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What to do with a Furrowed Brow

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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.

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Speed bumps

speedbumps

I have a bad habit of seeing small setbacks as major crises. In the moment that they happen, they feel that way, they feel like permanent barriers, insurmountable and impenetrable. Like any other human, I can then spiral downward for a bit, wondering if I have what it takes and contemplating whether I’m doomed to fail.

Within a few hours, I generally gain perspective again, and I’m able to get a clearer picture. Generally, with a bit of clarity, what seemed like a mountain soon stands clear as a speed bump, a small upset in the road that required me to slow down and check my pace, roll over it slowly and carefully. It is only once the speed bump is carefully cleared that I can resume my previous speed.

And there are times when speed bumps are placed strategically one after the next to keep me going slow. During those times, I grow more accustomed to them and I get used to the feeling of their inconvenience and frustration under my feet. The momentary devastation tends to come only when the speed bump is unexpected, when I’ve been cruising along for a period of time and looking toward the horizon, and then I have to hit the brakes in order to move safely forward.

The day after a speed bump, I get sad and quiet, I withdraw a bit and do a bit of self-assessment. I stop myself from the downward spiral, the one where I grieve my lost years in the closet and feel like I have to hit life at full speed. I remind myself of my progress and my positive changes, I remind myself of the things that bring me truth and light and peace, and I breathe deeply. Then I get angry for a bit, at the event or person or circumstance that placed the speed bump in my way. After the anger simmers for a bit, I exercise, and I let my heart pound toxins right out of my system. And after the workout, my focus sharpens. I look ahead with renewed focus and scan the road ahead for further barriers even as I sharply focus back on the horizon again.

And sometimes that horizon doesn’t look quite like what I had originally envisioned it to be, and that is just fine.

The last few days hit me with a few setbacks, one small and one large. A personal project I’ve put a tremendous amount of effort into seemingly came to a screeching halt with an unexpected Email, and I had to do a lot of self-inventory to revisit my focus. At the same time, I realized a recent developing friendship may not be quite what I thought it was, and that required a bit of focus and processing as well. After an evening of bad dreams, I had to rise, breathe, stretch, exercise, and then chart the path ahead once again with new light.

A few weeks ago, I was processing with a client her tendency to be really rough on herself when things don’t go right. Like me, she grew up in a very religious family as part of a church that taught merit-based salvation. She was born into the philosophy that she came to Earth a sinner based on the choices of Adam and Eve thousands of years ago, and that she had to be saved through a sacrifice by the son of god, and that she then had to prove her worthiness to that god through her choices and actions. Like me, she left this religion years before, but like me she also finds old thinking patterns returning, surrendering subconsciously to the idea that she must earn her happiness, and that happiness can only look one particular way.

After we dissected these thinking patterns, my client and I were able to put down on paper the actual definitions of happiness, of worth, of merit: healthy human relationships, inner peace, adventure, service to others, laughter. We made a list of things to be grateful for, of things that were going right, and of beautiful things in the world. We then set goals for the immediate future.

With new light, this brave woman stepped back into her life and saw the struggles in her life as exactly what they were: temporary, momentary, fleeting. Progress is measured in small increments over time, and speed bumps are a natural part of the landscape along the way.

And so today, I will take a bit of time to survey the land ahead, and then I will look ahead to see where I should place my feet next, working my way ever forward to the goals I have set, and I will do all of this with kindness toward myself and laser sharp focus.

Physical Obesity

Obesity snuck up on me, slowly and surely over a period of months and years. I certainly knew I was overweight: I was winded and sweaty all the time, standing could be difficult and so could climbing stairs, I bought giant baggy shirts to fit over my ample stomach, and my face was fatter and rounder. I consumed bags of microwave popcorn, large bags of peanut butter M-n-Ms, liters of Pepsi, and bags of sugared mangos in between meals, and I ate seconds and thirds for dinner and had three or four bowls of cereal for breakfast. Once when I sprained my ankle, I was on crutches, and getting myself from my car to my office became a struggle.

Still, the word obese never crossed my mind. It was a dangerous word, an ugly word. In fact, the only thing worse than obese, when it came to weight, was morbidly obese, a word that implies someone is near death.

My son was flipping through photo albums recently and he looked up with surprise and his usual candor. “Dad, you were really fat when I was a baby. But not anymore, right?”

I remember the day I learned I was obese. It was at a family Christmas party, and my sister Sue had a Wii system. Wanting to engage in some fun family Wii competitions, she had a few of us create character avatars to play with on the game. I designed a little man to look like me with brown hair and clothing, and I entered my height. Then I stood on the little scale for the Wii to take my weight. In front of my entire family, the avatar on the screen suddenly ballooned out to beach ball size, accompanied by a cartoon sound effect, a rubbery boing noise. Giant capital letters flashed on the screen, followed by exclamation marks.

YOU ARE OBESE!!!

And that simple humiliation began my personal transformation and, in many ways, marked the first steps toward living rather than just being alive. It didn’t take long to realize I was eating too much and too quickly, so I began by lowering quantities of food, drinking more water, and learning a bit about what I was putting into my body. I began monitoring what I ate, what foods my body needed, and how many Calories exists in foods.

I had felt abjectly out of control of my life for years at that point, trapped by religion and culture, trapped in the closet, trapped by self-expectations that I had to work 60 hours per week and serve in the church and that it was selfish and ugly to do anything for myself.

So I began walking at lunchtime, and then I began working on the elliptical trainer at the gym during my lunch break. I started lifting weights in the mornings, something I had never done. I began dropping pounds swiftly. At my heaviest, I was 255 lbs. (I’m a 5 feet 11 inches tall). Before long I was at 240, then 230, then 220. I started gaining a bit of confidence in myself, enjoying the gains I was making and seeing the results in myself.

I learned a lot about myself at that time. I learned that weight comes on slow and steadily over time, one half pound at a time, over a period of months and years. I learned that losing weight is a relatively simple science, boiled down simply to burning more energy than consumed. I learned that the human body is forgiving, that it is eager to be healthy and will work toward health when correct decisions are made. I learned that old habits can be hard to break, but that the alternative is simply gaining more and more. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned that change takes time: If it takes a year to gain 50 pounds, it is going to take more than a few weeks to take the weight off. I adopted the mantra of slow and steady growth over time.

Once I hit 220, I plateaued for a while. The weight came off more slowly and was more difficult to shed. But as long as I stayed consistent, and was patient and kind toward myself, it continued going down 1-3 pounds every few weeks. 220 became 215, then 210, then 200.

By then, I had taken careful stock of my life. I realized that I had had zero nutrition or exercise knowledge instilled in me growing up, in a family that often struggles with obesity. I realized I was participating in a religion that vilifies coffee and alcohol, but says nothing about obesity and physical health. I realized I was surrounded by people in my life who cared about me, but who completely enabled my dangerous habits and said nothing about my weight or my unhappiness; in fact, some of these people resented me or called me selfish when I began transforming myself. And I realized that it wasn’t just physical weight I had put on, it was mental weight, it was emotional weight, and it was spiritual weight. I had become obese in every sense. Dropping pounds was only the beginning of a years-long transformation ahead of me.

Four years after I began losing my weight, I hit my lowest adult weight, and the most fit time in my life, at 175 lbs. I had lost a total of 80 pounds. I looked and felt better. I felt cleansed and strong and confident. And it was then that I began focusing on shedding the other types of weight I had to lose. I take care of my physical health now on all fronts: exercise, nutrition, sleep, hydration, and overall wellness. It felt, and feels, wonderful.

As I type this, I line up two photographs of myself, one from 8 years ago, and one from last summer. The first, I’m dressed in white at a religious event, literally standing in front of a painting of Jesus. My lips are curved into a smile that doesn’t match my eyes, which seem as heavy as my face, as heavy as the expectations I placed upon myself. In the second, my smile is genuine, my eyes are alive, my arms are strong and I’m alive. It’s difficult for me to reconcile these two versions of myself.

And then two simple thoughts come to mind: life is meant to be lived, and I refuse to spend another moment miserable.

 

(Blogs on spiritual, emotional, and mental obesity to follow).

A Good Person

single white cloud on blue sky

All right, let’s talk about the word ‘good’ for a moment.
Okay, what about it?
I just googled the word ‘good’ and there are several different definitions.
Okay.
I am going to read each definition out loud and I want you to tell me which of the definitions are merit-based, which ones are based in measurements of values and morals.
Okay.
Okay, definition 1. ‘Good: to be desired or approved of.’
That’s merit-based.
2. ‘Good: Having the qualities required for a particular role.’
That’s merit-based, too.
3. ‘Good: Possessing or displaying moral virtue.’
Merit-based.
4. ‘Good: Giving pleasure; enjoyable or satisfying.’
That, too.
5. ‘Good: that which is morally right; righteousness.’
Merit-based.
6. ‘Good: benefit or advantage of someone or something.’
That, too. Are any of these not merit-based?
Almost done. 7. ‘Good: merchandise or possessions.’
Merit-based.

