A Matter of Endorphins

I was uncharacteristically sad yesterday. There wasn’t any reason for it, I was just plain sad. I wasn’t down-in-the-dumps sad. I wasn’t depressed, or grieving, or heartbroken, or lonely. (My word, but there are a lot of beautiful shades of that emotion). I was just… blue. Down. Maybe a little melancholy.

The sadness continued this morning, meaning it lasted around 36 hours. I woke up and went through the motions of using the restroom, washing my hands, brewing my coffee, then reading a bit in a biography while it brewed. But the whole time, I felt like looking out the window and just giving a sigh, like those two kids on the opening page of the Cat in the Hat who can’t play outside because it was raining too hard. A breakfast of Greek yogurt with blueberries, a hot shower, a clean shirt, a hug from my boyfriend, still sad. I blended my lunch of protein powder and fresh vegetables (spinach, carrots, broccoli) then headed into the office, listening to NPR on my way, still sad. I saw my first client and talked about overcoming depression with him, still sad. And then I thought, “Okay, that’s enough. I don’t want to be sad anymore.”

I took a long walk through the park during a quiet hour from work, my office being just a block from a major city park. The birds were singing, there were hot shirtless runners, there was a light breeze, and the sun was shining perfectly. There was a lot to be grateful for. As I felt my body slowly come awake, I felt a familiar stiffness in my bones, and the blood flow through my muscle groups felt amazing. My bones popped, my spine expanded, and my head cleared as I breathed it all in, quickening my pace a bit.

I took a moment to take stock of my melancholy. On Sunday, upon leaving Philadelphia, I’d woken up sad. The night before, I’d had dinner (an incredible mushroom shepherd’s pie), drinks (two Old-Fashioneds), and dessert (chocolate creme brule) with my boyfriend as we listened to incredible live jazz music. I’d felt so alive. But then Sunday morning I’d woken up sad. I packed my suitcase, showered for the day, and then spent four hours at the local art museum before heading to the airport. A two hour wait and a four hour flight basically meant six hours of reading (a new biography on Tennessee Williams), and then finally home. Yet sad the whole time.

And then Monday, healthy food, several hours of work, and then a long evening of play time with my sons, who I hadn’t seen in five days. I gave them new animal toys to add to their toy zoo, a harpy eagle and a sun bear, and we played together in the backyard, laughing and having fun. I made them dinner, we played Twister, they were hyper and silly and it was a wonderful night. But the entire time, still, blue, and knowing it the entire way.

As I walked through the park, I did a little therapy on myself, as I often do when I have something to puzzle out. Were I to come to myself for therapy, with this set of problems, how would I counsel me as a client? What would I have to say? I would ask me to describe the sadness, what kind of sadness it was, and what I had to be sad about. Then I would remind myself that sadness is a natural state, that all humans are sad, even when life is really good.

It’s a matter of endorphins, I would say.

I would remind myself that the brain produces endorphins (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine) naturally, but it produces best in optimal conditions, with healthy nutrition and hydration, ample sunlight, low stress, and good sleep. And I would remind myself that if the brain has been producing endorphins at high amounts for a few days in a row, then it is natural for it to produce lower amounts for a period of time afterward, as a balancing measure. It is also normal to have a low when one hasn’t been sleeping well, or has been drinking a lot of alcohol, or has been eating a lot of sugary or salty foods, or has not been exercising. No one gets to be happy all the time, and blue has its place. Blue is safe. Blue is okay.

I just got back from vacation. I ate a lot of food, drank and danced, traveled, and hadn’t slept a full night in several days. Blue was normal, and it didn’t make my life any less wonderful. Even when sad, all of my joys were there: my children, my partner, my work, all of the things that give me balance and happiness. It was a blue hour, or perhaps a blue day, not a blue life.

I finished my walk around the park, ready to resume. I felt a little bit lighter (meaning my brain was producing just a few more endorphins), and I knew that after a nice meal, I would feel even better still. The world around me remained beautiful.

Blue sky, blue water, blue blood, and me.

Blue

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A Place I Used To Live

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Back then, the word ‘Gay’ was tossed to the side, put in a dark place in my brain. It represented selfishness, debauchery, sin, darkness, and evil. It belonged on a list of words that represented similar ideals, words like Abortion, Alcohol, War, AIDs, Drunkenness, and Democrat.

I had been raised to love all people, it’s true, and I was taught that God loved all people the same, but still, those who were Gay, those who chose such a lifestyle, they were to be kept at arm’s length, they belonged over there somewhere. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I could tell them with words that I loved everyone, but I was not to allow them to influence me, to be a part of my life, or I could be tempted too far, influenced too much.

