Envying Happy

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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.

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Leaving Provo

provoSometimes when I travel I find myself wanting to create an alternate origin story for myself, skew just a few details to make my story a little bit more even-keeled.

Today on the flight to San Diego, I sat on the back row of the plane. We flew out of Provo, Utah, departing from a tiny little airport surrounded by dry fields and, farther off, breath-taking mountains. My car in the long-term parking lot was just across a small road from a literal cow pasture.

I was placed in the middle seat, and the woman to my right snored gently as the baby across the aisle cooed and cried, alternatively. The girl to my left, I later learned her name was Kimber, dutifully scrolled words in her leather bound diary as I read my book, the autobiography of Greg Louganis. She was gorgeous, a shapely blonde with her hair in pigtails under a ball cap, and she wore only a modest amount of makeup, something rare for Utah girls. I glanced at her moving pen from time to time and caught glimpses of angsty words.

Why can’t the world understand that people are just people and I’m so tired of having my heart broken and I just wonder what Heavenly Father has in store for me.

About halfway through the short flight, Kimber cleared her throat a few times, gently trying to get my attention. I could tell she wanted to talk. When we made eye contact, she opened our conversation with a casual “So are you from Utah?” and within minutes she was telling me her entire life story. I have the odd ability to get strangers to open up to me, likely my social work background and my empathic nature; sometimes I love this about myself, and sometimes I don’t.

Kimber talked about being the youngest of four kids and growing up in southern California with her single mother after her father left when she was a child. She talked about playing softball in high school and dealing with getting teased for being a lesbian all the time, even though she wasn’t gay. Her eyes flashed to the cover of my Louganis book, and then she glanced back up, seemingly trying to tell me that if I was gay, she was okay with that. She said she joined the Mormon Church when she turned 18 and moved to Utah for college.

As Kimber peppered me with a dozen rapid-fire questions about myself, I found myself filling in the facts wrong, creating a slightly different timeline for myself with the basic facts of my current life staying the same but my past vastly changed. I told her I grew up in Missouri, went to college in Seattle, and moved to Utah to launch a business. I told her I was a single father of two sons, that I was a therapist, and that I taught college.

Kimber leaned forward in the small space, her eyes alive with wonder, as she told me she served a mission in Oklahoma and had been home for two years, when she began therapy herself, and it changed her life, she said. She held up her journal and said it had become her best friend and her best coping mechanism.

Her voice lowered as she began asking me questions. She had an insider, a therapist as a captive audience for the rest of the flight, and she was going to take advantage of it. Is porn addiction real? she asked, as she confided that her current boyfriend had problems. Is it true that Mormons have more depression and teen suicides? she asked, as she talked about a suicidal friend. Is it normal for girls to want to wait until they are 30 to get married? she asked, as she talked about wanting to explore the world before she took the plunge. Is it more important to be in a relationship 100 per cent, or to have a life outside of the relationship? she asked, as she told me about her desire to be a career woman and not a housewife.

At one point, Kimber held up a finger to stop me. She had to write this down, she said, and began furiously scribbling notes in her journal as the flight attendants announced our landing in San Diego. I showed Kimber pictures of my sons, when she asked, and she commented how they looked just like me.

As we stood to gather our bags, Kimber and I exchanged names, finally, belatedly, and wished each other well. She gave me an extra sincere look in my eyes as she firmly shook my hand. “It was an honor to meet you,” she said, and her intense gaze seemed to convey the subtext that this meeting was meant to be, orchestrated in the pre-existence by God himself perhaps. I smiled at her genuineness and sincerity.

I gave Kimber a bright smile as I walked away. “Kimber, you’re my favorite kind of Mormon,” I said, then turned to the waiting San Diego sunshine, ready for adventures ahead.

my best friend

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“God, Kurt, I love them so so much.”

“Careful, or you’ll make me cry.”

