Porn Addiction in Utah

“What is it with men and porn in Utah?” A friend from out of state asked me that question in a recent online exchange. “I grew up Mormon but not in Utah, and porn is a big deal here, but it seems to be even bigger there. Like is porn addiction a thing? And is it the same as sex addiction? And is it really as big a deal there as they say? And does it have anything to do with women and depression there and how they have the highest rate of anti-depressant usage?”

I responded with a “Whoa, hang on! That’s a lot of questions!” And then we went on to talk for two hours about Utah and its complexities. I’ll summarize a lot of these thoughts here. Keep in mind, reader, that while I am a mental health expert, I fully admit this is not a topic I’ve done personal research on. The thoughts presented here come from my own perspectives, as an ex-Mormon gay father and therapist who has some years of experience behind him. I fully admit my own bias, but there is a lot of truth to my words for many as well.

First of all, since it’s inception, Utah has treated women as a commodity. Mormon men, from the leaders on down, competed for women as an acquisition. There are love stories, sure, but there are also stories of conquest, of older wives being forgotten and set aside as younger wives were obtained. Young virgin girls were hot market items, married off to men two or four or six decades their senior. Men’s names were to be blessed in their righteousness as they fathered children and established lineages on Earth that would follow them into Heaven. And while times have changed, well, a lot of these cultural trends remain the same.

Mormon marriage now is ideally young returned missionary and young out-of-high school girl, both virgins, who marry quickly. She’s promised happiness and motherhood in exchange for her modesty, virtue, and dedication to her husband. She is destined to be a queen and priestess, reigning forever at the side of her husband. It’s church first, then husband and kids, then herself last. Except by age 25, there are 3 or 4 kids and they are screaming and her husband is gone a lot and she doesn’t know what to do. And there is depression. And then one day she finds out that her husband has been secretly watching porn in the basement, and what does that mean. It feels like slaps to the face, an abject betrayal. This isn’t how here life was supposed to go! Why would he do this to her! Isn’t she lovely enough, sexy enough, good enough, isn’t she enough for him? Why would God let this happen? And so she keeps her pain quiet and focuses on the kids and pops anti-depressants and hopes things will work out.

And for him? The Priesthood holder? The one who is burning the candle at both ends, with a full-time job, and debt, and church callings, and the kids, and the wife, the one who is always needed and is expected to be pure and righteous? He is meant to be a king and priest in Heaven, to have his own kingdom, his own planet one day. It’s church first, then wife and kids, then work, then him last. But he can barely seem to keep his energy and morale up for the things happening around him in his busy household. It’s all too much. And porn, well, it’s an easy escape. It’s indulgent. It’s secret. It’s not hurting anybody. It’s contained to a laptop screen. He can look up what he wants, pleasure himself. And if that gets boring, he can always jump online, into chatrooms, maybe exchange some photos or jump on a webcam, so long as he doesn’t show his face. It’s private and exciting. He gets attention from women (or at least men pretending to be women) that aren’t his wife. And so it becomes a habit. He stays up late multiple times per week. 15 minutes easily turns into 2 or 3 hours. He’s not addicted, he tells himself, he just enjoys it, so long as no one finds out, and he can keep the reality of it all in a different box, one that isn’t connected to his faithfulness or his Priesthood at all.

Except then he gets caught. He stammers lies about how often he does it, how much there has been, how far he has gone. He lies, and then makes excuses, and then blames others. There is shame and penitence. He has been told hundreds of times from his Priesthood leaders about the evils of pornography, about how it burns images permanently into your brain. Just one second, one image, that is all it takes and you are forever unclean. And now his wife is furious, and there is even less sex. He’s sent to the bishop. He vows to never do it again. She’s crying constantly, feeling lied to, betrayed. She was faithful and it isn’t supposed to be like this. It’s wrong, and he’s bad, and he’s unworthy. And if he relapses and gets caught again, well, he needs to go to therapy, to sex addiction recovery, where he can sort out what is wrong with him and make himself a better son of God, a more worthy Priesthood holder.

There are pornography and sex addiction recovery clinics all over Utah. They specialize in helping men move past the desires of the flesh and be better. Pornography is evil, vile, wrong. In fact, just a few years ago, the Mormon governor declared pornography a health epidemic. On a governmental level. (Seriously.) And so the man either gets better, or he finds more discreet ways of meeting this dark need. Or maybe he starts cheating. Utah does have a thriving prostitution industry, after all.

(And if you feel like this characterization is unfair or dramatic, take a moment to assess the people you know in Utah, even your own friends and families. Chances are, this describes more than a few of those men, women, or couples, if not now, than a few years back. This represents nearly every Mormon family I know, honestly).

