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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To the One Who Was Cheated On…

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In my therapy office lately, I’ve worked with a lot of clients, both gay men and straight women, who have recently been cheated on by their partners. What follows is my words for them, gathered here in one place.

First off, although you already know this, you are beautiful. You are worthy of love. You are desirable, and worth it, and enough. And an act of betrayal by someone you love and trust does not change that.

You are not a fool for not noticing. Maybe the signs were there and you didn’t see them, or maybe you just felt safe and content. Maybe he acted like everything was normal, or maybe you could feel him pulling farther away. Or maybe you noticed the signs but you didn’t know what they meant. How could you? But whatever it was, whether it was a one time thing or something ongoing, whether it was online or while you were away, you aren’t a fool for not noticing. You found out when you did, and we can only live in this present moment now and figure out what comes next.

Only you can decide what to do now. You can demand therapy, ask to go through his phone, rage and scream, sleep in the guest room for a while, ask him to sleep in the guest room for a while, ask him to leave, or close off for a period of time. He made this choice, not you, and now you have to decide what to do and how to proceed. And that first night, when you found out and you simply lost it, well, that was justified. It was pure pain. Forgive yourself for that. You went there at first, but don’t stay there.

Given the chance, he may realize everything that he stands to lose. He was caught, and that may make him face up to what he has, and what he was willing to gamble with. Maybe he can show up now, maybe he can make all those changes you were hoping he would make. Maybe he will be all in, the way you have been for so long. Maybe he will be the man you always needed him to be. Maybe the sex will get better. Maybe he will make you feel attractive and loved again. Maybe he will hold your hand more, or cuddle you more often. Maybe you will feel safe again.

But maybe you won’t want that. Safe might feel threatening. The last time you felt safe, well, that was when he lied. And that is the biggest betrayal of all. You offered him your vulnerable self, your everything, you pledged your life to him, and these acts, these lies, they feel like a betrayal of the worst kind because he was so close to you. He isn’t your father, or your ex, he is the man you gave yourself to, and that hurts. And then you find yourself wondering if it was this way all along. Was he always cheating, always lying? Was the rest of what you had an absolute farce? Is he manipulative? Was it just this once, or was it many times? If he lied to you this time, did he lie all the others? What does this mean about him, about the man you fell in love with? And what does this mean about you? And if he is showing up now, why wasn’t he before? And is this sustainable, can he last, will the changes be permanent or only for a few weeks?

But maybe he won’t show up, too. Maybe he can’t change. Maybe he’ll yell at you, tell you it is your fault, tell you that if you had been more somehow he never would have cheated in the first place. Maybe he’ll shame your extra five pounds, your late nights at work, or your expectations. Maybe he’ll say it was you all along. And maybe that makes your decision easier.

But maybe he’s right a little bit. Maybe you could have shared how you were feeling more, and let him have more nights off with his friends, and listened a bit more often. You aren’t to blame, but maybe you have some things to work on too.

He cheated. He cheated and it hurts, on a deep level. But you have to remember that the cheating doesn’t negate everything that came before. All those other moments are real. The hot air balloon ride, the candlelight dinner, the sex in the shower, the ‘I love yous’ as the sun set, the way he looks at you over coffee, the time he swept you up in his arms and said you were his everything. Those moments, those experiences, those memories, are real. They are authentic and powerful. And you have to weigh them against the betrayal.

You can leave. You can walk away, and hurt, and take your things with you, and start again, and everyone would understand. You’ll heal. You’ll hurt, and grieve, and then you’ll move on. The ocean is full of fish, as they say.

