Seattle Part 1: the News

September, 2014

“I don’t make this decision lightly. In fact, this is one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made.” My hands clutched my coffee mug tightly, absorbing the warmth. My insides were churning.

Maggie, my ex-wife, the mother of my children, sat across the table from me. Her face was all-business, but I knew it guarded a mixture of anxiety, pain, anger, and compassion. “So that’s it. You’re going to leave your children behind, just like your dad left you? I don’t mean to be cruel, but that’s what it sounds like.”

I paled, and closed my eyes in shame. I had come out of the closet three years and six months before this. After the birth of our second son, Maggie and I had divorced, sold our home, and moved to Salt Lake City to start a new life. Despite the difficult negotiations of parenting in two different households, finding a new steady job, and making new friends, I had grown to love Salt Lake City in many ways. But this past year, life had gotten more difficult. There was something about this place that was infecting me, and I couldn’t seem to shake it.

How could I explain it to her? Would she understand? Every time I left Utah, even for brief weekends, I came alive. I felt free and clear, full of hope and potential; yet every time I returned, I was full of dread and pain, like shackles were being placed around my ankles. I wasn’t sleeping in my bed anymore, I had a permanent place on the couch, because my bed felt so lonely. I felt lonely when the kids weren’t with me, and lonely when they were, and I felt constantly guilty for realizing that just being a dad wasn’t enough for me. The constant barrage of Mormon everything around me was traumatizing, bringing back all those memories of pain. The men I dated were Mormon or formerly so, the clients I saw were the same. And every few months, the Mormons had something painful to say about gay people, and it haunted me. Mormon culture felt like the air I was breathing, and I had no idea how to stop breathing it. After all the work I had done to come out and face my life with grace, it felt like I was just constantly surrounded by the very things that had hurt me. I wasn’t dating now, and work felt empty. My sons were my sole solace, and it wasn’t enough.

But it was more than that. I was 36 years old and I hadn’t lived yet! When I came out, I had two children, and financial obligations. I hadn’t come out as a teenager. I had spent two years on a mission, then six in college, then seven more married to a woman, all of those years dominated by Mormon expectations. It wasn’t until now that I was seeing myself as someone capable of being happy, some who could believe in himself and see potential in the future rather than only dread. I couldn’t reclaim my 20s, or my teenage years, but I could try to live now, try to find myself now. I needed to grieve, I needed to learn to live for me. And I believed I could do it with honor, with integrity. But it meant leaving, and that part made me feel selfish and ashamed.

“I’m–I won’t be like my dad,” I promised. “He left and he was gone. He was depressed. There wasn’t child support, or phone calls, or visits. I will be in constant contact with the kids. Letters, phone calls every day, monthly visits, holidays. And I’ll stay up on my child support. I know this puts a ton of pressure on you, but I’m hoping with your parents here to help you, and with me visiting every month, that it might be okay. I know this is a huge risk. I need this. I need it for me. I need this opportunity. In fact, weirdly, if I stay I worry I’m more like my dad. In some ways, it feels like leaving will help me figure out how not to be that way.”

Sighing, Maggie peppered me with a few dozen questions.

“Why Seattle?”

“I was offered a place to live for very affordable rent. Remember Rob, my gay step-brother? He’s a doctor there. He has an open room.”

“If you don’t have a place here when you visit, where will you stay?”

“Kurt, my best friend, told me I could stay there on my weekends in town.”

“Do you have a job lined up?”

“I have some interviews scheduled. I won’t go without a job in place.”

“Our sons are 5 and 3. J is just starting kindergarten. How will you tell him?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’ll find a way. I’ll be open and honest. I think he’ll be okay, honestly. I will miss them more than I can possibly express. It makes me want to sob, nothing seeing them every day, not holding them. But I will write letters. I’ll FaceTime with them every night. I’ll be a daily presence in their life. I’ll be there for them, I promise. I promise. I just, I need a chance to make me a priority also. I’ve never done that, ever. I’ve never put me first. You know me, better than anyone. Trust me. Give me this chance, and I promise I’ll show up, I’ll do this with integrity.”

Maggie gave me a level look and nodded. “I get it. I never thought you’d be that guy. This isn’t fair, and I don’t like it, but I understand it. I can’t stop you. Our divorce paperwork says we will give each other notice, and you’ve done that. But you’ll be the one to tell the kids, not me.”

I thanked Maggie and watched as she left. I sat there for another twenty minutes, full of hope and dread. I was doing this. I was going to do this. I was going to move to Seattle, away, on my own. I was 36, and I was going to take a risk on myself, knowing I might crash and burn. My sons would have a father in another city. Was I only making excuses for myself, finding reasons that things would be okay? What if it was all a big disaster?

I owed it to myself to find out.

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Physical Obesity

Obesity snuck up on me, slowly and surely over a period of months and years. I certainly knew I was overweight: I was winded and sweaty all the time, standing could be difficult and so could climbing stairs, I bought giant baggy shirts to fit over my ample stomach, and my face was fatter and rounder. I consumed bags of microwave popcorn, large bags of peanut butter M-n-Ms, liters of Pepsi, and bags of sugared mangos in between meals, and I ate seconds and thirds for dinner and had three or four bowls of cereal for breakfast. Once when I sprained my ankle, I was on crutches, and getting myself from my car to my office became a struggle.

