Seattle Conclusion: Homecoming

April, 2015

Outside of a few goodbye dinners with friends, and one last night spent with Zhu, leaving Seattle was relatively anticlimactic. I carried my clothes, pictures, and few supplies down the stairs and loaded them into my car. I went to bed early the night before, woke and had one last cup of coffee on the balcony overlooking Lake Washington (my how I would miss the view over the lake), showered, dressed, and left. I was on the road by 5:30 am, ready for a long day’s worth of driving ahead. I almost immediately realized I wouldn’t miss it. I had taken what I needed, and now I was ready to leave.

I tried to leave the city with the same sense of adventure and hope that I’d arrived in it with. As I got on the busy interstate toward Utah, I contemplated the new reality that awaited me back home. I had taken the biggest risk of my life in moving here, and ultimately I had only lasted six months. I didn’t feel like a failure. I wasn’t coming home to Utah with my head between my legs. Instead, I was returning changed. And I had a long day of driving to figure out what those changes meant for me, and what they were.

The storm within me was quieter now. I was safer in myself. I had left Utah with so much anger and sadness, emotions that came from an unsafe place. But now the feelings were quiet within me. Their expression was more normal. I could get mad, or sad, or scared; I could feel anxious or guilty; I could grieve, or hope, or strive, and the world felt possible and safe. I knew how to feel now, and how to process the feelings. They were gifts now. They didn’t overwhelm or incapacitate me as they once had.

Leaving Utah had allowed me to find myself. It taught me that happiness wasn’t right around the corner, it was already within me. Utah no longer felt like me being shackled in place, instead it was a place where I had friends, where I felt it home. It now represented ground that I could build from, instead of the shattered ruins it had felt like when I left.

My children were six months older now. I’d seen them every month, and spoken with them over video chat daily, but they were older. And so was I. My friends had changed too; some had moved away, some had ended relationships, others had new jobs or homes or boyfriends. And yet Utah would feel exactly the same, just without the sense of threat that it had before.

Perhaps most dramatic of all, my ex-wife, my children’s mother, had evolved as well. She was no longer attending the LDS Church, for her own reasons, and I think that I had proven to her that I was a consistent and involved father, even from farther away. She was kinder now, in a way, and perhaps she blamed me less for the end of our marriage. And maybe that was the most healing thing of all. Maybe I finally could let go of my shame there, and stop living with regrets; maybe I could march forward with my life in peace and with hope now.

Ultimately, my time in Seattle had been… simple. The lessons I learned there were things most people learned in their teenage years and in their twenties. I learned that finding love wasn’t so easy, that family was the most important thing, that loving yourself was crucial before loving others. I learned how to prioritize health and self-compassion. I learned that I didn’t want to live with a bunch of guys in a fraternity setting, and that I didn’t want to make more money if it meant selling my soul and my own mental health. I learned that debt, and struggle, and pain follow you, even if you move to a new horizon. I learned that no one gets to the destination without putting the hard work in first.

Back in Utah, I had secured an apartment downtown. A brand new beginning in a new part of town. I was taking over the lease from some old college students. When I arrived, I found they left just a few things behind: a container of protein powder, a pull-up bar, a box of Stevia packets, two folding chairs, and seven unused condoms. Within days, I would have the place stocked with furniture and bunkbeds for my children. I would need to find work quickly in order to survive. There was a gym in the basement to work out in, and my social work license was still active, so I could launch right back into life. My friends were there. In fact, Kurt, my best friend, was planning a welcome back party for me, even though he had just thrown a going away party for me six months before.

I drove toward my sons, toward my future, having no idea what’s next for me. I had projects in mind, research and writing projects, things that I wanted to do. I wanted to travel, and to get in the best shape of my life, and to achieve financial freedom for the first time. But I was beginning to believe those things were possible. I was free from the shackles of the things that had held me back before, and I was learning that only I could put restrictions on myself. I had just the right ground to build from.

I pulled into my new place and, over a few hours, unloaded my car into the new apartment. Tonight, I would sleep on the floor, with pillows and blankets. In the morning, I would go grocery shopping, and then pick up my sons, and they would come over and play with me while I unpacked. It was a new beginning. Another one.

The next morning, I knocked on the door of my old apartment, the one my ex-wife had moved into when I’d moved to Seattle. My sons were inside waiting for me. The door opened, and my five year old yelled out, “Daddy, you’re home!”

And as I gathered him in my arms, his brother toddling over right behind him, I said “I am home, my boys. I am home.”

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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

Emotionally Obese

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When someone comes out of depression, they have to learn how to feel all over again. It isn’t some magical shift, where the depression is replaced by joy and ease. Those positive feelings are there, sure, but the negative feelings have to be felt as well. There is a learning process to feeling sad, scared, mad, and guilty again, and then learning how to use the emotions to create positive experiences.