But maybe you’ll stay. And if you’ve chosen to stay, well, that’s hard too, because everything feels just like it did before, all of the wonderful and all of the problems, but now you feel like a crazy person. You want to pepper him with questions about the night it happened, who was it, how was it, how often, what specifically, and what not, and was he thinking of you during or after, and was the other person better than you, and did he think about what he stood to lose? You want to call him names. You want to go cheat on him back, so he can know how it feels.  You want to check his phone, put a tracker on it, and follow him to work or the doctor or the gym to see if he’s telling the truth. You wonder if he’ll do it again when he leaves early or comes home late, and every time he leaves to run errands, or every time you are late or gone for a day, you wonder if he is going to do it again, and if so, will you catch him, and do you even want to or would you rather not know, and if he does it again will you be able to give him yet another chance. And you hate it, because you don’t want to be that person who is constantly suspicious and on high alert. The questions and wonderings exhaust you, and they make you sad, and they make him sad, and you know he feels bad and you don’t want to keep making me feel bad, but goddamn it, you were hurt.

You were hurt.

And so, whatever comes next, face it with grace. Be kind. Be consistent. Share your feelings in safe places. Keep your boundaries. Take it one week, one day, one hour at a time. You miss him, you need him, you want him, you want to want him and need you, and you want him to hold you, and you’re wary of being hurt again, and you’re not sure what comes next, and all of those things are okay. Create space for them. You are human, you are organic, and you are not in a hurry.

And although you already know this, you are beautiful. You are worthy of love. You are desirable, and worth it, and enough. And an act of betrayal by someone you love and trust does not change that.

Envying Happy

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Last weekend, my partner and I attended the Pride parade. We walked down the road, holding hands, my sons J and A gripping our hands tight. To all, we looked like a happy family. Many, seeing a gay couple out and proud, with kids at their sides, gave ‘oohs’, and ‘so cutes!’ as we walked by. (They were right, we are cute.)

One friend, though, messaged me later that day. “I saw you with your family at Pride and I couldn’t say hello. I was too sad.” He went on to explain that while he was genuinely happy for me, and that he knew I had worked hard to be where I am in life now, but that he envied the things I have, implying that happiness may elude him forever.

To this friend, one I care about a lot, I want to say ten things.

