skinheart

at times, my heart seems made of skin

bared for breath or covered for protection

reacting to ever-changing boundaries and limits,

sounds and space,

climate and condition.

soft and pink,

white at the center when gently pressed,

blanched in panic when squeezed too hard,

and, when set free, pink and pooling as safety is restored.

soft mostly, but also

callused where worn,

scarred where cut,

evidence of healing where bleeding used to be.

gooseflesh at just the right gust or whisper.

tightly sealed for protection,

or weeping in times of fever, times of pain or burn or blister.

layers deep,

each one durable, pliable, paper-thin,

each blood-red at the center.

it curls over me, around my skull, down my spine, stretching to my extremities.

and then, at the certain place, for the certain person,

it trusts,

staying soft and smooth as fingertips trace its edges.

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Seattle Part 3: Lake Washington

Everyone warned me about the rain in Seattle. They spoke of it with such drama in their voices, telling me how it would be so depressing, wet, and cold there constantly. One friend warned me that people get suicidal in the winter there.

Me, though, I loved the weather there. The temperature there seemed to hover between 60 and 70 in September when I arrived, and when it rained it was a light, wet, drizzle. It was sometimes grey with clouds, and sometimes bright, delicious with sunshine and a light breeze. Every day felt like how I felt on the inside, or how I was working to feel: temperate, consistent, pleasant, calm.

I rented a bedroom in my step-brother’s condo. I hadn’t seen him in years. When I was 13, Bob had been married with children, and when he came out of the closet, my family reacted very poorly. My mother was married to his father back then, though they didn’t stay that way for long. Now I was in my mid-30s, and we had only recently established contact again. He lived in a lovely condo in the Madison Beach area of Seattle, nestled in between expensive homes on the beautiful edges of Lake Washington.

The beaches along the lake were grass, not sand, and I never once got in the water, but I grew to love watching the sun rise and set over the lake. The clouds moved languidly, and broke open to let sunshine spill through. In the early mornings, I could clutch my coffee and drink in the bright pinks and yellows of the rising sun. It filled my soul with hope, joy, and love. It felt like the God I should have grown up believing in, one full of opportunity, change, and love, constant every day. It was different every time, nature’s perfect show, there just for me.

My first week in Seattle, I walked along the edges of the lake, through unfamiliar neighborhoods, nestled on unfamiliar streets. Everyone was a stranger here. I could start fresh. No one knew me. I wasn’t the Mormon kid who made the colossal mistake of marrying and having children before coming out, I was just some guy that smiled and waved as they walked past. I had an anonymity that proved to be the perfect backdrop for the beginnings of my healing.

Years before, I had come out of the closet with such a fierce determination. I was going to live life on my terms, finally. I was going to show everyone what I was capable of, that I could be happy, that being gay wasn’t a choice, and one that didn’t have to result in doom, excommunication, and unhappiness. I could be happy! I could show them all! I could work, and write, and raise my kids, and pay my bills, and date, and start a new life, with energy, happiness, and no problems at all! I could do this! It would be perfect and wonderful, they would all see! That’s how I’d felt at the start.

But in Seattle, I let myself grieve, finally. I let myself feel all the things I had been holding back. I cried, oh how I cried. I cried in the sunshine, I cried in the rain. The tears were soft and silent sometimes, with easy breath, and they brought a calm. But sometimes they were jagged and came from that deep place within me where I had been storing them for so long, a bottomless bucket of painful tears that threatened to rip me open as I gasped for breath. At times, I cried so hard that my head ached and my stomach seized up, and I would sit on the park bench, facing the lake, as I clutched my stomach and squished my face up into painful shapes to try and avoid wailing out loud.

I cried with ache for missing my sons. I cried for all of my lost years. I cried because I hadn’t gotten to fall in love as a teenager, because I had wasted two years as a Mormon missionary, because I had spent nearly 20 years feeling lonely and isolated. I cried because my father left, because my God had forgotten me, because I had given so much time and love and money and obedience to an organization that told me I didn’t belong. I cried over those who disowned me when I came out. I cried over my divorce and the broken heart of my ex-wife. I cried because I had thought coming out would be easier, that I would find love and settle down and life would finally be simple, and I cried because it was the opposite of that in many ways. I cried over financial debts, emotional burdens, and family traumas. I cried, and I cried, and I cried.

Yet each time I cried, I noticed that the clouds over the lake continued to move. The water continued to ripple, and the wind continued to blow. The sun went down, and it came up, whether I was crying or not. The world continued, indifferent to my tears, and I realized I didn’t have to continue crying. I could; I could cry as much as I needed to. But I could also not cry, I could be happy, I could spend the days living instead of crying, and that would be okay too.

And each time I cried, I would stop crying, at least for a while. And I would stand up, and I would walk the lake edge. I would hold myself together and stand up, and live. Once the tears weren’t there, the pieces of me that held me together, they were still there. I was still me. And I was starting to heal.