Somewhere along the way, we grow to believe that “emotional” means “weak”. We say things like “My husband just died, but I can’t let the kids see me cry. I have to be strong” and “I know I was diagnosed with cancer, but I’m not going to be scared. I just have to stay positive.”

We expend exhausting amounts of energy toward avoiding feelings that make us uncomfortable, feelings that are a natural part of the human spectrum. We can’t avoid feeling those feelings any more than we can avoid feeling hungry or tired; we can pretend all we want, but the feelings will come regardless.

The human spectrum of emotions is beautiful and complex. There are the feelings we enjoy, like happiness, gratitude, peace, joy, and security; and then there are the feelings we believe are unhealthy or unpleasant because they bring with them a bit of pain, like sadness, fear, guilt, and anger. When people deny themselves the ability to feel and experience those emotions in healthy ways, they are dumping half of the crayons out of the box, and restricting themselves to the other half of the box. Black just doesn’t work as well without the white to contrast against, and red in only one shade isn’t nearly as beautiful as an entire spectrum of red.

Like physical and spiritual obesity (discussed in previous blogs), emotional obesity sneaks up on you, slowly over time, one pound of emotional weight added at a time. For years, I didn’t let myself feel sad or scared or angry. In fact, I believed it was unhealthy, selfish, even indulgent to waste time on those emotions. I kept a bright smile on my face while I was miserable on the inside.

It took me several years to learn a very fundamental lesson, that pushing away sadness, guilt, anger, and fear didn’t eliminate those emotions or mean that I didn’t feel them; the emotions were still present, pushed deep down where they did damage and caused pain. The only possible response to pushing emotion away is depression. Depression comes in many forms, from moderate to severe to crippling.

There are classic signs of depression: disinterest in pleasurable activities, poor sleep habits, poor nutrition habits, isolation from loved ones, lack of self-esteem, a lack of motivation, a lack of purpose, feelings of shame and worthlessness, and even recurrent thoughts of death and dying. Someone who is mildly depressed may grow to feel that walking through life sad and empty and numb is normal and natural; someone with severe depression may grow to feel that the world would be a better place without them.

My years in the closet were fraught with varying levels of depression. I grew accustomed to feeling sad and empty. I had a wife, a child, a home, a calling in my church, and a successful career, and I felt empty and numb on the inside so regularly that I thought I would never feel anything different. I even grew to believe that that was what God expected of me: to be sad until I died so that I could be happy finally.

I remember a particular time being at Disneyland with my wife, and seeing a gay couple nearby cuddling during the fireworks show. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. They looked so happy. I muttered something about being disgusted that they were being affectionate in public, while on the inside I envied them, knowing deep down that I would never have that, that I would never be able to find something like that. Looking back and realizing that I once saw no happiness in my future, well, that just breaks my heart.

Turns out, depression isn’t a natural state. Emotional obesity is a learned behavior, something we choose to participate in, just like physical obesity. Depression is a real and powerful force, and it literally steals lives away. People sometimes spend their entire lives feeling trapped by their environments and situations. Women stay in codependent relationships for decades, where they are abused or confined, because they convince themselves they can’t be happy outside of it; really, they won’t let themselves feel scared and do something with the fear. Men spend lifetimes lonely and feeling unworthy of love; really, they have never learned how to experience sadness and do something about it.

I had to learn, slowly and steadily over time, that emotions that are perceived as negative are truly beautiful. They are unique, and they are crucial to survival.

I love my sadness now, in all of its powerful forms. I love being able to be blue and lonely,  I love grief, for myself and others, the ability to look back on the difficult hand life dealt me, to be able to miss my best friend, to regret the years lost, to feel a bit empty after something I hoped for didn’t turn out like I had hoped. I think my sadness is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

I love my anger now, in all of its powerful forms. I love being able to be frustrated when I hit the tenth stoplight in a row, the ability to feel and express the full spectrum of annoyed to enraged when injustice happens around me, to clench my fists when someone I love is hurt, to feel steel in my stomach when I experience rejection or betrayal. I think my anger is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

I love my fear now, in all of its powerful forms. I love listening to my mild fears and discomforts in uncomfortable situations, the ability to embrace nervousness as anticipation or dread and confronting those feelings head on, to feel gooseflesh and heart thumps when I worry about a result or a reaction. I think my fear is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

I love my guilt now, in all of its powerful forms. I love listening to the unsettling parts of myself that have a lesson to teach me, the parts that regret a bad food choice or a harsh word, the parts that ache over lost years and missed opportunities, the parts the deliver hidden messages from my deepest core and help me to course correct and make authentic choices. I think my guilt is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

Being emotionally fit means not only listening to my emotional spectrum, it means embracing it. It means opening my arms up to the wind and loving my life in all of its forms. It means putting myself first before seeking to make those around me happy. It means choosing healthy, balanced relationships. It means keeping every crayon in the box, and using all of them often to color the most beautiful pictures possible.