And so, when I arrived in Philadelphia in early 1999, at age 20, I got off the subway with my new companion, Elder Shoney, and I wheeled my suitcase behind me down the concrete paths toward my new home. I had a backpack over my shoulder, filled with my scriptures and journals, and containing a glass jar in which my pet fish Caliban lived. (The fist was against the rules, shhh. Missionaries aren’t supposed to have pets.) Sweat dripped down my back, under my white shirt and garments. Although I had been a missionary for a full year at this point, I hadn’t ever been to a city this size, and it was completely overwhelming.

I looked like I was 16 then. I was sad inside, shut down, fractured. I was going through the motions, embracing the ideals I was raised with. Prayer, scripture study, knocking doors, teaching when I could, more prayer, more study. I knew I was gay by then, but I had long given up finding a cure.

Elder Shoney and I walked through the narrow streets of Germantown, and I realized that I saw no white people here. There were black people everywhere, women, children, grandparents, families. I occasionally saw someone Hispanic. But no white people there, just us, just these two young boys. We walked farther, past storefronts covered in graffiti, with garage door-style bars that would lock securely to the ground at night to protect from theft and vandalism. Elder Shoney told me that we should be in by dark every night, “cause that’s when it gets dangerous in the streets here.”

We walked over a street and into the nicer area of town, where the houses shifted from stacked row homes into larger structures with porches, windows, and backyards. A kind and successful black attorney owned the home where we would live. I wheeled my suitcase up the front steps of the house then carried it inside, up two more flights of stairs, to the apartment where I would spend the following nine months. I wasn’t excited,  I wasn’t scared, I was just ready to continue the monotonous daily work of the missionary for another year until I could finally go home and start my life.

Fast forward to 2018.

20 years later, I found this same house, the one I lived in back then. I stood on the sidewalk in front of it. On one side of me stood my sister Sheri, my gay sister, taking a few days away from her wife to come and see me during my vacation in Philadelphia. On the other side of me stood my boyfriend.

“This is where I lived,” I told them. “For nine months. I thought I would be here four, maybe six maximum, but some special circumstances kept me here for nine, then I finished my mission out in northern Delaware. Twenty years ago. Man, twenty years.

“That’s the mailbox where I’d get between two and eight letters per day, making my companions jealous. I walked up and down this street hundreds of times. Down there, I would catch the train to the subway to the bus that would take us to church, and it would take an hour each way. That two mile radius over there contains what we naively called ‘the ghetto’, filled with these beautiful African American families, and so many churches, and so much poverty. It was so unsafe for us! There are good people here, of course, but there are also gangs, and we had no protection and no training.”

My mind raced with the memories. “I lived here with four different companions. Elder Shoney, who was a basically like a brother to me; we had so much fun. Elder Borne, my greenie, who was so clearly gay; we knew each other were gay, and we were both so depressed; he thought our home here was such a disgusting mess until he saw where the other missionaries lived; he threatened to throw himself off the roof just so he would have a reason to go home, and eventually he did, and when he left, I just stopped caring.  Elder Donner, who was such as asshole, so holier-than-thou, so bossy; he once kicked a door while yelling ‘Fuck you, Anderson!’, and that was the day I got mugged and knocked unconscious. Elder Sanders, who was so-so nerdy and hilarious.

“I baptized three people in this city. William, a 13-year old boy whose mom had died and whose dad was in jail, and his grandmother Clarice, the woman raising him. She was so sweet, and she had no teeth, and she wanted her grandson to have a church to go to every week with kids like him. (Boy did she pick the wrong one). And I baptized Nyoka, a gorgeous college student. I don’t know where any of them are now.”

I went quiet for a moment and turned around, pointing down the street. “See that hair salon? That used to be St. James Chapel Fire-Baptized Congregation Holy Church of God of the Americas. We went to so many churches here! I learned so much about religion! Race! Privilege! Life and ethics and fairness. This city taught me so much, but I was a scrawny little Mormon white closeted kid here, with no perspective, no experience. What was I doing here?”

I turned back to the house, letting the memories wash over me. I put my arm around my boyfriend, pulling him in close. Sheri and I talked casually about all of the changes we had been through. And then we turned away, hungry, ready for lunch somewhere.

I turned back to the house, giving it one last look. It didn’t feel like home. It never had. It was just some place I used to live.

Washington Square

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“Where are you headed on your mission?”