Gradually, along the edges of that lake, my tears began to leave, and my grieving started to end. It remained part of me, as it always would, but I found that I was okay with that.

Each day brought new determination, a quieter one this time. Each day brought peace.

And over the lake, the sun would rise yet again. As would I.

Your Villain

villain

“You’re the villain in my story.”

You said this with derision

With a gnashing of teeth

And a wringing of hands

And exasperated wails

Memories of everything we’ve shared

Replaced

Tossed into a bag labelled “PAIN!”

And selectively viewed from behind

Only the darkest of glasses.

 

And after you finished

Listing my sins

You finally looked at me

I saw you there

You seemed wounded

But also

Smallhurtpatheticshallowmean

Incomplete

Like you were still rooted

Fixed tightly

In the past.

 

I responded with a list of facts

Rebuttals

Keeping it clinical at first

Until I started to shake

And then the tears

Big crocodile tears

(Why crocodile? Named such

For their size?

Or for their sharp teeth?)

And then the gasps for oxygen

The tight shaking stomach

My spoken words coming out

Jagged, with too many syllables.

 

“You-have-no-idea-

what-it-is-to-come-out-

to-lose-everything-

to-start-over-

to-change-every-relationship-

to-redefine-yourself-

my-mother-my-sisters-my-nephews-

my-sons-my-friends-my-clients-

my-home-my-job-my-marriage-

my-God!”

 

And then I looked back at you

With my hands clutched

Protectively

Around my center space

And my eyes went cold.

 

“Make me a villain if you must

If you need someone to blame

To shame

To toss aside

To justify your pain

Make me the villain

And never change

Never forgive

But if I must be your villain

I will be the very best kind of villain

With complex motivations

Contradictions of character

With love and ego and worth

And triumph

And progress

And strength.

 

“You can see me forever standing there

Twirling my moustache

Cackling ‘Muhahahahahaha!’

Over the melodramatic organ

As the train barrells down on you

At top speed

And you, the damsel

Tied down and only able to call out

‘Help me! Save me!’

 

Do this if you must

But recognize,

When you are ready

That there is no train

And I have no moustache

And there are no ropes.

 

It’s just you there

Lying down on the tracks

Screaming for help

And never looking up to realize

That I haven’t been standing there

For years.”

Repressed Memories

Brain.jpg

“So I have this client who thinks that something might have happened to her when she was a kid. She wonders if she might have been abused or something, but she doesn’t have any specific memories.”

I nodded. “Okay, and is that something you are exploring in therapy?”

The clinician I was supervising tapped his pen against the pad of paper, collecting his thoughts. “I’ve been looking into it some. If there are repressed memories, it seems there are a number of ways to discover them and heal from them. Hypnosis can work, dream journals seem to help, regular meditation. I’m just not sure that I’m all that equipped to help her. I’m brand new in this field.”

“The operative word in your previous paragraph? If.”

I watched him write the word IF on his paper. “If. If there are repressed memories.”

“Right. She doesn’t know if there are or not. If there are repressed memories then hypnosis and those other methods might help. If there aren’t?”

“Then there wouldn’t necessarily be anything there. Okay, interesting.”

I let him collect his thoughts, then began asking questions. “So the first thing to wonder, why does she think she might have repressed memories?”

He smiled, enthusiastic. “I actually asked her that question. She had a decent childhood, so far as she remembers, but some traumatic stuff happened to her later on. Now she is realizing there are blank patches in her childhood memories, so that leads her to wonder if something bad happened and her subconscious mind blanked it out.”

“Okay, good job exploring that with her. There certainly could be repressed memories. In times of trauma, for adults or kids but particularly for kids, the brain can enter a mode where the person shuts down for a while or where they kind of leave their own body in order to survive. There are also times when the brain can hide or omit memories from the consciousness as they would be too disturbing to the person. When those memories show up, it can be in the form of flashbacks or panic attacks, and it usually happens after something triggers the trauma memories, or, ironically, the memories can show up during times of safety, when everything feels comfortable and okay for once so the memories are able to finally come to the surface.

“But the key here is she doesn’t know if she has repressed memories. She might and she might not. She’s simply wondering at this point if there might be. During the 1990s, there was a lot of repressed memories topics showing up on talk shows and soap operas, and suddenly everyone was coming forward as having repressed memories. It became kind of a craze. But wondering if something bad might have happened in childhood, or even wondering if more memories should be there where there aren’t any, that doesn’t mean there is any evidence of repression.

“Of course, it also doesn’t mean that there isn’t.”

The clinician clicked his pen in frustration. “So what do I tell her to do?”

I smiled, knowing this would annoy him. “What’s the first question we always ask ourselves?”