Still, the word obese never crossed my mind. It was a dangerous word, an ugly word. In fact, the only thing worse than obese, when it came to weight, was morbidly obese, a word that implies someone is near death.

My son was flipping through photo albums recently and he looked up with surprise and his usual candor. “Dad, you were really fat when I was a baby. But not anymore, right?”

I remember the day I learned I was obese. It was at a family Christmas party, and my sister Sue had a Wii system. Wanting to engage in some fun family Wii competitions, she had a few of us create character avatars to play with on the game. I designed a little man to look like me with brown hair and clothing, and I entered my height. Then I stood on the little scale for the Wii to take my weight. In front of my entire family, the avatar on the screen suddenly ballooned out to beach ball size, accompanied by a cartoon sound effect, a rubbery boing noise. Giant capital letters flashed on the screen, followed by exclamation marks.

YOU ARE OBESE!!!

And that simple humiliation began my personal transformation and, in many ways, marked the first steps toward living rather than just being alive. It didn’t take long to realize I was eating too much and too quickly, so I began by lowering quantities of food, drinking more water, and learning a bit about what I was putting into my body. I began monitoring what I ate, what foods my body needed, and how many Calories exists in foods.

I had felt abjectly out of control of my life for years at that point, trapped by religion and culture, trapped in the closet, trapped by self-expectations that I had to work 60 hours per week and serve in the church and that it was selfish and ugly to do anything for myself.

So I began walking at lunchtime, and then I began working on the elliptical trainer at the gym during my lunch break. I started lifting weights in the mornings, something I had never done. I began dropping pounds swiftly. At my heaviest, I was 255 lbs. (I’m a 5 feet 11 inches tall). Before long I was at 240, then 230, then 220. I started gaining a bit of confidence in myself, enjoying the gains I was making and seeing the results in myself.

I learned a lot about myself at that time. I learned that weight comes on slow and steadily over time, one half pound at a time, over a period of months and years. I learned that losing weight is a relatively simple science, boiled down simply to burning more energy than consumed. I learned that the human body is forgiving, that it is eager to be healthy and will work toward health when correct decisions are made. I learned that old habits can be hard to break, but that the alternative is simply gaining more and more. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned that change takes time: If it takes a year to gain 50 pounds, it is going to take more than a few weeks to take the weight off. I adopted the mantra of slow and steady growth over time.

Once I hit 220, I plateaued for a while. The weight came off more slowly and was more difficult to shed. But as long as I stayed consistent, and was patient and kind toward myself, it continued going down 1-3 pounds every few weeks. 220 became 215, then 210, then 200.

By then, I had taken careful stock of my life. I realized that I had had zero nutrition or exercise knowledge instilled in me growing up, in a family that often struggles with obesity. I realized I was participating in a religion that vilifies coffee and alcohol, but says nothing about obesity and physical health. I realized I was surrounded by people in my life who cared about me, but who completely enabled my dangerous habits and said nothing about my weight or my unhappiness; in fact, some of these people resented me or called me selfish when I began transforming myself. And I realized that it wasn’t just physical weight I had put on, it was mental weight, it was emotional weight, and it was spiritual weight. I had become obese in every sense. Dropping pounds was only the beginning of a years-long transformation ahead of me.

Four years after I began losing my weight, I hit my lowest adult weight, and the most fit time in my life, at 175 lbs. I had lost a total of 80 pounds. I looked and felt better. I felt cleansed and strong and confident. And it was then that I began focusing on shedding the other types of weight I had to lose. I take care of my physical health now on all fronts: exercise, nutrition, sleep, hydration, and overall wellness. It felt, and feels, wonderful.

As I type this, I line up two photographs of myself, one from 8 years ago, and one from last summer. The first, I’m dressed in white at a religious event, literally standing in front of a painting of Jesus. My lips are curved into a smile that doesn’t match my eyes, which seem as heavy as my face, as heavy as the expectations I placed upon myself. In the second, my smile is genuine, my eyes are alive, my arms are strong and I’m alive. It’s difficult for me to reconcile these two versions of myself.

And then two simple thoughts come to mind: life is meant to be lived, and I refuse to spend another moment miserable.

 

(Blogs on spiritual, emotional, and mental obesity to follow).

Scream at yourself

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Are you one of those people who talks to the television while you watch a movie?

Do you scream at the college girl to not walk into the scary basement by herself after she hears a clanging?

Do you roll your eyes when the jock spends the entire movie crushing on the cheerleader when you know he’s going to end up with the sporty librarian in the end?

Do you grimace when you see the single mother turn back for love to the guy who has broken her heart six times already?

Do you groan when the attorney shuts off his phone and draws himself a bubble bath and cries while watching Casablanca, eating an entire pint of ice cream by himself?

Okay then, here’s a challenge.

