Inner Dialogue

I’ve been working on mindfulness lately. Slowing the world down. I’ve been practicing this for years, and I still have more work to do. Lately, my meditation has been all about inward body monitoring. Breathe, focus, calm, and a focus on what is happening under my eyelids, or against the lining of my stomach; picking out sore spots in my back, slowly and deliberately; feeling where cloth is touching my skin and how that is distinct from the air. It’s powerful work, and it brings a calm I couldn’t have anticipated.

Mindfulness is applied to other areas of my life as well. Mindfulness in the way I’m spending money. Mindfulness in the types of food I’m choosing to eat, and when. Mindfulness in how I spend time with my children, in the way I exercise, in how I read books, in how I spend my mornings. I know the difference between peace and discord, and I’m ever striving toward peace. Accountability. Integrity.

This morning, I put mindfulness in a new and unexpected direction. I lent it toward the inner, critical dialogue, the one that seems to play on autopilot during moments of vulnerability. In the last few years, I’ve worked to silence that voice. It runs so far in the background now. But I found it sparking up while I was exercising, and I paid attention to it, from a non-judgmental space. I just observed it there, from deep down inside me. And the moment I allowed it to speak, I realized it wouldn’t shut up. I realized it never has.

I was stretching on a yoga mat at the gym. I was in a black tank top and orange camouflage shorts, and I had on long Wonder Woman socks, a pair given to me as a gift recently. My phone and my library book, a collection of letters that I planned to read between sets, sat on the floor next to me. It was a quieter day at the gym, only 6:45 am, but the morning regulars were there, walking around, gabbing, listening to music, lifting weights. A blonde woman kept slamming a ball on the floor and I could feel the tremors beneath me. All the way across the gym, a man was dropping heavy weights on the floor as he grunted loudly, and I could hear the crash every time. Obnoxious 90s rap music played. The wind was blowing outside. I was hungry, and sore, and still sleepy.

A gym regular walked past, one I used to have a crush on years ago. I remembered asking him out a few times a few years back and he’d never responded one way or the other, reacting with ambivalence and a shrug. I remembered feeling, back then, like I wasn’t good enough to get his attention. He was younger, fitter, and must have his pick of men, I told myself. Or maybe I was intimidating. Or maybe too old, too out of shape, too talkative. Maybe my teeth weren’t straight enough. Or maybe he just wasn’t interested. Then again, he hadn’t answered at all, so maybe I wasn’t even interested in the first place. Maybe I’d been desperate. Maybe it had just been a passing crush. Maybe if I’d gotten to know him, I wouldn’t have been interested at all.

And, in fact, I wasn’t interested. Not now. I’ve been with a man I love very much for the last two years. And yet those feelings were still there, deep down, that old dialogue. The ones that spoke to insecurity, confusion, harsh self-criticism. The ones that told me I was never good enough. The ones that tried to make sense of the world as I understood it and why I never seemed to fit in. The ones I grew up with. Instead of silencing them, I spend some time with them. Safely. I observed them as I let that narrative continue. I closed my eyes as I did sit-ups and planks and twists. It was easy to give it voice. I’d spent so long there, so long, so many years.

Does he notice me now, I thought. Does he see me. If I asked him why he’d never been interested, what would he say. If I were to ask him why he never responded back then, what would he say, how would he respond. I found my internal self playing out some form of the conversation in my brain. You were too needy back then, he might say. Or maybe he might say that if I looked then like I do now, more fit and focused on myself, maybe he would have been interested. What would I have said back, I wondered. Would I have told him to fuck off, that he should have gotten to know me back then, that I was worth his time then and now I wasn’t sure he was worth mine. Would I walk away with head held high, would I gush, feel confused, brag about how happy I am now. How would I respond. Of course he wasn’t interested, of course. You were insecure, you never measured up, you had children, you were in debt, your teeth weren’t straight, you’d been married, you waited too long to come out of the closet, you didn’t love yourself enough.

Guh. I sat up on the mat and took a long inward breath. That inner dialogue. Playing out these shame scenarios that would never happen and that I wouldn’t want to happen in the first place. Listening to those inner voices, the ones I had grown up with for so long, the ones that had infected my head for all of those years. The constant measuring, the never being enough, the endless comparisons. I wasn’t that person any more. My way free had been hard fought and hard won. It had taken effort, therapy, soul-searching. I had a healthy spirituality now, and I liked myself. I didn’t give a shit what people thought anymore, not in most cases. But if I gave it voice, it was all still there, deep down, all still present. The old wounds, the old heavy spaces, still there. A part of the old me, deep down, needing to be channeled just once in a while.