In the airport security line, the sister missionary turned around to face me, pulling a lock of blonde hair off her face and behind her ear. She was in a modest black skirt with grey top. Her tag read “Sister Jensen, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“I’m going to Montreal, and I’m so freaking excited!”

I laughed, her enthusiasm contagious. “I’m excited for you! Congratulations!”

“How about you, where are you going?”

I gave a soft, tight-lipped smile, and looked down. “I’m headed to Philadelphia, actually. I went on my own Mormon mission there nearly 20 years ago. I haven’t ever been back.”

She held up a hand for a high-five, and I gladly gave her one. “Well, heck yeah! Now you’re going back! Good for you! Gonna see all those people you converted?” She did an awkward little hillbilly-like dance, conveying her good humor.

“Ha, actually, it’s a different life now. I’m no longer Mormon, and this time I’m going back with my boyfriend.” I craned my neck, indicating the handsome fellow standing behind me in line.

Sister Jensen made a sober face. “Oh. Oh! Well, um, good luck!” She rushed off, having been called forward by the next available agent.

I was overcome by a strange sense of nostalgia. In January of 1998, I had entered this same airport in a white shirt and tie, with my own name tag reading “Elder Anderson, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” clipped to my shirt pocket. I wheeled behind me a suitcase full of clothes and toiletries, scriptures and supplies, things I would use for the next two years as I lived with strangers and attempted to convert those around me to what I believed, at the time, to be the true religion. At the time, with only two weeks training under my belt, I had just turned it all over to God, hoping he would make me successful and reward my efforts with great numbers of baptisms.

Just a few years ago, in this very blog, I took time to go through my mission experiences in several different entries. I recounted my efforts to cure my homosexuality through missionary service, my bizarre and tragic experiences with companions, my converts, and my life lessons. But here I was, prepared to actually physically go back to the city I had once lived in for nine months. Then, I was 19 (and looked 14), away from my family for the first time, full of naiveté and self-doubt. Now, I was 39, confident in my own skin and full of life experience, out of the closet and with a fantastic partner at my side. And I was beginning the trip in line behind a brand new sister missionary. The irony made me smile.

The plane ride was smooth. I got a middle seat in the 20th row, and was comfortably nestled in between my boyfriend and an elderly woman who kept hacking, complaining about not being able to smoke on the plane, and sipping on a Bloody Mary and a coffee the flight attendant had brought her. We landed in Philadelphia around 4 pm, gathered our things, and caught a car into the city without incident.

When I lived Philadelphia for those 9 months of my mission back in 1999, I stayed in Germantown, in a crime-ridden area filled with poverty, though the house I stayed in was blocked into the nicer city area where it was safe. This time, we’d be staying in an Airbnb in Washington Square, what they now referred to as the “Gayborhood”, a place with mostly safe streets, thriving businesses, and gay bars. It was sure to be a very different experience.

After checking in, the boyfriend and I went through a long walk in the area, and so much felt familiar, although the city was as different as I was. The skyline, the moisture in the air, the sheer diversity of the people around us, the long flat stretches, the century-old churches int he middle of large blocky brick buildings, the row homes, the garbage on the curbs waiting for pick-up, the people just stacked on top of each other. A million flashes of memory hit me. Trying to maneuver a couch up and down flights of narrow stairs while helping someone move, ringing every doorbell on a particular building while hoping someone would answer and invite us up to teach, tables full of counterfeit products on street corners ready to be sold, navigating busses to subways to trains in order to get anywhere. This city had been so overwhelming to me at the time, so monstrous and impossible. Now it felt both familiar and foreign, like a place I’ve been yet just like every other place, its own history and people here all along, moving forward without me.

In nearby Washington Square Park, I stood in the middle to survey my surroundings. Behind me stood a statue of George Washington behind an eternal flame, making the grave of an unknown soldier to honor those lost in the Revolutionary War. Arrayed around that were benches and tables, pathways, and trees filled with birds. And across the park, a sea of humanity. A beautiful white man with a gorgeous black woman, cuddled tightly on a bench together, clearly in love. A gay man in a pink tank talking loudly on his cell phone while walking several dogs. An older black man with a thick beard mumbling to himself as he looked into one garbage can, then the next, trying to find some treasure. An Asian man reading medical textbooks. A heavyset woman wrapped head to toe in a burka and hijab, the symbols of her religious devotion, the colors of the robes flashing black and red. A well-dressed elderly black woman with tight grey curls laughing loudly, showing half her teeth missing. A handsome man instructing a white couple on how to do burpees in the main pathway. A lithe black woman with a baby strapped to her chest watching the water spilling in the fountain.

