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Leaving Provo

provoSometimes when I travel I find myself wanting to create an alternate origin story for myself, skew just a few details to make my story a little bit more even-keeled.

Today on the flight to San Diego, I sat on the back row of the plane. We flew out of Provo, Utah, departing from a tiny little airport surrounded by dry fields and, farther off, breath-taking mountains. My car in the long-term parking lot was just across a small road from a literal cow pasture.

I was placed in the middle seat, and the woman to my right snored gently as the baby across the aisle cooed and cried, alternatively. The girl to my left, I later learned her name was Kimber, dutifully scrolled words in her leather bound diary as I read my book, the autobiography of Greg Louganis. She was gorgeous, a shapely blonde with her hair in pigtails under a ball cap, and she wore only a modest amount of makeup, something rare for Utah girls. I glanced at her moving pen from time to time and caught glimpses of angsty words.

Why can’t the world understand that people are just people and I’m so tired of having my heart broken and I just wonder what Heavenly Father has in store for me.

About halfway through the short flight, Kimber cleared her throat a few times, gently trying to get my attention. I could tell she wanted to talk. When we made eye contact, she opened our conversation with a casual “So are you from Utah?” and within minutes she was telling me her entire life story. I have the odd ability to get strangers to open up to me, likely my social work background and my empathic nature; sometimes I love this about myself, and sometimes I don’t.

Kimber talked about being the youngest of four kids and growing up in southern California with her single mother after her father left when she was a child. She talked about playing softball in high school and dealing with getting teased for being a lesbian all the time, even though she wasn’t gay. Her eyes flashed to the cover of my Louganis book, and then she glanced back up, seemingly trying to tell me that if I was gay, she was okay with that. She said she joined the Mormon Church when she turned 18 and moved to Utah for college.

As Kimber peppered me with a dozen rapid-fire questions about myself, I found myself filling in the facts wrong, creating a slightly different timeline for myself with the basic facts of my current life staying the same but my past vastly changed. I told her I grew up in Missouri, went to college in Seattle, and moved to Utah to launch a business. I told her I was a single father of two sons, that I was a therapist, and that I taught college.

Kimber leaned forward in the small space, her eyes alive with wonder, as she told me she served a mission in Oklahoma and had been home for two years, when she began therapy herself, and it changed her life, she said. She held up her journal and said it had become her best friend and her best coping mechanism.

Her voice lowered as she began asking me questions. She had an insider, a therapist as a captive audience for the rest of the flight, and she was going to take advantage of it. Is porn addiction real? she asked, as she confided that her current boyfriend had problems. Is it true that Mormons have more depression and teen suicides? she asked, as she talked about a suicidal friend. Is it normal for girls to want to wait until they are 30 to get married? she asked, as she talked about wanting to explore the world before she took the plunge. Is it more important to be in a relationship 100 per cent, or to have a life outside of the relationship? she asked, as she told me about her desire to be a career woman and not a housewife.

At one point, Kimber held up a finger to stop me. She had to write this down, she said, and began furiously scribbling notes in her journal as the flight attendants announced our landing in San Diego. I showed Kimber pictures of my sons, when she asked, and she commented how they looked just like me.

As we stood to gather our bags, Kimber and I exchanged names, finally, belatedly, and wished each other well. She gave me an extra sincere look in my eyes as she firmly shook my hand. “It was an honor to meet you,” she said, and her intense gaze seemed to convey the subtext that this meeting was meant to be, orchestrated in the pre-existence by God himself perhaps. I smiled at her genuineness and sincerity.

I gave Kimber a bright smile as I walked away. “Kimber, you’re my favorite kind of Mormon,” I said, then turned to the waiting San Diego sunshine, ready for adventures ahead.

Patriarchy in Provo

Provo

“So, when are you gonna make an honest woman out of that girlfriend of yours?”

The young blonde guy with the bright smile took a sip of his ice water and looked at his friend across the table, a tall guy with thick black hair and broad shoulders. Both of them were handsome and had that returned missionary look that is so common in Utah, clean-cut, short hair, shaved faces, bright smiles. I automatically dubbed them Smiley and Shoulders in my mind as they continued their conversation.

