Dr. Phil and the Critics

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“I was watching television one day, Dr. Phil was on, and I saw one of those advertisements. ‘If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, call the Dr. Phil Show now, we want to hear your story.’ And I thought, ‘well, my husband is abusive’ and so I called. They took down a bit of my story, and a few days later a really nice lady calls me back, her name is Stephanie. She’s sweet and supportive. She asks me a lot of questions about me and my family and situation. And she checks on me a few times, saying that at some point she would like to get me one of their shows for a special about abused women.”

My friend Liz look sat me from across the table, taking a sip of her bowl of soup. We are in a small town diner, just a few miles from where she lives. A few minutes ago, a woman had walked up to her and, with a look of disgust, said “I hate what women like you stand for” and then walked away. I had, of course, asked why the woman had said that. Now Liz was explaining.

“So eventually they scheduled a time for me to go out there. They offered me a free plane ticket, a stay in a nice hotel. I mean, it’s New York City, how could I turn that down? I had a nice meal, explored the city a bit, got my hair and makeup done, and then they took me over to the Dr. Phil stage. Stephanie greeted me, gave me some instructions, and I was shown on the stage in front of a live audience. There were a few other women there. Dr. Phil came out. He hadn’t even met me before. And he was a huge jerk. He was disrespectful. He read some stuff off of cue cards about me, asked me a few really personal questions, and made a comment about how ‘women like you’, about how we let ourselves and our kids get abused. The audience clapped sometimes, booed sometimes. Then it was over. They sent me on a plane back home.”

I nodded, listening to her story with fascination. I had, of course, seen daytime television shows, but had never given much thought to the people or production behind them.

“So the show aired a few months later. And my town went nuts. I got mean letters in the mail, dirty looks, nasty notes left on my front door from some. From others, I would get hugs from strangers, random advice, disgusting looks of sympathy. After a few months, though, I just became the person people would whisper about. I’d walk into a room and people would be like ‘there is that lady who was on Dr. Phil’ and someone would walk up to me and say horrible things like ‘I bet you like it’ or ‘you need a real man’ or ‘how could you go on television and be disrespectful to your husband like that’. It was terrible. There were several months where I didn’t even go out.”

My stomach felt ill for her. “Liz, geez, that’s terrible. How long has this been going on?”

Her skin went pale and she pursed her lips in disgust. “Six years. I should probably just move at this point.”

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I have thought about Liz a lot of times over the years. Everyone is a critic. Every time we read a news story or a Facebook status or hear a headline, we form opinions. As a society, we talk about it and discuss it. I have a lot of opinions, and when the opinions of a person don’t match my opinions, I have opinions about that.

We share, and opine, and criticize, and confront, and lambaste strangers over the most sensitive of topics. In recent headlines, for example, women’s right to health care, immigration, gay marriage and religious freedom are topics that are thrown around right and left. People insult blindly, support blindly, and use hard words. Rarely, however, am I at the center of all of this.

Yesterday, I wrote an open letter/blog post called “Dear Mormon Leaders” and posted it on my Facebook page. I expected the post to reach a few hundred people. Some of my blog posts, even those I’m most proud of, only get a few dozen reads. This one, for some reason, has been widely shared and re-shared, with over 7500 reads in 24 hours. I have had dozens of Email, Twitter, and Facebook messages. At the last view, the majority of the readers were based in the United States, Canada, and north-western Europe, but isolated hits in smaller countries began showing up, from Israel to Barbados, Kenya to Antigua. My  mind was spinning in all of this.

And then private messages started showing up in my inbox, dozens of them, strangers with opinions acting as critics. I thought of my friend Liz as I read through them.

Many were positive:

“Chad, thank you for your words. I have a transgender teenager that I have been very hard on. Reading this helps me see things from a new perspective.”

and “I’m a gay Mormon in an isolated place. I’m not out. I felt like I was alone. These words give me strength.”

and “Your words echo my feelings. If only the leaders I believe in could be just a little bit kinder.”

And many were sheer ugly:

“No matter how many hateful words you spout about the chosen leaders of God, you will never convince the church to accept sinners into its ranks. God’s policies do not change, and if you can’t follow the commandments of God, you are a sinner. You had your chance to accept God’s truth, and you only get one. You’ll see on the judgment day.”

and “So you had an abusive father. Now you think everyone is abusive. Way to be a grown up.”

and “Making up unsubstantiated rumors about teenager suicides is disgusting. Rumors are just that: rumors. The truth of God is unchanging.”

And then there were the private ones. “I have considered taking my life recently” and “my son killed himself years ago. If only I had known” and “I attempted suicide in November. Thank God I lived.”

______________________________________________________

Meanwhile, I’m going about my day. I drank coffee, read a book, and played with my sons.

And in my head, on a loop, are the lyrics to Anna Nalick’s song, Breathe. 

2 AM and I’m still awake, writing a song
If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer inside of me,
Threatening the life it belongs to
And I feel like I’m naked in front of the crowd
Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud
And I know that you’ll use them, however you want to

 

 

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Green means Go

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“Well, it isn’t that confusing. I was married to Mom and we had you two little monkeys. And then mom and me got a divorce, so we live in two houses and we both love you both.”

I look at the rear view mirror, which reflects the face of my six year old son, J. His brow is furrowed in frustration. “But you like to marry boys, so why did you marry a girl, then?”

I smile and sigh. He has so many questions, that one. To him, the idea of ‘marrying’ someone is the expression of love. He’s really asking, ‘if you like boys, why did you marry mom?’ “Well, we’ve talked about this before, son. Do you remember why I married mom?”

He nods, looking down at his fingernails. The light turns green and I move the car forward. “You married mom because you loved her and you didn’t think it was okay to marry a boy, so you  married a girl.”

“Yes, that’s right. You have a very good memory.”

“Yeah, but why?”

I shift my eyes to my three year old, A, strapped in to his car seat. He has my furrow, the same way of scrunching his eyebrows down to give off an excellent look of consternation. Though two years and nine months younger, he weighs almost more than his petite older brother.

“Why what, A?”

“Why didn’t you marry a boy?”

I had thought it would be a few more years before they started asking questions like this. J had been only 3 when I came out of the closet, finally and officially, and A hadn’t even been born yet. They’ve basically always known I was gay. They have other gay family members, they know many of my gay friends, and having a gay dad will be a completely normal part of their upbringing. They would never recognize the man that I used to be.

A few memories flood back into my mind; the Priesthood blessing I had asked for as a missionary that I believed would finally cure me; the hours spent in therapy, asking for help with being attracted to men and being treated for “porn and masturbation addiction” even though I wasn’t addicted to porn or masturbation; the night that I told Megan that I was gay, after years of dating her, and her nodding that she understood–that was the night of our first kiss, my first kiss, at age 26; (I didn’t kiss a boy until I was 32).

Then I think of the first few weeks after I had come out, and how I had very briefly considered taking my own life, believing at the time that my sons would be better off with no father than a gay one. I look back at them now and think of all the confusion they would have have had without me in their world. All these questions they have now, they have me to ask; what kind of questions would they have if I wasn’t here.

I think of rocking them when they were infants, cuddling them when they were toddlers. I think of the stories, crayons, and toys; the trips to the zoo, the aquarium, and the aviary; the wrestling matches, puppet shows, dance parties, and dragon fights. I think of the early morning feedings, the diaper explosions, the projectile vomit, the emptied cupboards and crushed crackers and spilled juice cups. I think of Christmas mornings and Halloween nights and Easter eggs and Valentines and Independence Day fireworks.

“Dad, I said why didn’t you marry a boy!” A shouts, playfully yet sternly, impatient for an answer.

“Whoa, be patient!” I pull up to another red light. How do I answer such a complicated question to kids that are 3 and 6? “Well, I grew up in the Mormon church, and they said that marrying a boy was bad, and that boys should only marry girls.”

A wrinkles his nose. “Well, that’s dumb.”

I laugh. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

But J still looks very serious. “Wait, but Mommy wanted to marry a boy and you are a boy.”

“Well, yeah, but mommy is straight. That means she wants to marry a boy who wants to marry a girl. I’m gay, and that means I want to marry a boy who also wants to marry a boy.” I am tempted to change the word marry to love, but decide that isn’t necessary right now.

The light bulb of understanding comes on over J’s head as it all clicks together. “Oh, that makes sense.”

A nods. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Well, good.”

The car is quiet for a moment as we get closer to our destination. The radio plays softly. I look up to the mountains in the distance, covered in snow, the sky filled with clouds above them. It is an absolutely beautiful day.

“Well,” J starts, thinking for a minute. “When I grow up, I think I’ll marry a girl. Maybe Hannah in my class.”

“That’s a great plan, J.”

He continues. “We can get married when I’m 25. We can have a boy and a girl and name them Tad cause it rhymes with Chad and Dad. And the girl will be Aloy.” I feel tears come to my eyes unbidden. Aloy was the name of my grandmother, the name I had selected if J had been a girl. “And we will have a rabbit named Sunface, and we will live in north Idaho because it’s so pretty, but not in Provo cause it is too hot and gross. And I will be a Wendy’s chef.”

I laugh out loud at his little plan for the future. “That sounds like a great life, J.”

Never one to be one-upped by a story, A pipes in. “And I’m not gonna get married to a boy or a girl. I will just live in a hotel with nine million dollars and I will have a dog named Loki and I will be a mighty hunter. Or maybe I will marry one boy and four girls and have nine million kids instead.”

The last stop light turns green, and I pull into the parking lot at McDonalds and both boy gave out a whoop of joy at the thought of Chicken Nuggets and milkshakes, and I think, no matter the wayward path it took me to get here, this is a pretty good life to have.

I think of all the years wasted at red lights, and resolve, again, to seek out the greens. It’s time for forward motion.

 

The Mormon Church is a bully

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“It doesn’t matter if I told you to bring in wood or not. You should have looked and seen that it needed to be done. So yes, no matter how much whining and crying you do, you’re grounded, Chad.”

My stepfather, Kent, bald and in his late fifties, didn’t even look at me as he punished me for something I hadn’t done. He sat on the living room sofa watching a football game on the television that I wasn’t allowed to use; it was his TV, not to be used by children.

I stood there, feeling helpless. “But–but, dad, I–rehearsals start tonight.” I called him Dad, since mine wasn’t around, although Kent never acted like much of a father. My voice sounded weak, unsure. Talking back had never worked well for me in the past. Usually when he got like this, I knew that my job was to remain silent and quietly accept my punishment. Talking back would only make it worse.

But if he grounded me tonight, I would miss the first rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My parents had allowed me to try out for the show and I had a lead in it, and I had been excited for weeks about the chance to begin rehearsals. If he grounded me now, I would miss rehearsals and then be kicked out of the play.

Kent still didn’t look over, but he raised his voice, exerting his authority. “I said you are grounded!”

“What if I carry in some wood now? I could do it really quick before I have to leave.”

“You’ll be doing that anyway. But you are still grounded. Now go get to work.”

My insides clenched up. I knew if I pushed him much farther he would get violent. “I–can I at least call to let them know I can’t make it?”

And now he turned toward me, still sitting, but his hands balling into fists. He was yelling now. “I said you were god-damned grounded! If you wanted to join your little fairy play, then you should have done your little fairy chores! You don’t get to use the god-damned phone! Now get out there and stack the wood, Chad!”

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I fled from the room and put on my coat, boots, and gloves. We had a wood stove in the basement that needed to be regularly stocked with wood to keep it burning. Our family had a large wood pile in the back yard, covered in snow. Once a week, it was my job to bring in armfuls of wood, which had to be dug out of the snow pile, and stack them in the garage, where they could dry and be ready for the fire. I checked the garage and found there was a full stack there already; I had just restocked the wood two days before, but I knew it was pointless to bring this up to Kent. When he got in a mood like this, he would find something, anything to rage at until his rage passed.

I spent the next hour chipping ice and snow off of the wood pile using a hammer and a shovel, then I loaded my arms up with one load of wood at a time. I stacked the pile in the garage until there wasn’t anymore room, then went inside, shedding my wet coat and gloves, my skin dry and red from the cold. I put my winter gear away and went silently to my room, not bothering to ask for any dinner or to use the phone again. Rehearsal would be starting in ten minutes and I couldn’t be there, and I couldn’t tell anyone why.

A few minutes later, Kent walked into my room without knocking. He stood over me, his voice stern but a bit kinder. “You worked hard tonight, so I’m going to give you a choice. You can stay here and be grounded. Or you can go to rehearsal tonight. You will still be grounded for the week, but I’ll let you go just to the rehearsals. If you choose this, though, there will be additional consequences.” I had no idea what he meant by that, but I had to go to the rehearsals, I just had to. I told him my choice, and he responded with a “so be it.”

“Thanks, dad,” I said, grateful and relieved. “It starts in five minutes. Can you give me a ride?”

“I most certainly can not.”

“Can I call someone for a ride?”

“Absolutely not. You’ll have to walk.”

The high school was three miles away. I would never make it in time. “But I’ll be late!”

He started me down, eyes furious. “That isn’t my problem.”

Three hours later, I got a ride home from friends. Rehearsal had gone well, even though I’d been late, and we’d read our parts out loud for the first time. A few friends asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t tell anyone. I was invited out for milkshakes, but I said I couldn’t, I had to be home immediately.

When I walked in the front door, the house was deathly quiet. I walked up the stairs, where Kent was still sitting on the couch, but in the dark this time.