He rolled his eyes. “‘What is my role here?'”

“And your role in this case?”

“Is as her therapist.”

“So what is your job regarding this?”

“My job is to help her meet her goals. We are working on getting through depression and PTSD.”

“Right. So your job is to help her talk about it. Which you are already doing. Help her talk about her trauma, about why she thinks she might have oppressed memories, about her actual childhood memories. Then explore with her the options of other treatment methods if she feels they can help. There is hypnosis, there are mindfulness groups, there are dream journals. All of those take effort, time, and money, and she can pursue any of them that she wants to. But regardless, your job is to be there with her, week to week, whenever she is in front of you and needs help.”

“Okay, right, but are repressed memories an actual thing? Is that something you have come across?”

I moved my tongue along the inside of my cheek for a moment, thinking of the best way to answer. “Well, yeah. But it isn’t as simple as all that. Trauma can impact a person in a myriad of ways. It can show up as anxiety, as depression, as apathy. It can result in withdrawing from relationships, in sexual promiscuity, or in crippling fear. We can research trauma for years, but we can never have a clear mapped path that shows its results on a particular person. Even if we understand how a trauma effects someone, that effect can change with age or time or stress. Someone can live with trauma unseen for years and then have it show up much later in life.

“Here, I’ll use a personal example. When I was a kid, I went through a period of sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. For years, I didn’t understand how serious that was. As a kid, I also knew I was different from other kids, but didn’t know what that meant. As an adolescent, when I began to realize I was attracted to boys and not girls, I didn’t have any context to understand this, so in the beginning I automatically assumed that the abuse was causing the attractions, when in fact there were no direct correlations.

“When I was 20, and on my Mormon mission, I hit a slump of pretty low depression. Life was very much routine. I was mugged and knocked unconscious one day, which was its own separate trauma. But something about that particular incident seemed to knock something loose, pun intended. I began getting flashbacks after that back to the abuse from when I was a kid. Full on trauma flashbacks. Like in my brain I was the young kid for a while, then I would come back into my own adult skin. I wrote down everything that was happening, in detail, to get it out of my system, and after a couple of weeks, the flashbacks went away.

“So using that example, we can see the impact of trauma on development, and we could run down the list of trauma symptoms. Yet those symptoms showed up differently in childhood and adolescence than they did in adulthood. And a separate trauma caused me to have flashbacks of my childhood trauma.”

The clinician was scribbling notes. “So would you call those flashbacks that you experienced repressed memories?”

“I wouldn’t, actually. But some could. They were memories that, for whatever reason, I had to relive in order to move on. And they were repressed. But they weren’t forgotten, or omitted by my subconscious. I had no sense that parts of my childhood were missing, yet they were also memories that I avoided completely because they caused me discomfort.”

“Okay, okay.” He underlined something on his paper. “I get it. It’s complicated. We can study the topic, but it’s gonna show up for the individual person in different ways at different times. And my job is to be there with them, talk it over, help them meet their goals and explore their options.”

“Right.”

He gave a deep sigh. “What we do isn’t easy, is it?”

“It most certainly isn’t. But we get to help people who ask for help. And that makes it worth it.”

Condolences

sincere-condolences-autumn-leaves-main

Ten conversations you have after your best friend dies

One. 

Chad, I’m so sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you. He meant a lot to me.

Yeah, hey, you’re a therapist, right?

Yup.

I’ve been meaning to ask you. I was dating a guy and he said he loves me but he hasn’t been texting back lately. What should I do about that?

Two.

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

He died in a car accident, right?

Yeah, it was really sudden.

Oh man, I had a friend die in a car accident once. He fell asleep at the wheel. I got pulled out of work to be told. It was the worst. 

Yeah, I know how that feels.

I mean, he was the best. It’s been like 12 years and I still miss him all the time. Wish I could say it gets better. Anyway, gotta run, good luck. 

Three.

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

It’s been, what, three days now?

 Yeah, it happened Sunday.

Huh, well, you should be over it by now. I’ll see you at the gym some time. Looking good! We should grab a coffee some time!

Four.

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

What happened? Tell me everything. I mean, I never met him, but I saw your blog and the news article and everyone is talking about it. What happened? Does his family know? Is his fiancee healing? How are his kids taking it? Was anyone else involved? Who found them? What did the medical report say? Where is–

Whoa, that’s a lot of questions.

I’m just really sad about this!

Did you want to grab some popcorn, or…

Five.

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

Are you doing okay? I mean, really. I know you two were really close. 

I’m doing okay, yeah. It’s been tough, but I’m going through the grieving process.

Here, sit down. Talk to me. Tell me how you are.

Ugh, it’s hard to talk about. It just came as such a shock. I mean, I was working and I found out through a text message. It was–

Oh hang on, my phone. I got a text. (pause) Oh god, my roommate’s hilarious, look at this. 