It is a picture perfect San Diego Saturday morning, spring 2013. I woke up in the hotel room at 5 am, unable to sleep any longer, a heavy burden on my mind. I’d gone downstairs to find a cup of coffee, book in hand, so that my best friend Kurt could continue sleeping upstairs. And within a few minutes, I got a text from him asking where I was. He got dressed, slipped on a pair of shoes, and now we were out walking the streets, the sun just coming up, golden and beautiful.

Kurt had come out here on a business trip and had invited me along. We get along famously, he and I. We had spent the long drive down singing songs, telling stories, gabbing about our families and friends. Kurt is nine years older than me, in his mid-40s, but we have been out of the closet about the same amount of time, just a few years each. Being gay after all those years of being Mormon, being married to women that we loved but weren’t capable of loving fully, hiding in plain sight hoping that no one would notice the fact that we were homosexual in a church that doesn’t welcome gay people. These shared experiences bonded us, pushed us together. A bond had formed between us months before. Not a romantic one, but a brotherly one. Kurt and I weren’t just friends, we were brothers.

“My sons, Kurt. I feel terrible. Every time I leave Salt Lake City, I miss them, of course, but I come alive, I feel at peace and open to the world. When I’m there, I love my time with my sons, but I feel broken, I feel a shell of myself. I sleep on the couch and feel trapped and awful and bitter. I just go through the motions. And I hate it because just being with my sons should be enough to make me happy. That should be all it takes.”

Kurt stops walking. I take a few steps, realize it, and turn back to face him. He has tears in his eyes and he looks so sadly serious. I step back toward him.

“You listen to me, mister. We have lived our entire lives for other people. I raised my stepdaughters and my sons. I took care of my parents and my wife. And you, you took care of your mom and sister, your wife and children. No one ever took time to care for us and so we have to learn to do that ourselves.”

Tears run down my cheeks and tears run down his.

“You know me,” Kurt says. “You know how much I love my children. And it kills me, it literally kills me to live so far away from them. We talk and we text and we video chat, but it isn’t the same until they are with me. The summers, the holidays, I count every moment I’m not with them, and I make the most of every moment they are with me. But I had to leave in order to live. I came out here, I built my business, I bought my house, and I do it. I live my life every day.”

“I know.” I look around to see if anyone sees us, two former Mormon gay dads standing on the street crying, but the streets are empty.

“Now if you have to leave, if you decide to move to Seattle or wherever, that will not make you a terrible father. It makes you a brave man. It means you have courage. It means you are teaching your sons to be bold and strong and authentic. And if you go, know that it will hurt, massively, every day. You will ache for them. Trust me, I know. But if the alternative is staying and being sad and miserable, well, that’s a decision you’ll have to weigh out. You know I have your back either way. If you have to leave, you leave. And when you are ready to come, if that happens, then you come back.”

I give Kurt a massive hug and we stand there for a minute, then we start walking. After several seconds of silence, I jab him in the bicep with a finger. “Stupid jerk, making me cry.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure you started this.”

We are laughing as a group of three men jog by, too handsome for words, and our eyes widen. We look at each other with a ‘holy mother of God, did you see that’ look on our faces, then we both burst out laughing again.

“Which one do you want?” I nudge.

“I’m taking all three! Find your own!”

“Greedy,” I mutter.

He smiles. “You probably need it more. How long has it been now?”

I laugh. “Shut up.”

We walk a few blocks. Kurt admires the flowers and plants, like he always does. I watch the people interacting and wonder about their stories, like I always do. We both get coffees and take a seat on a small park bench.

He looks me right in the eyes. “Whatever you decide, you have incredible things in store. You’re going to write a book. You are so talented, Chad, you have no idea. You are going to write a book and you are going to change lives.”

I look down, knowing he believes it, but not sure if I do. “Maybe some day.” I whisper.

“Mark my words. And I’ll be the first in line to congratulate you.”

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This blog is dedicated to the memory of my best friend, my brother, my biggest support, Kurt Peterson, who died in a car accident yesterday afternoon. Kurt, thank you for your amazing and limitless friendship. You changed me. You made me believe in myself. And you will be with me, in my heart, for all of my days. Rest with the angels, my truest friend. I will go on being authentic like you taught me.