Picture yourself as the star of your movie. You are the lead character. The camera follows you through your daily routines. It will likely be a quirky romantic comedy/drama that explores the day-to-day life of a regular person working an impossible job or dating endlessly in an attempt to find love or navigating the pitfalls of raising children and working on a marriage. But it is all about you.

If you were watching your own life, what moments would you cringe at? What choices are you making that would cause you, as the viewing audience, to scream in horror and frustration? What habits do you have that would make you, yourself, cringe?

Is it your weird habit of turning on music videos at the end of the day, pouring beer over Cheerios, and lounging on the couch with your bare feet sitting in a pot of hot water?

Is it you scrolling endlessly through Tinder matches and deciding who is hot enough for you, swiping over and over without chatting to anyone, while simultaneously texting your best friend about how you can never seem to find love?

Is it you looking in the mirror and pinching your belly fat while you give yourself a dangerous look, then skipping breakfast and ordering French fries for lunch hours later?

Is it you sitting around your house waiting for your husband to notice you, wondering why you haven’t had sex in weeks and why you never talk anymore, but never bringing it up to him?

Is it you oblivious to the people around you that you choose to trust, when it is readily apparent to everyone else watching the movie that these people are not trustworthy and do not have your back?

Is it you drudging into work everyday hating your boss and your job and putting up with the people around you while secretly plotting the demise of everyone who has ever wronged you?

Is it you constantly pining after the guy at the gym who is just a bit too pretty while ignoring the stable career guy right behind you who is clearly interested?

Long story short, you can yell at movie screens all you want, and the main characters are never going to listen. They are acting out pre-written stories with pre-written endings.

Your life is not pre-written. It’s happening right now.

And if you yell at yourself on the screen…

will you listen?

 

 

A Good Person

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All right, let’s talk about the word ‘good’ for a moment.
Okay, what about it?
I just googled the word ‘good’ and there are several different definitions.
Okay.
I am going to read each definition out loud and I want you to tell me which of the definitions are merit-based, which ones are based in measurements of values and morals.
Okay.
Okay, definition 1. ‘Good: to be desired or approved of.’
That’s merit-based.
2. ‘Good: Having the qualities required for a particular role.’
That’s merit-based, too.
3. ‘Good: Possessing or displaying moral virtue.’
Merit-based.
4. ‘Good: Giving pleasure; enjoyable or satisfying.’
That, too.
5. ‘Good: that which is morally right; righteousness.’
Merit-based.
6. ‘Good: benefit or advantage of someone or something.’
That, too. Are any of these not merit-based?
Almost done. 7. ‘Good: merchandise or possessions.’
Merit-based.

Okay, awesome. Now what does that teach us?
I’m not sure what you wanted me to get out of that.
Seven different definitions of good, all based on merits, values, and morals.
Yeah, I got that part.
So let me ask you a basic question. Are you a good person?
I try hard. I work hard. I care about the people around me. I try to do good things, but it never seems to be enough. I still get my heart broken. I’m not sure I’m good.
But that didn’t answer the question. Are you a good person?
Sometimes.
Nope, try again. It’s a yes or no question.
I’m either good or I’m not? It’s not that simple!
It is that simple. Are you a good person? If you answer yes, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have struggles or heartbreaks or challenges. It just means at your essence, at your core, you are a good person. You have value. Are you a good person?
Yes?
That sounded like a question.
Well, I think that is the answer you wanted, isn’t it? For me to say I’m a good person, even if I don’t believe it?
It’s not about what you think I want to hear, it’s about what you believe. Do you believe you are a good person?
I’m honestly not sure if I can answer that right now.
You and I are both parents, let’s start there. You know what it feels like to hold a brand new child in your hands and see the ultimate innocence and potential there. Can you remember what it feels like to do that?
Yes, with both of my children. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Are your children good people?
Yes, of course! They are kids!
Do they make poor decisions sometimes? Do they challenge your patience sometimes? Are they difficult sometimes?
Yes.
So does that mean they are only good people when they are making good choices? When they listen? When they aren’t being difficult?
No. They are good always, even when they have struggles.
Okay, there we go. And I believe the same thing about you, and about me. I have struggles. I make bad decisions sometimes. I get sad and angry and grumpy and tired and disconnected. And at the same time, I am a good person. I’m not better or worse than anyone around me, I’m just me. I’m just human. And at my core, I’m a human who tries hard and does my very best and who is consistently trying to better myself.
I see it in my children. I see it in you. I just have a harder time seeing it in me.
Well, you’ve had a lot of years with a lot of pain. You’ve had people who have hurt you, who have taught you that you only have value if you follow the teachings of the Mormon Church or if you are never sad or if you do as you’re told. People have told you over and over at times that you are ugly or unworthy or difficult or not worth it. And somewhere along the way, you started to believe that.
But what if they were right?
Would you ever love your children with those conditions? Would you ever tell them they they are only good, that they are only worthy of your love if they are always well-behaved?
Of course not. I could never do that to them.
Okay, so the big goal we need to be working on is helping you believe those things about yourself that you believe about your children.
That… sounds nice. To be able to do that sounds nice.
I know you don’t believe in God anymore, neither do I, and I know being a Mormon was hard for you. But beneath all of the struggles you had in that Church, there is one truth that is the most beautiful that is at the essence of all of their doctrine. That core belief is that you were created as a perfect daughter of God and that He loves you unconditionally and sees you as a being of ultimate potential. He sees you as you see your children. It isn’t based on how happy your marriage is or how many hours you serve in Church callings or how strong your testimony is. It is infinite and unconditional love.
I remember feeling that once.
Can you still feel that now? Can you still see that part, that version of yourself? The part of you that exists, that sees you as good, with potential, the way you see your children as good, with potential?
Yes. I can feel that.
So tap into that, and that is where we begin to heal. We have a lot of work ahead, but that is where we begin.
Okay. I can feel it, it’s there.
Let’s try one more time then. Are you a good person?
Yes. I am. I’m a good person.
Okay. Hold tight to that. Now, now is when the healing starts.