Six. 

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

Look, if you get sad, just go to the gym. It’ll fix everything. You just gotta punch it out. Or porn and sex work too. Seriously, it sounds dumb, but those are the best things when you’re grieving. 

Uh, thanks for the advice.

Seven. 

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you. He was my favorite person.

Can I give you a hug?

Absolutely.

Look, I’m here. If you need to talk or vent or cry or just have someone around, I’m here. 

Thank you. Seriously, thank you.

Can I bring you some soup later?

Oh my god, that would be amazing. You’re so sweet!

I know what it is like to lose someone. I’m here for you, I mean it. Your job is taking care of other people, make sure you are taking care of you, too. 

 

**In all sincerity, thank you to everyone for the support on a difficult week. I’m amazingly blessed with loving and incredible people from every area of my life.

Overcoming heartbreak

Broken_Heart_Inside.jpg

For as many love songs as there are out there, there seem to be just as many about heartbreak. Getting up, getting over, and getting on. Some artists have made their careers singing about breakups. Someone somewhere has an entire playlist of these all set up, ready for a large glass of wine and a good cry.

Try not to think about what might have been, cause that was then, and we’ve taken different roads.

The other day, on an evening out with friends, I ran into an ex unexpectedly. One of those guys that I never should have fallen for at the time, and yet it happened, unbidden. We made eye contact a few times in the crowd and I kept my attention divided, my head full of all kinds of thoughts.

The scars of your love remind me of us, they keep me thinking that we almost had it all. 

I remembered how things had just kind of happened magically between us, unplanned and unbidden. We had seemed to connect on every level. Great chemistry, great conversation, similar visions of the future. I hadn’t been looking for anything at the time, and had found myself sitting back in awe, wondering if maybe something good was coming my way. I introduced him to my friends, we checked in throughout the day, we spent a lot of time together but still had differing interests and activities. It had been wonderful.

I don’t want to talk about things we’ve gone through. Though it’s hurting me, now it’s history. 

And then, suddenly, it was over. Finished and done. He had respectfully talked to me one night and let me know that although it had been going well, his heart just wasn’t in it. I had completely understood. And yet, against my better judgment, had become a bit of a basketcase, going through all the stages of grief in just hours. He had wanted to stay friends, but I couldn’t have it both ways. And so months had gone by. And now here he was.

Un-break my heart, say you’ll love me again, undo this hurt you caused when you walked out the door and walked out of my life. 

I found myself going into a petty space in my brain, something all of us are capable of in moments of surprise, and a place I don’t go very often. I hoped he noticed what better shape I’m in now, wondered if he knew what he was missing out on, and thought I would impress him with my conversational skills, my easy laugh with friends, my confidence.

Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.

But he isn’t like that. And truthfully, neither am I. I’m not a game player or a trap layer. And so, to break the tension, I crossed the room and said hello. How are you. How have you been. How is your family. How is your job. Easy and awkward questions about the basics of life with someone I once shared a lot more with. How are your kids, I miss them, he said, and I got a titch of bitterness in my gullet. I’ve been raising my kids on my own (well, with my ex-wife) for a long time now.

Why does love always feel like a battlefield, a battlefield, a battlefield.

He hinted that he is dating someone else now, and smiled at how well it is going. They met online, he said. They are taking trips together and taking it slow, he said. And though my heart hurt for me, only briefly, my brain kicked in quick and reminded me it just hadn’t be right. I told him I was happy for him, and I meant it.

I want you to know that I’m happy for you. I wish nothing but the best for you both. 

I reminded myself how much I admired him for breaking things off when he did, how he did. Although it had been painful at the time, it was right, and I was glad it hadn’t been drawn out.

Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t. You can’t make your heart feel something that it won’t. 

We parted peacefully, with no promises. And I had a moment of enlightenment, that I’m glad to be in a place in my life where my heart can be broken. Life before coming out was stunted. To be capable of love and heartbreak now, even after all these years, feels refreshing. I’ve had my heart broken a few times. And I’ve broken a few hearts. I mean, this is what adults, straight or gay, go through.

Set me free, leave me be, I don’t want to fall another moment into your gravity.

My mind turned to the changing person I am, and how I’ve fallen in love with a few people in a few different places in my life. I’ve yet to find a partner. The future remains elusive, as it should. And who knows who I’ll end up with, if anyone. This last time, it went really good for a while. Maybe it will again.

And can I sail through the changing ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life?

I turned back to my friends, feeling better already, and watched him leave. I was okay before, and I’m okay now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lyrics quoted from “What Might Have Been” by Little Texas, Rollin’ in the Deep by Adele, “The Winner Takes It All” by ABBA, “Unbreak My Heart” by Toni Braxton, “Someone Like You” by Adele, “Battlefield” by Jordin Sparks, “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt, “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles, and “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac