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.)

 

Depression, as a Responsibility

Okay, hear me out.

I’m going to go with heart first, and then head.

Heart:

Depression is real, and it is crippling. It is fueled by anxiety, and stress, and chronic pain, and trauma. It can come in waves, from mild to severe, and it can last a day or (seemingly) a few years. It shreds self-esteem, it takes away joy, it leaves you feeling numb and empty and without hope that things could ever or will ever change. When I conjure an image of depression, I picture the time when everything in my life appeared to be perfect: wife and home and kids and church and job, that time when I kept a giant smile plastered on my face, but on the inside I felt unworthy of love, isolated, torn to pieces. I felt like no one could or would see me, and I truly believed that happiness would forever elude me. I know what that dark, soul-crushing space feels like, and I know it can last for so long. Empty prayers, empty heart, empty rooms, empty me. I was merely existing. I once wrote suicide notes in that space. I know what depression feels like. It is real.

And now, Head:

Depression is a condition. A medical condition. It has a place in the medical books with a list of symptoms that follows it. It’s something that happens to people, most people if not all people, at some time in their lives. It’s a human condition, and thus part of being human. Some people struggle with it mightily and for their whole lives, while some only have depressed days or periods from time to time. Just like some people are born with a genetic predisposition to diabetes or asthma or heart disease or addiction, some might be born with a predisposition for depression. It’s a condition, and one that must be managed, with personal responsibility. And that requires an education, and understanding, and healthy life management around the condition.

Example: Diabetes has everything to do with blood sugars, and can be regulated with food intake and exercise. In some more extreme cases, it requires medication, or a doctor’s care, but these conditions too can be managed, even if it means facing some life alterations or restrictions. Managing diabetes requires being educated about diabetes. It means learning what to eat, and how. It means knowing when to rest, and when to exercise. It means carrying insulin or fresh fruit or juice or candy to help manage the condition when it is out of control. It means educating others about the condition. It means… being responsible for it. For those who don’t manage it, who indulge and give little thought to consequences, they become burdened with the symptoms of the disorder, with low energy, frequent cravings, chronic pain, etc. For those who manage the disorder, despite the struggles that accompany its management, the burdens become easier to bear along with the healthier habits.

And in that same context, depression has everything to do with how the brain produces endorphins. It can be regulated with healthy relationships, nutrition and exercise, hydration, sleep, pain management, stress management, and coping mechanisms. And in some more extreme cases, it requires medication, or a doctor’s care, but these conditions too can be managed, even if it means facing some life alterations or restrictions. It must be managed.

There is a line from a Jason Mraz song that provided me with a lot of comfort when I was coming out of my own depression. The song is called Details in the Fabric, and it eloquently states in the chorus:

“If it’s a broken part, replace it.
If it’s a broken arm, then brace it.
If it’s a broken heart, then face it.”

If we as humans are responsible for ourselves (and we have to be!), then part of that means managing our own conditions. Whatever it is that is causing the depression has to be faced up to. Poor nutrition? An unhealthy relationship? An unfulfilling career? A disability? Chronic pain? The loss of a loved one? Too much stress? A lack of friends? Cold weather? An addiction? A broken heart? A low self-image? A traumatic childhood? Whatever it is, we have to take care of our own struggles and push through. We have to learn to get better. We have to be responsible for our own conditions.

In therapy, I frequently coach clients on how to get through the little tough moments. Little activities they can participate in to increase endorphin production in the brain. They don’t fix trauma or mend a broken heart, but they do help get through tough moments, hours, and days. And over sustained periods of time, we can break bad habits and start climbing out of the depression. The days get a bit easier a bit at a time. This is a ‘lose one pound per week for fifty weeks’ approach, as opposed to the ‘lose fifty pounds in one week’ approach that many hope for. Fixes aren’t often quick. New lifestyles take time to sustain.

Here’s the list. The brain naturally responds with serotonin and dopamine when we engage.