 

(Final obesity blog coming soon on being Mentally Obese).

the Death Desk

On the day my best friend died, his family was hundreds of miles away. His fiancee, Elias, was upstairs in a hospital bed with a bruised liver, a broken nose, a concussion, and Kurt had no next-of-kin in the hospital.

It took us a long time to sort out what happened, and I’m still not sure we have all the details. There was a minor accident on a windy road on a Sunday afternoon. Kurt had been driving, and he was a good driver. We still don’t know what happened. The car went off the road and stopped in a ditch, the airbags deployed, and cars stopped to get help. The ambulances came and rushed both men to the hospital. And when they arrived, Kurt was pronounced dead. As I understand it now, the impact of the seatbelt triggered some internal bleeding and by the time they realized what was happening, it was too late to make a difference. Kurt died peacefully they told me.

But that Sunday of the accident, no one knew what was going on. The hallways were full of Kurt and Elias’s loved ones, mostly friends, who were all waiting to hear what had happened. I tried asking a few of the nurses on the hospital floor, but they really didn’t have any idea. One nurse acted like she knew things, telling me that Kurt was actually still alive on another floor before realizing she had mixed her cases up. But Kurt didn’t have anyone with him and I wanted to see him if I could.

I was instructed to walk down to the morgue, several floors lower. It was a Sunday afternoon and although the hospital was busy, it was much quieter than it would be during business hours. Kurt was down there by himself, and his parents, siblings, and children were all several hundred miles away.

I was directed to an isolated door in a lonely hallway, where a sign told me to push a bell and wait. For some strange reason, I thought of the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends approach the Emerald City and ring the doorbell, the man in green with the long red whiskers leaning through the door to deny them admittance. I laughed to myself, knowing Kurt would love that association right now.

OZ

A kind social worker came to the door. She’d probably been back there watching YouTube videos on her phone or perhaps playing Solitaire. I quietly explained that my best friend had been killed in a car accident just a few hours before and I wondered where he was, if there was a report on what had happened, and if I might see him.

The woman closed the door while she looked into the case, and was gone for just a few minutes. She came back and looked sad. “Kurt’s body was here just a few minutes ago, but the medical examiner took him to another building for examination. Although they probably won’t work on him until tomorrow, he will stay there tonight, and there isn’t any way for you to get in to see him. It’s against state law. Immediate family could have seen him here, but we were told they wouldn’t arrive for a few days. You might have been able to see him before, but probably not since you aren’t direct kin. I’m so sorry.”

I clutched my hands nervously, fighting back a wave of grief. “Is there someone I could instruct the family to call to ask questions?”

She nodded, placing a consoling hand on my arm. “Of course. Just have them call the Death Desk.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Pardon?”

She smiled, awkward. “I forget how weird that is, but that’s what we call it. The Death Desk. There is a really nice woman who works there during business hours. It’s her job to answer questions to family members. There is a weekend helper as well, but they might want to wait for the main woman to get back tomorrow. She’s really good.”

I laughed, in spite of myself. “The Death Desk? You couldn’t call it the Information Desk, or the Family Resource Line, or the Bereavement Department… you call it the Death Desk? That’s terrible!”

She shrugged. “Yeah, that’s just what they call it. Look, I don’t mean to overstep my bounds, but do you need a hug?”

I walked away from the isolated morgue door and walked down the hall, bewildered and amused somehow. The Death Desk, honestly. I had a sticky note in my house with the words “Death Desk” followed by a phone number for the family to call.

I stopped in the hallway, reflecting on the massive loss in my life without Kurt in it. We texted constantly. I would have pulled out my phone right now and sent him this story and he would have laughed in that fantastic full body laugh of his, and said something witty in response. God, but this loss was staggering.

I sat down in the quiet hallway, flourescent lights buzzing over my head, and just breathed for a minute. I wondered where Kurt was now. Not his body, but Kurt, all the things that made him him. His brashness, his laughter, his directness, his passion for life. Growing up Mormon, I believed in an afterlife, a continuation of the spirit into a Heavenly existence surrounded by love. And despite the loss of my faith, I tend to still lean that direction in my thoughts. The soul is energy and energy transforms to new forms, it doesn’t just expire. Water freezes or evaporates, but it continues to exist in some form. Kurt, he must be out there, somewhere, in some capacity, all his amazingness present.