 

Surviving Trauma: learning from Elizabeth Smart

When Elizabeth Smart was 14 years old, an evil man who called himself the prophet Emmanuel found an open window in her home, sliced open the screen, climbed inside her bedroom, and took her away from her family whispering threats in her ears. He marched her up to a high hilltop in the mountains above Salt Lake City where he raped her, as his wife watched. Over the next nine months, he systematically raped her, abused her, starved her, forced her to drink alcohol, kept her in isolation, and threatened her and her family again and again and again. At times, he and his wife paraded her in public in a white veil, threatening her if she spoke up or ran away. After months on the mountain in Utah, he took her to southern California, and on their journey back months later she was finally rescued by the police and returned to her family, the man and his wife going to jail (I simply refuse to use the kidnappers names in this entry).

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Before her kidnapping, Elizabeth was an innocent and spiritual Mormon teenager, who played the harp and loved her family. And after her rescue, Elizabeth took a bath, hugged her family, slept in her own bed, and woke the next morning ready to live. Using horseback riding as her therapy, as well as her belief in God and family, she has gone on to be an advocate for girls and women rescued from captivity, and she is speaking out against the “rape culture”, where systems are set in place that increase sexual assaults against women by doing things like teaching abstinence only in schools or teaching children to follow spiritual leaders at all costs. Now a wife and a mother, Elizabeth has written a about her kidnapping, and she details how she never gave up hope, how she healed, and how she has moved forward.

Toward the end of her book, Elizabeth discusses how she has much to be grateful for. She survived and returned to her family after only months; her kidnapper was a stranger and not someone in her family, someone whose photo hangs on the wall of her home to be looked at every day; her kidnapper was apprehended and locked away; her family surrounded her with love and hope and support and optimism.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited children, roughly 800,000 American children are reported every year; that is about 2000 per day. The majority of these are runaways or family abductions, with nonfamily or stranger abductions happening far less frequently. While I can’t personally verify these statistics, it is safe to estimate that hundreds of thousands of people go missing every year, and most of them we never hear about. That means there are hundreds of thousands of families every year who sit there in pain, wondering, hoping, going on with their lives feeling broken and empty with no answers. It is hard to sit back and realize the vast extent of things like child pornography, kidnapping, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, but all of these are alive and well in our country and the numbers are much more vast than we can simply comprehend.

Many of my clients come in to therapy because they have undergone a trauma. Trauma is a difficult thing to describe or quantify. Three women may get into a minor car accident: one may walk away completely fine and never think of it again, one may walk away and have nightmares for a few weeks, and the last may walk away feeling fine only to realize later she has panic attacks when she tries to get into the car again. We can understand each of these reactions, and we recognize that trauma impacts each person differently at different times in their lives.

In my therapy office, I see so many examples of trauma, all of them sad and devastating. A woman who saw her mother murdered by her father, a man who had a gun put in his mouth in a bank robbery, a teenager disowned by her parents for being transgender and kicked out into the streets, a woman who was hit in the eye by her husband when she found out he had been cheating on her, a woman whose husband and only child were killed by a drunk driver while they walked to the park, a young child whose parents were both killed in a car accident, a college girl who was sexually assaulted by her best friend. On and on and on.

We all have some traumas in our lives. Sometimes we rebound quickly, and sometimes it takes a much longer time. And at times, traumas change us forever, alter us into a different person. Yet traumas don’t have to ruin us or break us, even when they change us. A man who loses both his legs in combat can have a happy healthy life with full relationships, but he is altered and changed from who he was before. A woman whose 16 year old son takes his own life can heal and embrace life even as she forever aches for her lost son. A woman who experiences a double mastectomy in order to survive breast cancer can go on to be healthy and happy with healthy relationships and confidence and sex appeal though she is forever different.

Some traumas completely heal in a brief time. When I was 20, I was pretty violently mugged and knocked unconscious (I’ll have to tell that story here sometime). For a few months, I was scared and in pain. But in time, I was completely healed, both physically and emotionally. Growing up in a religion that promised a cure for my homosexuality has taken me much longer to overcome; it tainted my self-esteem for decades and impacted all of my relationships through childhood, adolescence, and college, and through my early adult life. That trauma changed me, yet I still have a happy, healthy, and well-adjusted life.