So is there such thing as porn addiction? Absolutely. Food can be addictive. As can bad relationships, or gambling, or work. When you engage in something in one area of your life that is hurting the other areas; when you spend hours and hours on it; when you are keeping major secrets and justifying bad behavior; when you are telling lies and making excuses; all of these things contribute to addiction. But it is very important to understand that porn is not an addiction for everyone. In fact, studies show that porn is mostly addictive in heavily religious cultures and communities, ones that treat sex with shame, one with rigorous standards of what it means to be worthy.

Utah is well-known for having a poor sex education system in place. Safe sex isn’t discussed so much as abstinence. Sex is equated with shame, revulsion, and sin. Every human teenager has a sexual development taking place, it comes along with the hormones and the genitals. They experience attractions and desires. Those who have pre-marital sex are considered dirty, or damaged goods. And what extends with that is a culture of secret keeping. Let’s not talk about sex, let’s keep our sins secret, and let’s ignore the sexual things happening all around us. Looks bury our desires, never talk about them, never masturbate, never learn, and instead save ourselves for marriage. And then let’s marry our young sons and daughters and see what happens.

And what happens? Depression and addictions to pornography. Men and women grow up into adults while never allowing their sexual sides, which are just as prominent as their spiritual sides, to develop. Those sides stay stuck in adolescence. They seek expression. They cry out for release. And it’s even rougher on gay men and women, who have the added burden of growing up of being ashamed for WHO they are attracted to, leaving more psychological and emotional needs unmet.

I could likely prepare an entire two-hour conference on this, but I’ll wrap it up here. After a robust discussion, my friend asked me how I help people through all of this.

As a man, I struggled with pornography and masturbation during my Mormon years, when I was both married and single. Both resulted in major depression and anxiety problems for me, as well as physical issues. I had nausea, major stress, and sometimes vomiting or diarrhea issues after indulging in pornography or masturbation, and those conditions extended to when I would even notice an attractive man on the street. “I experienced an attraction! Oh no! I’m evil, God hates me, what have I done!” as my stomach churned. Now I live as an out, proud gay man. I’m sexually active, and I occasionally view porn. Masturbation is a pleasurable activity on occasion as well. And I experience zero shame in relation to any of it. I accept my sexual identity as very much a part of my overall person. I’m not a sinner or an addict. I’m just a healthy human 40-year old man.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of clients come to me with goals of reducing masturbation or to work on their pornography addictions. I take these concerns seriously. I listen. I reflect. I’m kind and calm andpatient. But I have to help the clients recognize that the shame they feel around sex is the primary cause of their emotional struggles. I have to help them learn to accept and love themselves, all parts of themselves, and then make decisions from there. I have to help them measure out their motivations. If their goal remains to watch pornography less, or to masturbate less, listen to the difference between these motivations.

“My goal is to masturbate less because when I do it, I am dirty and wrong. I’m breaking my covenants and making God disappointed in me. I’m sinning and permanently damaging myself. It’s going to take me years to earn back the trust of my wife, and I’m no longer worthy to go to the temple. Help me!”

Or: “My goal is to masturbate less because I want to live up to my covenants. I accept and embrace myself as a human person who has sexual desires. I was created that way and I’m not ashamed of that. Sexual desire is normal and natural, but I want to be a stalwart husband and father, and to live the teachings of my religion, so I want to make some changes to that behavior.”

Those are very different places to begin from. As for me? I don’t see anything wrong with a bit of porn, masturbation, or sexual activity, so long as it is from within the ethics and guidelines of the person’s overall life plan. Those things don’t fit in certain relationships or religions. Consent and ethics and all of that applies here, of course. And that’s where an individual has to measure out his or her own value system, because hurting the people you love isn’t the desired result here. Addictions or dependencies in any form, to food or alcohol or porn, are damaging and need to be worked on. But being a porn addict doesn’t make you a sex addict. Take accountability of yourself and be ethical and make your life decisions around that. Because shame is going to ruin you otherwise.

Embrace all of the parts of you, and learn how to be healthy. The rest will fall into place.

(And for those of you not in Utah, well, I love it here, really. It’s super charming. But oh my stars is it strange. And one way to emphasize that: there is a whole genre of porn under the category of ‘Mormon’. Both gay and straight. Seriously. It’s like a thriving industry. Fascinating, I tell you.)

 

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Defining Marriage

The definitions of marriage have changed. But has the definition of happiness changed as well?

For a few generations, in the youths of my parents and their parents, traditional and conservative values were prioritized above all else. The man meets the woman, they court, they save themselves for marriage, she takes his last name, they move in together and he works while she bears and raises the children. It was culturally frowned upon for women to work outside the home, even as things like domestic violence were often shrugged off and overlooked. Infidelity was expected, at least at times, for men, but strictly forbidden for women. Women were property, to be dominated and owned, even as the conventions behind marriage stated that women were to be loved and cherished. Men were brought up to be strong and to seek riches and success. Women were brought up to be cultured, modest, and demure, and to seek themselves a man.

There was certainly a lot of convention. It was relatively common a few generations ago for older men in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s, to marry much younger women, even teenagers, and for them to have two or three marriages in a lifetime. It was almost unheard of for older women to marry younger men. Women were the nurturers, and men were the breadwinners, and that was simply the way of things.

And nearly anyone can recite a form of the marriage vows. “I, man, take you, woman, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, as my lawfully wedded wife, till death do us part.” It was a transaction, a legal and binding tie that was meant to last a lifetime. The kids, the assets, the money, and the bed would be shared, and everyone would live happily ever after. And of course, a lot went wrong with these institutions, but the ideal remained. Handsome young man meets beautiful young woman and they fall in love and stay in love through decades, no matter what life throws at them. Cue every Hollywood movie ever made (well, 95 per cent of them). Cue the Notebook, and Cinderella, and Sleepless in Seattle and every feel good film that leaves you feeling like love and happiness are just around the corner if you just meet the right person.

If I’m honest, though, this describes about zero per cent of the marriages I’ve seen in my life. Both sets of my grandparents remained married until they died, but from what I know, they had years of staying loyal to each other even while not liking each other very much. There was depression, and problems with kids,  and fighting, and drinking, and the sacrifice of careers. There were extreme hard times. But they stayed together, and that was the ideal, the one we keep falling back on.

But not so much in my generation. My parents divorced. Most of my siblings divorced. I divorced. It didn’t work. The world had changed. (I mean, gay marriage is legal now.) No longer does the message seem to be to just stay together no matter what. But the ideal hadn’t changed, and thus we ended up with a generation of people feeling like they had failed, like they hadn’t done it the right way. And that sense of failure stays with you, particularly when you are connected by children. Divorce is an ugly, violent process that results, frequently, in depression and pain and bankruptcy. But also liberation, a new beginning, a fresh start, a leaving of the past and a building toward the future.

I’m 40 now, and I’ve been divorced for 8 years. And I’m noticing that the trend has shifted again. What I see now is a generation of people who are not saving themselves for marriage, who are not willing to sacrifice their happiness, or their aspirations, or sometimes even their family names. I see people who expect more out of life than to just fall in love and stay there (hopefully) for a lifetime. I see people staking their own claims. They date, and they have sex, and they pursue their careers. And they might fall in and out of love. They regret the one they loved who didn’t love them back, even as they reject others who they don’t love back. And then they turn 30 and wonder what has happened, because they didn’t achieve that ideal that they were seeking for all along: that one person they hoped to love and stay with forever. That’s right, they changed the rules about how they live their lives, and then wonder why their lives didn’t turn out like their parents did, while openly admitting that that wasn’t what they were looking for in the first place.

What I’m seeing far more frequently lately, in my personal life and in my therapy office, are single people who are angst-ing at the universe about their lack of success in relationships, and people in relationships who are angst-ing about their relationships not being what they thought they would be. For those who have partners, they seem to wrestle with depression, wondering why things haven’t turned out perfectly. Why isn’t the sex happening enough, or why is their boyfriend so quiet all the time, or why isn’t the house as clean as they thought it would be? I think they make the mistakes of assuming that relationships will be easy. On paper, in theory, they state that they are ready for the hard work that relationships will bring, that the love will be enough to see them through those tough times, but in execution, it is much harder than they realize, and they aren’t sure how or if they can make things better. The grass is always greener…

So I find myself asking others, what is the kind of relationship you are looking for? The ideal one? The one where you meet someone and fall in love and stick it out no matter what, during time of stress and pain, sickness and depression, money and trust and communication issues? Or the one where you have an independent life with personal happiness, a fulfilling career, friends, and travel, and one that you share with someone who also has an independent life? And if it is the second one, are you prepared to realize that those independent lives will not always intersect? Sex, and aspirations, and travel, and career, and goals… they won’t always be in line? Are you okay with mixing these two together and creating a new definition?

What if the ideal relationship in today’s times means a composite of these two worlds? What if you fall in love with someone who loves you, cuddles you, someone you find beautiful, someone independent and engaging, and you build something long-term, but then over time, those things change, and you with it? How does sex, career, money, family, aspirations, trust… how do all of those things change when you want the best of both, a happy you and a long-term consistent relationship? Is this the new ideal? Is this the recipe for happiness, someone to share life with even as you find your own happiness, even through major trials and struggles? Is that how it will be now? Can you remain happy and good in your own skin throughout the process of building something with someone else? Because that describes nearly every happy couple I know, at this point. that blend of baby-boomer and millennial, that solid ground assurance mixed with the murky and tenuous unknown.

Which is it you are looking for? If you are living like a millennial and looking for the baby-boomer definition of a relationship, frustration and angst are the likely results.

ring

Ghost of Christmas Past

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During my social work education in college, I took several classes that focused on tools related to understanding complicated families. One of those tools is a genogram. Squares represented men, circles were used for women. Lines connected romantic relationships, and little dashes meant children. An X over a person represented death, a double line through a relationship represented divorce. I’ve used genograms with hundreds of clients over the years now. Some families look clean and organized on paper: father, mother, brother, sister.

My family genogram ended up looking like a massive printer malfunction, or like someone dropped a pizza on the floor. It was rampant with divorces and remarriages, couples who had kids that were his hers and theirs, and adoptions. If I could add slashes and dashes for prison sentences, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, faith crises and drug addictions, well, we’d have Picasso’s Starry Starry night in family tree format. Beautiful, but far too much to take in one glance.

But each little square and circle on that paper represent a human fixed in time, someone with experiences, heartbreaks, setbacks and successes. And each of those people, most of them related to me by blood, have their own changing stories, their own epics. For most, the endings remain unwritten. But even the youngest of my siblings is in her late 30s now, so there is a lot of history to draw upon.

And that takes us to 1985.

Back then, my family was my entire world, that and religion. We have one family Christmas video preserved now. It’s beloved to me. It was made in December, 1985, when I was newly 7 years old. I was the little brother, the sixth of seven children. Back then, Mom and Dad were still married, if unhappily. My little sister Sheri was three, and she had thin yellow hair that grew down past her waistline. (Many years later, Sheri and I would be the ones who came out of the closet). And all of the older kids were there, ranging from 11 to 20 in age at the time. Grandma and Grandpa were there, my mom’s parents, and my oldest sister’s boyfriend. The video shows us all around the Christmas tree, singing songs, laughing, performing special talents for each other, opening gifts. My mom and sister Kara played the nose harps as a joke, someone did a piano solo. We each took a day of Christmas and sang all twelve verses in little one-line solos. The camera pans around the room as we each share what we are thankful for. At one point in the video, I take out my recorder from school and I play a carol for the family, not actually playing the instrument but more realistically just blowing notes through it, generating the sound with my voice and sounding like an eerie robot. Later in the video, I ask if I can lead the family in a song. I stand in the center of the room, right in front of the camera, and I lead the music, just like I’ve seen Mom do in church a thousand times, except I forget to bend my elbow. I lead on the right cadence with my wrist hinging in every direction as my family laughs at me, and at the time I didn’t understand what was so funny. I was beaming. Family, music about Jesus, Christmas. It was perfect. I’m smiling from ear to ear.

That was over 30 years ago. 33 Christmases ago, to be exact. That realization startles me. And in another blink of an eye, it will be 30 years from now and I’ll be seventy and my children will be men.

But what if I could go back? If I could time-travel, step back into that room as a grown man and just watch it all as it happened… I wouldn’t be able to experience the family just then, in the present like that. I have too much perspective for that. I’d see everything that lies ahead for each person in that room as I watched them. If I wanted to, I could tell Grandma and Grandpa the days they die on. I could tell Mom that she only had to put up with my dad’s anger and depression for five more years before she would finally choose to leave him. But then I’d also have to tell her that her next husband would be worse, he would use fists and control and insults and profanity to terrorize her for a few years. But then, I could tell her, then she’d meet the man of her dreams. She’d be 60 by then, but he would make her so happy for the rest of her life. I could tell my dad that he would never really change, that in 30 years he would be nearly 80 and still sad and quiet and angry and morose. I could look him in the eye and tell him how I felt about his depression and the way it ruined him, and about the impact it had on me.

Would I change anything if I could? Would I want to? Would I warn them about their futures? Would I grab my oldest sister in a hug and tell her that she wouldn’t be able to have children, but that she would finally choose to adopt three when she was in her mid-40s, and that it was definitely not going to be easy after that? Would I tell my second sister that she would meet the love of her life at age 18 and they would go on to have six children together, but also tell her that this picture perfect world would not be easy, that it would be full of health struggles and financial burdens? Would I warn my only brother to stop touching me in our bedroom when the doors were closed tight and no one could see? Would I tell him to stay off the drugs and to change his ways before his three marriages, his criminal charges, his domestic violence issues, his animal cruelty issues? Would I tell him that he would father three incredible children, and that all three of them would turn out great not because of him but in spite of him? Would I grasp my middle sister, Kara, and tell her that she’d have to put up with 15 years of two terrible marriages so that she could have her four children, but that if she could just put up with the abuse, drugs, and anger from her first two husbands, she would finally meet the man who would make her happy? Would I tell her that her kids would add up to seven before she was done, and that she’d have her youngest child around the same time she became a grandmother? Would I warn the sister just above me in age to never start smoking, never start drinking, as those habits would dominate the rest of her life?

I love all of my family, of course, but when I watch this old video, I see Sheri and I the most. Sheri was the baby of the family, the quiet, introverted, and obsessive little girl would grow up to be a kind, loving, incredible woman. But first she’d have to get through her boy clothes wearing and no makeup high school years, and then brave coming out of the closet in her early 20s, and it would not go well at first. If I could change things, I’d want her to do it early, to not wait until she was in her 20s. I’d want her to save herself the years of religious indoctrination, to not waste a single moment thinking she was anything but amazing. Maybe instead I would just reassure her without changing events. She has a future, I would tell her, one with a wife, a full-ride college scholarship, a life full of opportunities. I’d tell her that in many ways she would grow up to be my greatest example, despite being younger than me.

And then I look at me. If forty-year old me could go back in time and spend an afternoon with seven-year old me… my heart breaks just thinking about it. I have a son that size, just 7 years old. He’s so small. He watches the world around him with hope and wonder, and he sees the best in everyone. Someone being a bully just breaks his heart. He has so much to learn. I see him in 7-year old me. I’d wrap little me up in a giant bear hug, and I would ask me how I was feeling. I would ask, and I would listen. I feel like no one ever asked me back then. I would ask the questions no one was asking me then. How do you feel about your dad’s sadness? Do you like church, do you believe in it, what do you like about it and what don’t you? Do you know it’s okay to have doubts? I’d ask what was happening behind those closed bedroom doors, and tell him that that isn’t okay for someone, anyone, to touch him like that, and I’d encourage him to speak up and I would tell him I was there to protect him. And because he would be too young to understand, I would try to find a way to tell him how my life has gone. I would tell him that gay people are normal, and that anyone who tells him that he is broken or an abomination or that he can be cured or that he should just ignore it and hope that it goes away, that those people are wrong even if they don’t mean to be. Believing those things would take some of his best years away from him. At worst, those people are big homophobic meanies, and at best they are just misinformed. I would tell him to come out, early and to the right people, and that he should spend his adolescence being real, learning how to love himself and take care of himself, learning how to fall in love and make friends and how to dream big. I’d tell him to love church but recognize that it is flawed and that it doesn’t have all the answers, so he should keep the good and let go of the rest. I’d tell him to eat well, to exercise, to find healthy outlets for his emotions. I’d tell him to not waste two years in missionary service, that he’ll regret it later. I’d tell him he is beautiful just the way he is, all the parts of him, the compassionate and the creative, the social worker and the storyteller, the singer and the quiet thinker. I’d tell him to not be so lonely in his 20s, to not wait so long to kiss, to hold hands, to fall in love, to have sex. I’d tell him to never compromise and marry a woman just because he believed it was the only possibility for him, because both he and she would end up hurt.

But then, I’d take it all back. I’d regret every word. He’s 7, and telling him all of that would put far too much weight on his shoulders (and goddamnit, he was carrying too much weight as it was). If I told him all of that, I’d want to run screaming into a corner, because if he changed anything, If he didn’t spend those years thinking he was broken, if he never served a mission, never learned to believe God hated him, never married a woman… that if he came out of the closet even six months earlier, than his two sons wouldn’t exist. And they have to exist. The world can’t BE without them.

Instead, I’d have to tell him to be strong. To hold on. To know that his suffering in the long run would pay off, because he would eventually come out, he would eventually find love, he would eventually learn to love himself. He would be 32 when it finally happened, so he only had 25 years to be depressed, then he could learn to live. And in coming out, he’d break some hearts, he’d have to redefine everything, and he would have to navigate a new life with two beautiful little boys, and it was going to be so hard for a while but it would be so worth it because those little boys would be the lights of his entire world, and he would learn how to see himself as a light as well. And I’d tell him that the greatest payoff of all of this, all the years he spent hurting, is that he would raise his sons to have all of the things he never had.

I can’t change then. But I can change now. I can give my sons what I wish I could go back and give to me then. I can ask questions and listen to their answers. I can talk about hard things. I can teach them about nutrition and exercise, about compassion and kindness and integrity. I can teach them to love themselves, to follow their dreams. I can teach them about taking care of the planet, being kind to animals, and reaching out to the underdog, the outcast, the misfit. I can teach them to be themselves, to love themselves, and to follow their dreams. And if I can do all of that for them, then I don’t need to change the past.

Because someday, 30 years from now, perhaps my boys will look back to this time in 2018 and wonder what could be different. Maybe they would choose to come back and give warnings about dire future events, or give hints to themselves about how they can have happier lives if they make different choices. But my greatest wish would be for them to look back to now, right now, and see it as one happy Christmas in a long life full of happy Christmases, with nothing they would want to change.

He Said

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he said

“You’re husband material,” he said, looking into my eyes with candor. “And I have a terrible habit of only falling for guys who are bad for me. So I’m not really interested in seeing you again.”

“I made a huge mistake,” he said, looking away. “Making out with you sent the wrong message because I don’t think you’re that cute. But maybe we can hang out again some time.”

“Chad was the one who got away,” he said to a friend, who later told me. “He was sweet and good-looking and actually wanted to date me. But he expected me to text back, to put in effort. I know he’s still single, but I’m just not ready for that kind of guy.”