  1. I know how you feel! I spent so many years watching others be happy, and feeling like I could never be! I remember as a teenager, seeing straight guys get to actually date girls while I could never date guys. I remember seeing people who were fit during the time when I was obese and envying how ‘easy’ it came to them. When I was closeted, I remember seeing happy gay couples, just knowing that would never be me. When I was in debt, I saw those with financial freedom with absolute heartache. When I was single, I saw happy couples sometimes almost with derision, wondering constantly why I could never find that. I know how you feel!
  2. Things aren’t always as ideal as they seem. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with my life. But you saw us around, what, 10 am? The morning before that consisted of breakfast for four people, showers and getting ready, and packing bags, the kids both having separate fits because they couldn’t play longer, one kid sticking his hand inside a garbage can and subsequently putting it in his mouth, the barista being completely untrained and not understanding what a drip coffee was, and me forgetting the sunscreen. In fact, the reason we were walking like that, with the kids on either side, was to keep them from fighting. What I’m getting at is, yes, I’m happy, but it is a lot of work. (I mean, the child support payments alone). I’m just saying, the richest people still have problems, and the happiest couples sometimes fight the most.
  3. Ten years ago, I was depressed, obese, childless, in an unhappy marriage, and broken. I believed I could never be happy. My path ahead sixty hour work weeks, debt, empty church service, health problems, and more depression. My journey forward started by exercising, then coming out, then learning how to be an out gay man with children and debt. Even after that, I was single for 6 years. I turn 40 this year, and happiness was hard won.
  4. Even now, I’m happy, but I’m not. I have things I’m dissatisfied with. I set goals constantly. Bad things happen to me, I have bad days, and I get sad, angry, and scared quite often. I’ve learned to be kind to myself on tough days, and I’ve learned to accept that being dissatisfied is part of being human. I love parenting, but I don’t love everything about parenting. I love my job, but I don’t love everything about my job. I love being in a healthy relationship, but I don’t love everything about being in a relationship. I’m consistently striving for bigger and better. I am constantly working on my own happy.
  5. Happiness is fleeting. It comes in short bursts. It takes effort and consistency, just like fitness and financial freedom do. It means a lot of hard internal work. Healthy doesn’t happen without good nutrition, a whole lot of physical effort, and consistency. It doesn’t take personal trainers or the perfect genes, it just means super hard work. I did that work on my outsides (I still am!) and I did that work on my insides (I still am!)
  6. Everyone’s happy is different than everyone else’s. There is no perfect recipe for happiness. A boyfriend or husband, a better job, a million dollars, a home, a child… those all bring their own struggles and concerns. Happiness needs to be found in the present, and then it changes with us as we grow and alter and age. You don’t want my life, or my happy, you want your own. And that means figuring out what that is for you.
  7. Before I could be in a relationship, I had to learn how to be single. That meant learning how to be my own favorite person, my own best friend, my own motivator. I used to go to parties or events and feel pathetic for being solo; I got over it. I started to date myself: plays, movies, concerts, trips. I was honest with myself, I held myself accountable. I worked on goals (getting braces, paying off credit cards) and I was kind to myself when I made mistakes or had bad days. I still like my own company. I genuinely like myself and I’m my own favorite person. This was the best work I ever did.
  8. To be blunt and honest, the world is frequently a shitty place. We humans complain about most anything, from the weather to how long our coffee is taking to brew, but the world is full of real problems and struggles outside ourselves. Just scanning the periphery of my brain, the words human-trafficking, rape culture, school shootings, lava flows, and immigrants having their kids taken away pop up. You can’t scan the news without abject horror clouding your landscape. Happiness has to be a choice in spite of all of that, whether the pressure comes internally or externally. The only thing you have control over is you. And happiness can’t be found by ignoring the world, only by embracing the world with its flaws and being happy in spite of it, all while trying to make the world better around us.
  9. Depression is a real thing. And when someone is depressed, happy not only feels impossible, it feels like a real chore. It feels like ‘it’s impossible’ and ‘what’s the point’ all at once. Depression hurts, and it’s miserable, and it sinks into your soul. But it can be temporary. It takes work to climb out of it. I did, once, and I try to help others do so. And if you have depression, well, then, you can too. I’m here anytime you need to talk.
  10. Lastly, I wish you could see you the way others see you, the way I see you. No matter how sad you might feel, it doesn’t make you any less amazing. You make art, and you see the world with an artist’s eye. You have survived unbearable things, and you have gone on to inspire others. You have restarted your life, shed your past, and began again with a new name and a new beginning. When a friend was hurting, you gave of yourself to help this friend in a way that very well may have saved his life, and that meant a lengthy healing process for you afterward. What you did for him is super-human. You have an enormous heart, and endless potential. Take a moment to look outside in, and do so with love and understanding, because you are incredible.

Don’t envy my happy. Instead: Be happy! Be you! Find your happy! Start today! I’m here, and I’ll be watching. And next time you see me walking down the sidewalk, don’t be sad. Instead, come out and say hi. I’ll have a huge hug waiting for you.

Reservations: the Well-Meaning White Man

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“Welcome, everyone, to today’s competency training! To begin, we will have an exercise. I want everyone to stand somewhere in the room. Spread out, make sure you have plenty of room. There are about one hundred of you here, so you should be able to stand with enough space to spread out your arms and turn in a circle without touching anyone. Make yourselves pretty comfortable.”

I did as instructed, watching the crowd spread out around me. I didn’t really know anyone, so it was nice to have space.

The woman spoke back into her microphone. “Okay, now that a few minutes have passed, We are going to take away half of your space. One entire half of the room is no longer available to you. Everything from this line of chairs to the door. Everyone please move to that side of the room.”

We all did as instructed, cramming together in the smaller space, not touching each other still, but with much less space between us. Then the woman shrank the space by fifty per cent one more time, placing us all into one quarter of the room, where we were now standing shoulder to shoulder.

“Okay, please meet your neighbors, get comfortable. We will just leave you there for a few minutes.” But after only thirty seconds, she spoke again. “Just kidding, I know this is uncomfortable. But I have bad news. We are taking away half of your space once again. You must now fit between this section of wall and that space on the floor. Please move closer to accommodate everyone.”