  1. Healthy eating. (Try being happy when you’re hungry or eating the wrong things).
  2. Water. (Try being happy when you’re thirsty or drinking only soda or coffee or energy drinks).
  3. Exercise. (Try being happy while consistently sedentary).
  4. Healthy human contact. (Friends! Therapy! Opening up and sharing with others!) (Try being happy when isolated, in stressful relationships, or while only engaging with others on social media).
  5. Sunlight. (Try being happy while remaining in dark rooms with the shades drawn).
  6. Achievement/getting things done. (Try being happy while constantly overwhelmed by what isn’t done, or while bored and lacking purpose.)
  7. Sleep. (Try being happy when sleeping too much or too little).
  8. Anti-depressants. (Medication isn’t always required, but vitamins and positive supplements are important. This also means avoiding stimulants and depressants, like too much alcohol and coffee, or other chemical-altering substances that exacerbate depression. Alcohol is the worst decision here).

We can not always control life circumstances, or even whether or not we have depression, but we can choose to participate with ourselves in our recovery from it. My depression, when I struggled with it, came from a combination from many things. My father had depression. I was sexually abused as a kid. I grew up gay in a world that told me gay people weren’t welcome. I grew up in a religion that had very high expectations, and left me feeling empty when I couldn’t measure up. I was physically abused by a step-father. I had scoliosis, and struggled with chronic pain. All of that, plus family stressors, before I was 18. I wasn’t responsible for any of those things. They were things that happened to me.

But somewhere along the way, given the stack of cards that I was dealt, I had to choose how to handle those things as an adult. I did a lot of things right: college, friends, therapy. But I did a lot of indulgent and difficult things as well, like too much food, further participation in the religion that was hurting me, and struggles with reconciling my own sexuality. I chose to get married and have children. I chose to keep eating, even when I became obese. I felt like there was no hope to make changes, and I participated in that hopelessness. And thus passed my 20s. A decade spent, responsible for myself and not handling it correctly. Wasted years. Good things came out of those years, like my college degree and my children, but they came from inauthentic spaces.

The process to healthy living for me required owning my past, my hurt spaces, my sexuality, my religious upbringing, my family culture, my food habits, my approach to relationships. It required exercise and healthy habits, therapy, journaling, financial responsibility. It required being a grown-up who loves themselves. It took work. And it got a bit easier, a bit at a time, over days, and weeks, and months, and years.

It required me loving myself, putting me first, along with my children, and healing from my past. It required me managing money appropriately, spending time with friends, learning how to process difficult feelings (like lonely and scared and angry and sad), keeping my home clean and tidy, exercising. It required me being responsible for me.

No one will just come along to save you. No prince will ride up on horseback, no surprise job will give you purpose, no lottery winning will take all your pain away. Because with the depression, even the magical things that happen feel like too much. The prince, the job, the lottery winnings, they feel just as hopeless as the rest.

And so back to heart: I know what it is like to live without hope. And I know what it is like to live happy. Life isn’t always easy. I have tough days. But it’s different. It’s so different. Struggles are manageable, temporary. I have tough hours or days, not a lifelong struggle of feeling broken. I got here. I did it. And now I’m working every day to stay here.

And I believe you can too. Be responsible for you, even when your insides tell you that you can’t. It’s so worth the effort. After all, what’s the alternative?

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Self-disclosed

Part of being a therapist is being absolutely elastic. Clients come in with different motivations, some of them outwardly stated and some silent and under the surface. They are paying for a service (or sometimes their insurance, or some benefactor is paying for them) and they want to receive that service in a unique way. The most difficult part of the job is knowing how to meet that for each person. This can wind up leaving me feeling like I am auditioning over and over for people, trying to convince clients that I’m a valuable practitioner, who is worth their time and money. It can be an uncomfortable reality in my field. A lot of clients want a particular result without having to put much effort in. It can be exhausting.