“You’re the kind of guy I could move across the country for,” he said, with those blue eyes right on mine, “and you’ve accomplished so much. I can’t do this, not until I’m someone who’s done as much as you have.”

“You’re friends are crazy hot,” he said, eyes mischievous on the dance floor. “But they aren’t my type. I prefer guys like you, guys more average.”

“I like everything about you,” he said with a reassuring lopsided smile, “and there is nothing I would change. I could spend my life with you if you just change the following things about yourself.”

“I love you,” he said, with sincere eyes much too quickly, repeating it often and consistently until I believed him. Then one afternoon, he shrugged, averted his gaze, and said, “You know, I’m just not feeling it anymore.”

“If only I wasn’t married,” he said.

“If only I was younger,”  he said.

“If only you were younger,” he said.

“I’m not ready for kids,” he said.

“Can you bring your kids on our second date?” he said.

“You have nice skin but you have some work to do on your body,” he said.

“I might be busy for a month or two but maybe I’ll give you call some time,” he said.

“I only like older guys,” he said.

“I only like younger, skinny guys,” he said.

“I only like beefy bears,” he said.

“It’s only been three days, but do you want to be my boyfriend?” he said.

“You’re not Mormon enough,” he said.

“I don’t date ex-Mormons,” he said.

“I like you, but not as much as I like meth,” he said.

“I like you way too much way too soon,” he said.

“I’m just not ready to date someone again,”  he said.

“I’m just looking for sex,”  he said.

“You actually look good now, what changed?” he said.

“Don’t call me handsome, it makes me insecure,” he said.

“I’m ashamed of myself as a person,” he said.

“I’ve never dated a therapist. Do you think I have depression?” he said.

“I’m not capable of trusting another person again,” he said.

“Yo keep a lot hidden,” he said, his brown eyes focused on me intently. “It makes me wonder what you’re thinking. It makes me wonder about you. You seem like a great guy. I mean, how is a guy like you still single?”

 

 

 

 

Origin

 

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Zero

My mother wrote songs as she rocked me

Singing lyrics aloud, her eyes blue on mine brown

A song of the mother Mary rocking the Christ child

A lullaby that soothed until heavy eyelids closed in sleep.

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Five

We cut holes in shoeboxes

Then covered them in paper, pink and red mostly.

Scissors sliced thick paper into hearts and letters

While scented colored markers etched our names

In grape purple and lemon yellow and licorice black.

On super hero valentines,

I wrote To’s and From’s to each member of my class

Except I wrote two for Michael, the boy who made me laugh.

I liked-him-liked-him

The way Chris liked Michelle and Jason liked Desiree.

At the Valentines Party, I placed each small card in each small box

And two in Michael’s.

But I only wrote a From on one of his cards, leaving the other blank.

If I gave two to him, the other boys would know I was different.

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Fifteen

“You are indeed one of Heavenly Father’s choice sons.

Do not in any way disappoint Him.”

The patriarch spoke kindly, firmly,

A direct message from God to me on his breath.

Weeks before, when I had told the bishop my shameful secret,

the message had been the same, kind and firm.

“God loves you, He does not tolerate sin.”

The words of the prophets, kind and firm again.

“Pray, do everything God says, and He will cure you,

Make you straight,

Because He loves you.”

And so I ket my eyes just that, straight

Focused, unerring.

Dad was gone,

And my stepfather spoke with fists and angry words.

I was a fairy, he said. I would never measure up to a real man.

But God, He heard. I just couldn’t disappoint Him.

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twenty-seven

She looked at me sincerely, tears streaming down her face,

And asked why, why after six years of dating, we hadn’t kissed,

Hadn’t held hands, not even once.

I thought of the familiar excuses, used again and again,

About trying to be moral and righteous,

About saying it wasn’t just her, that I’d never kissed anyone,

Never held anyone’s hands.

Those were true words, but not the whole truth.

She needed the whole truth.

“I’m gay,” I said. “But I’m trying to cure it.”

And she didn’t mind. And so we kissed, finally.

There was affection and regard and kindness behind it,

If not chemical attraction,

And relationships had been built on less.

And for her the feelings were real.

And so, three months later, we married.

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thirty-two

The day my second son was born, I got that same sense

Of holding my entire world in my hands.

That word again, Fatherhood,

Overwhelming in its possibility, its responsibility.

Here, a new miracle, different from his brother in every way.

But this time, our lives were different.

Early drafts of divorce papers sat on the desk at home.

I was sleeping in the basement now,

And her heart was broken,

While mine, though sad, had come up for oxygen

After three decades of holding its breath.

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thirty-eight

Pen to paper, I think back on six years of firsts.

First authentic kiss.

First try at an authentic relationship

And first authentic heartbreak.

First time dancing, euphoric and free.

First friends, real friends, finally, friends.

First realization that I like myself, powerfully,

And that I have no need to be cured of something that was never wrong.