Elizabeth Smart is a hero of mine. It takes a special person to tell her trauma to others, to stand up and fight back, to raise awareness, to save lives. I can think of other heroes, Judy Shephard and Dave Pelzer come to mind. But Elizabeth tops that list for me. She is a courageous and powerful force for good in this world.

People sometimes tell me that they believe things happen for a reason, that God allowed a trauma to happen to them so that they might learn. Personally, I can’t line myself up with this premise, that a God allows rape, kidnappings, murders, wars, and suicides in order to teach small personal lessons. I think sometimes things just happen, sometimes as a result of our life choices and sometimes as a result of the choices of others, but they happen nonetheless. I do believe in resilience, however. I believe that no matter what a person goes through, they can rebound and learn and grow and come out stronger.

Elizabeth Smart assuredly has.

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the shark tooth necklace

I’ve always had a babyface.

When I was 17 and a senior in high school, I looked 12. When I was 20 and on a Mormon mission, I looked 15. When I was 25 and launching my career, doing marriage counseling for couples who had been together 40 years, I looked 20. And now, I’m 37 and look 30.

It isn’t such a bad thing now that I’m a bit older. I have a dusting of grey at my temples. I lost all of my weight years ago and I’m getting in great shape for the first time in my life, a slow and steady process over the past few years. I look old enough to have some basic respect in my field, though I have much more experience than many think at this point.

Growing up a gay Mormon kid (I know I mention it all the time, but it is my origin story), I was relatively accustomed to never speaking up for myself or taking care of myself. I was firmly in the service to others mold most of my life, trying very hard to cure something. I never thought of myself as handsome or attractive.

At 17, I took a trip to Hawaii with my high school band, a venture we had saved up for for 2 years prior to going. It was an epic week of playing band concerts and getting to see a place outside of southeast Idaho for the first time. Though there were chaperones, and though nearly every kid in the group was Mormon, I was away from all of the craziness going on in my house for the first time, and I remember feeling an epic sense of freedom, the first lesson I had that when things are crazy at home they can still be peace in the world outside.

I remember walking through a giant flea market, I think they called it a swap meet, where local vendors sold cheap T-shirts, art of sand and seashells, cheap hand-crafted clocks, fresh pineapple juice, and hundreds of other items. We were encouraged to barter with the vendors, talking them down from $8 to $7 and feeling powerful for having done so, not knowing the item only cost 50 cents to make. I bought items for my family back home, a coconut shell Tiki head, a little Hula girl doll, a swimsuit calendar full of men for my sister (who upon opening it later found a guy who looked bizarrely like me, except, you know, not 12 and in much better shape).

My friend Jen,a gorgeous girl with short hair that everyone in the school had a crush on, linked arms with me and told me it was time to get something nice for myself. (Many of my friends later told me they knew I was gay. I imagine Jen did also, though I’ve never asked her). She walked me over to a T-shirt vendor and picked out a tanktop for me. She made me try on a pair of sunglasses until she found one that I liked. Then, to top off the ensemble, she picked out a simple shark tooth on a necklace and placed it around my neck. All finished, she had me stand up and she looked me over.

“Chad! You look hot!”, she exclaimed.

I remember feeling a sense of elation, confidence, a burst of healthy ego. It wasn’t something I had ever experienced before. I knew she wasn’t in to me like that (and I wasn’t into her), but to have someone take the time to notice me, to compliment me genuinely… it was an amazing feeling.

Later that night, we went to a luau on the beach. I took off my shirt and sunglasses, put on a grass skirt, and kept the shark tooth necklace on. We all posed for photos on the beach.

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Fast forward 15 years to when I finally came out of the closet, and started realizing that not only was it okay to like other men, but that men, good-looking men that I found attractive… some of them also found me attractive. It was a powerful feeling, one of wonder.

Sometimes I still feel like that scrawny kid on the beach of Hawaii in a shark tooth necklace, realizing it is okay to feel just a bit selfish, to be just a little bit handsome, to enjoy the attention of others. Not only is it okay, it’s kind of crucial to healthy development.

Yesterday I went to a hot yoga class for the first time. The room was something like 80 degrees and it was packed with people. Beautiful people. Shirtless, shoeless, beautiful people. There was a moment half-way through where were were all in mountain pose, arms to the sky, everyone glistening with sweat as beautiful music played behind us. I scanned the room for a moment, seeing muscular calves, strong backs, lean stomachs, beautiful tranquil views of serenity on faces, fingers pointed toward skies. I looked at my own reflection in the mirror, strong chest and shoulders, thick arms, rooted feet. And I had a beautiful realization.

I fit.

I have always fit. With those around me. I spent so many years not fitting and it felt wonderful to fit. I too was beautiful. And not because of the size of my calves or pecs, but because I care about myself now. I take care of myself now.

I pictured the shark tooth necklace around my neck and grinned widely, showing my teeth. Then I closed my eyes and, fingers pointed toward the sky, joined the serenity.