And then I found comfort. I found peace with the me that was, and the me that is. And I found comfort in the old parts of me being integrated into these new parts of me, with peace and space. Inner child, closeted Mormon, repressed father, all of those pieces from my past were still there, part of this new independent me. I could learn from them. I could listen and be okay.

I got up, walked past my old gym crush, thought of my happy little family now, and grabbed some free weights, ready to get to work.

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Porn Addiction in Utah

“What is it with men and porn in Utah?” A friend from out of state asked me that question in a recent online exchange. “I grew up Mormon but not in Utah, and porn is a big deal here, but it seems to be even bigger there. Like is porn addiction a thing? And is it the same as sex addiction? And is it really as big a deal there as they say? And does it have anything to do with women and depression there and how they have the highest rate of anti-depressant usage?”

I responded with a “Whoa, hang on! That’s a lot of questions!” And then we went on to talk for two hours about Utah and its complexities. I’ll summarize a lot of these thoughts here. Keep in mind, reader, that while I am a mental health expert, I fully admit this is not a topic I’ve done personal research on. The thoughts presented here come from my own perspectives, as an ex-Mormon gay father and therapist who has some years of experience behind him. I fully admit my own bias, but there is a lot of truth to my words for many as well.

First of all, since it’s inception, Utah has treated women as a commodity. Mormon men, from the leaders on down, competed for women as an acquisition. There are love stories, sure, but there are also stories of conquest, of older wives being forgotten and set aside as younger wives were obtained. Young virgin girls were hot market items, married off to men two or four or six decades their senior. Men’s names were to be blessed in their righteousness as they fathered children and established lineages on Earth that would follow them into Heaven. And while times have changed, well, a lot of these cultural trends remain the same.

Mormon marriage now is ideally young returned missionary and young out-of-high school girl, both virgins, who marry quickly. She’s promised happiness and motherhood in exchange for her modesty, virtue, and dedication to her husband. She is destined to be a queen and priestess, reigning forever at the side of her husband. It’s church first, then husband and kids, then herself last. Except by age 25, there are 3 or 4 kids and they are screaming and her husband is gone a lot and she doesn’t know what to do. And there is depression. And then one day she finds out that her husband has been secretly watching porn in the basement, and what does that mean. It feels like slaps to the face, an abject betrayal. This isn’t how here life was supposed to go! Why would he do this to her! Isn’t she lovely enough, sexy enough, good enough, isn’t she enough for him? Why would God let this happen? And so she keeps her pain quiet and focuses on the kids and pops anti-depressants and hopes things will work out.

And for him? The Priesthood holder? The one who is burning the candle at both ends, with a full-time job, and debt, and church callings, and the kids, and the wife, the one who is always needed and is expected to be pure and righteous? He is meant to be a king and priest in Heaven, to have his own kingdom, his own planet one day. It’s church first, then wife and kids, then work, then him last. But he can barely seem to keep his energy and morale up for the things happening around him in his busy household. It’s all too much. And porn, well, it’s an easy escape. It’s indulgent. It’s secret. It’s not hurting anybody. It’s contained to a laptop screen. He can look up what he wants, pleasure himself. And if that gets boring, he can always jump online, into chatrooms, maybe exchange some photos or jump on a webcam, so long as he doesn’t show his face. It’s private and exciting. He gets attention from women (or at least men pretending to be women) that aren’t his wife. And so it becomes a habit. He stays up late multiple times per week. 15 minutes easily turns into 2 or 3 hours. He’s not addicted, he tells himself, he just enjoys it, so long as no one finds out, and he can keep the reality of it all in a different box, one that isn’t connected to his faithfulness or his Priesthood at all.

Except then he gets caught. He stammers lies about how often he does it, how much there has been, how far he has gone. He lies, and then makes excuses, and then blames others. There is shame and penitence. He has been told hundreds of times from his Priesthood leaders about the evils of pornography, about how it burns images permanently into your brain. Just one second, one image, that is all it takes and you are forever unclean. And now his wife is furious, and there is even less sex. He’s sent to the bishop. He vows to never do it again. She’s crying constantly, feeling lied to, betrayed. She was faithful and it isn’t supposed to be like this. It’s wrong, and he’s bad, and he’s unworthy. And if he relapses and gets caught again, well, he needs to go to therapy, to sex addiction recovery, where he can sort out what is wrong with him and make himself a better son of God, a more worthy Priesthood holder.

There are pornography and sex addiction recovery clinics all over Utah. They specialize in helping men move past the desires of the flesh and be better. Pornography is evil, vile, wrong. In fact, just a few years ago, the Mormon governor declared pornography a health epidemic. On a governmental level. (Seriously.) And so the man either gets better, or he finds more discreet ways of meeting this dark need. Or maybe he starts cheating. Utah does have a thriving prostitution industry, after all.