“Well,” Shoulders pointed with a finger at Smiley as he spoke, a mindless gesture that he likely used in every conversation, “we’ve only been dating for a couple of months. And the fact that she is a non-member is a huge red flag. I mean, she’s hot, but she has to have the same values as me.¬†She started taking the discussions from the missionaries and now she’s praying about the Book of Mormon. She’s telling me she is getting a testimony, but I want to give it a couple of months and see if she’s sincere. If she can stick with it, well, then she’ll be a lucky woman. I’ll baptize her, marry her, then take here through the temple a year later.”

Smiley reached over to high-five him across the table. “Score!”

I felt a look of disgust cross my face, unbidden. There was so much wrong with this conversation. I understand this culture and mindset. I grew up in it. But the sheer arrogance of it all, the sheer patriarchy…

First of all, I had to realize I was in Utah County, home of vast majorities of Mormons and Mormon families, and home to Brigham Young University, the famous Mormon school. Nearly everyone is white here. These two young men were likely 20 or 21 years old. They had likely been raised in Mormon families where they had a very clear timeline for their futures set up: graduate high school, go immediately on a two year missionary service wherever the Church sends you, come home and enroll in college, and then quickly marry a worthy and modest young woman over the age of 18 and start a family.

Provo is eerie that way. Loads of white smiling young men and blonde smiling young women, many with wedding rings on their fingers, many with babies in carriages as they walk down the road, waving at passersby. It has a very Stepford Wives feel.

I looked at Smiley and Shoulders high-fiving, and I had to sit back in my chair and reason out what it was about this image that bothered me so much. First of all, it was the way he was talking about this girl. He wasn’t listing her talents or personality quirks that he loved. He was basing her entire value, at least in this conversation, on how attractive she was and what her potential for being a faithful Mormon was. He saw her as having more value, rather like a commodity, if she could prove herself to him by adopting his values and beliefs. And then, he saw himself as her reward. The sheer arrogance…

But then I thought back to my own days as a Mormon missionary, where I would knock on people’s doors, teach them, befriend them, and invite them to be baptized… IF. IF they gave up coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol. IF they agreed to pay ten per cent of their income to the church. IF they agreed to stop having sex outside of marriage; either marry your sexual partner or stop having sex. IF they weren’t gay. We accept you, we love you, we want you in our church, IF…

Then I remembered a news story from a years ago. A young Mormon girl sat in the BYU library studying. A young man she didn’t know walked over to her and handed her a note, then walked away. The handwritten note said something like “I’m trying to be a good Priesthood holder, but when you wear such tight clothing it is distracting. I invite you to be a better daughter of God and dress more modestly so I can keep my thoughts pure.” The young woman later posted a photo of her outfit on social media, and it was tasteful, conservative, and nice, in no way revealing. The whole encounter left me nauseous.

I pictured this girl that Shoulders was dating. I assumed she was pretty and young and freshly moved to Utah, maybe from some place like California. She meets an attractive, muscular, strong man with a killer smile, and he seems interested in her, IF she can join his church and marry his straight out. I wondered if she realized what she was getting into.

Smiley took another sip off his water while Shoulders warmed his hands on his hot chocolate. They had been quiet for a second.

Smiley grinned again. “Well, man, she is a lucky girl. Me, I’m just playing the field for a bit.”

Shoulders laughed, stretching his spine against the back of his chair. “Well, don’t you worry, buddy. Hold strong. You’ll catch one soon enough.”

The two young men left shortly after that, and I sat thinking about a culture that still values men over women, putting pressure on them to be successful under certain terms, to be virile, to be providers, to be strong and non-emotional. And a culture that tells young women to accept their station in life, to get an education as a back-up in case their plans to be wives and mothers doesn’t work out, to be beautiful and to just want one man to nurture and please for the rest of their lives. A culture that tells both sides to be content in their station and to turn it all over to God. It all felt very 1940s to me.