And with that, we crushed ourselves into each other in the corner of the room, feeling desperately uncomfortable. She only left us there for a few seconds, but it was enough time to feel humiliated, frustrated, angry, and, for some, panicked. But then the woman finally instructed us to take our seats, with all of us wondering what the point had been. She taught us quickly.

“This is what it was like for Native Americans over time. For hundreds of years, our ancestors had the rule of the entire land. But when settlers came, their land was taken, and taken, and taken, and taken. Many thousands were killed, and their religion was mocked. They were called savages. Their children were forced to covert to Christianity. Their resources were pillaged. They were given alcohol to appease them, and they were subjected to hard labor for little pay, and finally poverty. Then, when there was little left to take, they were crushed into the corners of the room, placed into reservations. And while they struggled to survive in these harsh conditions, the white man mocked them, calling them drunks and wife-beaters, and resented it when they spoke up and wanted to govern themselves. They laughed about how easy the Natives had it while the life of the white man was much harder. And that is the story of our people, crushed into the corners and resented for trying to succeed.”

Back in 2007, when I underwent this training, it had a profound impact on me. For the following four years, I worked as a mental health clinician on a reservation, with a population of people I’d scarcely given thought to. When I think back hard enough, now in 2018, I can still feel the goosebumps on my skin from my co-worker singing a family chant while playing a hand-drum, I can still watch the sunrise over the distant corners of the reservation’s sacred lands, I can still picture the grieving Native families rubbing sage on themselves to honor a deceased loved one as the coffin sat in front of a Christian cross, I can still recall the bravery of the young woman who fought the system to get herself a full-ride scholarship in an attempt to honor herself and her family.

Today, just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, I walked among the Petroglyphs. In the hills around the city, Native Americans lived for hundreds of years, and they carved on rocks. People, birds, images, animals, arrows. Some of these faded drawings date back to the 1300s, the signs say. The European settlers came, slowly trickling in over the following few centuries, and the Natives were forced to change with them. The white men brought diseases, money, conquest, and unfamiliar customs, with words like ‘rape’ and ‘pillage’, ‘kill’ and ‘exploit’. I think of my own childhood in the 1980s, still playing leftover games of ‘cowboys and Indians’, with the cowboys always being the heroes as they stole the land.

I stood on a hilltop today and looked across the brown New Mexican landscape. The plants are unfamiliar here. They are sharper, dustier, with needs and crags. They are the desert and the mesa. I look down and a small spotted lizard no bigger than my pinky finger rushes across the rock, leaps into the grass nearby, then scampers out and into the rock face. It it foraging for food, watching for rattlesnakes around it and birds above? Nearby, a dove of some kind gives a long trilling call, over and over again, and I shiver with the loneliness. The rock behind me has a drawing of some kind of man on it, or perhaps a woman. I have no idea what it means. No one can possibly know. But it is beautiful because it is old, and because it is all that remains.

A sign nearby references the original settlers of this land, the Pueblo. It talks about the honor paid to ancestors, who built a layered city around the banks of the Rio Grande, sharing the water source for survival. Even from here, I can hear the electric buzz of the buildings and the impatient bustle of the cars, and my phone buzzes in my pocket.

I turn back to the petroglyph, and I think back to my first days working on the reservation, far from here, but a place with a similar history. A strong woman I worked with, a Native American grandmother, grew frustrated with me one day. I had been complaining about the long list of clients waiting for drug and alcohol assessments, frustrated that I might never catch up.

“We are paying you to help us here. These are people. Not a list of names, but people. They are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. And they need your help.” And after I’d apologized, she’d smiled affectionately, and said, “Don’t apologize. Just help. You have your heart in the right place. Well, as much as a well-meaning white boy can.” Then she laughed, a loud cackle that I can still hear.

I turn back to the petroglyph again, and I grieve.

Gay means happy

So let me ask you an honest question. Don’t get offended. Just think it over.

Okay, what is it?

Do you think gay people are happier than straight people?

Well, why do you ask?

It just seems to me that gay people are much more judgmental and that they have much higher rates of depression. 

Well, first you have to consider that gay people represent only a small portion of the population. But they are represented and equally distributed among all of the population, no matter the country, religion, or political affiliation. So this can only be measured per capita. 