I often meet new clients with some sort of introduction that can prove my worth. “Hi, I’m Chad. I’ve been doing therapy for this many years, and I specialize in these types of services. I try to utilize an approach that meets clients where they are, validates their pain, and also pushes them into positive growth, but this can often take time. The therapeutic relationship forms over a period of weeks. I’m here for you. Now tell me what brings you in?”

I like to think that I’m an effective therapist in most situations, and I think most of my clients would agree. I continually ask myself what my role in a given situation is, and in these situations I have to remind myself that my job is to be the therapist my client needs me to be during the time that I’m with them. They live their entire lives before and after our sessions, and there are no quick solutions. I have to listen, be attentive and consistent, and push hard, but not too hard.

I’ve had a number of clients complain about me over the years. These are isolated experiences, but they do happen. And I’m human, so every time, the negative feedback leaves me sad, frustrated, self-critical, or vulnerable.

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“I felt you weren’t listening.”

“You were too tough on me.”

“You weren’t tough enough on me.”

“I told you I was suicidal and you didn’t take me seriously.”

“You should have realized I was suicidal even though I didn’t say anything.”

“You were too critical of my life choices.”

“You told my wife to find a safe place for the night after I hit her, but you didn’t even hear my side of the story.”

“You aren’t competent enough in _____.”

“You shared too much about yourself.”

“You are too closed off.”

And on and on.

On days where I see many clients in a row, I feel different parts of myself being challenged each time. Some need a coach, some need a best friend, some need a kid brother, some need a confidant, some need an emotional sponge, and some need a parent. Clients may come in and willfully withhold information, testing to see if I can sense that they are hiding something. They may come in aggressive and take out that aggression on me, their nearest target. They may come in silent, or sleepy, or in pain, and expect comfort, or nurturance, or challenge. And they expect the therapist to be fully present and adaptable to those needs, spoken or unspoken, no matter what the therapist is going through personally. (And trust me, therapists get headaches, and get sad, and have family problems, and…)

On top of that, the therapist has to be able to manage time. Sessions last for fifty minutes. Clients need a balance of reporting HOW they are doing, while being kept on a continuum of working toward their goals. (And some clients have VERY specific goals, while others have NO goals).

Most clients expect some kind of therapist who has life experience with struggle. They want to know their therapist has an understanding of depression, and anxiety, and addiction, somewhere in their personal lives, but they also don’t want the therapists to have ANY problems currently. And so self-disclosure becomes necessary. I use self-disclosure sporadically with clients. I use it to demonstrate understanding of a particular issue, to create a bit of a personal bond with a client, or to increase empathy between us. Self-disclosure is expected by most, if not all, clients, at least to a degree, but it has to be brief while also being frequent.

These interactions with clients get extremely complicated given three basic facts: 1. I am a human, who has human problems and human emotions. 2. I genuinely care about my clients, each and every one of them, even when they get on my nerves. 3. I have feelings, and I won’t always do everything right, even when expected to.

A few examples of self-disclosure follow.

“I know what that feels like. Before I came out of the closet, I went through a period of deep depression. It can be so hard to do the work it takes to get out of it, but it is so worth it. It’s the difference between hope and despair. What do you think would help you move forward?”

Or “I hear you! Being in a relationship is so hard! My partner and I fight over the stupidest things sometimes, and we see things completely differently. Communication means compromise, though. Meeting in the middle. The other day we argued about ___, and then we got through it by ___. Tell me about your last fight.”

Or “Maybe taking a break from church is a good idea for a while. You are talking about how conflicted you feel when you attend every week. I wouldn’t recommend quitting all together, but taking a few weeks off so you can get some clarity. When I was in my faith crisis years ago, I needed room to breathe, and it helped immensely.”

Self-disclosure in therapy can become tricky. It builds bonds, but those bonds have to be kept within certain boundaries. The client can’t feel like the therapist is over- or under-sharing. There needs to be a friendship without the two being friends. Co-dependency can form, as can romantic attraction, or emotional distance, or overstepping bounds. In fact, because these are human interactions, not only can they happen, but they will happen, and then they have to be managed along the way.

After 16 years in this field, I’ve learned a few things, but above all else, I’ve learned that I have to be organic. My job requires me to be knowledgeable, competent, kind, and consistent, to manage time and goals, to be accepting of everyone, to be both soft and hard in approach, to keep clear boundaries, to be human, and to be adaptable. And despite all of that, I have to realize that I’m human, that I’ll make mistakes, that I can’t help everyone always, and I certainly can’t please everyone always. I also need to know that it’s okay to say sorry, to receive criticism, and to trust myself all while doing my best to help those in front of me.

I love helping others, which is why I do what I do. It’s a calling. But it is also a job, and just a job. And I have to leave work at work and then go home. And so, like every other day, I’ll do my very best, one client, one hour at a time.

To the One Who Was Cheated On…

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In my therapy office lately, I’ve worked with a lot of clients, both gay men and straight women, who have recently been cheated on by their partners. What follows is my words for them, gathered here in one place.

First off, although you already know this, you are beautiful. You are worthy of love. You are desirable, and worth it, and enough. And an act of betrayal by someone you love and trust does not change that.

You are not a fool for not noticing. Maybe the signs were there and you didn’t see them, or maybe you just felt safe and content. Maybe he acted like everything was normal, or maybe you could feel him pulling farther away. Or maybe you noticed the signs but you didn’t know what they meant. How could you? But whatever it was, whether it was a one time thing or something ongoing, whether it was online or while you were away, you aren’t a fool for not noticing. You found out when you did, and we can only live in this present moment now and figure out what comes next.

Only you can decide what to do now. You can demand therapy, ask to go through his phone, rage and scream, sleep in the guest room for a while, ask him to sleep in the guest room for a while, ask him to leave, or close off for a period of time. He made this choice, not you, and now you have to decide what to do and how to proceed. And that first night, when you found out and you simply lost it, well, that was justified. It was pure pain. Forgive yourself for that. You went there at first, but don’t stay there.

Given the chance, he may realize everything that he stands to lose. He was caught, and that may make him face up to what he has, and what he was willing to gamble with. Maybe he can show up now, maybe he can make all those changes you were hoping he would make. Maybe he will be all in, the way you have been for so long. Maybe he will be the man you always needed him to be. Maybe the sex will get better. Maybe he will make you feel attractive and loved again. Maybe he will hold your hand more, or cuddle you more often. Maybe you will feel safe again.

But maybe you won’t want that. Safe might feel threatening. The last time you felt safe, well, that was when he lied. And that is the biggest betrayal of all. You offered him your vulnerable self, your everything, you pledged your life to him, and these acts, these lies, they feel like a betrayal of the worst kind because he was so close to you. He isn’t your father, or your ex, he is the man you gave yourself to, and that hurts. And then you find yourself wondering if it was this way all along. Was he always cheating, always lying? Was the rest of what you had an absolute farce? Is he manipulative? Was it just this once, or was it many times? If he lied to you this time, did he lie all the others? What does this mean about him, about the man you fell in love with? And what does this mean about you? And if he is showing up now, why wasn’t he before? And is this sustainable, can he last, will the changes be permanent or only for a few weeks?

But maybe he won’t show up, too. Maybe he can’t change. Maybe he’ll yell at you, tell you it is your fault, tell you that if you had been more somehow he never would have cheated in the first place. Maybe he’ll shame your extra five pounds, your late nights at work, or your expectations. Maybe he’ll say it was you all along. And maybe that makes your decision easier.

But maybe he’s right a little bit. Maybe you could have shared how you were feeling more, and let him have more nights off with his friends, and listened a bit more often. You aren’t to blame, but maybe you have some things to work on too.

He cheated. He cheated and it hurts, on a deep level. But you have to remember that the cheating doesn’t negate everything that came before. All those other moments are real. The hot air balloon ride, the candlelight dinner, the sex in the shower, the ‘I love yous’ as the sun set, the way he looks at you over coffee, the time he swept you up in his arms and said you were his everything. Those moments, those experiences, those memories, are real. They are authentic and powerful. And you have to weigh them against the betrayal.

You can leave. You can walk away, and hurt, and take your things with you, and start again, and everyone would understand. You’ll heal. You’ll hurt, and grieve, and then you’ll move on. The ocean is full of fish, as they say.

But maybe you’ll stay. And if you’ve chosen to stay, well, that’s hard too, because everything feels just like it did before, all of the wonderful and all of the problems, but now you feel like a crazy person. You want to pepper him with questions about the night it happened, who was it, how was it, how often, what specifically, and what not, and was he thinking of you during or after, and was the other person better than you, and did he think about what he stood to lose? You want to call him names. You want to go cheat on him back, so he can know how it feels.  You want to check his phone, put a tracker on it, and follow him to work or the doctor or the gym to see if he’s telling the truth. You wonder if he’ll do it again when he leaves early or comes home late, and every time he leaves to run errands, or every time you are late or gone for a day, you wonder if he is going to do it again, and if so, will you catch him, and do you even want to or would you rather not know, and if he does it again will you be able to give him yet another chance. And you hate it, because you don’t want to be that person who is constantly suspicious and on high alert. The questions and wonderings exhaust you, and they make you sad, and they make him sad, and you know he feels bad and you don’t want to keep making me feel bad, but goddamn it, you were hurt.

You were hurt.

And so, whatever comes next, face it with grace. Be kind. Be consistent. Share your feelings in safe places. Keep your boundaries. Take it one week, one day, one hour at a time. You miss him, you need him, you want him, you want to want him and need you, and you want him to hold you, and you’re wary of being hurt again, and you’re not sure what comes next, and all of those things are okay. Create space for them. You are human, you are organic, and you are not in a hurry.

And although you already know this, you are beautiful. You are worthy of love. You are desirable, and worth it, and enough. And an act of betrayal by someone you love and trust does not change that.

Seattle Part 11: Resignation

February, 2015

“I’m officially turning in my 60 days notice. I know you only need two weeks, but I wanted to give you plenty of time to find someone to take my place.”

My supervisor, Katie, looked surprised. “Chad, wow. You’ve only been working here for a few months. We had hoped you’d be here for years. You’re a very good therapist. Why are you leaving?”

I shrugged. “I’m just not happy here.”

“Can you tell me why?”

“It’s a lot of things. It’s the workload. I mean, this place works us hard! I max out at about 5 patients a day, and here I’m seeing 11. My quality of work is way down as a result. I have less to offer to every one of my patients throughout the week. I come in exhausted and I leave exhausted-er, and I find myself hoping that my clients won’t show up so that I can actually breathe a bit.”

Katie nodded. “I know. We have high burnout. I tried to tell you that before you got here. That’s why we asked so many questions about coping strategies in your interview.”

“You know those woods behind the clinic here? I find myself coming in early just so I can spend a bit of time in the trees. It calms my soul. But that chair, that desk, the constant fluorescent lights, the constant barrage of people in trauma. I’m just not cut out for it. I thought I could be, but I’m not.”

“It’s more than that, isn’t it?”

“Yes. If I was happy with my life here, I think I would be happy enough with my job. But I’m not happy with my life.”

Katie gave a soft smile. She was very business-like, always very appropriate, but she had a softness about her that made me feel safe. I knew she genuinely cared about me. She knew my story, the whole Mormon gay thing, the dad thing, and she worked with me to provide kind help when I needed to go home and visit my kids monthly. She had a wife and a son also, though she kept her personal life very private.

“Your happiness is important, of course. But I’ll be honest. I wish you had realized all this before we invested so much in bringing you on. We rely on you a lot around here, and I saw some potential for personal growth for you in the agency.”

I sighed, keeping my defenses from getting high, and looked her in the eyes. “I love the team here. I do. I’ve never ever felt so included and safe as part of a supportive team. And I can’t possibly speak for anyone here, but I want you to see how burnt out everyone is. Everyone leaves ashen and exhausted. We are all grey in the face by Wednesday. It’s painful to see because there are such talented people here. And I don’t mean to be ungrateful. The salary has been amazing, and I know how much you’ve trusted me. But I’ve given my all. And I don’t see the corporate climate here getting better. That has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the agency itself.”

As I spoke, I thought of the team I would be leaving here. It was the most inclusive professional team I’d ever been apart of. There was variance in age, race, gender, sexuality; and acceptance of everyone. I had an older lesbian co-worker that I adored, and I’d had dinner with she and her wife off-site a few times. A handsome gay clinician worked down the hall, and I’d hung out several times with he and his husband. A younger woman married to a Russian man. An Asian-American female, a West Indian male, an older cowboy of a man. I was genuinely fond of the people there, and I worried about them in this climate. I honored them. I trusted them. But I couldn’t stay.

Katie smiled softly, and nodded, accepting my words. “I’m glad we have sixty more days. And I think I know the answer, but then what?”

“It’s back to Utah, I think. That means I will only have been in Seattle six months. But it was enough. I simply didn’t find what I was looking for, but I did find myself. The city gave me that.” I stopped and laughed. “When I first got here, I felt like Mary Tyler Moore from the beginning of her old TV show. Throwing her hat in the air. ‘You can have a town, why don’t you take it, you’re gonna make it after all!’ But Seattle was harsher than that. It taught me to quiet the storms, to focus in and love the skin that I’m in. Instead of wishing for what I didn’t have, or never got, I found what I’ve needed all along: how to be at peace with me.”

Katie sat back and tapped a pen against the desk. She was thoughtful for a moment. “You’re a good man, Chad. You’re talented. You’re young. Stop wasting time wondering what life could have been, and instead live. All the pieces are already in place. Don’t give for the ones you didn’t start with, and take the ones you have. Your sons are beautiful. And the future is whatever you want it to be.”

I walked out of her office pensive. This felt like my last day, but I had a few months ahead. My entire world could, and would, change in two months. (I had changed a lot in the two months prior). It was the end of my lunch half hour, but I took the last ten minutes to go outside and into the woods. The leaves, the mud, the rolling water, the wind against tree trunks, the dirt under my feet. It was hard to believe that civilization was all around. The hospital over there, the apartment building, the school. I couldn’t see any of it through the trees. I could retreat here to forget. All the complications around this wider, tranquil center.

And Seattle, I realized, taught me that more than anything. How to find the woods in the chaos. How to find peace.

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.”

Raising a Gay Son

butterfly

My mother was hurt when I first came out of the closet. I was 32, and I was a father, and when I called to tell her, she reacted with shock and pain, as if her life was falling apart. She’d reacted much the same way when my younger sister, Sheri, had come out years before. She somehow, at the time, saw our exits from the closet as a personal failing, as if she had done something wrong, and being told her son was gay was a personal trauma for her.

This was a delicate time for me, one where I felt my own life was falling apart, and it took me a long time to be able to recognize her trauma. The night after my call, she called several others to confide in them, telling them I was gay and that she wasn’t sure what to do. And when word of this got back to me, I called her back, furious and screaming that she had no right to tell my secrets to others. It was perhaps the only time in my life when I had yelled at my mother. She understood, of course, but she was hurt too. Everything she had ever known about me was a lie, she said.

And then, our emotions spent, my mother’s voice softened, and she confided in me. “That’s not true. I knew. I always knew. I was just so afraid of it. But I knew.”

