Learning to Leave

Learning to Leave

When I was 12 years old, I sat with my family on the back row of the middle section of the chapel during sacrament meeting. My sister Sheri sat to my left, barely 9, and my mother sat to my right. And as Sister Stratton bore her testimony from the pulpit, I watched my mother turn ashen gray.

She started with the standard ‘I want to bear my testimony that I know this church is true’, followed by professions of belief in the prophets and the scriptures and the love of God. And then her tone changed to something sicky-sweet, words so sincere that they sat like a piece of undigested roast beef in my stomach.

“Brothers and sisters, I want to bear my testimony on the blessings of temple marriage. I met my husband when I was 18 and he was 21, just off his mission. My father promised us back then that if we followed the teachings of God and honored our temple covenants, our lives would be blessed beyond measure. We now have seven beautiful children and are so happy. I want to promise you that if you follow the counsel of your leaders and marry in the temple, you can have what I have, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

She returned to her seat on the second row and snuggled up next to her husband, their children on either side of them taking up the entire bench. On the back row, I watched my mother swallow hard and close her eyes tightly as big tears formed and began cascading down her cheeks. She let out her breath slowly and more tears followed. Despite her best efforts, she was soon openly crying. She excused herself as I sat there, not knowing what to do.

My mother grew up in the 1950s in potato country, Idaho. Even the mascot at the nearby high school was a potato. She was the middle daughter of a farmer and a teacher, the only one in the family with blue eyes and blonde hair. They were the perfect Mormon family, descended from pioneers and strong in their faith. Her beauty blossomed in her teenage years, when she learned to style her hair in the perfect beehive. She was asked out constantly, and even years later, she bragged about ‘kissing up a storm’ with her high school boyfriend in the back seat, but never taking it so far that it would disappoint her father. She turned down several marriage proposals before she finally said yes to my father.

He was the good-looking son of a sheep farmer, with four older brothers and one baby sister. He was a returned missionary, and a veteran, and he had a strong testimony of the gospel. When he proposed, he was 25, and my mom just 20, and they were blissfully happy. They had children, finished college, built a house on the hill, started their careers, had a few more kids. My mother had four daughters and a son, the same composition as her family growing up, and she loved dressing them up for church every Sunday and parading them in to fill up a row, just like Sister Stratton’s family would years later. Perhaps she even bore her testimony about the blessings and happiness of marriage back then. Maybe she made promises that others could have what she had, through righteousness and obedience.

But then, when she was in her early 30s, my father started growing quiet. A darkness was developing within him, and she couldn’t make sense of it. When he grew distant, surly, and critical, she threw herself harder in to church service and raising the perfect family. Scripture study, fasting, prayer, and temple attendance weren’t working. He wasn’t getting better. Her testimony remained solid, but he grew darker. And then she started finding out about the credit card debt and his losses on the stock market, things he kept secret for years.

In the mid 1970s, my father abruptly announced his plan to move the entire family to rural Missouri, where he saw a chance to get rich quick. My mother, ever the good wife, acquiesced and packed up their entire lives into a truck. They sold their home and left their parents, foraging into the great unknown, like their pioneer ancestors before them, but for entirely different reasons. Once they arrived, my mother, now more isolated and fighting off a building panic, saw things get worse for my father, as he fell farther into debt and depression. And with her old children now hitting early adolescence, she got pregnant again, this time with me. And then again, with my little sister. And suddenly, it was the mid-1980s, and she had seven mouths to feed, ranging from baby to pre-teen, with maxed out credit cards and a house payment due. All that plus a husband full of darkness.

My mother stayed for far too long. Quiet painful hours in her marriage balanced by the joys she found in her children. Those hours stacked up to years. Two years turned to 5, then 8, then 12. The debts mounted from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds. The older children started struggling with decisions, going off the deep end, straying from her deeply held beliefs. She continued making the dinners, doing the laundry, paying the bills, cleaning the house. My father worked too much, and then came home and locked himself in the bedroom to cry. Well on the days when he wasn’t mean and critical, blaming mom for everything, leaving her lists of all she was doing wrong while telling her that if she was a better wife, then maybe the Lord would bless the more. He closed off, refusing to talk to her, to open, to touch her. She took on a part-time job, then another. My dad went to therapy and to treatment multiple times, but he never listened, it never worked. He grew darker still. I grew up with a mother who was attentive, loving, and playful, and a father who barely noticed I was alive, who sucked all of the energy out of the room.