 

Hollywoodland

hollywoodland

While I walked the streets of Los Angeles a few weeks ago, I automatically pictured myself living there and wondered what it might be like. I learned major lessons about myself when I moved to Seattle briefly, the primary lesson being that me in another place is still just me, just in another place. I think people romanticize ideas about themselves with fresh starts, that if they were in a different home, a different job, a different situation, that with just the right opportunity they would thrive, be happy, find love, be powerful, have success.

And as far as opportunity goes, Los Angeles has it in spades. Entire companies looking for writers and actors and producers and cameramen. Start-up companies, production studios, agents in every direction. And literally millions of people seeking to make successes of themselves. The city must be rampant with ego and heartbreak, rejection and depression, a never-ending thirst to find the next best thing, and constant compromises to sacrifice some ideas for others in order to find new chances and hopes.

I pictured myself seizing my own opportunity, my own ego and desire for success, and transplanting myself here. I pictured getting some room in a crowded place and filling it with cheap furniture, knowing I would swiftly tire of my roommates. I pictured myself finding some day job to support myself while I waited for my social work license to activate in California so I could do therapy on some corner, subletting from someone. I pictured myself getting a lot of date requests initially, being new blood in town, but not being able to ever go out because child support and living expenses and daily bills, and then those interest levels dying down after I had been in town a few weeks. I pictured myself finding local coffee shops to write in, streets to walk, parks to read in. I pictured myself finding a new routine, a gym, a grocery store, a favorite divey restaurant.

I pictured myself traveling back to Salt Lake City every month, at no small expense, renting cars and finding hotels or friends to stay with while I spent powerful moments with my sons, my lights and life. I pictured sunlight and beaches and palm trees and lots of thinking. I pictured writing and writing and writing as I watched the people and had new experiences, and then talking to others over and over about how I want to do so much with my life, write a book, have my blog and my LGBT Snapshots Channel on YouTube be incredible successes. I pictured moving to a new apartment, then another, trying to find my feet as I made new friends.

I pictured the seasons passing quickly. Valentines Day, Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and then a New Year, all while my sons age and grow and me in daily contact but not there with them. I pictured that new year, my energies still pooling toward shifting ideas of success but just not quite grasping it on my terms, and having to make the inevitable decision of trying to keep knocking on doors for more and more opportunity, or changing my very idea of success itself.

I pictured waking up and looking at that famous Hollywood sign on the hill, longing somehow for the days when it said Hollywoodland, and then realizing one day that it was just big letters on a big hill.

All these thoughts in my head, I sat down on a bus stop bench and felt the sunlight soak into my skin. A young black teenager with saggy jeans and a hoodie, scruffy facial hair and sunglasses, sat next to me and struck up a conversation.

“Hey, man, do you mind if I play you one of my tracks?”

I turned, not surprised somehow, though I should have been. “I would love that.”

He pulled a discman out of his backpack and set it on the bench, then began to play a remixed Reggae soundtrack, explaining how he was trying to find a new and unique sound, telling me how he loved music, especially Electronica, and how he just wanted people to hear how he heard. I told him I loved the music and asked him how old he was, and he smiled, a big bright full smile, and told me he was 16.

I told him he was an amazing talent, and to keep it up. He vowed he would.

Then he asked me, “What are your talents, man?”

Again, somehow unsurprised, I tilted my head slightly, thinking about my answer.

“Well, I have a lot I’m bad at, but a few things I’m great at.”

He laughed, “I know how that is!”

“I’m good at helping people. I’m a writer. I’m a teacher. I love the human story. But more than all of that, I’m a dad.”

The young man nodded a few times. “I can respect that.” And then his bus came, and he shook my hand and boarded.

I looked back at the Hollywood sign, thinking of ambition and dreams and the ground beneath my feet, then I called my sons.

My Own Valentine

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For most of my life, I have had a tendency for being a little bit too tough on myself, in all the wrong ways. I learned a few years ago the human habit of mistaking GUILT for SHAME, and frankly, it changed my life.

GUILT is the experience of regret about something I want to rightfully change (in other words, I experienced something I didn’t like, so I want to make amends and not do it again). SHAME is the measure of worth in accordance to the guilt. Most humans have the tendency to take experience of GUILT, and turn it into the experience of SHAME. (Americans are amazing at this, and women are even more impressive, as are those who grew up in conservative religious households).

Examples: If my son makes a mess and I get angry and scream at him, I will later feel guilty. I don’t like screaming at my son and I should have handled it differently. I make amends and we clean up the mess together and I learn a lesson about myself. That is GUILT.

If my son makes a mess and I get angry and scream at him, and then suddenly I start beating myself up for being a terrible parent who makes huge mistakes, and I think I’m messing my children up, and I wonder why I ever decided to become a father… well, that is SHAME.

If I feel sad one evening and I eat an entire pizza to feed my feelings, and later I will feel bloated and gross. I decide that I don’t like how that feels and recommit to myself to eat better and exercise. That is GUILT.

If I feel sad one evening and I eat an entire pizza to pizza to feed my feelings, and later I will feel bloated and gross. I decide that I am a fat, lazy slob that no one will ever love and why do I even work out or try to look good because I’ll be single forever. This is SHAME.