Perhaps he stood at the bedside of Elias, perhaps he was checking on his sons, perhaps he was on his favorite mountaintop looking at the expanses of Earth around him, perhaps he stood next to me in this very hallway laughing with me about the inanity of a Death Desk.

the night sky

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I recall wishing once to be hard in all my soft places

those supple and diaphanous systems within me

that had searched so valiantly, so militantly, for things that cannot exist without. 

 

Then…

After the one who could have been there and wasn’t, 

And the one whose needs filled the room to bursting, 

And the one who used fists, 

And the one who made unkeepable promises, 

And the one who used up all the natural resources and kept farming for more, 

And the who was there and then wasn’t, 

And the one who could only see himself, 

And the one who could never answer (because he didn’t exist), 

Then…

 

After the sun set, 

I stood under the stars, 

right where I had always been standing,

and I looked up, hard and jagged and careful within, 

reliant more upon that beautiful night sky

than I ever had been upon the clouds. 

 

bitter/sweet

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there is liberation in lonely.

confusion in cuddling a one-and-only.

confidence can be confining.

dedication denotes far too much defining.

strength stems from sadness.

you often find meaning just after the madness.

happy can leave you so horny.

magic moments pass by without warning.

disappointment, what a dream.

mediocrity makes you mean.

far too easy to forget the fire.

chaos rings loud from the chords of the choir.

vengeance is visceral, vibrant.

fear leaves you open to future and finite.

like a nip of chocolate with a chili bite,

i won’t go on without a fight.

Chili-and-chocolate

When you don’t know what to write

Sometimes I don’t know what to write.

I’ve made it a regular habit for me, a muscle that needs to be regularly exercised, and I have felt myself growing stronger as a writer. I even keep a list of topics I want to write about. But sometimes I just stare at the list, and stare at the screen or page, and I’m stumped.

It isn’t like writer’s block, where the writer is stymied, not knowing what direction to take a story. It’s more like a lack of current inspiration. I have plenty to write about, but I like to be in a particular mood or frame of mind when I sit down and put pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard. I like to feel the anger, the sadness, the loneliness, or the love when I put words down.

Today, though, I just feel here. Not numb, not apathetic, not empty, just present.

The old man at a nearby table is scraping frosting off of a plate with his fingers, the last sugary remnants of his cinnamon roll. In my mind, he snuck out this morning for a treat, and his wife can’t find out because it’s bad for his diabetes.

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A woman overdressed for winter (it’s 40 degrees out and she’s dressed like it’s below zero in thick coat, hat, scarf, gloves, snow pants) is devouring a triple-berry muffin, and she can’t stop talking about it, loudly. “Oh, this is delicious! I had no idea you guys made muffins like this! This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten!” She’s not talking to anyone, and in my mind, she’s maybe talking to the ghost of a loved one, someone who’s been gone for months but who follows her around and only the woman can see the ghost.

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A petite young blonde woman has one side of the restaurant to herself. She has an adorable little blonde baby girl with pink cheeks, and the woman is feeding her small spoonfuls of baby food. She looks at her daughter with such love and affection, like that little baby is her entire universe, like she can’t remember what the world was like a year ago when that child didn’t exist. In my mind, she has a husband far off somewhere, perhaps in the Middle East, and she’s working hard to keep everything together.

Messy-Baby-Food-Face

I realize that I’m doing it again, and I smile to myself. I am always making up stories about those around me, turning simple events into life dramas. It happens unbidden. And when I realize it’s happening I smile.

I take a sip of my coffee, something billed as a Peruvian Medium Roast, and the bitterness on my tongue is delicious. I look outside. It’s just below freezing and snow is falling loosely, haphazardly. It’s clinging to every surface, from tree branches and roofs to car bumpers and sidewalks. The sky is the same color as the snow, a rich, thick, opaque white, and only the colors of things offset it–the browns of tree trunks, the reds of trucks, the tans of buildings–everything else is white. It is its own kind of beautiful, but it brings with it a sadness, a longing for the sun. I think of my clients and how their depressive tendencies increase in a winter like this, and how the problems all seem to go away or diminish when the whiteness in the sky gets softer and the blue shows.

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My eyes turn back to the flashing cursor on the empty computer screen. I remember a trick I learned when I was back in high school. The teacher talked about how the best way to get started on an essay or assignment was to just start working on it. You can always go back and change something later, but just beginning a project can inspire ideas and motivation.

The blonde woman uses a spoon to wipe dribbled baby food off her baby’s chin.

The man literally licks his plate clean.

The woman with the muffin gives off an orgasmic sound of pleasure. “It’s so good!”

And I, smiling, place my fingers on my keyboard and begin to type.