I left Utah County a few hours later. As I drove down the freeway, the businesses and billboards flashed by my windows as blurs. I thought of all the Mormons and all the smiles and waves, all the weddings and babies and prayers on knees. And I thought of the statistics here, of depression and pornography addiction and suicide and divorces and sexual assaults. I thought of my own upbringing as a Mormon, and my living here as a non-Mormon now, of my family, of my clients and friends, and soon it was all spinning and whirling just like the view of the road from my car.

And I realized that perhaps that is the only way to look at this place, to combine all of its complexities in one snow globe and then to shake it up and see what falls to the ground and sticks.

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Physician, Heal Thyself

Physician_heal_thyself

Sometimes I wonder what it would look like if I did a therapy session with myself. If I did one today, it would probably look something like this.

“Hi, Chad, thank you for coming in today. I appreciate you reaching out for help and support. You had a chance to review the confidentiality paperwork and sign before beginning?”

Yes, thank you for having me. I did review the paperwork and I don’t have any questions.

“So, let’s just jump right in. What brings you in today?”

Well, I have a pretty complicated life. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do for work. I’m co-raising a couple of sons (they are amazing, by the way). I’m having difficulty feeling grounded in my life. And dating, ugh, don’t get me started.

“That does sound complicated. Sounds like you have a very full plate.”

Honestly, it feels more manageable right now in this moment than it ever has in the past. I feel like I have it under control, except for the being grounded thing.

“What makes it feel more in control now than it has in the past?”

Well, we don’t need to spend a bunch of time on this, but it’ll help to know my origins. I grew up Mormon in Missouri in a pretty complicated family. Chaotic, lots going on all the time, lots of drama, but also lots of love. I was the family social worker from my youngest days, learned to take care of everyone else’s problems as a way to avoid my own.

“And what kinds of problems were you having?”

I realized pretty young I was gay. So despite the family drama stuff, I found a way to hide that part of myself so I didn’t have to ever deal with it. I mean, being gay just wasn’t an option. And because I acted like everything was fine, no one really noticed my struggles. I learned to hide in plain sight, even from myself.

“I could ask a lot of questions here, but you mentioned you didn’t want to spend a lot of time on that part of the story.”

Right. So, to sum up, I spent a lot of time trying to cure myself, like my religion promised I could, by being unselfish and serving God, on and on. I spent a ton of time in church, paid my ten per cent tithing, spent two full years as a missionary, went to a church college. Praying, always praying for a fix, and always feeling broken, distant, different from other men. Dated women cause I was supposed to, but was never attracted to them, not even a bit.

“Go on.”

I met Megan when she was 18 and I was 21. It wasn’t until six years later, when we had been dating for a while, that she asked me finally why I hadn’t kissed her or held her hand. I finally told her I was gay. She shrugged, no big deal, we were married a few months later.

“So you hadn’t been physically intimate with anyone during that time?”

No. And I had only come out to religious leaders. But I still did the church thing, got my Masters degree, and started working before I got married.

“Sounds like you have always had a lot of drive.”

Yeah, I think so. Anyway, Megan and I had a great marriage, except for the whole I’m not into women thing. We had a kid after a few years, and I finally started to shut down. The cure thing wasn’t working after years of trying. I got depressed, gained some weight, snapped out of it, lost the weight, and finally came out of the closet, left the Mormon church. Megan was pregnant with our second during all of this.

“My word. That must have been a very difficult period. How long ago was this?”

Four and a half years now. Things are good between us now. We moved to Utah, are raising the kids together. There was this crazy couple of years at first. Brand new out single gay male, ex-Mormon, dating for the first time, and with two kids under three to raise.

“And all the while having to work and take care of regular day-to-day life.”

Yeah, there were some rough patches, but to feel alive, you know? It was like coming up for air after years of holding my breath.

“Well, I have a million questions, but let’s bring things up to the present. How are things for you now?”

I moved back to Utah in April after working in Seattle for six months. I see my kids a ton and they are thriving. And, well, I feel like a 20 year old. I have no idea what I want to do with my life. I mean, I’m here in Utah and I’m not leaving again, they are too important to me. But I don’t know what to do.

“What do you mean, you feel like a 20 year old?”

Most American kids go through that period of discovery after high school. They ask themselves the hard questions, travel, study, go in to debt, fall in and out of love, decide what they want to do when they grow up. They make mistakes, drink and have sex and take road trips.

