“When was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror, naked?”
My friend giggled, perhaps embarrassed that I’d said the word naked in a public coffee shop. “This morning.”
“All right. And what did you think when you looked?”
She raised an eyebrow in confusion. “I don’t think I did think about it. I mean, I saw my reflection, but I didn’t really look. I just did my hair, put on my make-up, got dressed.”
I sipped my coffee. “Okay, let me try again. When is the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror naked?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, God, not only do I not know, I don’t think I want to do that.”
Now it was my turn to laugh? “Ew? You’re so profound.”
“I don’t want to see that!”
“And yet you see it every day.”
“But like, I don’t want to see see me naked!”
“Hmm.” I responded.
“Oh stop it!” She flashed me her death glare from across the table. “I hate when you do that thing where you act like you are in a therapy session and you want the client to reveal something about themselves through your casual observance.”
I wiggled my eyebrows. “When I do that, how does it make you feel?”
She laughed louder. “Stop it!”
“I’m not your therapist. But I am a therapist. How does that make you feel?” We both laughed again. “Okay, but honestly, as your best friend, can I just say that if the thought of looking at yourself naked makes you say ‘ew’, what kind of energy does that put out there into the world? How does that influence how you think men see you, or your own self-confidence and energy?”
Her eyes narrowed, playfully, but I could tell she was thinking that through. “I hate you so much. Okay, Mister Therapist, when is the last time you looked at yourself naked?”
I non-chalantly sipped. “This morning.”
She laughed. “Oh fuck you. And how did that make you feel?”
“Well that’s why I brought it up.” We both laughed, and then I grew serious, sober. “Okay, so first it dawned on me, historically I have never given myself a good look. I’ve avoided looking. And most my life, I’ve just been hard on myself, like feeling ashamed about how I look naked, but also not wanting to look at myself naked because then I would have to feel ashamed. Does that make sense?”
“Oh my God, yes. But I think you just described everyone, ever.”
“And, like, what does that say about me? It’s just easier not to look, so I just won’t look? Because if I do, I might be ashamed? That’s gross! I hate thinking that way. So I gave myself a good look this morning. And my very first impulse would be to be super hard on myself. I have a few inches around my stomach. Like I’m strong, but I have fat deposits there, and they are jiggly, and there is some extra skin there from when I used to be fat. And when I turn around, I can see where my spine curves, and my ass only looks great if I stand at just the right angle. My feet are flat. There is a space next to my chest by my armpits where there is just some skin there and it doesn’t look like I’d want it to ideally look. And I have grey on my temples.”
She stared at me. “Okay, I know I’m married and straight, and I know you’re gay, but you know how much I love the gray on your temples. You’re giving me all the right daddy vibes.” We both laughed. “And to hear that you are being that tough on yourself, when I look at you and think you are super hot, it pisses me off.”
“Yes! Me too! It pisses me off! Also, thank you! I am super hot!” More laughter. “But isn’t that what you’d do, automatically see the flaws when you’d loo? If you’d look?”
She bit her lip. “All right. I’ve had kids. I’d see stomach fat, and stretch marks, and my boobs would be saggy because I’ve breastfed kids. And I’m sure I wouldn’t like the rest. This sucks, I don’t want to talk about it.”
I gripped her hand. “And so whenever your husband sees you naked, you just assume he’s going to look at those things, or that he will just purposefully look past them. Like you’d be mad if he noticed, but you’d also feel ashamed. Like self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“Yes! Yes! Okay! You made your point!”
I laughed again and winked. “I haven’t even started to make my point yet. I feel the same way! Like all this body shame that I want to avoid thinking about! And I have those same expectations from my boyfriend cause he basically looks perfect naked.”
“So does my husband! Damn we have good taste in men!”
“Or they have great taste in us!” I countered, and we laughed again.
She laughed harder. “I fucking love you.”
“I fucking love you!” I countered. But then I sobered a bit. “Have you ever gotten angry with your husband for not loving you in a particular way? Like you inherently expect him to see past your insecurity and just make you feeling fucking beautiful. And you’re hurt and angry when he doesn’t. Like because he doesn’t make all your pain go away, then he needs to be punished.”
She glared. “You already said that. Well, kind of.”
“Hey! I’m processing here! And do you ever find yourself resenting someone who you think looks great, and you are mad at them because they have some sort of insecurity? Like I have this friend who has literally done underwear modeling, and I saw him once and told him he looked incredible and he was like ‘don’t say that, not today. I don’t feel good about myself’ and my natural instinct was to be like ‘fuck you! you aren’t allowed to be insecure when you look that good! Only I get to be insecure!’ but instead I was like ‘oh man, I’m sorry you are having a tough day’. And he actually gave me a hug and said ‘thank you for letting me be human and have insecurity for a second. No one lets me do that.’ Like am I the only one allowed to be insecure? It’s an actual human trait. We all experience it. And we waste all of this time and money on shitty behavior that we think will make us feel better because we aren’t at some standard of beauty that society has branded into us! We can only be successful if we are this particular definition of hot!”
“Okay, now you are just ranting. So what is the point of all this?”
I took a deep breath. “So this morning, instead I tried the opposite. Looked at myself in the mirror with grace instead of judgment. I was… kind. I thought of all the time I’m spending in the gym. I looked at my massive arms, my thick shoulders, my back, my muscular legs and calves, my ass, my stomach, my smile. And instead of feeling ‘ew’ I felt… happy. I felt driven. I felt like I wanted to eat healthy and exercise and see what I’m capable of. I thought of how my partner sees the best parts of me, so why would I see the worst parts? Why would I waste time either not looking, or just hating what I saw? Why would I do that?”
And then I leveled my gaze. “And why would you? You’re gorgeous!”