(And if you feel like this characterization is unfair or dramatic, take a moment to assess the people you know in Utah, even your own friends and families. Chances are, this describes more than a few of those men, women, or couples, if not now, than a few years back. This represents nearly every Mormon family I know, honestly).

So is there such thing as porn addiction? Absolutely. Food can be addictive. As can bad relationships, or gambling, or work. When you engage in something in one area of your life that is hurting the other areas; when you spend hours and hours on it; when you are keeping major secrets and justifying bad behavior; when you are telling lies and making excuses; all of these things contribute to addiction. But it is very important to understand that porn is not an addiction for everyone. In fact, studies show that porn is mostly addictive in heavily religious cultures and communities, ones that treat sex with shame, one with rigorous standards of what it means to be worthy.

Utah is well-known for having a poor sex education system in place. Safe sex isn’t discussed so much as abstinence. Sex is equated with shame, revulsion, and sin. Every human teenager has a sexual development taking place, it comes along with the hormones and the genitals. They experience attractions and desires. Those who have pre-marital sex are considered dirty, or damaged goods. And what extends with that is a culture of secret keeping. Let’s not talk about sex, let’s keep our sins secret, and let’s ignore the sexual things happening all around us. Looks bury our desires, never talk about them, never masturbate, never learn, and instead save ourselves for marriage. And then let’s marry our young sons and daughters and see what happens.

And what happens? Depression and addictions to pornography. Men and women grow up into adults while never allowing their sexual sides, which are just as prominent as their spiritual sides, to develop. Those sides stay stuck in adolescence. They seek expression. They cry out for release. And it’s even rougher on gay men and women, who have the added burden of growing up of being ashamed for WHO they are attracted to, leaving more psychological and emotional needs unmet.

I could likely prepare an entire two-hour conference on this, but I’ll wrap it up here. After a robust discussion, my friend asked me how I help people through all of this.

As a man, I struggled with pornography and masturbation during my Mormon years, when I was both married and single. Both resulted in major depression and anxiety problems for me, as well as physical issues. I had nausea, major stress, and sometimes vomiting or diarrhea issues after indulging in pornography or masturbation, and those conditions extended to when I would even notice an attractive man on the street. “I experienced an attraction! Oh no! I’m evil, God hates me, what have I done!” as my stomach churned. Now I live as an out, proud gay man. I’m sexually active, and I occasionally view porn. Masturbation is a pleasurable activity on occasion as well. And I experience zero shame in relation to any of it. I accept my sexual identity as very much a part of my overall person. I’m not a sinner or an addict. I’m just a healthy human 40-year old man.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of clients come to me with goals of reducing masturbation or to work on their pornography addictions. I take these concerns seriously. I listen. I reflect. I’m kind and calm andpatient. But I have to help the clients recognize that the shame they feel around sex is the primary cause of their emotional struggles. I have to help them learn to accept and love themselves, all parts of themselves, and then make decisions from there. I have to help them measure out their motivations. If their goal remains to watch pornography less, or to masturbate less, listen to the difference between these motivations.

“My goal is to masturbate less because when I do it, I am dirty and wrong. I’m breaking my covenants and making God disappointed in me. I’m sinning and permanently damaging myself. It’s going to take me years to earn back the trust of my wife, and I’m no longer worthy to go to the temple. Help me!”

Or: “My goal is to masturbate less because I want to live up to my covenants. I accept and embrace myself as a human person who has sexual desires. I was created that way and I’m not ashamed of that. Sexual desire is normal and natural, but I want to be a stalwart husband and father, and to live the teachings of my religion, so I want to make some changes to that behavior.”

Those are very different places to begin from. As for me? I don’t see anything wrong with a bit of porn, masturbation, or sexual activity, so long as it is from within the ethics and guidelines of the person’s overall life plan. Those things don’t fit in certain relationships or religions. Consent and ethics and all of that applies here, of course. And that’s where an individual has to measure out his or her own value system, because hurting the people you love isn’t the desired result here. Addictions or dependencies in any form, to food or alcohol or porn, are damaging and need to be worked on. But being a porn addict doesn’t make you a sex addict. Take accountability of yourself and be ethical and make your life decisions around that. Because shame is going to ruin you otherwise.

Embrace all of the parts of you, and learn how to be healthy. The rest will fall into place.

(And for those of you not in Utah, well, I love it here, really. It’s super charming. But oh my stars is it strange. And one way to emphasize that: there is a whole genre of porn under the category of ‘Mormon’. Both gay and straight. Seriously. It’s like a thriving industry. Fascinating, I tell you.)

 

Defining Marriage

The definitions of marriage have changed. But has the definition of happiness changed as well?

For a few generations, in the youths of my parents and their parents, traditional and conservative values were prioritized above all else. The man meets the woman, they court, they save themselves for marriage, she takes his last name, they move in together and he works while she bears and raises the children. It was culturally frowned upon for women to work outside the home, even as things like domestic violence were often shrugged off and overlooked. Infidelity was expected, at least at times, for men, but strictly forbidden for women. Women were property, to be dominated and owned, even as the conventions behind marriage stated that women were to be loved and cherished. Men were brought up to be strong and to seek riches and success. Women were brought up to be cultured, modest, and demure, and to seek themselves a man.

There was certainly a lot of convention. It was relatively common a few generations ago for older men in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s, to marry much younger women, even teenagers, and for them to have two or three marriages in a lifetime. It was almost unheard of for older women to marry younger men. Women were the nurturers, and men were the breadwinners, and that was simply the way of things.

And nearly anyone can recite a form of the marriage vows. “I, man, take you, woman, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, as my lawfully wedded wife, till death do us part.” It was a transaction, a legal and binding tie that was meant to last a lifetime. The kids, the assets, the money, and the bed would be shared, and everyone would live happily ever after. And of course, a lot went wrong with these institutions, but the ideal remained. Handsome young man meets beautiful young woman and they fall in love and stay in love through decades, no matter what life throws at them. Cue every Hollywood movie ever made (well, 95 per cent of them). Cue the Notebook, and Cinderella, and Sleepless in Seattle and every feel good film that leaves you feeling like love and happiness are just around the corner if you just meet the right person.

If I’m honest, though, this describes about zero per cent of the marriages I’ve seen in my life. Both sets of my grandparents remained married until they died, but from what I know, they had years of staying loyal to each other even while not liking each other very much. There was depression, and problems with kids,  and fighting, and drinking, and the sacrifice of careers. There were extreme hard times. But they stayed together, and that was the ideal, the one we keep falling back on.

But not so much in my generation. My parents divorced. Most of my siblings divorced. I divorced. It didn’t work. The world had changed. (I mean, gay marriage is legal now.) No longer does the message seem to be to just stay together no matter what. But the ideal hadn’t changed, and thus we ended up with a generation of people feeling like they had failed, like they hadn’t done it the right way. And that sense of failure stays with you, particularly when you are connected by children. Divorce is an ugly, violent process that results, frequently, in depression and pain and bankruptcy. But also liberation, a new beginning, a fresh start, a leaving of the past and a building toward the future.

I’m 40 now, and I’ve been divorced for 8 years. And I’m noticing that the trend has shifted again. What I see now is a generation of people who are not saving themselves for marriage, who are not willing to sacrifice their happiness, or their aspirations, or sometimes even their family names. I see people who expect more out of life than to just fall in love and stay there (hopefully) for a lifetime. I see people staking their own claims. They date, and they have sex, and they pursue their careers. And they might fall in and out of love. They regret the one they loved who didn’t love them back, even as they reject others who they don’t love back. And then they turn 30 and wonder what has happened, because they didn’t achieve that ideal that they were seeking for all along: that one person they hoped to love and stay with forever. That’s right, they changed the rules about how they live their lives, and then wonder why their lives didn’t turn out like their parents did, while openly admitting that that wasn’t what they were looking for in the first place.

What I’m seeing far more frequently lately, in my personal life and in my therapy office, are single people who are angst-ing at the universe about their lack of success in relationships, and people in relationships who are angst-ing about their relationships not being what they thought they would be. For those who have partners, they seem to wrestle with depression, wondering why things haven’t turned out perfectly. Why isn’t the sex happening enough, or why is their boyfriend so quiet all the time, or why isn’t the house as clean as they thought it would be? I think they make the mistakes of assuming that relationships will be easy. On paper, in theory, they state that they are ready for the hard work that relationships will bring, that the love will be enough to see them through those tough times, but in execution, it is much harder than they realize, and they aren’t sure how or if they can make things better. The grass is always greener…

So I find myself asking others, what is the kind of relationship you are looking for? The ideal one? The one where you meet someone and fall in love and stick it out no matter what, during time of stress and pain, sickness and depression, money and trust and communication issues? Or the one where you have an independent life with personal happiness, a fulfilling career, friends, and travel, and one that you share with someone who also has an independent life? And if it is the second one, are you prepared to realize that those independent lives will not always intersect? Sex, and aspirations, and travel, and career, and goals… they won’t always be in line? Are you okay with mixing these two together and creating a new definition?

What if the ideal relationship in today’s times means a composite of these two worlds? What if you fall in love with someone who loves you, cuddles you, someone you find beautiful, someone independent and engaging, and you build something long-term, but then over time, those things change, and you with it? How does sex, career, money, family, aspirations, trust… how do all of those things change when you want the best of both, a happy you and a long-term consistent relationship? Is this the new ideal? Is this the recipe for happiness, someone to share life with even as you find your own happiness, even through major trials and struggles? Is that how it will be now? Can you remain happy and good in your own skin throughout the process of building something with someone else? Because that describes nearly every happy couple I know, at this point. that blend of baby-boomer and millennial, that solid ground assurance mixed with the murky and tenuous unknown.

Which is it you are looking for? If you are living like a millennial and looking for the baby-boomer definition of a relationship, frustration and angst are the likely results.

ring

Naked, with grace

“When was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror, naked?”

My friend giggled, perhaps embarrassed that I’d said the word naked in a public coffee shop. “This morning.”

“All right. And what did you think when you looked?”

She raised an eyebrow in confusion. “I don’t think I did think about it. I mean, I saw my reflection, but I didn’t really look. I just did my hair, put on my make-up, got dressed.”

I sipped my coffee. “Okay, let me try again. When is the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror naked?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, God, not only do I not know, I don’t think I want to do that.”

“Why?”

“Cause ew.”

Now it was my turn to laugh? “Ew? You’re so profound.”

“I don’t want to see that!”

“And yet you see it every day.”

“But like, I don’t want to see see me naked!”

“Hmm.” I responded.

“Oh stop it!” She flashed me her death glare from across the table. “I hate when you do that thing where you act like you are in a therapy session and you want the client to reveal something about themselves through your casual observance.”

I wiggled my eyebrows. “When I do that, how does it make you feel?”

She laughed louder. “Stop it!”

“I’m not your therapist. But I am therapist. How does that make you feel?” We both laughed again. “Okay, but honestly, as your best friend, can I just say that if the thought of looking at yourself naked makes you say ‘ew’, what kind of energy does that put out there into the world? How does that influence how you think men see you, or your own self-confidence and energy?”

Her eyes narrowed, playfully, but I could tell she was thinking that through. “I hate you so much. Okay, Mister Therapist, when is the last time you looked at yourself naked?”

I non-chalantly sipped. “This morning.”

She laughed. “Oh fuck you. And how did that make you feel?”

“Well that’s why I brought it up.” We both laughed, and then I grew serious, sober. “Okay, so first it dawned on me, historically I have never given myself a good look. I’ve avoided looking. And most my life, I’ve just been hard on myself, like feeling ashamed about how I look naked, but also not wanting to look at myself naked because then I would have to feel ashamed. Does that make sense?”

“Oh my God, yes. But I think you just described everyone, ever.”

“And, like, what does that say about me? It’s just easier not to look, so I just won’t look? Because if I do, I might be ashamed? That’s gross! I hate thinking that way. So I gave myself a good look this morning. And my very first impulse would be to be super hard on myself. I have a few inches around my stomach. Like I’m strong, but I have fat deposits there, and they are jiggly, and there is some extra skin there from when I used to be fat. And when I turn around, I can see where my spine curves, and my ass only looks great if I stand at just the right angle. My feet are flat. There is a space next to my chest by my armpits where there is just some skin there and it doesn’t look like I’d want it to ideally look. And I have grey on my temples.”

She stared at me. “Okay, I know I’m married and straight, and I know you’re gay, but you know how much I love the gray on your temples. You’re giving me all the right daddy vibes.” We both laughed. “And to hear that you are being that tough on yourself, when I look at you and think you are super hot, it pisses me off.”

“Yes! Me too! It pisses me off! Also, thank you! I am super hot!” More laughter. “But isn’t that what you’d do, automatically see the flaws when you’d loo? If you’d look?”

She bit her lip. “All right. I’ve had kids. I’d see stomach fat, and stretch marks, and my boobs would be saggy because I’ve breastfed kids. And I’m sure I wouldn’t like the rest. This sucks, I don’t want to talk about it.”

I gripped her hand. “And so whenever your husband sees you naked, you just assume he’s going to look at those things, or that he will just purposefully look past them. Like you’d be mad if he noticed, but you’d also feel ashamed. Like self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Yes! Yes! Okay! You made your point!”

I laughed again and winked. “I haven’t even started to make my point yet. I feel the same way! Like all this body shame that I want to avoid thinking about! And I have those same expectations from my boyfriend cause he basically looks perfect naked.”

“So does my husband! Damn we have good taste in men!”

“Or they have great taste in us!” I countered, and we laughed again.

She laughed harder. “I fucking love you.”

“I fucking love you!” I countered. But then I sobered a bit. “Have you ever gotten angry with your husband for not loving you in a particular way? Like you inherently expect him to see past your insecurity and just make you feeling fucking beautiful. And you’re hurt and angry when he doesn’t. Like because he doesn’t make all your pain go away, then he needs to be punished.”

She glared. “You already said that. Well, kind of.”

“Hey! I’m processing here! And do you ever find yourself resenting someone who you think looks great, and you are mad at them because they have some sort of insecurity? Like I have this friend who has literally done underwear modeling, and I saw him once and told him he looked incredible and he was like ‘don’t say that, not today. I don’t feel good about myself’ and my natural instinct was to be like ‘fuck you! you aren’t allowed to be insecure when you look that good! Only I get to be insecure!’ but instead I was like ‘oh man, I’m sorry you are having a tough day’. And he actually gave me a hug and said ‘thank you for letting me be human and have insecurity for a second. No one lets me do that.’ Like am I the only one allowed to be insecure? It’s an actual human trait. We all experience it. And we waste all of this time and money on shitty behavior that we think will make us feel better because we aren’t at some standard of beauty that society has branded into us! We can only be successful if we are this particular definition of hot!”

“Okay, now you are just ranting. So what is the point of all this?”

I took a deep breath. “So this morning, instead I tried the opposite. Looked at myself in the mirror with grace instead of judgment. I was… kind. I thought of all the time I’m spending in the gym. I looked at my massive arms, my thick shoulders, my back, my muscular legs and calves, my ass, my stomach, my smile. And instead of feeling ‘ew’ I felt… happy. I felt driven. I felt like I wanted to eat healthy and exercise and see what I’m capable of. I thought of how my partner sees the best parts of me, so why would I see the worst parts? Why would I waste time either not looking, or just hating what I saw? Why would I do that?”

And then I leveled my gaze. “And why would you? You’re gorgeous!”

We talked about our naked selves for a while, laughing and connecting, because that is the kind of friends we are. We smiled. We discussed loving ourselves, with grace, not with judgment. We talked about how we want to raise our kids to do the same, and then laughed about how we can definitely not talk to our kids about nakedness cause that’s weird. But then we talked about wanting to use grace more, with all the parts of our lives. About our jobs, and our friendships, about our writing and our families. About our personal journeys. We talked about using grace and not shame as a way to motivate ourselves, to find love and self-acceptance. We talked about how confidence is the very sexiest thing.

Because if we can’t look at ourselves naked, how can we expect anyone else to?

 

Cracked Earth

CrackedI forget to look up sometimes

Clouds, horizons, sunsets, if only I’d raise my eyes

The cracks in the earth distract me

and I rage at the imperfections of the ground

for feeling unsafe beneath me

It should be whole, solid, unbreakable

and I wonder what kind of world this is

when even the ground cracks

At my center, my spine curves, and my foundation with it

skeletal structures compensating with distentions and altered planes

crooked all the way through

It leaves me wondering at my very existence

Sometimes, at least, I seem able to find only

the broken, within and without

And then I remember

that the ground breaks apart and the earth extends

for everyone, and not just me

And then my head raises forward

And I move, aware of the broken

and choosing to forge ahead

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.”

Finding Faults

fault

I took a good long look at my naked self in the mirror this morning.

I’m turning 40 soon. My body is getting older. Some of my imperfections came by design, like my crooked spine, my flat feet, and my jaw that distends to the left. And some are the result of choices I have made, like the scars near my ear where I once picked at my chicken pox, and the small amount of extra skin on my stomach from those years I spent obese.

And then I realized, here I am looking at myself, and I’m immediately scanning for my imperfections. That’s the first place that my brain goes, to look for the things I want to change. I didn’t look first toward my big brown eyes, my full head of hair, or the straight-teeth-smile I paid for after finally getting braces. I didn’t scan for the changes I’ve made with my intense workouts this year, my thicker legs, the muscles forming over my chest and biceps, my broad shoulders, my calves, my core, my ass.

I’m proud of myself. I like myself. And I hate that upon first glance, at least this time, I only noticed the things I want to change. I wouldn’t treat my children this way. I wouldn’t look at them and think, hmm, that’s that imperfection about them. Instead I see them as perfect just as they are.

As I got dressed, I realized that I often do this with others, though. It’s superficial, but I tend to notice the more attractive men and women around me in my daily interactions. I assign more inherent value to those I deem attractive, subconsciously, and I compare them against each other. There is some ranking scale that works within me. I contrast muscles and styles and smiles, ages and prowess and height. I stack them up next to each other and assign a ranking. And worse, I compare them to myself. I feel more valuable than some, less valuable than others. I’m thinner, but he’s more fit. I’m more successful, but he’s taller. It’s exhausting.