“That sounds fairly typical to the American 2o-something. What was 20 like for you?”

Oh, God. 20 for me was wearing shirts and ties, knocking on doors, and telling people to come to Jesus, all the while living around a bunch of 20 year old guys doing the same thing, pretending I fit in and that I wasn’t attracted to them, and praying constantly I wouldn’t be gay anymore.

“That’s a very different upbringing. And you feel you are 20 now?”

In some ways. I mean, I’m 36, not 20. I have my college education. I have dependents, and bills. I have no desire to shed all responsibility and make enormous mistakes or drink myself to sleep, or to fall in and out of love over and over.

“So clarify for me, then. How do you feel 20?”

I have no idea what to do with my life.

“Let’s jump a couple of months in the future. It’s early fall and everything in your life has gone perfectly between now and then. You have found your grounding. In fact, everything is going just the way you want it. What is different in your life then?”

Well, many things are the same. I’m here in Utah. I have my sons often. I have my friends.

“And what is different?”

I’m in a relationship that is building toward permanent. I’m making better money doing something I love.

“Anything else?”

I’m out of debt, exercising more often, traveling more. I’d feel more self-assured. But those things would come with the relationship and job, I’d expect.

“Those things you are listing, being in a relationship and working at something you love, those don’t seem that unrealistic.”

Ugh, they shouldn’t be.

“‘Ugh?’ Why ‘ugh’?”

Those are the very things that have eluded me the past few years.

“Can we spend some time breaking those apart a bit? Dating and career?”

Yeah, that would be really good actually.

“Let’s start with relationships. Tell me what’s going on there.”

I don’t know if I have the objectivity to even tell you that. The gay community is complicated. A huge portion of it is very body and sex focused, hugely focused on alcohol. And there is so much emotional damage in the community. You have all of these grown-up men with jobs and families who act like teenagers when it comes to sex and alcohol because they did what I did growing up, hiding themselves in plain sight, and now they have to make up for lost time. I know not everyone is like that, but it is a huge portion of the dating pool here. Perfect body looking for perfect body, gym, booze, sex, and on to the next. It’s exhausting.

“And where do you fit in to all of this?”

I’m… different. I don’t know. Maybe it’s having kids, or being a bit older. Maybe it’s what I do for a living or the age I came out. I just want more than that.

“Can I challenge you on something?”

Yeah, absolutely.

“It seems almost as if you see yourself as separate from this definition of the gay community. Like you are above it, perhaps.”

That stings to hear, but I can see the truth in that. I drink sometimes. I enjoy sex sometimes. I go to the gym. I had a period of ‘making up for lost time.’ I don’t think I see myself as ‘above’ so much as I’m just having a difficult time dating in that world.

“Well, it’s very different from the world you knew. Mormon kid in Missouri, missionary, college student, professional, married straight man with kids, all with this very confining Mormon standard of morals and ways to live.”

Yes! It is very different.

“So why do you think you have had such a difficult time with dating?”

Okay, instead of comparing myself to the community, let me just talk about my experience. What works for me. When it comes to dating, I’m straightforward. I share what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling. I’m bold. I’m romantic. I’m not a jump into bed quickly kind of guy, not until I feel that connection and chemistry with someone.

“Go on.”

So it tends to fall apart in one of two places. Once we have passed that whole ‘I have kids’ thing, which is a barrier to some, and once I see that a guy is stable financially and emotionally, then we get to that first date. I’m not afraid to ask someone out, and if I have a good time, I’ll ask them out again. A lot of guys seem to wait to be asked out.

“So you go out on a date, and then?”

First dates are usually coffee, dinner, a walk, something like that. Simple. Get to know you conversation. Now I’ll rule out the terrible first dates that could never lead anywhere, dates where the guy is a jerk or monopolizes the conversation or treats our first meeting as a therapy session, and the ones where the guy is a huge flake. I seem to have some sort of curse when it comes to the second date.

“You’re giving me a lot to follow up on, but let’s start there. What is the second date curse?”