Well, of course, of course. Still, they seem so much more unhappy to me.

That isn’t untrue. Gay people go through a lot more struggles than straight people inherently just because they are gay. 

What do you mean? That doesn’t seem fair to say. 

Let’s come back to that. Would you agree that kids who grow up in lower socio-economic homes, in poverty, or in foster care have a greater likelihood to struggle with depression and anxiety than kids who grow up in happy homes that are free of abuse and where there is plenty?

Well of course. That seems obvious.

Okay, and on the flip side, kids who grow up with hardship and then learn to rise above it, would you agree that they tend to have happier and more fulfilling lives, or at least a better sense of self, than people who just had everything handed to them? I didn’t word that well, but do you know what I mean?

Sure, if you have to fight for things, you learn to appreciate them more.

So that holds true for the gay community, on both sides. Gay kids learn very young how to hide themselves. You know my story, how I knew even at 5 years old that I didn’t fit in with the other kids. So I didn’t get healthy development. I was teased for being different, and internally I grew to hate myself for being gay, or different, for not being right. 

Yes, we’ve talked about your years growing up. 

So it’s the same. When you grow up bullied, different, set apart, or hating yourself, you are more likely to have depression, anxiety, and trauma. And again, gay people are represented in every part of humanity, so those in home with poverty or abuse, those in foster care, etc, they are even more likely to grow up with mental health issues. 

Then there is coming out. Coming out for me meant devastating consequences and changes in my relationships. That was another thing I had to survive. 

So on the flip side of all of that, you have the people who survived, who fought hard for what they have, and they tend to love themselves in greater quantities. You’ve seen that with me. You knew me back then, when I didn’t like myself, and you see how loudly I live now. I fought for it, and I’m very mentally well now. 

Still, the gay community as a whole seems so unhappy. There seems to be a hierarchy out there, you know?

There is certainly a lot of unhappiness. And I know exactly what you mean. Gay people constantly shame themselves and others. Males in particular expect perfection, emotionally stability, and fit bodies. They idolize the most masculine and successful. It’s programmed into them, just like it is in the straight community for both men and women. It’s likely very different for lesbians. 

And honestly, the strongest people I know are transgender people, who grew up with SO much more hardship than me, and have to fight SO much harder to get to where they are. I know so many that I consider heroes. 

Surely not all of them. 

Definitely not all of them. Again, trans people are cut from all fabrics. 

So you think gay people have to fight harder, that there is greater depression and anxiety, and also greater happiness after they win the fight?

I think that is fair to say. It’s the same for women over men, and people of color. 

I’m not sure I always agree, but I certainly do appreciate your insights and your way of explaining things. I think you’re pretty wonderful. 

I think you’re pretty wonderful too. And better yet? For the last few years, I like to think that I am also pretty wonderful. And it feels good to say that. After all, gay means happy, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woman in Pieces

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“You don’t understand! They will kill me if they find out! They might be listening to this call right now! You don’t know what they are capable of! They watch me, everywhere! They have cars on the roads, they hide in alleys, they listen to every word and every sound! They cut up my dog!”

She spoke swiftly, in a rush, as if all of her words had to be used before she ran out of time.

“They did! They did! I don’t care what you say! They cut up my dog!” She stopped to sob for a moment, taking several deep breaths as tears flowed down her face. “I don’t know! I can’t un-see it! I don’t know who they are! But they cut up my dog and I can’t ever get him back! It’s my fault!”

I curiously looked around the corner of the hospital waiting room, where the woman was sitting, speaking on a courtesy phone in the lobby. Several people around her were looking distressed as she kept speaking rapidly, every sentence out of her mouth ending in an exasperated exclamation point. People began to move away, not sure what to do or say.

“Listen to me! No, listen! They cut off my food stamps first! They can’t do it, but they did! They said they needed proof of where I live, but then they said they didn’t! They got the proof then said it was never there! They don’t want me alive! They won’t even feed me! And they cut up my do-ah-ah-g!”