We talked about our naked selves for a while, laughing and connecting, because that is the kind of friends we are. We smiled. We discussed loving ourselves, with grace, not with judgment. We talked about how we want to raise our kids to do the same, and then laughed about how we can definitely not talk to our kids about nakedness cause that’s weird. But then we talked about wanting to use grace more, with all the parts of our lives. About our jobs, and our friendships, about our writing and our families. About our personal journeys. We talked about using grace and not shame as a way to motivate ourselves, to find love and self-acceptance. We talked about how confidence is the very sexiest thing.
Because if we can’t look at ourselves naked, how can we expect anyone else to?
During my social work education in college, I took several classes that focused on tools related to understanding complicated families. One of those tools is a genogram. Squares represented men, circles were used for women. Lines connected romantic relationships, and little dashes meant children. An X over a person represented death, a double line through a relationship represented divorce. I’ve used genograms with hundreds of clients over the years now. Some families look clean and organized on paper: father, mother, brother, sister.
My family genogram ended up looking like a massive printer malfunction, or like someone dropped a pizza on the floor. It was rampant with divorces and remarriages, couples who had kids that were his hers and theirs, and adoptions. If I could add slashes and dashes for prison sentences, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, faith crises and drug addictions, well, we’d have Picasso’s Starry Starry night in family tree format. Beautiful, but far too much to take in one glance.
But each little square and circle on that paper represent a human fixed in time, someone with experiences, heartbreaks, setbacks and successes. And each of those people, most of them related to me by blood, have their own changing stories, their own epics. For most, the endings remain unwritten. But even the youngest of my siblings is in her late 30s now, so there is a lot of history to draw upon.
And that takes us to 1985.
Back then, my family was my entire world, that and religion. We have one family Christmas video preserved now. It’s beloved to me. It was made in December, 1985, when I was newly 7 years old. I was the little brother, the sixth of seven children. Back then, Mom and Dad were still married, if unhappily. My little sister Sheri was three, and she had thin yellow hair that grew down past her waistline. (Many years later, Sheri and I would be the ones who came out of the closet). And all of the older kids were there, ranging from 11 to 20 in age at the time. Grandma and Grandpa were there, my mom’s parents, and my oldest sister’s boyfriend. The video shows us all around the Christmas tree, singing songs, laughing, performing special talents for each other, opening gifts. My mom and sister Kara played the nose harps as a joke, someone did a piano solo. We each took a day of Christmas and sang all twelve verses in little one-line solos. The camera pans around the room as we each share what we are thankful for. At one point in the video, I take out my recorder from school and I play a carol for the family, not actually playing the instrument but more realistically just blowing notes through it, generating the sound with my voice and sounding like an eerie robot. Later in the video, I ask if I can lead the family in a song. I stand in the center of the room, right in front of the camera, and I lead the music, just like I’ve seen Mom do in church a thousand times, except I forget to bend my elbow. I lead on the right cadence with my wrist hinging in every direction as my family laughs at me, and at the time I didn’t understand what was so funny. I was beaming. Family, music about Jesus, Christmas. It was perfect. I’m smiling from ear to ear.
That was over 30 years ago. 33 Christmases ago, to be exact. That realization startles me. And in another blink of an eye, it will be 30 years from now and I’ll be seventy and my children will be men.
But what if I could go back? If I could time-travel, step back into that room as a grown man and just watch it all as it happened… I wouldn’t be able to experience the family just then, in the present like that. I have too much perspective for that. I’d see everything that lies ahead for each person in that room as I watched them. If I wanted to, I could tell Grandma and Grandpa the days they die on. I could tell Mom that she only had to put up with my dad’s anger and depression for five more years before she would finally choose to leave him. But then I’d also have to tell her that her next husband would be worse, he would use fists and control and insults and profanity to terrorize her for a few years. But then, I could tell her, then she’d meet the man of her dreams. She’d be 60 by then, but he would make her so happy for the rest of her life. I could tell my dad that he would never really change, that in 30 years he would be nearly 80 and still sad and quiet and angry and morose. I could look him in the eye and tell him how I felt about his depression and the way it ruined him, and about the impact it had on me.
Would I change anything if I could? Would I want to? Would I warn them about their futures? Would I grab my oldest sister in a hug and tell her that she wouldn’t be able to have children, but that she would finally choose to adopt three when she was in her mid-40s, and that it was definitely not going to be easy after that? Would I tell my second sister that she would meet the love of her life at age 18 and they would go on to have six children together, but also tell her that this picture perfect world would not be easy, that it would be full of health struggles and financial burdens? Would I warn my only brother to stop touching me in our bedroom when the doors were closed tight and no one could see? Would I tell him to stay off the drugs and to change his ways before his three marriages, his criminal charges, his domestic violence issues, his animal cruelty issues? Would I tell him that he would father three incredible children, and that all three of them would turn out great not because of him but in spite of him? Would I grasp my middle sister, Kara, and tell her that she’d have to put up with 15 years of two terrible marriages so that she could have her four children, but that if she could just put up with the abuse, drugs, and anger from her first two husbands, she would finally meet the man who would make her happy? Would I tell her that her kids would add up to seven before she was done, and that she’d have her youngest child around the same time she became a grandmother? Would I warn the sister just above me in age to never start smoking, never start drinking, as those habits would dominate the rest of her life?
I love all of my family, of course, but when I watch this old video, I see Sheri and I the most. Sheri was the baby of the family, the quiet, introverted, and obsessive little girl would grow up to be a kind, loving, incredible woman. But first she’d have to get through her boy clothes wearing and no makeup high school years, and then brave coming out of the closet in her early 20s, and it would not go well at first. If I could change things, I’d want her to do it early, to not wait until she was in her 20s. I’d want her to save herself the years of religious indoctrination, to not waste a single moment thinking she was anything but amazing. Maybe instead I would just reassure her without changing events. She has a future, I would tell her, one with a wife, a full-ride college scholarship, a life full of opportunities. I’d tell her that in many ways she would grow up to be my greatest example, despite being younger than me.