I hate that this is an inherent part of our culture. It invades every aspect of culture, these rankings, these assignments of worth. Business, industry, politics, parenting, education, pop culture. We think of babies as prettier than other babies. Teenage girls think of themselves as less than for having smaller breasts while teenage boys high-five the friend who can pound back the most beer.

And recently, I had a conversation with a dear friend, a man I admire immensely, who is in his late 60s. He is accomplished, with a successful business and a beautiful home. He stands in front of crowds and gives inspiring speeches. Yet he confided in me that he has a low self-esteem. He’s getting older, he said, and he is realizing that fewer younger men are interested in him, yet he’s not generally interested in guys his age. It was heartbreaking to see someone so powerful struggling with something so personal.

And yet I already see this internal struggle developing in my own sons. My 6-year old came home one day last year, from the first grade, crying about how he is the smallest in the class, how other kids are smarter and better than he is.

I spend an enormous amount of time in my therapy office working with clients who grew up with the internal narrative that they weren’t good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, tall enough. They loved my sister more, if I had been a better boy then my dad wouldn’t have committed suicide, if I had been prettier than he would have loved me back, if I was stronger than I wouldn’t have made those choices. Always about the ranking, the betters and mores, the measuring, the shame.

And while I work hard on that internal image of me, on celebrating myself instead of shaming myself, I still found myself scanning my flaws in the mirror this morning.

And so, as I face my day ahead, I realize that I can’t delete these operating systems out of my brain, but I can become more aware of them. I can separate them out from the healthy parts of me, and focus on love, compassion, recognition, and strength. I can embrace the me that is while working on the me that can be. It isn’t about the flattest stomach, or the fullest head of hair, or the fastest run time. It’s about embracing me, each and every day, and working on the world around me. And it’s about helping those around me feel loved.

Because they look in the mirror and look for their flaws just like I do.

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.”

Origin

 

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Zero

My mother wrote songs as she rocked me

Singing lyrics aloud, her eyes blue on mine brown

A song of the mother Mary rocking the Christ child

A lullaby that soothed until heavy eyelids closed in sleep.

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Five

We cut holes in shoeboxes

Then covered them in paper, pink and red mostly.

Scissors sliced thick paper into hearts and letters

While scented colored markers etched our names

In grape purple and lemon yellow and licorice black.

On super hero valentines,

I wrote To’s and From’s to each member of my class

Except I wrote two for Michael, the boy who made me laugh.

I liked-him-liked-him

The way Chris liked Michelle and Jason liked Desiree.

At the Valentines Party, I placed each small card in each small box

And two in Michael’s.

But I only wrote a From on one of his cards, leaving the other blank.

If I gave two to him, the other boys would know I was different.

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Fifteen

“You are indeed one of Heavenly Father’s choice sons.

Do not in any way disappoint Him.”

The patriarch spoke kindly, firmly,

A direct message from God to me on his breath.

Weeks before, when I had told the bishop my shameful secret,

the message had been the same, kind and firm.

“God loves you, He does not tolerate sin.”

The words of the prophets, kind and firm again.

“Pray, do everything God says, and He will cure you,

Make you straight,

Because He loves you.”

And so I ket my eyes just that, straight

Focused, unerring.

Dad was gone,

And my stepfather spoke with fists and angry words.

I was a fairy, he said. I would never measure up to a real man.

But God, He heard. I just couldn’t disappoint Him.

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twenty-seven

She looked at me sincerely, tears streaming down her face,

And asked why, why after six years of dating, we hadn’t kissed,

Hadn’t held hands, not even once.

I thought of the familiar excuses, used again and again,

About trying to be moral and righteous,

About saying it wasn’t just her, that I’d never kissed anyone,

Never held anyone’s hands.

Those were true words, but not the whole truth.

She needed the whole truth.

“I’m gay,” I said. “But I’m trying to cure it.”

And she didn’t mind. And so we kissed, finally.

There was affection and regard and kindness behind it,

If not chemical attraction,

And relationships had been built on less.

And for her the feelings were real.

And so, three months later, we married.

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thirty-two

The day my second son was born, I got that same sense

Of holding my entire world in my hands.

That word again, Fatherhood,

Overwhelming in its possibility, its responsibility.

Here, a new miracle, different from his brother in every way.

But this time, our lives were different.

Early drafts of divorce papers sat on the desk at home.

I was sleeping in the basement now,

And her heart was broken,

While mine, though sad, had come up for oxygen

After three decades of holding its breath.

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thirty-eight

Pen to paper, I think back on six years of firsts.