First freedoms, from religion and deadly self-expectations.

I live now, loudly.

My sons thrive in two households, and they will tell anyone who asks

That their mother likes boys who like girls

And their father likes boys who like boys.

They are thriving, and smiling, and real.

And so is she.

And so am I.

Mr. Karen Carpenter

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Just days before her wedding, Karen Carpenter discovered her fiancee was a liar.

Karen had been dating high profile men for years, sometimes casually and sometimes seriously. Alan Osmond and Steve Martin and Tony Danza. She was 5’4”, petite and small with an enormous smile. She looked healthy and strong at around 115 lbs, but she was hard on herself, often starving herself while using laxatives to empty her system and uppers to boost her metabolism and energy, and her weight would sometimes drop to 90, 85, or even 80 pounds, giving her the look of a skeleton covered in skin.

Her voice, though, her voice was unchanging. She kept an impossible schedule, touring the world and making music with her smoky and sultry voice in its lower register, somehow conveying the emotional weight of every word, whether she sang of falling in love or of being desperately lonely or of being heartbroken.

Talking to myself and feeling old, sometimes I’d like to quit, nothin’ ever seems to fit, hanging around, nothing to do but frown, rainy days and Mondays always get me down

and

why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near? just like me, they long to be close to you

and

what to say to make you come again, come back to me again and play your sad guitar, don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby?

Karen’s mother, Agnes, ruled the household with strong words and harsh expectations. She saw her son, Richard, as a musical prodigy who would have a successful career playing the piano, and she saw Karen as a talented young woman who could support Richard in his rise to fame and then perhaps Karen could become the wife and mother she was meant to be. Karen started her music career behind a set of drums, playing for her brother’s band, but when they heard her sing, she was moved out in front as the lead singer. She was the one everyone saw and heard and remembered.

Karen and Richard were dubbed the squeaky-clean rock stars, full of innocence and virginity, during their era, and their personal lives matched that at first; they even lived at home with their parents until they were in their mid-20s, for years after they had become famous. In time, Richard struggled through drug addiction while Karen fell in and out of love, hoping to find a unicorn of a man, who could love her, give her a family, be independent and devoted, and be able to handle her fame.

Karen met Tom Burris during a difficult time in her life. She had just tried launching her own musical career, her own solo album. She had smiled and beamed through the hard work of making her disco album, but after a year of hard work, her family and friends had discouraged her from releasing it, hearing the tracks and telling her it would be unsuccessful. And so she shelved the album, and it would only be released years after her death.

Tom had appeared perfect, and he came at just the right time. He was handsome with a flashy smile and a nice career and stories of vast wealth, and he was blonde and blue-eyed and seemingly devoted to Karen. He claimed he had never heard of her, though she was world famous. A decade older, Tom rushed a divorce with his current wife and proposed to Karen, promising to give her everything she ever wanted, and Karen, hesitant at first, said yes. Then, weeks before the wedding, Tom told her that he had had a vasectomy and that he couldn’t give her children. Karen was heartbroken and furious. He had lied to her. She called off the wedding, but her mother had already sent out the invitations and Karen was pressured into continuing.

And so, Karen Carpenter married Tom Burris married on August 31, 1980. She cut the honeymoon short, immediately unhappy, and then Tom began asking for money, having lied about his personal fortunes. He bought her a car, but they later repossessed it for missing payments. After months of unhappiness, Karen began working on the divorce proceedings, changing her will to keep Tom mostly out of it.

Karen’s health was failing, her body unable to operate without food and sustenance, abused by pills and laxatives. She started treatment and wanted fast results. The therapist was rough on her and Karen began facing harsh truths, especially in a therapy session where her mother could admit love for Richard but not for Karen, not out loud at least.

And so Karen was 32 when she woke up one morning, started a cup of coffee, and then collapsed naked on the floor in her room in her mother’s basement, her heart giving out on her. She died minutes later. It was 1983.

I was five when Karen died. I grew up listening to her amazing voice. It was heavenly, and it made me feel all the feelings. And now, I’m 38, older than she was at the time of her death, and I’m learning about her life. I’ve played her music for the week while I’ve read about her, and I’ve watched her old interviews as she denied having an eating disorder late in her career. I’ve watched her awkward singing behind a set of drums early in her career, and her extreme confidence as she flirted with the audience masterfully in the middle of her career. And this morning, I sit and type about her sad story, one talented and beautiful young woman who wanted love and happiness just like anyone else. And  I realize, it’s a rainy day and a Monday, and I’m feeling down.

But good Lord, that voice…

 

 

Spoon seeking spoon

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I miss being married.

It took me a long time to get there. As a young Mormon man, I spent two years after high school knocking on doors as a missionary. After that, there was tremendous pressure to marry, constant and consistent from all sources. Marriage was defined as the ultimate destination in life, to marry young and to have children and to stay married until old, then die and still be married to each other in the Heavens. I don’t believe any of that now, but back then it was the only way to go for young Mormon men.