“How did you know?” I asked, confused and hurting.

“You were just different. More compassionate. Different from the other babies, the other kids. I’ve always suspected, always been afraid that you were gay.”

I’ve now been out for seven years, and I’ve seen that narrative play out in coming out stories over and over again. Mothers and fathers who knew their kids were gay, right from the beginning, but were afraid to say it, afraid to talk about it. And sometimes I can’t help but wonder why.

How different my upbringing would have been if my mom, if anyone really, had told me that being gay was a normal, healthy, happy thing. What if it had been a viable option? What were people so afraid of? I asked a few different parents of gay kids this, and I took notes on their responses.

“I was worried that if I told her she might be gay, that it would actually cause her to be gay. Like it would set up expectations for her future.”

“I thought that if I told him he was gay then he would get teased by other kids more, and I didn’t want to make his adolescence harder.”

“Even though I knew he was gay, I didn’t want it to be true. I thought that he could change it if he tried, so I was harder on him than my other sons.”

“I wanted grandchildren. If he was gay, I’d never have grandchildren.”

“If any of my children were gay, I didn’t know how to reconcile that with my religion. If gay people can’t be in heaven, what would that mean for our family bonds there? What would happen to them? It was easier to keep quiet.”

These are difficult questions to address, but what all of them leave out is this: by not making homosexuality an option for children, by not letting kids be who they really are, kids end up raised in the closet. If straight kids are taught that gay is inferior, they treat gay as inferior. If gay kids are taught that gay is inferior, they grow up hiding, feeling inferior, and seeing themselves as broken; they grow up silent, silenced, closed off, and divided. They feel different and can’t talk about it. Sometimes they are abused, forced into therapy, told they are not good enough or that they must change. And then these kids grow up into adults who have attachment, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem problems. Unhealthy relationships, suicide attempts, and therapy rates go up-up-up because there is more pain from childhood, more trauma, represented across the gay population. (And the statistics for transgender individuals, as always, are much higher).

My sons, J and A, are 9. They have a dad who is gay and a mom who is straight. They have gay friends, straight friends, and transgender friends. They know that there are differences in skin color, languages, religions, and social statuses. They know that both of their parents date men. They ask hard questions. There is no disturbance for them with this, because their parents are happy and balanced people. And while we have ideas about them and their futures, we don’t give them a script. We teach them to be kind, to have manners, to apologize when needed, to express their feelings, to listen, to be responsible. And we encourage them to be exactly who they are.

In discussions about the future, both of my sons have, more than once, said that they are gay, and that they are straight. “I have a crush on a boy. I’m gay” or “I like a girl, I’m straight” or “I don’t think I want to get married ever, but maybe I’ll adopt some kids.” And I hear these statements in exactly the same way that I hear their changing ideas that they might want to be a dancer, a hunter, a millionaire, a farmer, a rancher, a zookeeper, or a doctor. I tell them that they have plenty of time to decide who they are, and that I will love and support them no matter what. I tell them that they are beautiful to me, and that I love them “a million times.” (My 6-year old recently responded that he loved me “a million infinity thousand googleplex times back”, followed by a “ha-ha, Daddy, I win.”)

The key point is here that I will not project my own biases on to my children. I want them to be the best versions of themselves. I want them to be, well, them. Gay or straight or transgender, Mormon or atheist, just them, and happy, and good.

And for every parent out there, those who worry that their kids might turn out gay, well, don’t. Honestly, I think every parent deserves at least one gay kid. Research shows that many gay people have greater amounts of compassion, creativity, and talent per capita than straight people do, so who wouldn’t want that for their family?

And as for me and my mom? We talk every day. She grew up in a different era, so having gay kids is still unfamiliar to her, but she loves her children, and she supports us. She asks Sheri about her wife, she asks me about my boyfriend. We talk about the things that I write about (blogs like this one), and she offers opinions and understandings. Our relationship is much deeper than it was before I came out, and we are close friends. She has four straight daughters, one straight son, one gay son, and one gay daughter. And she loves us all just the same.