When I let myself get interested in a guy, which frankly takes a lot at this point, something seems to happen before the second date occurs. Three recent examples: one guy relapsed on drugs after five years of sobriety, one guy let me know he changed his mind about dating and he just wanted casual sex, one guy–

“I’m going to stop you there. Again, I’m getting that ‘above’ thing. A second date curse isn’t a thing. Take a wider view.”

I… truly don’t know. I could be coy and just say I haven’t found the right one yet. I could say my expectations are too high. I could go internal and say I need to love myself before I can love someone else. I could get cynical and say maybe relationships aren’t for me, or successful relationships aren’t possible. To keep it simple, I guess I’m just sick to death of searching for something that consistently eludes me.

“And why are you ‘sick to death’ of it?”

It’s, frankly, just exhausting. I see successful relationships around me. Guys that have been together for 20 years, or 10, or 5, who have homes and kids, who travel together and enjoy being together. I want that. And I have no idea how to find it.

You aren’t unique in that, you know? That’s every single person on the planet. That’s every person, gay or straight or bisexual, who hasn’t found someone, or who has had their heart broken. So let me ask a very simple question. Why do you want to be in a relationship?”

For the simplest of reasons. I want someone to share my life with.

“Tell me more.”

Even though I was closeted, I was married for years. I liked that, except for the whole wrong gender thing. I liked having someone to check in with at the end of the day. Good mornings and good nights, evening walks, cuddle time, meals and family events together. Hell, having a second income was great. Not some co-dependent thing. Just someone to share life with. I want that.

“Have you had that with anyone in the past four and a half years?”

Briefly. I fell for this guy long distance for a while. When we were together, it was great. Reciprocal. Eye contact and affection and laughing and silliness. It was good. But then he’d be gone and we’d fight or grow silent. Ultimately it just didn’t work, but during those brief times we were together, it was great.

“So when it comes to dating, I basically see three options for you. One, you can give up, quit trying, and just focus on yourself. Two, you can keep putting yourself out there and trying (but maybe lose the ‘I’m cursed’ mentality). Or three, you can jump into something and just hope it works out.”

Clearly the second option is the best one.

“I don’t think your expectations are unrealistic. You want to find someone who is put together and who wants to be with you. That makes sense. You want the unicorn in the field full of horses. How do you feel right now, having talked about this?”

Relieved. Exhausted, but relieved. It’s nice to have it all out there and to realize where I’ve been screwing up. Can we talk about career a bit?

“Yes. What do you want out of your job?”

I want to make more money doing things I love.

“And what are those things?”

To be honest, I’m not sure. I feel like I could divide myself in 8 and do each of them full time. I could continue doing social work. I could teach college full time. I could write and travel. I could make documentaries. I could–

“You have varied interests, it seems.”

I absolutely do. It’s back to the 20 year old feeling. Guy enters college, takes some classes, figures out what the hell he wants to do with his life.

“And what do you want to do with your life?”

Make money doing something I love.

“We seem to be in a circle. You want money and to do something you love, but you don’t know what that is.”

That is absolutely correct.

“So let me challenge you. Try thinking of this like a 36 year old father, and not a pretend 20 year old. What do you want?”

I… don’t know. Okay. Let me think. I don’t want the life I had before, working 60 hour weeks at a mediocre job. I want to work for myself. I–

“Do you want to keep doing social work?”

I… don’t think so. I think I want to write.

“You want to be a writer?”

Yeah, I think so. I want someone to give me a hundred thousand dollars a year and I will just write and share my ideas and insight with the world for the rest of my life. I’ll be like David Sedaris. I’ll make people laugh and smile and think and feel and cry. I’ll help through words. I’m good at it, but I have no idea how to make a living at it.

“We’re all out of time for today. Let me ask what you learned today, what insights did you gain in today’s session?”

Well, I’m no different than anyone else. I’m unique and I’m looking for things that are right for me, and I should’t get down just because my life hasn’t mapped out the way I’d expected.

“Great beginnings. For next time, I want you to let yourself think of becoming a writer. One who inspires others and maybe even makes that hundred thousand a year. What would that entail and how could you make a living? I’ll see you next week, Chad.”

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