; the perfect remedy to being overwhelmed is to choosing one task at a time and completing it.

Another form of mental obesity is extreme debt. We live beyond our means, make big purchases, and charge up credit cards, and then work too much in a constant state of stress while living from paycheck to paycheck and barely managing to pay off the interest payments.

Being mentally fit requires mental discipline, vocationally, financially, and academically.

Somewhere along the line, it was bred into me that there is only one way to be successful. I threw myself into high school, completing difficult homework assignments, sometimes loving the knowledge I was acquiring, and sometimes being so overwhelmed by it that I couldn’t retain the algebra equations and history dates and chemical compositions. In college, I worked full time and would take between 15 and 21 credit hours, and I saw that impossible learning regimen as necessary for adulthood, while sacrificing my emotional, physical, and spiritual health. As a young social worker with a masters degree, I grew accustomed to doing ten hours of therapy for low levels of pay, going home physically and mentally drained each night, and dreading work the next day. Over time, I lost sight of why I got into social into the first place, and began to feel like a cog in a machine that was being aged prematurely.

Around this time, I was receiving steady paychecks, and writing out regular bills, for health insurance, for cable and internet, for electricity and gasoline, for food, for car payments, for medical insurance, for automobile insurance, for cell phone, for tithing, for student loan debts, for college education funds for my sons, and, most overwhelmingly, for mortgage. I would sit down and budget each month and become overwhelmed by the massive amounts of responsibility. Later, after my divorce, this only mounted when child support payments were placed on the top. And I couldn’t even mentally factor in the amounts going toward income taxes, property taxes, state taxes, and federal withholdings. I remember that old pit in the center of my stomach.

I was so constantly overwhelmed by the stress of my job and the responsibilities of my financial debts that I had little opportunity to find things to achieve. I had forgotten the wonderful feeling of finishing a book, the interest I could throw into a research project, or the simple sensation of setting a goal, working on it, and ultimately achieving it. Accompanied by depression, a lack of purpose, and physical weight, the mental stress compounded, feeling like it would overwhelm me and shorten my lifespan.

My mental weight took me much longer to shed than the others. After losing my physical weight, coming out of the closet, grieving my past, discovering my spiritual health, and forming true friendships, I could start to examine my actual stress levels. It was a few more years of maxed out credit cards and working 60 hour weeks before I realized that I was stressed, overwhelmed, and consistently complaining about my financial responsibilities.

My mental health came through exhausting areas:

  1. Making regular time for myself to learn, read, research, and write.
  2. Taking a careful look at my financial situation and preparing a careful plan to relieve financial debt and plan for the future.
  3. Remembering what I love about my professional field, finding a way to make myself happy in my field, and finding a way to make enough money to support myself while doing what I love.

I began organizing my schedule differently. I quit my job and became self-employed, and I began diversifying my services. I advertised. I started with lower rates and then began to charge more. I did regular self-inventory to make sure I was happy along the way. I began limiting my expenses and putting my extra money toward debt. In a year, I was able to pay off one of the credit cards, then my car, then the other cards. I was able to establish a savings account. I began actively learning, and writing about what I learned. I began setting and achieving goals that would have felt impossible years before.

Now, I love what I do. I engage myself intellectually. I challenge and push myself. I take time off when needed, and I don’t let myself get bored. I recognize when I’m overwhelmed and I nurture myself into health again. I budget and plan things out financially. I recognize my needs, and I take care of myself. And, most importantly, I recognize that stress, exhaustion, and boredom are not my natural state; fulfillment, accomplishment, and satisfaction are.

 

(This concludes my writings on obesity. Previous blogs on emotional, physical, and spiritual obesity were previously submitted).

 

 

Making Lemonade in Hollywood

Lemonade-Non-ShowRecipe-OR

Let’s say you love making lemonade. I mean, you love it. The whole process. You love blending the ingredients to perfection, and you especially love the huge refreshing and surprised smile people get on their faces when they taste it, cold and delicious. You have tried out several combinations and mixtures, from huckleberry to honey lime to chocolate peanut butter, and the variety is exciting, but it is that homemade original recipe that you love so much.

People ask you how you came up with such a perfect recipe, they wonder why it tastes so good, and you come up with a story about how you got it from your grandmother, but the truth is you made it all by yourself, and you don’t want to share the recipe with anyone else, it’s special and it is just yours.

Soon friends start asking you to make your lemonade for special events, weddings and receptions, company barbecues and family picnics. At first you do it for free, then you charge them just a bit, just enough to cover the ingredients, but then you get busier and you start charging for your time as well. But you charge barely anything. Making lemonade on top of your day job keeps you very busy indeed. But you love it still.

And one day a friend sits you down and says, you know, you could do something with this lemonade thing. You are the best. Just quit your job and open a little store front, or sell it online. Create a YouTube channel about your lemonade, make an Instagram account, create a Facebook fan page, put up a Twitter account, come up with a campaign, people of all ages loving your lemonade. And you are surprised, because even though you make the best lemonade, you have no idea how to run a business, how to market it. You live in a small town. You can’t just make lemonade, can you? But the idea sticks in your mind for a while, and you think, why not give it a shot. But you don’t quit your job, you try to do it smart.

And so you start telling people about your lemonade. You put some money into creating a marketing campaign. You do daily posts on social media. You take pictures and publish them. You offer samples. You tell local companies about it, and put some ads up on the internet. And you stick with it for a few months, but orders don’t increase, and all that time and initiative you are putting into your lemonade promotion is yielding very small results. The people who loved it before still love it, but no one else is really trying it.

You talk to your friend again, and he tells you to keep at it, says the lemonade is the best. And you tell him that you agree, it’s damn good lemonade, but no one else is trying it out. Think bigger, he says. The talent is there, you just have to find it.

And so you save up a bit, and you take yourself to Hollywood, just to see. It’s beautiful there. The streets are lined with amazing buildings full of history and money and success, but also failure and pain and flops. Lemonade is everywhere in Hollywood, in every shape and color and on every corner. There are 50,000 people there making lemonade, and only a few thousand of them are doing well at it, and only a few hundred doing really well at it.

And you spend a few days drinking other people’s lemonade. It’s good, but not as good as yours. But this lemonade, it’s selling like crazy. People are raving about it. It is in shiny cups lined with sugar, in store fronts with air-conditioning and plush seats and soft lighting.

And after a few days of drinking other people’s lemonade, you wonder about your options you really want to keep making lemonade (and you really do), how can you be a success at it? You want to be one of the few thousand (not one of the few hundred), but there are a lot of lemonade stands out there. Do you need pretty packaging? A busy store front on a Hollywood intersection? A new label? Do you need to team with someone who is already making lemonade in order to make yours bigger?

Or do you just keep making lemonade and working the day job, hoping it will take off some day?

Or do you just keep making lemonade for the people in your small town who already like it, and be content with that?

Or do you stop making lemonade all together?

And so a few days later, you are back in your little kitchen and you are swishing your old familiar mixing spoon around and around your old familiar pitcher. Ice is clinking against the sides of the glass as the liquid beneath it swirls round and round. You see the sugar dissolving into the water, and the wedges of lemon bobbing up and down. It turns a careful beautiful bright yellow. And you know it will be delicious, not only because you have made it 1000 times before, but because you love to make it, you love this process, these careful calculations, the mix and stir and clink and swish and pour. You love the process even more than you love the taste of it on your tongue. And people come in and they drink and they say it is delicious.

And you hold a glass of cold lemonade in your hand, and you look out the window at the setting sun, already thinking about the batch of lemonade you will make tomorrow, and you wonder again about ambition, and potential, and doing what you love.