I was caught in a massive trap. I didn’t yet have the ability to have anything but shame about being gay, and thus couldn’t date men, and so I could only date women, who I felt no attraction toward. I coped by focusing on personality traits rather than physical appearance. I knew what type of wife I should want, but ultimately I just didn’t have any drive. I was scared to death to marry, and yet knew it was my only option. At the time, being gay or being single were both spiritually forbidden.

When I finally married my wife, I was 27 years old, and I had never held hands with or kissed anyone, male or female, up to that time. I found a girl with a tremendous personality and a huge heart, a beautiful woman who wanted to spend her life with me. We had a brief conversation about the fact that I was gay once during the six years (yes, six years) that we dated, and then we took the Mormon plunge and married in the temple.

And honestly, except for the whole gay/straight thing, marriage was awesome. (And yes, that played itself out in many ways, from me being the kind of husband who planned themed dinner parties to a very strained aspect to certain parts of the relationship). It was wonderful, for both of us, to have someone to come home to at the end of the day. We went to church together, we had friends over for dinner, we went to each other’s family holiday parties, we vacationed. We had silly rituals, like playing board games at night and the loser having to do the dishes. We painted bedrooms and planted gardens. We set and achieved financial goals together. Since I was already done with school, I helped her get through school financially, and then we both worked and supported each other. We bought a house and worked on the yard together. We talked, we laughed, we binge-watched television shows on DVD, we gave each other back massages. We were best friends.

And then we had our first son, and he was a miracle, and we both loved being parents. We worked hard together and we resolved conflicts well. Had it not been for the absolute demon of shame and pain dwelling inside me due to me hiding from who I really was, we could have lasted forever. In fact, when we got divorced, after the birth of our second son, a dear friend told us, “but you two were perfect! If you can’t make it, no one can!”

It’s coming up on six years now since I’ve been single. (She has moved on, by the way, and is very happily in love with a straight guy this time; I know readers are wondering that). And I remain single. Exhaustingly and determinedly single.

The first few years out of the closet were incredible and difficult. Being a newly out gay man navigating a divorce, a new job, a new city, and now free from a religion that harmed me, I had to figure out dating with a toddler and an infant who owned my heart, and all of the financial, emotional, and time responsibilities that come with that. Still, single has been good to me too. I’ve learned how to take care of myself. I’ve learned to travel, to set and achieve goals, to self-validate, to spend time alone and appreciate it. I’ve learned how to make friends and live authentically. I’ve learned how to be true to myself. I’ve learned how to be a single father (with shared custody) and how to embrace my time with my children and put them first while still putting me first.

Yet despite consistent efforts to the contrary, I remain single (which is something I’ve written about that an to an obnoxious degree over the years). Today it dawned on me that it took me six years to marry after I returned home from my Mormon mission, and now I’ve been out of the closet and single for nearly six years.

The major difference this time is (well, outside of being closer to 40 then 30, as well as all of the other obvious differences) that I’ve put effort into dating this time. That’s something I had to learn how to do: date. I missed all that as a teenager, so I had to learn to fall in love, to leave when it wasn’t right, to have my heart broken, to compromise while keeping clear boundaries, to be lonely, to know what I’m looking for.

Dating at this stage of my life, with two grade school age children, is relatively simple. You feel a connection with someone, you ask them out for coffee some time. If there is interest back, they’ll say yes. If the guy says yes, and if coffee goes well, and there is conversation and interest on both sides, I’ll invite them out on an actual date–a play or live music perhaps, and dinner. Here is where it tends to fall apart: if the date was fun, I’ll say something simple like ‘I would enjoy seeing you again’, and then… that’s it. There is the expectation that they will initiate the second date. Days will turn into weeks and the guy generally remains silent. And for me, if there isn’t reciprocity and clear communication, well, then I’m not interested.

And that, in short, is my dating life this past year, with a few exceptions. There are the guys who show way too much interest way too quickly, and the guys who don’t have their lives together (as in lacking a job or going through a major crisis of some kind). And then there are the guys who seem interested but are too passive to ever express direct interest. And there was one guy I fell for pretty hard for a few months, but that didn’t turn out well at all. And I’ve certainly broken a few hearts and have had my heart broken a few times. Who knows, maybe I’m picky. But I know what feels right, and I’m absolutely unwilling to sacrifice my authenticity for an unhealthy coupling.

And so, single remains incredible and lonely. I get to set and achieve goals, and travel on my terms. I spend incredible times with my sons, having all kinds of adventures. And yet, I do miss being married. It would be wonderful to have all of those things that you see happy couples having: someone to come home to at the end of the day, someone to host parties with, someone to cuddle up to on rainy days, someone to raise the kids with.

And until that day when/if that relationship happens, well, I have a big comfy pillow that fits right under my arm where the little spoon should go.

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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