First authentic kiss.

First try at an authentic relationship

And first authentic heartbreak.

First time dancing, euphoric and free.

First friends, real friends, finally, friends.

First realization that I like myself, powerfully,

And that I have no need to be cured of something that was never wrong.

First freedoms, from religion and deadly self-expectations.

I live now, loudly.

My sons thrive in two households, and they will tell anyone who asks

That their mother likes boys who like girls

And their father likes boys who like boys.

They are thriving, and smiling, and real.

And so is she.

And so am I.

the shark tooth necklace

I’ve always had a babyface.

When I was 17 and a senior in high school, I looked 12. When I was 20 and on a Mormon mission, I looked 15. When I was 25 and launching my career, doing marriage counseling for couples who had been together 40 years, I looked 20. And now, I’m 37 and look 30.

It isn’t such a bad thing now that I’m a bit older. I have a dusting of grey at my temples. I lost all of my weight years ago and I’m getting in great shape for the first time in my life, a slow and steady process over the past few years. I look old enough to have some basic respect in my field, though I have much more experience than many think at this point.

Growing up a gay Mormon kid (I know I mention it all the time, but it is my origin story), I was relatively accustomed to never speaking up for myself or taking care of myself. I was firmly in the service to others mold most of my life, trying very hard to cure something. I never thought of myself as handsome or attractive.

At 17, I took a trip to Hawaii with my high school band, a venture we had saved up for for 2 years prior to going. It was an epic week of playing band concerts and getting to see a place outside of southeast Idaho for the first time. Though there were chaperones, and though nearly every kid in the group was Mormon, I was away from all of the craziness going on in my house for the first time, and I remember feeling an epic sense of freedom, the first lesson I had that when things are crazy at home they can still be peace in the world outside.

I remember walking through a giant flea market, I think they called it a swap meet, where local vendors sold cheap T-shirts, art of sand and seashells, cheap hand-crafted clocks, fresh pineapple juice, and hundreds of other items. We were encouraged to barter with the vendors, talking them down from $8 to $7 and feeling powerful for having done so, not knowing the item only cost 50 cents to make. I bought items for my family back home, a coconut shell Tiki head, a little Hula girl doll, a swimsuit calendar full of men for my sister (who upon opening it later found a guy who looked bizarrely like me, except, you know, not 12 and in much better shape).

My friend Jen,a gorgeous girl with short hair that everyone in the school had a crush on, linked arms with me and told me it was time to get something nice for myself. (Many of my friends later told me they knew I was gay. I imagine Jen did also, though I’ve never asked her). She walked me over to a T-shirt vendor and picked out a tanktop for me. She made me try on a pair of sunglasses until she found one that I liked. Then, to top off the ensemble, she picked out a simple shark tooth on a necklace and placed it around my neck. All finished, she had me stand up and she looked me over.

“Chad! You look hot!”, she exclaimed.

I remember feeling a sense of elation, confidence, a burst of healthy ego. It wasn’t something I had ever experienced before. I knew she wasn’t in to me like that (and I wasn’t into her), but to have someone take the time to notice me, to compliment me genuinely… it was an amazing feeling.

Later that night, we went to a luau on the beach. I took off my shirt and sunglasses, put on a grass skirt, and kept the shark tooth necklace on. We all posed for photos on the beach.

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Fast forward 15 years to when I finally came out of the closet, and started realizing that not only was it okay to like other men, but that men, good-looking men that I found attractive… some of them also found me attractive. It was a powerful feeling, one of wonder.

Sometimes I still feel like that scrawny kid on the beach of Hawaii in a shark tooth necklace, realizing it is okay to feel just a bit selfish, to be just a little bit handsome, to enjoy the attention of others. Not only is it okay, it’s kind of crucial to healthy development.

Yesterday I went to a hot yoga class for the first time. The room was something like 80 degrees and it was packed with people. Beautiful people. Shirtless, shoeless, beautiful people. There was a moment half-way through where were were all in mountain pose, arms to the sky, everyone glistening with sweat as beautiful music played behind us. I scanned the room for a moment, seeing muscular calves, strong backs, lean stomachs, beautiful tranquil views of serenity on faces, fingers pointed toward skies. I looked at my own reflection in the mirror, strong chest and shoulders, thick arms, rooted feet. And I had a beautiful realization.

I fit.

I have always fit. With those around me. I spent so many years not fitting and it felt wonderful to fit. I too was beautiful. And not because of the size of my calves or pecs, but because I care about myself now. I take care of myself now.

I pictured the shark tooth necklace around my neck and grinned widely, showing my teeth. Then I closed my eyes and, fingers pointed toward the sky, joined the serenity.