“I’m home,” I said softly.

He didn’t look at me. “Go talk to your sister.”

I walked down the hall to Sheri’s room, nervous. I knocked on the door, softly. “Can I come in?” Sheri didn’t answer, but I opened the door. Sheri, age 12, my only younger sibling, sat on her bed, tears streaming down her face. I could tell Kent had been screaming at her. When he got like that, he would call her such terrible names.

“Are you okay?” I asked, and Sheri wouldn’t look at me.

“Kent told me I’m grounded for a month because I should have been helping you with the wood. He’s been yelling the whole time you were gone.”

I looked behind me and saw Kent standing over me in the hallway. “I told you there would be additional consequences, Chad. You made your choice.”

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Kent stayed in my life for five years, from ages 13 to 17. Toward the end I started fighting back, which only made him more violent. At the end, he put my mom in the hospital and we got a restraining order against him. The divorce happened quickly and he was out of our lives. I didn’t see him after that, and got the news of his death years later. But those are stories for another time.

Kent was a bully, in the truest sense of the word. He would rage around in storms. He would be calm and happy for days, even weeks at a time, and then he would be emotionally manipulative, verbally abusive, and sometimes physically violent. We never knew when the storm would hit. He had this ability to make you believe the abuse was your fault, that you should have been able to anticipate his needs and understand the consequences before they had been laid out.

While Kent was in my life, I walked around believing that I was flawed, broken, and incapable of doing anything right. And I truly believed it was my fault and that he was innocent. He was the father figure, there to be obeyed. He was the Priesthood holder, holding God’s authority to make decisions in the household, and our place was to obey.

 

I have lived in Salt Lake City as an out, gay man for just under five years now, and it struck me this morning, with breaking news from the Mormon church, that the leaders of the LDS church treat the gay population the way that Kent treated me growing up. Every few months, for the entire time that I have lived here, there is some new subtle, passive information from the church, delivered in such a way that it indirectly attacks gay people. Painful and direct public statements and initiatives that cause turmoil, emotional pain, relationship stress, and thoughts of suicide in believing gay members. (While I myself am no longer Mormon, my family still is, as are many of my friends and many of my clients).

Yesterday, the Mormon church publicly stated that God, through revelation, has publicly backed church policies that state gay couples are apostates and that children of gay parents may not join their church without disavowing their parents. A few months ago, the church responded to the policy change, saying they were only doing it to protect families not hurt them. A few months before that, they showed their public support of groups in Utah that are vitriolic in their hatred of gay people. A few months before that, they called gay families ‘counterfeit’ in comparison to heterosexual families. A few months before that, they released a public statement of their disappointment over the passage of gay marriage. A few months before that, the church put their public support into initiatives fighting gay marriage. And on and on, going back to Proposition 8 and opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and the support of reparative therapy initiatives and the teaching that homosexuality is curable and to the usage of shock therapy in attempts to cure gayness.

And all the while with the message that “we are the prophets, we are the authority, we speak for God and your place is to agree and support us. If you are gay, you aren’t trying hard enough not to be. And while we continue to wound you, abuse you, and hurt you with our agendas and initiatives, we expect you to love us and know that we are right.” The message remains consistent, every few months a new statement or action to put gay people in their place.

For those that read this post, there will be many reactions. Some, those who are hurting, will nod and agree, perhaps shed a few tears. Some will be angry, and wonder why I have to criticize the church that they love. Some will dig their heels in, believe that the church is good and that eventually it will come around. Some will read in disgust and agree fully that the church is wrong. And some will stay where they are, hurting, not knowing how to reconcile their feelings of pain with their deep belief that the church is true and that its leaders speak truth.

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I remember well those feelings. And so I close this blog post with one final story. After living with Kent for years, and suffering his abuse, I was pulled in by the school counselor to discuss what was happening in the home. It was the first time I opened up about the abuse.

“My stepfather yells a lot, and he gets violent sometimes, but that’s okay, it just means I need to keep trying harder. It’s not his fault, he is doing the best that he can. It’s not so bad, he’s gonna get better and see what a good family we are someday. I just have to stick with it and be strong.”

And the counselor had looked back at me and compassionately told me, “Chad, your stepfather is abusive. He’s hurting you and your sister and your mother with words and actions. You don’t deserve it, you aren’t causing it, and it isn’t  your fault. There is nothing wrong with you. Never, never allow yourself to be abused.”

And I realized, quickly and with clarity, that my stepfather was an abusive bully.  And I realize now, with quickness and clarity…

So is the Mormon church.