She began wailing louder this time, fully histrionic, her gestures getting wilder. She was small, skinny, likely only 30 but looking much older. She wore a baggy black coat, frayed jeans, and a new-looking pair of tennis shoes. Her brown hair fell loose on her shoulders, and she wore no makeup. Her face looked lined, as if she’d had several years of hard drinking and perhaps methamphetamine use. I wondered who she was talking to so frantically.

“My dog, my dog, my dog!” Her voice grew strangely quiet with conspiracy suddenly, and she started to look around frantically. “Listen, I think they are watching now. They’ve been trying to drive me crazy for years. Years! In every different apartment. They’ve watched me, messed with me, tried to kill me.” Then she shouted again. “They tried to poison me! I don’t know what kind of poison, every kind of poison! All of them! Poison!”

The mental health professional in me starting doing an auto-diagnosis. If this woman wasn’t currently high on drugs, she was very likely an untreated paranoid schizophrenic, or was suffering some kind of psychotic break in conjunction with a medical condition. I wondered if there was even anyone on the other side of the phone. I saw a nurse, an employee across the room, dialing a phone for assistance.

Her voice went dangerously low again. “Listen, I don’t have long. They killed my dog. They killed my dog! They killed my dog. They cut him up. They want me to be next.” She yelled, then went quiet again. “I’m at a hospital. Now, I don’t know where. I don’t have food. I–I’m going to need help. Listen, you can do it. You can help me. They are after me.” And then a powerful shout once again. “They tried to poison me! They killed my dog!”

I watched the worried looks on the faces of the few people who remained in the room. My brain shifted back to years ago, when I was working with the extremely mentally ill in various hospital or drug treatment facilities. I considered walking over to the woman to ask if she needed help, or to de-escalate her, but the hospital had staff for things like this. And sure enough, a security guard walked down the hall and took a seat near the woman.

“They’re here,” she whispered, ever so softly, then hung up the phone. She immediately shifted her energy and turned toward the guard with a bright smile on her face, no sign of distress at all. “Hello, officer, how can I help you?”

The man had a kind face. He looked weary, like he was at the end of a long shift. “Hello, ma’am. You sounded pretty upset. Anything I can do to help you?”

She made her voice sugary sweet. “Oh, no. Well, I’m just going to go to the bus stop. I seem to have forgotten where I am. I just, maybe you could help me get to the right place? I’m not sure I can walk.”

“Well, I could get a wheelchair and do that, take you outside to the stop. It’s not far.”

“Oh! Sir! You’d do that for me!” She batted her eyes briefly. “That plus a sandwich and a few dollars? That would absolutely wonderful.”

“I’m afraid I can only get you to the stop, ma’am.”

“Well, fine. You just get the wheelchair and I’ll step outside for a cigarette and wait for you.”

Apparently forgetting that she couldn’t walk, she got up and walked through the double doors and I quickly lost sight of her. The nurse looked toward the security guard.

“Thank you!” she exclaimed. “I couldn’t listen to how they cut up her dog one more time!”

Within a few minutes, the hospital was back to normal. The woman never returned for her ride in the wheelchair. I wondered where she might go next, and if she still thought people were watching her. Then I realized I had been watching her. I wasn’t trying to poison her, nor had I killed her dog, but my gaze probably hadn’t helped.

I left the hospital shortly after that, and I worried after that poor woman who was in so much pain. She’d left a piece of her with me when she’d departed, I realized. She must scatter pieces of herself wherever she goes, and then wonder where she left herself later.

What We Survived

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“What is the thing you are lucky to have survived? I want you to turn to the members of your small group and share with them, and later you’ll be writing a paper on the same topic.”

I felt nervous as I turned to the other three members of my group, already feeling like I didn’t fit in. I was 23 years old and, as far as I knew, the only Mormon kid in my college cohort of social work undergraduates. I was here at Boise State University in a room full of mostly white students, but there were only a handful of men. After high school, I had spent two years on a Mormon mission, and then another two years at a Mormon university. Now I was here among students who called themselves feminists and who sometimes drank alcohol and I didn’t know at all where to fit in. I felt constantly judged for being religious, and many of them felt constantly judged by me because I was religious, and both of those things were probably true. On top of it all, I was hiding the fact that I was gay, way deep down inside, not daring to tell anyone about my terrible shame.

I boldly agreed to go first, keeping eye contact with my group, hoping to find acceptance there.

“I, uh, went through some pretty tough things as a kid and teenager,” I said, sounding confident even though I wasn’t. I chose not to speak about growing up gay, or about my dad leaving, or about the sexual abuse, and instead focused on more recent events. “Um, when I was 16, I remember coming home one day and finding my 6-lb puppy, just this little black scruffy thing named Sammy, literally broken and lying on the floor in the frozen garage. During the day, my stepfather Kent said she had been causing trouble so he tried to toss her outside in the slow and then he slammed the sliding glass door closed on her on accident. He basically just put her down in the garage to freeze to death. I picked her up and could feel her ribs were broken and I cuddled her underneath the blankets in my bed. Kent came down angry and told me to put her back in the garage and I refused and for some reason he left us alone. He was violent and angry a lot during those years, but somehow that was the worst thing he had done.”

The other students in the group had pained looks on their faces, and they shared in this sadness with me for a moment, then took their turns in sharing their stories. One of the students shared a history of being sexually assaulted and then struggling with eating disorders and suicide attempts afterwards. Another student talked about being in the room when her own mother was murdered. The third talked about a horrific car accident that killed three other people and put her in the hospital, one she nearly didn’t survive.

A moment later, we opened the discussion up to the wider classroom and a handful of people shared their stories. One man had lost friends in combat only to be sent home when he was caught in an explosion, one woman had lost her entire home and everything she owned in a house fire, one had been married to a police officer killed in the line of duty.

I remember sitting there with a sense of emptiness and awe as I looked around this room of brave and incredible people. The only thing we had in common was being here in school at the same time, students in a university program. The professor talked about how humans are powerful and resilient and incredible, how we survive some of the worst things in the world and come out stronger on the other side, although we are forever changed. He talked about how, as social workers, we would be sitting with people in their most vulnerable and tragic spaces and helping them find their strength and their truth. And he talked about how even though we survive painful things, we likely have other painful things to survive in the future.

In many ways, this college experience launched my career in trauma work. Over the following years, I have sat with people in their greatest moments of pain, some of it unfathomable. I’ve sat with the woman who had a gun pointed into her open mouth during a bank robbery, the woman who watched her husband commit suicide with a shotgun right in front of her, the man who found his husband hanging over the breakfast table, the mother who woke up from a coma only to learn her entire family had been killed by a drunk driver, the man who lost his entire family during his 25 years in prison, the man who learned of his sister’s death at the hands of a serial killer, the woman whose husband came out of the closet after 40 years of marriage, the athlete who lost his job and scholarship because of one night of careless drinking, and the mother whose son took his own life because he felt rejected by a church for being gay.

If I were to sit in a group now and talk about what I survived, my answer would be much more recent. I would tell about being a home owner with a child, a pregnant spouse, a business, and major religious responsibilities when I came out of the closet and had to start my life over, rebuilding every relationship and learning how to live.

After I’ve worked in trauma several days in a row, I look at the world differently. I see people as survivors, and there is a weight to my eyes. A few days off with sunshine and fresh air, hugs from my children, laughter with friends, savory food, sweat, sleep, sex, wine, inspiration from history, and chocolate in some form or combination is needed to return the optimism.

It is at times a dark and difficult world. And it is a bright and beautiful one.

And we survive both.

 

We are Miracles, All

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One of the great lessons I have learned as a therapist, hearing human stories from every age and perspective, is simple:

In any given moment, we are as authentic as we know how to be. And the only moment we have is this one.

Picture a piece of string, fixed to one wall and stretched to the other.

This is your life. One small strand, whether you live to be 2 or 102.

We have a certain amount of control over that life span, with healthy living choices and self-preservation. Yet we are very fragile creatures, subject to injury and disease and depression, and sometimes to the poor or violent decisions of others.