And that’s how it should be.

 

 

What to do with a Furrowed Brow

img_3327

I recently taught a college class on Anger, to a group of social work students all learning the skills they will need to interface with others in emotional situations.

I left several colors of markers standing near the white dry erase board: black, light blue, dark blue, red, pink, yellow, purple, orange, green. On the board, I wrote simple instructions, to write out all the different synonyms of MAD they could think of.

The students started with a few easy words. Underneath MAD appeared ANGRY and FRUSTRATED and PISSED OFF. Soon the list expanded to IRATE and ENRAGED and INCENSED and INDIGNANT and IRRITATED.

I kept the class silent after the words stopped, silently encouraging them to continue, and then words related to MAD started showing up, without a direct connection. HURT and EMBARRASSED and HEARTBROKEN and RESENTFUL.

By the end, nearly 50 words showed up on the board. I then had the students write down a 1 to 10 scale on their paper, and write words under each number to demonstrate escalating anger. They looked up at the board, selecting words from the list, perhaps placing UNCOMFORTABLE under number 1, PEEVED under number 3, FURIOUS under number 6, and FOAMING AT THE MOUTH under number 10.

I asked students to remember the last time they hit a 10 level of anger, and many of them couldn’t think of one. I asked the students to list things that made them angry at a 7 level, and I asked them to describe how they handled that anger.

We talked about anger being a full body emotion, one that dwells in your ears, in your teeth, in your stomach, in your fists, in your brow, in your feet, in your fingertips, and perhaps most of all, right on your tongue. We talked about anger coming in different colors, from mild yellow to sheer red to darkest black. We talked about anger being a secondary emotion, how it generally stems from, or is directly connected to, feeling hurt or jealous or betrayed or disappointed first.

We talked about anger being a gut-level emotion, a programmed response that we learn as children to protect us from the pain of the emotions that lie underneath. We talked about anger’s connection to sadness, to guilt, to fear, to pain.

And then we talked about anger being a healthy emotion, one that is important to survival. Every human gets angry. It’s what we decide to do with our anger that matters most. We talked about recognizing anger at number 4 or 5 rather than waiting for it to boil over to 8 or 10, and we talked about how the negative consequences of anger tend to increase when the numbers climb and we, in the moment, care less about the results of our actions; at least until the anger dissipates and we are left with the wounds it has inflicted.

We talked about all of the anger in the world today. Righteous primal anger, directed inward and outward. We see it in furious Facebook posts about political parties who didn’t vote the right way, in criticism of elected leaders and in those criticizing the critics. We see it in ignored text messages, in clenched fists and tight breaths, in blaring horns on the freeway, in tear-soaked pillowcases, in consumed bags of potato chips, in unheard wails to a God who doesn’t seem to be listening.

We talked about anger being directed toward the past or toward the future, yet how anger is always an in the moment emotion, happening right now. We talked about anger being like a fire, one that can burn brightly but never maintain the flame and smoke without fuel.

And then we talked about participating with anger, deciding what to do with it. We talked about having angry, healthy workouts instead of passive aggressive social media posts. We talked about being inspired into social activism instead of ignoring the phone calls of family members with different opinions. We talked about constructive conversations with loved ones that result in compromise and change instead of furious words and unsightly sneers. We talked about listening to the pain behind the anger and charting a course forward instead of feeling helpless and despairing and retreating into the shadows.

Lastly, we talked about anger being a part of us, an unchanging and consistent emotion, something at the very essence of being human. We talked about getting healthy and fit, emotionally, and how anger will still be there, along with the other emotions we perceive as negative. We talked about anger being a primal force, something beautiful and constructive. We talked about anger’s connection to trust, and love, and family, and faith, and justice, and humanity itself.

Then we, all of us, left the class angry. And we each got to decide what to do with it.