And while we all have individual examples applicable to our lives, families, and internal doubts and struggles, these principles are universal. Simply put, GUILT is healthy, and SHAME is not.

I work with my clients in therapy on these principles constantly. When I first point out SHAME to them, many of them feel SHAME about having SHAME. Ironic, isn’t it?

One of my very favorite quotes is from a Jewel song. “No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.”

And so, over the years, I have learned to be forgiving and kind toward myself after I experienced GUILT, and I learned to begin separating out the SHAME. Any negative patterns within myself, I began sorting out because I realized they were bringing me pain. They were things I wished to be free from.

I’ve been single, almost exclusively, for nearly five years now. I have balanced out a single life with one where I have learned to be more and more true to myself as a professional, as a father, and as a friend. I am getting better and better at being a strong, compassionate, and authentic person who puts himself first in healthy ways, learning more from the GUILT experiences and reducing the amount that come from SHAME.

And that brings us to Valentine’s Day, a day when it is easy to sit and lament being alone, to dredge up sadness and bitterness about the times when I fell in love or tried too hard or had my heart broken. It’s easy to jump to a SHAME space about being single, as if the status of being in a relationship somehow automatically assigns me more worth as a human being.

I’ve given love a good shot a few times over the years, hoping there will be times when it pays off. And I’ve learned that while it hasn’t yet, I can offer myself the same love I hope to receive from other people. My life is slowly and surely transforming, turning ever more amazing as I proceed down positive paths, learning as I go.

And in my mind, firmly in the GUILT space, are the memories of painful times in dating in the past:

The time that man, after making out with me on a date, sent me a message the next morning that said ‘That was a mistake, I don’t find you that cute. We won’t be going out again.’

The time another man had sex with me after a date and told me, while still cuddling with me, that I had soft skin and a nice dick, but I needed to work harder on the rest of me.

That time another man kissed me and then immediately said, “I shouldn’t have done that. I respect you too much.”

That time I pined after a man for far too long who I loved, and who loved me, but the man lived far away and refused to be with me even when he could have been.

That time when I was told that I had all the qualities a man was looking for, but that my children were holding me back.

The times I have been told I’m too confident, or too smart, or not handsome enough, or that I don’t drink enough, or that I don’t have enough money.

All of those comments on dates that have reinforced SHAME, measuring my worth as a date-able commodity, I learned to instead push them into the GUILT category, and to begin learning about myself through the types of men I date, and how they treat me, and who I choose to give of my time and attention to, and how I treat myself after these experiences, and who I surround myself with, and how I pursue relationships.

And while I remain open to love and relationships with the right person, the greatest lesson I’ve learned is to turn that love and attention toward myself and my children.

And thus it is that today, at age 37, I am thrilled to be my very own Valentine.

 

the Problem with Monogamy

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The truth is, most humans are boiling pots of unmet needs.

As a therapist, I constantly see people come in whose lives are out of balance. I help them list and recognize their needs by using a Medicine Wheel, a Native American spiritual construct that divides Needs into four areas: Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual.

Physical represents sleep, fitness, nutrition, hydration, and health.

Mental represents being challenged, achieving things, and making progress (including areas related to work and money).

Emotional represents basic human feelings and complex human relationships.

Spiritual represents purpose, inner connection, and involvement that brings balance and peace internally. (Spirituality is separate from religion).

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When all the needs are met, the four quadrants of the wheel are in perfect balance and all the same size. When one is out of balance, it negatively skews the capacity of the other three. Picture four balloons tied at the center that share a limited supply of air; they are only balanced when the air is perfectly and evenly distributed, yet the air is always shifting as needs are met and then unmet.

For example, if you have a poor night’s sleep (Physical), you are at less capacity to do work tasks (Mental). If you are feeling dissatisfied with yourself (Spiritual), you may find yourself withdrawing from your best friend (Emotional).

Small needs are relatively easy to meet and amend. Feeling stiff and sore, then stretch and work out: Physical balance restored. Feeling bored and uninteresting, then select a simple task and achieve it, something easy like washing the dishes or reading a chapter of a book: Mental balance restored. Feeling lonely on a Saturday afternoon, invite a friend to go on a walk: Emotional balance restored. Feeling conflict and confusion within yourself, go outside and soak in the sunlight: Spiritual balance restored.

Moderate needs take more time to meet and lengthier amounts of amendments and self-care. Losing 15 pounds (Physical), surviving a difficult semester at college (Mental), working through some coping mechanisms that have stopped you from recognizing your anger (Emotional), or realizing that your prayers have felt empty lately and you feel far from God (Spiritual).

And Major needs require much longer as we do our best to maintain balance during those times of major difficulty. Recovering from a surgery (Physical), trying to reduce $50,000 in credit card debt (Mental), learning a spouse has been unfaithful (Emotional), or realizing that you no longer believe in the religion you were raised with (Spiritual).

The greatest lesson I have ever learned in my lifetime, after doing therapy for others for over a decade, is that I have to take care of my own needs, and I can’t expect any other person, situation, job, status, or religion to do it for me.

Most humans (particularly Americans) began using “If… then” statements regarding their own happiness and balance.