And that timeline string follows rules. You can only move chronologically along it, from left to right, like flowing water. Each moment you exist feels real and vibrant and full with whatever you are feeling and experiencing. And then another moment goes by and the one you were living becomes memory, for now you are living another.

Along this timeline, we can look back at what has passed, viewing it from our present. And we can look forward with wonder or dread, also from our present. But even those moments of reflection and wonder are quickly replaced by another.

And so we face each moment with the amount of authenticity we are equipped with at that exact moment.

When I was five, and I sat in the driveway at my house feeling like my world was going to end because my mom went to the store without me… well, that’s easy to smile about now, but at that time, the pain was intense and real.

And when I was thirteen and my face broke out in terrible acne, and I looked at myself in the mirror with horror and anguish, that was real.

And when I was twenty-two and felt overwhelmed by college finals mixed with a full-time job and mounting bills and religious obligations, and I felt I would crack, that was real.

And when I was thirty and held my oldest child, newly born, in my arms for the first time, and my heart expanded to twelve times the size, and I felt elation and fear and responsibility and love beyond anything I had ever known, that was real.

And when I was thirty-four and I dropped off the divorce papers to the courts, and I grieved my marriage and my faith deeply while looking forward with steadfastness and strength and resolve and hope, that was real.

And now I’m thirty-seven, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop, and it’s cold and dark outside, and a policewoman sits next to me looking weary, and my coffee is luke warm, and my soul feels inspired, and… well, this moment is real as well.

I have been through some terrible things in my lifetime. We all have. It’s part of the human condition. I have ached and cried and hurt and struggled. And I have been through some wonderful things in my lifetime. We all have. It’s part of the human condition. I have rejoiced and basked and thrilled and sang.

And each and every one of those moments are moments that I have lived, authentically. And each of them has passed, as they will continue to do so until my timeline is complete, and I know not when that will be.

And the end of life, people say the same things, lessons learned with full perspective: that we should live for the now, that we should live without regrets, that we should be ourselves and be true to ourselves, that we should embrace our loved ones and spend time with our friends, that we should travel and love and dance and climb.

No one, with perspective, wishes they had spent more time in pain, more time grieving losses, more time surrounding themselves with those that do not love them, more time in debt or disease or obesity or anguish or abuse.

We must, simply put, lean ourselves toward love.

I have had times in my life where I felt I wasn’t worthy of love, happiness, or peace. I felt burdened down by financial expectations or weight or religious requirements or relationship responsibilities or physical constraints. And there will always be things to hold us back. It takes a very careful balance to find love and peace for the beings we are, and to work on changing and amending our beings toward happier realities over time.

For if it took me four years to put on eighty pounds, it will certainly take me more than four days to lose it. I can’t erase tens of thousands of debts overnight. If I have suffered from heavy depression for years, it may take several months to get used to feeling hope and joy again. If I have hurt others with my choices, it will take time to reestablish trust. And if I have lost a loved one, a period of grief is necessary for healing.

The quest to find ourselves in a happy present is a noble, difficult journey. And once the present is found, we have to continue finding it, for it is always new.

But oh, what a worthy journey, when we find ourselves on new horizons with the sun on our skins and the air in our lungs, for we are miracles, all.

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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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Save Yourself

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When the storm is raging or the river is wild,
When you scream hysterics (damn that inner child),
When your hidden desires stack too high on your shelf,
Grab an oar, daughter. Save yourself.

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If you need his love or you just might die,
If you look in the mirror and have to cry,
If your unfinished list inspires a yell,
Pick up a pail, son, and save yourself.

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Life has a way of laying you prone.
Life may strip you of all you own.
Life makes you question your own mental health.
Use a pen, dad, and save yourself.

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Ever the weight stacks up on your shoulders.
Ever you dodge insurmountable boulders.
Ever the day comes that feels like hell.
Dial that phone, mother. Save yourself.

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Too often you forget it’s not meant to be easy.
Too often you leave home your coat when it’s freezing.
Too often you need me to open your cell.
Here is the key, child. Save yourself.