A sea of humanity, and one that included me, a formerly Mormon missionary who once stood in this park doubting himself, yet who had now returned to see it with new eyes.

Poz: my first encounter with AIDS

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In 1999, I was a Mormon missionary in inner city Philadelphia. At that time, the Mormon Church ran ads on television stations, advertising free copies of the Book of Mormon or Bible, or free videos about forever families. A person who called the phone number would request a copy of the free merchandise and give their name and address, and then a “media referral” would be passed on to the missionaries who were closest to that person geographically. We would grab the merchandise, walk over to the individual’s house, and deliver it, while offering to teach them about the Church in the hopes of converting them. At the end of each week, we would call the local leader and report how many media referrals we responded to, how many doors we knocked on, how many lessons we taught, and the data was collated and sent back up the chain to the presidency of the Church in Utah.

And this was how I met Vincent.

Now keep in mind, I was a 20 year old white kid in the inner city, and I looked like I was 16 at best. I was skinny in worn out shoes, a faded shirt and a thrift shop tie, with a bad haircut. I sported a backpack full of supplies every day, stuffed full of Mormon merchandise I hoped to pass out. At the time, I had a strong testimony of the Mormon faith and I went to no small effort to share that testimony with whoever would listen. And I was constantly praying to God that my efforts would prove to him that I could be cured from being gay; I went the entire two years hoping that if I baptized enough people, my homosexuality would go away and I could like girls like a “normal” guy.

When my companion (my fellow missionary, who I had to stay in sight of 24/7) and I knocked on Vincent’s door to deliver his Bible, we could immediately tell something was wrong with him. He was very ill and looked like he was likely in the last stages of cancer or another terminal illness. He was probably only in his mid 30s, but he looked 60. He was tall, about 6’5”, and had a thin gaunt face. He wore a large pair of glasses, a black beret, and was in very baggy sweat pants and a sweatshirt, a scarf around his neck. He was sweating slightly from shivering, a feverish sweat. He had a few sores on his face, including one on his lip that was distracting, hard to take my eyes off of.

Vincent invited us in. He was very effeminate, yet very kind. We pulled up two chairs next to the hospital bed he had in his small apartment. I remember feeling nervous, like whatever he had I might catch it. He climbed back into his bed and drew the covers up around him.

Vincent quietly explained that he was dying. He said he had been watching television a few days before and that he had seen the ad for the free Bible. He didn’t think he had long left to live, and he wanted to make things right with God before he passed.

I was young and knew very little of the world, and I asked Vincent what he was dying of, very little compassion in my voice.

He was unapologetic as he explained that he had AIDS. He told me he had grown up in a religious family in central Pennsylvania, that he had been kicked out as a teen for coming out as gay, and that he had been with the same man for years before a sad breakup. He said he made a few choices a few years back, and got HIV, and that he couldn’t afford to take care of himself, and now he was dying. He wanted to be baptized and to make himself clean.

We were kind to Vincent, but truthfully, we had no experience with anything like this. We were two very young men from rural Idaho, and this man was looking for absolution. We promised to come back and see Vincent the next day. That night at home, I called up my Priesthood leaders and explained the situation, and we were told that we were not allowed to teach a gay man by ourselves. We explained that Vincent wanted to be baptized, to be forgiven of his sins, and we were told that given his condition it was very unlikely that baptism could be approved, that Vincent would have to meet with local Priesthood leaders first and be interviewed.

The next day we visited Vincent, and he seemed sad and dejected. He said he had spent the evening researching our church and he realized that gay people didn’t have a place in it. He politely declined our invitation to teach him about the Church and said he would seek forgiveness elsewhere. He kindly asked us to leave.

I tried to visit Vincent a few weeks later, when I had a new companion. He didn’t answer the door. I can’t imagine he lived much longer.

Vincent crossed my mind yesterday for the first time in years. It’s nearly 20 years since I knew him so briefly, and I don’t even remember his last name. He was among the first gay people I knew, and the first with AIDS that I had met. Since coming out five years ago, I have met many people who have HIV, some of them are my very closest friends. They are incredible men with healthy lives, jobs, and routines. Technology and medical procedures have come so far, giving amazing quality of life.

Yet since its inception, HIV and AIDS has infected an estimated 78 million people and taken an estimated 39 million lives, wiping out entire generations in some countries.

I’ll have more to write about all of this soon, but for now, I want to honor my memory of Vincent, that quiet man who wanted peace with God before he died, but who was unable to find it with two 20 year old Idaho boys, one of them gay himself.