And then I look at me. If forty-year old me could go back in time and spend an afternoon with seven-year old me… my heart breaks just thinking about it. I have a son that size, just 7 years old. He’s so small. He watches the world around him with hope and wonder, and he sees the best in everyone. Someone being a bully just breaks his heart. He has so much to learn. I see him in 7-year old me. I’d wrap little me up in a giant bear hug, and I would ask me how I was feeling. I would ask, and I would listen. I feel like no one ever asked me back then. I would ask the questions no one was asking me then. How do you feel about your dad’s sadness? Do you like church, do you believe in it, what do you like about it and what don’t you? Do you know it’s okay to have doubts? I’d ask what was happening behind those closed bedroom doors, and tell him that that isn’t okay for someone, anyone, to touch him like that, and I’d encourage him to speak up and I would tell him I was there to protect him. And because he would be too young to understand, I would try to find a way to tell him how my life has gone. I would tell him that gay people are normal, and that anyone who tells him that he is broken or an abomination or that he can be cured or that he should just ignore it and hope that it goes away, that those people are wrong even if they don’t mean to be. Believing those things would take some of his best years away from him. At worst, those people are big homophobic meanies, and at best they are just misinformed. I would tell him to come out, early and to the right people, and that he should spend his adolescence being real, learning how to love himself and take care of himself, learning how to fall in love and make friends and how to dream big. I’d tell him to love church but recognize that it is flawed and that it doesn’t have all the answers, so he should keep the good and let go of the rest. I’d tell him to eat well, to exercise, to find healthy outlets for his emotions. I’d tell him to not waste two years in missionary service, that he’ll regret it later. I’d tell him he is beautiful just the way he is, all the parts of him, the compassionate and the creative, the social worker and the storyteller, the singer and the quiet thinker. I’d tell him to not be so lonely in his 20s, to not wait so long to kiss, to hold hands, to fall in love, to have sex. I’d tell him to never compromise and marry a woman just because he believed it was the only possibility for him, because both he and she would end up hurt.
But then, I’d take it all back. I’d regret every word. He’s 7, and telling him all of that would put far too much weight on his shoulders (and goddamnit, he was carrying too much weight as it was). If I told him all of that, I’d want to run screaming into a corner, because if he changed anything, If he didn’t spend those years thinking he was broken, if he never served a mission, never learned to believe God hated him, never married a woman… that if he came out of the closet even six months earlier, than his two sons wouldn’t exist. And they have to exist. The world can’t BE without them.
Instead, I’d have to tell him to be strong. To hold on. To know that his suffering in the long run would pay off, because he would eventually come out, he would eventually find love, he would eventually learn to love himself. He would be 32 when it finally happened, so he only had 25 years to be depressed, then he could learn to live. And in coming out, he’d break some hearts, he’d have to redefine everything, and he would have to navigate a new life with two beautiful little boys, and it was going to be so hard for a while but it would be so worth it because those little boys would be the lights of his entire world, and he would learn how to see himself as a light as well. And I’d tell him that the greatest payoff of all of this, all the years he spent hurting, is that he would raise his sons to have all of the things he never had.
I can’t change then. But I can change now. I can give my sons what I wish I could go back and give to me then. I can ask questions and listen to their answers. I can talk about hard things. I can teach them about nutrition and exercise, about compassion and kindness and integrity. I can teach them to love themselves, to follow their dreams. I can teach them about taking care of the planet, being kind to animals, and reaching out to the underdog, the outcast, the misfit. I can teach them to be themselves, to love themselves, and to follow their dreams. And if I can do all of that for them, then I don’t need to change the past.
Because someday, 30 years from now, perhaps my boys will look back to this time in 2018 and wonder what could be different. Maybe they would choose to come back and give warnings about dire future events, or give hints to themselves about how they can have happier lives if they make different choices. But my greatest wish would be for them to look back to now, right now, and see it as one happy Christmas in a long life full of happy Christmases, with nothing they would want to change.
I woke up this morning wondering what it was all for.
It’s dark outside, especially this early.
For a little while, I forgot how hard I fought to get to this place, the one where I’m working hard to live my dream. Well, at least the parts of the dream that aren’t contingent upon other people.
My back was aching. It aches every morning. On mornings like this, a few days after a hard workout, it hurts, and not in the “achy muscles that are building” kind of way, in the “twisted spine scoliosis old man in a young body” kind of way. My muscles tug at each other over my ribs, and a deep ache sets in in the hollow under my right rib cage, and in my pelvis, and in the base of my neck. I desperately wanted two more hours of sleep, but I knew better. My body won’t let me. I need to get up, stretch, let my bones crack into their normal misalignment, the muscles stretch out twisted around them. I need to drink water, move my limbs, and let the natural healing of my body begin, so that my pain levels will drop to normal functioning rates. By then, I’ll be ready for coffee. Again, I wonder why this problem was one given to me, and if anyone who doesn’t have scoliosis could understand.
As I slowly stretched my back, feeling the pain pulse, I became aware of my boyfriend’s steady breathing next to me. He’s wonderful. Fit, and kind, and consistent. I know he has his own struggles, but he is so good at his nutrition, his routine. He’s so steady, so calm. I envy so much about him, and find myself wishing I could adopt his healthier habits. And I know he feels the same way about me, and I guess that is part of why we are so good together.
I lay there in the dark, not wanting to get up, and I grabbed my phone. I clicked the Email indicator, checked the first message, and realized a professional I’ve been waiting to hear from had finally written back. We had set up a meeting this coming week, one I’d been waiting for for weeks. She’d gone quiet for a full week, and now this Email was canceling the appointment. Ugh. I feel like my entire life has been dominated by variations of this interaction lately–professionals who take an active interest in my work and projects who eventually just ghost me or go silent or cancel things. I hate being pessimistic, but repeated interactions like this were beginning to rankle within me.
I’m spending so much time on work and projects that I’m consistently proud of. This blog. My book. Monthly readings and presentations. The documentary. My old comic book and YouTube channel. Quality work with very low audience attendance, and all things that yield zero profit. I do them because I love them, but this morning, I find myself wondering what would happen if I just scrapped them all, shut them down. It would free up so much time. Dozens of hours per month that I could use watching Netflix, playing video games, exercising, joining groups, playing games. I would miss them, but sometimes they feel they aren’t worth the aggravation.
Then I remember, again, how hard I fought to be able to do these things that I love. I feel like I’ve written a dozen blogs just on this topic, exploring the frustrations of not seeing things turn out as productively as I’d like. The costs of not being successful, the price of every artist living any version of their dream. I sigh, remembering these lessons, and stretch my back some more.
I switch over to the news, catching the CNN headlines as I lay there in the dark. Today is the final vote for the Supreme Court nominee. All rationality, all reason, all ethics and morals and human decency point to the fact that this man should not, should not, should not be given a lifetime appointment. Yet I already know he’ll be appointed. I’ve known it for days. It fills me with this despair at our entire government and political system. I want to throw my hands up and give up on the whole thing. I’m out of outrage, and that scares me. This coming week, I’ll watch my clients come in, traumatized by all of this. And I’ll have to inspire them to find hope again, because what is the alternative? Honestly, though, I haven’t felt this hopeless since that man was elected as our president. I keep hoping things might change. I’m not sure they can. But that doesn’t mean I can’t live a happy life.
I finally sit up, clear my head, stretch my back, stand. I step outside of the room. I know inside this isn’t some despair, some state of mind that will last all day. My self-care will kick in. Movement, water, exercise, food. My endorphins will begin firing. My heart will heal again. It does every day. I’ll sit down at my computer later and write about my feelings. My children will wake soon and they will giggle and be cute, then aggravating, then sweet and cuddly, then tired, then cute and giggly again. It will be a wonderful day with lovely fall weather. I’ll be fine.
I set the coffee to brew. I turn on soft music. I light the fire. The house is still dark, everyone is sleeping, and the world outside is still sound. I have a good life, I remind myself. My heart is full. I’m okay. I touch my toes, elongate my spine, twist my hips, turn my neck. My body cracks and my bones tug on themselves. I feel sad, mad, scared, impatient. I feel full of hope, light, pain. I feel.
It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.
In my therapy office lately, I’ve worked with a lot of clients, both gay men and straight women, who have recently been cheated on by their partners. What follows is my words for them, gathered here in one place.
First off, although you already know this, you are beautiful. You are worthy of love. You are desirable, and worth it, and enough. And an act of betrayal by someone you love and trust does not change that.
You are not a fool for not noticing. Maybe the signs were there and you didn’t see them, or maybe you just felt safe and content. Maybe he acted like everything was normal, or maybe you could feel him pulling farther away. Or maybe you noticed the signs but you didn’t know what they meant. How could you? But whatever it was, whether it was a one time thing or something ongoing, whether it was online or while you were away, you aren’t a fool for not noticing. You found out when you did, and we can only live in this present moment now and figure out what comes next.
Only you can decide what to do now. You can demand therapy, ask to go through his phone, rage and scream, sleep in the guest room for a while, ask him to sleep in the guest room for a while, ask him to leave, or close off for a period of time. He made this choice, not you, and now you have to decide what to do and how to proceed. And that first night, when you found out and you simply lost it, well, that was justified. It was pure pain. Forgive yourself for that. You went there at first, but don’t stay there.
Given the chance, he may realize everything that he stands to lose. He was caught, and that may make him face up to what he has, and what he was willing to gamble with. Maybe he can show up now, maybe he can make all those changes you were hoping he would make. Maybe he will be all in, the way you have been for so long. Maybe he will be the man you always needed him to be. Maybe the sex will get better. Maybe he will make you feel attractive and loved again. Maybe he will hold your hand more, or cuddle you more often. Maybe you will feel safe again.
But maybe you won’t want that. Safe might feel threatening. The last time you felt safe, well, that was when he lied. And that is the biggest betrayal of all. You offered him your vulnerable self, your everything, you pledged your life to him, and these acts, these lies, they feel like a betrayal of the worst kind because he was so close to you. He isn’t your father, or your ex, he is the man you gave yourself to, and that hurts. And then you find yourself wondering if it was this way all along. Was he always cheating, always lying? Was the rest of what you had an absolute farce? Is he manipulative? Was it just this once, or was it many times? If he lied to you this time, did he lie all the others? What does this mean about him, about the man you fell in love with? And what does this mean about you? And if he is showing up now, why wasn’t he before? And is this sustainable, can he last, will the changes be permanent or only for a few weeks?
But maybe he won’t show up, too. Maybe he can’t change. Maybe he’ll yell at you, tell you it is your fault, tell you that if you had been more somehow he never would have cheated in the first place. Maybe he’ll shame your extra five pounds, your late nights at work, or your expectations. Maybe he’ll say it was you all along. And maybe that makes your decision easier.
But maybe he’s right a little bit. Maybe you could have shared how you were feeling more, and let him have more nights off with his friends, and listened a bit more often. You aren’t to blame, but maybe you have some things to work on too.
He cheated. He cheated and it hurts, on a deep level. But you have to remember that the cheating doesn’t negate everything that came before. All those other moments are real. The hot air balloon ride, the candlelight dinner, the sex in the shower, the ‘I love yous’ as the sun set, the way he looks at you over coffee, the time he swept you up in his arms and said you were his everything. Those moments, those experiences, those memories, are real. They are authentic and powerful. And you have to weigh them against the betrayal.
You can leave. You can walk away, and hurt, and take your things with you, and start again, and everyone would understand. You’ll heal. You’ll hurt, and grieve, and then you’ll move on. The ocean is full of fish, as they say.
But maybe you’ll stay. And if you’ve chosen to stay, well, that’s hard too, because everything feels just like it did before, all of the wonderful and all of the problems, but now you feel like a crazy person. You want to pepper him with questions about the night it happened, who was it, how was it, how often, what specifically, and what not, and was he thinking of you during or after, and was the other person better than you, and did he think about what he stood to lose? You want to call him names. You want to go cheat on him back, so he can know how it feels. You want to check his phone, put a tracker on it, and follow him to work or the doctor or the gym to see if he’s telling the truth. You wonder if he’ll do it again when he leaves early or comes home late, and every time he leaves to run errands, or every time you are late or gone for a day, you wonder if he is going to do it again, and if so, will you catch him, and do you even want to or would you rather not know, and if he does it again will you be able to give him yet another chance. And you hate it, because you don’t want to be that person who is constantly suspicious and on high alert. The questions and wonderings exhaust you, and they make you sad, and they make him sad, and you know he feels bad and you don’t want to keep making me feel bad, but goddamn it, you were hurt.
You were hurt.
And so, whatever comes next, face it with grace. Be kind. Be consistent. Share your feelings in safe places. Keep your boundaries. Take it one week, one day, one hour at a time. You miss him, you need him, you want him, you want to want him and need you, and you want him to hold you, and you’re wary of being hurt again, and you’re not sure what comes next, and all of those things are okay. Create space for them. You are human, you are organic, and you are not in a hurry.
And although you already know this, you are beautiful. You are worthy of love. You are desirable, and worth it, and enough. And an act of betrayal by someone you love and trust does not change that.
Ironically, it was the Mormons who provided safety.
With my hour commute to work and my hour commute home, and with the long and very exhausting days of doing therapy, I had very little energy in the evenings. Often I would exercise, or walk along the lake and read, or go jogging. But after a period of time, I didn’t put much effort into dating any longer. I grew weary of getting stood up, endless chats, or misaligned intentions, and I got tired of the gay club scene very quickly. I was traveling back to Utah one weekend per month to see my children. That left three weekends to explore.
Seattle never lost its magic. I could see plays, live music, public readings by authors, art galleries, shopping districts, and restaurants any time I wanted. Then again, after a few months of that, I realized that Salt Lake City had all of the same things to offer. It only felt differently here because I had more free time.
I needed friends.
My roommates were busy and aloof, rarely keeping any commitments to hang out or do anything together. I worked on building casual friendships with a few guys I met in the city and their friend groups, but some were only looking for sex, some enjoyed drinking and partying far too much, and others just already had active groups of friends, and didn’t seem to have a lot of room for one more. On top of that, overwhelmingly, they had far more disposable money than I did. Child support, rent, travel to and from Utah, insurance, gas, and occasional leisure left me very strapped, and things like eating out were a huge luxury. Ironically, despite my years away from my own origins, I felt like I was too Mormon for the men I was meeting in Seattle.
Then again, I was far too ex-Mormon for the Mormons I was meeting. Still, they were the most welcoming. Although Seattle wasn’t drowning with gay and ex-gay Mormons like Utah was, there was still a healthy and active friend group of gay Mormon guys and girls here, some of them transplants from Utah itself. Most of them still went to church every week, in a ward where the bishop lovingly embraced them for being gay, and they had social activities outside of that often: game nights, pot lucks, birthday celebrations. I was invited to a few of the parties, and I started making friends.
There was the architect, the engineer, the chef, the model, the design specialist, the government agent. There were couples and single individuals. I was one of the few fathers in the bunch. I was part of them, and yet separate, but around them I felt safe in a strange way. I could laugh, relax. It felt like my youth, with my Mormon friends playing board games and watching movies yet without alcohol or cursing.
The group even convinced me to attend church with them on a few Sundays. After coming out of the closet, going to church felt dangerous, threatening, like I was entering a space where I couldn’t breathe. The long suffocating three-hour blocks of church, with six prayers, the hymns, the testimonies, the lessons about obedience and sacrifice. I was back in church, yet I was sitting among other gay Mormons, ones who wanted to be my friends. Among them, I was the only one who had officially left the church, my name off the records, yet among them I found just a touch of safety.
Over a period of weeks, I felt my old demons start to quiet, the ones that resented Mormonism, that raged at my upbringing. I began to find a space of healing within me, a place where the parts of my upbringing that I loved could dwell. The pain, the rage, the hurt, they were all still there, but I could separate all of those out from the parts that I loved. I hated the lies, the impossible expectations, the homophobia and misogyny and racism of Mormonism. But I began to realize that I loved the community it provided, the consistency, the music, the safety, the heritage.
I started to wonder if maybe I could own the word Mormon again. I would never be part of the Mormon church again. But could I use the word Mormon, as an adjective, as a bookend for myself, honoring my roots and my upbringing. I am gay, I am Mormon, I am a dad. I’m a writer, a helper, a teacher. It’s one word among many that can fit in my being and simply dwell there. I could redefine the word that had hurt me so much and make it part of me. I was Mormon, but on my terms. Everything to do with heritage, and nothing to do with religion.
My greatest healing took place on the houseboat, the one where my dear friend Mary lived. When people asked how we knew each other, I gave the simplest answer I could. “Mary is my ex-step-sister-in-law.” Or, the slightly more detailed answer. “My mother used to be married to her ex-husband’s father.” I grew up looking up to Mary, who had a sense of style and social justice about her. She styled herself after Clara Bow and silent film stars, and she exuded love and confidence as she sang sweet melodies as her fingers moved up and down the piano keys. My sister Sheri grew up playing her music on repeat, songs over and over again, till they became familiar parts of my adolescence.
Mary was remarried now, and her sons were teenagers. She lived on a houseboat with her British husband. And she was, of course, allied to the LGBT Mormons that she knew and loved. She began to host monthly singing nights on her houseboat. As the structure rocked back and forth, the gay Mormons sat in circles, on chairs and couches or on the floor, and we sang the hymns. The songs that had touched me so much as a youth took on new meanings for me now in this circle.
The morning breaks, the shadows flee, lo, Zion’s standard is unfurled.
Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
Though hard to you this journey may appear, grace shall be as your day.
Sweet hour of prayer, they wings shell my petition bear.
Peace and plenty here abide, smiling sweet on every side, time doth softly sweetly glide.
Forward, pressing forward, as a triumph song we sing.
I was singing again. I was getting in touch with those parts of me that I’d left behind after coming out. I was beginning to realize that the me then, the one that had hurt so bad for so long, he wasn’t something that I had to escape from. I didn’t need to completely redefine myself. I didn’t need to be someone new. I just needed to be someone who loved himself. I could leave the painful parts there, and reclaim the parts of me that I loved.
I waited until I had a job before moving to Seattle, but once I arrived, they had me wait a few weeks before I could start. My social work license had to transfer, and my background check had to clear. So I ended up with a few weeks to play tourist.
I had first come to Seattle when I was 15, back when my mom was married to Kent, the man who used words and fists to prove his points. (They had divorced when I was 17). The trip had been a whirlwind, lots of time spent with Kent’s family, very little time in Seattle, and then a trip up north, to British Columbia and Vancouver Island. And I had also come to Seattle a few times as an adult, when I was married, and once after coming out. I had a good sense of the city’s most tourist-y spaces, the Space Needle and Pike Market, a few of the gay clubs. But overall, it was brand new to me.
The idea of Seattle was so romantic to me when I first arrived. The way the streets laid out into different neighborhoods. The idea of an entire city with its own history and its own people, one that didn’t revolve around Mormonism. The rich and vibrant gay community. The tech industry. The theaters, the markets, the coffee shops, the restaurants. The delicious cool ocean climate. The rain. The lakes. The nightlife.
I spent a few days exploring different parts of the city, wandering the streets, always with a book in hand. I found quirky street art, wandered through book stores, and drank delicious coffee. I wandered through the university campuses, took a few city tours, and learned as much history as I could. I got a library card, perhaps my prize possession in any city, and felt more legitimate. I was a resident. I had moved here. I’d done something just for me.
My first Saturday in the city, I took the bus down to Pike Market with the plan of spending the entire day. I got there early and watched the shopkeepers arrive with their various wares: carved walking sticks, hand-drawn cityscapes, feather jewelry, fresh-squeezed lime juice, home-grown mushrooms, huge bouquets of flowers. As I listened to conversations, I began to realize the organics of this place. Store front spaces were highly competitive, and very expensive. Rent for a space had to be paid in advance, and was expected in full regardless of sales. Some store fronts were permanent, and others changed hands every few days. The stations that were farthest out were basically just a section of concrete wall, not even a chair or an electrical outlet included, and the peddlers just set up station. Parking was supremely expensive, so most people were just dropped off for the day, and they were expected to be there for the entire day, from early morning until late afternoon. The early morning was a mess of delivery trucks and patrons unloading their supplies and setting up shop.
As the market opened, it was quiet. Everyone clutched cups of coffee and wore jackets. I casually strolled through the place, looking at ornate African cloths, jars of exotic spices and small shelves of kitschy figurines. I was tempted and assaulted by every aroma: freshly fried doughnuts, grilled onions, lines of frozen fish, juicy peaches, burnt sugar, homemade bread, barbecued ribs. And there was a sea of diverse humanity working there, people of every color, age, height, nationality, and style. I watched and listened, losing myself in it all, forgetting it all.
By late morning, the tourists arrived, and as mid-afternoon approached, even more. The empty hallways and passages swarmed with people. Street musicians played violins and guitars and saxophones, entertaining and hoping for tips. The crowd became so dense that I couldn’t move through it without careful navigation, bypassing backpacks, strollers, and families as I worked my way from one end of the market and back, wanting to see how fast I could do it.
Finally, tired and needing sustenance, I bought some delicious items from a few vendors, then made my way to the entrance of Pike, where I sat on a bench and faced the ocean. No one knew me here. No one asked any questions. No one cared that I was gay, or where I was from. No one knew anything about Mormons, or my failed marriage, or those years I spent hiding in my own skin. I could breathe here. I could get lost, and I could breathe.
As I walked away, blocks from Pike Market, I passed through Belltown. And I sat on another bench, seeing a ‘for sale’ sign, advertising a high-rise condo inside. It was a large beautiful building full of condos. Men in suits and women in professional dress walked around me. The building overlooked the ocean. And for just a moment, I let myself dream.
Maybe I would meet an architect, or an engineer, or a lawyer. Maybe I would fall madly in love with someone handsome and kind, and we would spend evenings sipping wine, weekends going on hikes. Maybe he would cook for me and I would write him poems and we would fall in love, suddenly and slowly. Maybe we would buy this little condo in Belltown, where we could have friends over, where we could walk along the ocean front and talk while holding hands. Maybe on Saturday mornings, I would walk down to Pike Market and buy fresh vegetables and flowers, and I would come back to the condo and put things away. Maybe my future was here. Maybe my sons would come down on holiday breaks, or for full summers, and I would show them this miraculous city, and they would both feel loved and important and also know that I was happy. Maybe I would open a little corner office where I would see clients a few days a week and I would write the rest of the time. Maybe I would end up feeling like this was my path all along, and I wouldn’t grieve my past anymore. Maybe this was how it was always meant to be, with Mormonism, and self-shame, far far away.
Maybe this would be my new life. Maybe this was my future. Maybe… maybe I could be happy here. Maybe I had possibility.
Everyone warned me about the rain in Seattle. They spoke of it with such drama in their voices, telling me how it would be so depressing, wet, and cold there constantly. One friend warned me that people get suicidal in the winter there.
Me, though, I loved the weather there. The temperature there seemed to hover between 60 and 70 in September when I arrived, and when it rained it was a light, wet, drizzle. It was sometimes grey with clouds, and sometimes bright, delicious with sunshine and a light breeze. Every day felt like how I felt on the inside, or how I was working to feel: temperate, consistent, pleasant, calm.
I rented a bedroom in my step-brother’s condo. I hadn’t seen him in years. When I was 13, Bob had been married with children, and when he came out of the closet, my family reacted very poorly. My mother was married to his father back then, though they didn’t stay that way for long. Now I was in my mid-30s, and we had only recently established contact again. He lived in a lovely condo in the Madison Beach area of Seattle, nestled in between expensive homes on the beautiful edges of Lake Washington.
The beaches along the lake were grass, not sand, and I never once got in the water, but I grew to love watching the sun rise and set over the lake. The clouds moved languidly, and broke open to let sunshine spill through. In the early mornings, I could clutch my coffee and drink in the bright pinks and yellows of the rising sun. It filled my soul with hope, joy, and love. It felt like the God I should have grown up believing in, one full of opportunity, change, and love, constant every day. It was different every time, nature’s perfect show, there just for me.
My first week in Seattle, I walked along the edges of the lake, through unfamiliar neighborhoods, nestled on unfamiliar streets. Everyone was a stranger here. I could start fresh. No one knew me. I wasn’t the Mormon kid who made the colossal mistake of marrying and having children before coming out, I was just some guy that smiled and waved as they walked past. I had an anonymity that proved to be the perfect backdrop for the beginnings of my healing.
Years before, I had come out of the closet with such a fierce determination. I was going to live life on my terms, finally. I was going to show everyone what I was capable of, that I could be happy, that being gay wasn’t a choice, and one that didn’t have to result in doom, excommunication, and unhappiness. I could be happy! I could show them all! I could work, and write, and raise my kids, and pay my bills, and date, and start a new life, with energy, happiness, and no problems at all! I could do this! It would be perfect and wonderful, they would all see! That’s how I’d felt at the start.
But in Seattle, I let myself grieve, finally. I let myself feel all the things I had been holding back. I cried, oh how I cried. I cried in the sunshine, I cried in the rain. The tears were soft and silent sometimes, with easy breath, and they brought a calm. But sometimes they were jagged and came from that deep place within me where I had been storing them for so long, a bottomless bucket of painful tears that threatened to rip me open as I gasped for breath. At times, I cried so hard that my head ached and my stomach seized up, and I would sit on the park bench, facing the lake, as I clutched my stomach and squished my face up into painful shapes to try and avoid wailing out loud.
I cried with ache for missing my sons. I cried for all of my lost years. I cried because I hadn’t gotten to fall in love as a teenager, because I had wasted two years as a Mormon missionary, because I had spent nearly 20 years feeling lonely and isolated. I cried because my father left, because my God had forgotten me, because I had given so much time and love and money and obedience to an organization that told me I didn’t belong. I cried over those who disowned me when I came out. I cried over my divorce and the broken heart of my ex-wife. I cried because I had thought coming out would be easier, that I would find love and settle down and life would finally be simple, and I cried because it was the opposite of that in many ways. I cried over financial debts, emotional burdens, and family traumas. I cried, and I cried, and I cried.
Yet each time I cried, I noticed that the clouds over the lake continued to move. The water continued to ripple, and the wind continued to blow. The sun went down, and it came up, whether I was crying or not. The world continued, indifferent to my tears, and I realized I didn’t have to continue crying. I could; I could cry as much as I needed to. But I could also not cry, I could be happy, I could spend the days living instead of crying, and that would be okay too.
And each time I cried, I would stop crying, at least for a while. And I would stand up, and I would walk the lake edge. I would hold myself together and stand up, and live. Once the tears weren’t there, the pieces of me that held me together, they were still there. I was still me. And I was starting to heal.
Gradually, along the edges of that lake, my tears began to leave, and my grieving started to end. It remained part of me, as it always would, but I found that I was okay with that.
Each day brought new determination, a quieter one this time. Each day brought peace.
And over the lake, the sun would rise yet again. As would I.
The scariest bank robber I ever came across wore a mask and carried a gun. I never met him personally, but I saw the pictures. He wore a Halloween mask (not unlike the one in the picture above, which was worn by an actual bank robber in Pennsylvania a few years back) and he entered the bank aggressively, brandishing his weapon.
The man in this particular robbery hit at least two banks in Salt Lake City, a few years ago. He walked into both banks arrogantly, careful not to touch anything, and he pointed the gun at the helpless tellers, demanding money. He knew what he was doing. He asked for cash from secondary drawers, knew to demand no trackers, and brought in his own bags. He climbed behind the counter and pointed his gun at people’s heads, even into their mouths, promising to come back and hurt them if he was caught. He was gone in less than a few minutes and fled.
Of course, the police caught him, but it took them a little bit of time. The aggression of his actions, with a weapon and threats, escalated the crime to the highest levels with nearly maximum sentences. Bank-robbing is federal crime automatically, but using a weapon and delivering threats escalate the crime, though taking hostages, or hurting or killing someone, would obviously result in a more severe sentencing.