Kurtt

a room full of gay Mormon fathers

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I should have been nervous. There was something poetic about the entire thing.

When I had first come out of the closet five years ago and moved to Utah, my friends Troy and Ryan, two gay fathers who had been together for years and had raised their kids together, offered me a place to stay in their basement for a time. My first two painful and liberating months in Utah had been spent here before I got a place of my own.

And now I stood in the same basement, a place I hadn’t been back to since I left it, and I was talking about my experiences with a room full of gay fathers.

I looked around the room at these men, all of them Mormon, or formerly Mormon, like me; all of them fathers who had been married to women, like me, though I only have two children and some of these men have five or seven or ten. Some were just barely out to themselves, some had just told their wives, some had just moved out on their own, and some had been out for a few years but still sought fellowship. Men in their 20s all the way up to their 70s.

I took myself back to that place in my mind, when the pain had been so raw and real, when even a conversation with someone about being gay brought me solace. All those years of silence, suffering on my own, just knowing that no one would understand. All those years with secrets. All those years desiring to come out of the closet and so very afraid that if I did, the consequences for my family and my loved ones would be devastating. Imagine telling the spouse you’ve built a life with that you are gay. I took time to remember the difficult months after my big announcement, and how it redefined every relationship in my life, and how I had to learn how to feel and have friends and to see the world with new eyes. It had all been so raw.

I’ve shared my story widely at this point, hundreds of times, to groups of students, to peers, on my blog, to friends, to men I’ve tried dating. And it’s difficult to understand if you didn’t grow up Mormon. Yet these men sitting and standing before me, dozens of them, they are all in the same place that I was just a few years ago.

And so we talked. I shared my story, and the story of nearly all the gay people I know. We talked about growing up and realizing you are different from others, learning how to blend in and hide by forming a secret self deep down within to cope. We talked about wasted efforts in curing a condition that can’t be cured by begging God for it and being great and stalwart Mormon men. We talked our decisions to marry women, and how that had been the only option. We talked about being let down by our religion, and about being fathers. We talked about the risks and benefits of coming out, how it would affect our primary relationships. We talked about hurting our loved ones when we didn’t mean to. We talked about navigating separation and divorce and how to be kind and fair at the same time. We talked about coming out to our children, our parents, our friends. We talked about the differences between guilt and shame, and how only guilt is healthy for we are all of us individuals with worth. We talked about integrity, and how lying to ourselves can be just as damaging as lying to others. We talked about spirituality, and embracing the things in our life that bring us peace, even if that means leaving the religion. We talked about hope, and love, and faith, and sex. We talked about the difficult process of facing puberty emotions as adults, because we never went through it as teens. We talked about heartbreak and sadness and joy and elation. We talked about how coming out did not not make life magically easy, but how it did make life so much more vibrant and wonderful. We talked about the history of religion and culture and policy and how they have influenced our heritages and histories. And we talked about the wonderful, delicious, and painful cost of authenticity.

After the presentation ended, many of the men approached me one on one with questions. “How do I tell my children that I’m gay when my wife thinks I’m evil?” “My mom told me it would have been easier for me to die in a car accident than to be gay. How can I ever forgive her?” “My church leaders think I’m being selfish. They say that the peace and acceptance I find among gay men is me being influenced by the devil.” “How can I choose between the life I have created with my family, my wife and children, and one that means I’m gay and single and divorced? How can I do that?” “I thought it was supposed to get easier. Why does it hurt so much?”

And then we broke for lunch. We talked, and laughed, and shared with each other.

As I left, a hundred stories from my own journey came to mind. All the love I received after coming out, and the 20 or so times people reacted really terribly and painfully. I thought of the people in my life, the love that I feel for myself and my sons and my friends. I thought of how Megan (my ex-wife) and I are so much happier now, but how we had to go through those hard times first.

And as I drove away, tears rolled down my cheeks, for these men and for their wives and children and families, and for myself. And I looked to the horizon, ready for all of the joy and love and integrity and authenticity ahead.