It wasn’t until 1990, when my mom got spiritual confirmation while visiting the temple, that she knew she needed to leave my dad. Divorce didn’t come easily to her. It had long-term spiritual ramifications, eternal ones, as she felt that leaving her marriage meant severing sacred family bonds that were meant to extend into forever. Marriage was the most sacred institution, and she felt as if she hadn’t been strong enough to make it work. The consequences were astronomical and eternal. But after over a decade of increasing pain and unhappiness, she’d realized that the consequences for staying might be worse. And so she’d boldly packed the truck once again and drove thousands of miles back to her roots.

In her mid-40s, my mother moved back in with her parents. She took a teaching job and eventually started renting a home. She showed super human strength in rebuilding her life in the state she’d left behind. To me, age 11 at the time, my parents’ divorce came as a relief. Finally, I thought even then. Finally.

I grew protective over my mother in the following years. I was the man of the house now. I would set my alarm early and shovel the sidewalks, clean the kitchen, scrape the car windows, all before she woke up. I made myself the moral authority of the house, lording it over my sister. I took jobs doing paper routes and babysitting, and would often sneak the money I was making into her purse to help. Seeing her walk out of the chapel that day with tears in her eyes, hearing Sister Stratton profess how happy marriage was if you just followed the rules, well, it broke my heart for my mom. I had no words. All I knew was that my mother was the strongest and most Christ-like person I knew, and those things hadn’t worked out for her, despite the prophetic promises. I realized even then that sometimes breaking the rules requires more courage than staying miserable ever could.

I wish I could say life got easier after that. My mother fell in love again a year later, and then spent a few more years with a man who used fists, insults, and control to terrorize us. She had seven children, and she would see seven divorces among them happen in the following years, while many grandchildren were born. My father, though distant, would remain a painful presence in her life. And then her youngest two children would come out of the closet. Health scares mounted as well. But over the years, I watched her maintain her church attendance with grace and dedication, all while balancing out her love for her children, even those who left the faith she believed so strongly in.

I once saw my mother get a Priesthood blessing, on a night after my stephfather had hit her. The bishop laid his hands on her head and promised her comfort, then he told her that in the pre-existence, before she came to Earth, she had agreed to give these two men that she’d married the chance to redeem themselves during mortal life. That day, I watched her go ashen again, and that night was the only night I ever saw her go to bed without praying first.

My mother always called me her Nephi, her stalwart one, and I did my best to be that for her. She wrote me literally every day for two years while I was on my mission. And we talked often while I was in college. At a certain point, she started opening up to me about my father and stepfather and why the marriages had gone so poorly. At the time, I was going through training on how to be a therapist, and I was facing some deep depression of my own. I’d grown up believing that following the rules meant happiness and miracles, I’d even been promised a cure for being gay, and I didn’t know any other truth, not yet.

And in time, I recommended that my mother do some therapy of her own. I needed to be her son, not her confidant. Though initially heartbroken, my mother did sign up for therapy. She listened and learned quickly, and I watched a transformation happen. I watched a woman in her mid-50s learn that happiness is a personal choice, and that it does not come simply as a reward for obedience. She learned that staying in impossible situations, even marriages, is sometimes the wrong decision. The consequences for staying can last generations. She learned how not to hold on to pain for so long. And by learning to properly heal from her past and confront her pain, I saw her move forward with new light and strength. She faced life with an internal grace I’d never seen in her before.

I’m 41 today and my mother is 76. She has been happily married to her third husband for many years, and they have been sealed in the temple. She is a loving mother of seven children, and they range from a stake president’s wife to an ex-con, right on down to her two youngest, the gay ones. Sometimes we talk about bravery, and we draw the comparison between her hard choice to leave my father, and my hard choice to leave the closet and religion behind. And though I’m certainly not her Nephi any longer, at least not in the way she’d once hoped, we respect each other. We understand each other. And she remains the best example in my life of courage, grace, power, and love. From her, I learned that sometimes it is far braver to leave than to hold on so tightly to what hurts.

 

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.