As a clinical social worker, I’ve worked the last 15 years doing crisis response work, on the side from my professional business. Though I’m self-employed, I make myself available to businesses who have been impacted by crises. Tragic employee deaths, suicides, corporate downsizings, industrial accidents, and, yes, bank robberies. Bank robberies, over the years, have been the most frequent crisis I get called out to. At this point, I’ve been to the sites of dozens of them (they happen more often than what people think), and I usually arrive just after the FBI has left). All of them are traumatic in their own way, and it is impossible to walk out of one of them emotionally unscathed.
But this man, this selfish, scary, arrogant man in a mask, he spent two minutes trying to get some quick cash, and then he lost everything, facing decades in jail. But for those he hurt, those half dozen people that he threatened and frightened, for them, this experience lasts forever. He never saw them, he only aimed the gun and then ran. He didn’t see them as humans. He didn’t realize that one of tellers would later break off her relationship with her fiancee because she couldn’t handle the nightmares, that one of the men would turn to alcohol to avoid the flashbacks he was having from the war, that an older single mother would quit her job because it was too scary to return, or the young man who suddenly couldn’t get the image out of his head about how his father used to beat him. The robber didn’t realize that some of them would be forever altered by this.
Most bank robberies aren’t this abrupt or violent. Often the robber is quiet, quick, or even apologetic. They are sometimes under the influence of drugs, or mentally ill, or just plain desperate. They might stand in line like a regular customer, walk up to the counter, calmly, and pass a note. They may or may not imply that they have a weapon in their pockets, a gun up their sleeve, or even, as one robber pretended, a bomb strapped to his chest under his shirt. They might simply rush out of the store as quickly as possible. One robber I’m aware of hung out in the bank branch for nearly thirty minutes, stating he was waiting for someone, before he finally handed his note over.
Bank robbery notes themselves are fascinating. Some are short and direct. “THIS IS A ROBBERY! PUT ALL THE MONEY IN A BAG AND DON’T SAY ANYTHING TO ANYONE!” Some are apologetic. “I’m so sorry to have to do this, but my family is starving. Please give me $2000 in twenties and tens as fast as possible. And don’t call the police!” And some fill an entire page with detailed instructions. “This is a robbery. Do not call the police. Do not signal anyone for help. There is a gun in my left pocket. Before you read any further, raise your left hand in the air to indicate understanding, but do not look up at me. After raising your hand, I want you to take the bag I am placing on the counter and then…” The notes might be legible in lined blue ink, monstrous scrawls in black marker, or even pre-typed on carbon paper.
Bank employees go through a rigorous training in order to work in banking institutions. They learn protocols for how to handle it. They are taught to remember as much as possible, to comply with all possible requests, to focus on safety first, and to get the robber out of there as fast as possible. They are told not to argue, to keep their voices calm, and to call the police in a calm manner afterward, giving them all the details possible. But no amount of training can prepare you for the moment a man (they are almost always men) comes in with a note, an implied weapon, and a threat. Adrenaline kicks in, trauma is triggered, and the heart rises in the throat, and sticking to the training is not always easy.
Immediately after the robbery takes place, the bank tellers have to notify the police and authorities, check on the customers who have been impacted, shut down the branch, and then write down everything they remember. They have to be interviewed by the FBI agents who arrive, provide descriptions and details, make camera footage available. This can take hours, and generally they don’t have a chance to even call their families before that is over. Regardless of whether they are angry, scared, anxious, panicked, numb, or triggered, they have to follow these protocols. And then they have to deal with the trauma for the following days.
Imagine going home to your car after a robbery and having to drive home. Imagine getting home and facing your family. Imagine closing your eyes for sleep that night, images flashing in your brain as you wonder if you locked the door or not. Imagine having to walk back into the bank branch the next morning to start the new shift, all over again. Imagine checking the news repeatedly to see if the police have caught the guy yet. Imagine worrying every time that you leave your branch that your coworkers might get robbed while you are gone.
I enter banks differently now. I view the tellers, young and old, with new respect. They aren’t paid well, and often don’t have a lot of support, yet the put themselves into these dangerous situations generally because they love customer service and they are dedicated employees. Sitting with them in the roughest moments, after their traumas, is difficult, but it is my supreme honor.
“You’re the villain in my story.”
You said this with derision
With a gnashing of teeth
And a wringing of hands
And exasperated wails
Memories of everything we’ve shared
Tossed into a bag labelled “PAIN!”
And selectively viewed from behind
Only the darkest of glasses.
And after you finished
Listing my sins
You finally looked at me
I saw you there
You seemed wounded
Like you were still rooted
In the past.
I responded with a list of facts
Keeping it clinical at first
Until I started to shake
And then the tears
Big crocodile tears
(Why crocodile? Named such
For their size?
Or for their sharp teeth?)
And then the gasps for oxygen
The tight shaking stomach
My spoken words coming out
Jagged, with too many syllables.
And then I looked back at you
With my hands clutched
Around my center space
And my eyes went cold.
“Make me a villain if you must
If you need someone to blame
To toss aside
To justify your pain
Make me the villain
And never change
But if I must be your villain
I will be the very best kind of villain
With complex motivations
Contradictions of character
With love and ego and worth
“You can see me forever standing there
Twirling my moustache
Over the melodramatic organ
As the train barrells down on you
At top speed
And you, the damsel
Tied down and only able to call out
‘Help me! Save me!’
Do this if you must
When you are ready
That there is no train
And I have no moustache
And there are no ropes.
It’s just you there
Lying down on the tracks
Screaming for help
And never looking up to realize
That I haven’t been standing there