IF I could fall in love, THEN I would be happy.

IF my spouse would pay more attention to me, THEN I would feel like he loves me.

IF my boss would show me more appreciation, THEN I would start to like my job.

IF I pray every day, THEN I will feel God’s love more readily in my life.

IF I could get pregnant, THEN I would find purpose.

All of these statements set us up for failure, because as humans we fail to recognize that we will ALWAYS have needs. The second we find satisfaction, we have something else we are dissatisfied with. That’s the very nature of humanity: we eat, we get hungry; we have sex, we get horny; we feel connected to our Higher Power, we feel distant again; we learn something fascinating, we get bored.

And so we fall into situations where we stay desperately and painfully out of balance for years at a time. People stay in abusive or loveless relationships, desperately hoping day after day that something will change. People gain forty pounds, then fifty, then one hundred, and they wait for something that will inspire them to change. People continue the same faith practices they have found unfulfilling, feeling selfish and unworthy for even feeling dissatisfied, and hoping they will change. People go to the same job day after day, miserable every night they come home, feeling like there is no hope of change.

They get stuck… and they stay there.

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And this is the problem with Monogamy. Or, frankly, any system that we believe should be the ideal. People develop this idea that they will meet one single person that will rock their world, charge their system, take away all their pain and struggle and that it will last forever. Wanting to be in a monogamous relationship is no problem; expecting a monogamous relationship to meet your every need is a big problem. (Replace “monogamous relationship” with any system in the previous sentence and apply it to you. Example: Wanting to be in shape is no problem; expecting being in shape to meet your every need is a big problem.)

I recognize that choosing Monogamy as the title topic here is controversial, but it’s meant to grab your attention. Did it work?

So Janie meets Charlie when they turn 25 and they have a whirlwind romance. The first year is wonderful. But she finds that sometimes, she wants to go out with friends and Charlie doesn’t like that, and she feels selfish for wanting time for herself with other people. And then Janie has a baby and she is a bundle of nerves and exhaustion for several months, so she and Charlie aren’t connecting and aren’t having sex, and she doesn’t feel beautiful. And a few years later, Charlie starts hating his job and Janie realizes there isn’t a lot she can do to help. And Janie is sometimes attracted to other people and feels terrible about herself, even though she has never cheated. And on and on.

People change over time, and their needs change over time. And the simple idea that one person (or job or religion or status or relationship) can meet every need a person has and can or will restore and maintain permanent balance does an extreme amount of damage, and it hurts all four of the medicine wheel areas.

Individuals who believe solely in a system (like monogamy or religion) tend to see these systems as ideal and the only paths for happiness. They develop the mindset that not achieving that status, within themselves or within others, means a person can’t be happy.

I grew up in a very religious household in the Mormon faith. I grew up believing that there was only one path to happiness: a man married to a woman, active in the Mormon faith, with children. And I grew up believing that wanting or needing anything else was selfish and against God’s will. I was permanently out of balance and I didn’t even see it, but constantly feeling dissatisfied.

And so it is that I share two great lessons with you here.

One: No one person, or system, or belief structure can bring you ultimate fulfillment and balance. You are a complicated universe of needs that require careful balancing and negotiation, day by day and moment by moment.

Two: You have to take care of you.

Maya Angelou once said, profoundly: “I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me ‘I love you.’ There is an African saying, which is Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.

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And so, it is up to each of us to draw out our own Medicine Wheels and to, bravely and courageously, determine what it is we are missing from our lives. Are we out of balance in small, moderate, or major ways, and what will it take to restore balance and peace? Do you need more hopes and dreams? More friend connections? More sex and intimacy? More excitement and adventure? More achievement? And are you at peace with the recognition that what you need today will not be what you need tomorrow?

You are not selfish, or shameful, or broken, or unworthy, or damaged, or hopeless, or evil for wanting or needing more from your life than what you currently have in it. You are a complicated human with complicated needs. The alternative to recognizing and addressing needs is remaining out of balance and dissatisfied in life.

The best kinds of relationships are those in which two healthy balanced individuals who take care of themselves choose to be together. Whether you are monogamous or polyamorous, single or married, surrounded by friends or relatively isolated, Christian or athieist… you can be happy so long as you are taking care of you. And if these two healthy people want to be Monogamous, then they work on it and the relationship can be healthy. Systems can only work when they are carefully chosen, in line with values, and worked toward as beings change over time.

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And yet, all that said, cheating, on yourself or someone else, is never okay. Needs must be met that are in accordance to our personal values, morals, and agreements. Lying to your partner about having sex with someone else is cheating. Convincing yourself you aren’t angry, then lashing out at another person with mean words and excusing your behavior is cheating. Setting physical goals for yourself, then shutting your brain down while you eat an entire pizza later is cheating. Judging others for “sinning” and then excusing your own “sins” is cheating.

Inner balance comes from careful, consistent negotiations and measurements. It is a difficult, and worthy quest. And the alternative is a steady and consistent unhappiness that can last years, decades, or even a lifetime. And life is too short to be unhappy.

I’m worth it. And I think you’re worth it. But then, you have to decide that for you.

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