Okay, awesome. Now what does that teach us?
I’m not sure what you wanted me to get out of that.
Seven different definitions of good, all based on merits, values, and morals.
Yeah, I got that part.
So let me ask you a basic question. Are you a good person?
I try hard. I work hard. I care about the people around me. I try to do good things, but it never seems to be enough. I still get my heart broken. I’m not sure I’m good.
But that didn’t answer the question. Are you a good person?
Sometimes.
Nope, try again. It’s a yes or no question.
I’m either good or I’m not? It’s not that simple!
It is that simple. Are you a good person? If you answer yes, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have struggles or heartbreaks or challenges. It just means at your essence, at your core, you are a good person. You have value. Are you a good person?
Yes?
That sounded like a question.
Well, I think that is the answer you wanted, isn’t it? For me to say I’m a good person, even if I don’t believe it?
It’s not about what you think I want to hear, it’s about what you believe. Do you believe you are a good person?
I’m honestly not sure if I can answer that right now.
You and I are both parents, let’s start there. You know what it feels like to hold a brand new child in your hands and see the ultimate innocence and potential there. Can you remember what it feels like to do that?
Yes, with both of my children. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Are your children good people?
Yes, of course! They are kids!
Do they make poor decisions sometimes? Do they challenge your patience sometimes? Are they difficult sometimes?
Yes.
So does that mean they are only good people when they are making good choices? When they listen? When they aren’t being difficult?
No. They are good always, even when they have struggles.
Okay, there we go. And I believe the same thing about you, and about me. I have struggles. I make bad decisions sometimes. I get sad and angry and grumpy and tired and disconnected. And at the same time, I am a good person. I’m not better or worse than anyone around me, I’m just me. I’m just human. And at my core, I’m a human who tries hard and does my very best and who is consistently trying to better myself.
I see it in my children. I see it in you. I just have a harder time seeing it in me.
Well, you’ve had a lot of years with a lot of pain. You’ve had people who have hurt you, who have taught you that you only have value if you follow the teachings of the Mormon Church or if you are never sad or if you do as you’re told. People have told you over and over at times that you are ugly or unworthy or difficult or not worth it. And somewhere along the way, you started to believe that.
But what if they were right?
Would you ever love your children with those conditions? Would you ever tell them they they are only good, that they are only worthy of your love if they are always well-behaved?
Of course not. I could never do that to them.
Okay, so the big goal we need to be working on is helping you believe those things about yourself that you believe about your children.
That… sounds nice. To be able to do that sounds nice.
I know you don’t believe in God anymore, neither do I, and I know being a Mormon was hard for you. But beneath all of the struggles you had in that Church, there is one truth that is the most beautiful that is at the essence of all of their doctrine. That core belief is that you were created as a perfect daughter of God and that He loves you unconditionally and sees you as a being of ultimate potential. He sees you as you see your children. It isn’t based on how happy your marriage is or how many hours you serve in Church callings or how strong your testimony is. It is infinite and unconditional love.
I remember feeling that once.
Can you still feel that now? Can you still see that part, that version of yourself? The part of you that exists, that sees you as good, with potential, the way you see your children as good, with potential?
Yes. I can feel that.
So tap into that, and that is where we begin to heal. We have a lot of work ahead, but that is where we begin.
Okay. I can feel it, it’s there.
Let’s try one more time then. Are you a good person?
Yes. I am. I’m a good person.
Okay. Hold tight to that. Now, now is when the healing starts.

 

the Deep End

Deepend1

I hurt someone recently.

It wasn’t intentional. I just wasn’t ready for something that he was ready for. Relationships are complicated, and, given my work as a therapist, I am sometimes a bit too therapeutic for my own good.

I take things in careful measure, careful balance. When things feel out of balance, for me they feel unsafe. I spend a lot of time helping my clients get their lives in balance, so for me to be out of balance, well, not only does it feel unsafe, it feels hypocritical, like a person teaching others how not to smoke while he has a bad drinking habit, or a preacher espousing family values from the pulpit while cheating on his wife on the side.

I’ve referenced this in my writing before, but I have come up with a rubric for helping clients measure satisfaction in their primary romantic relationships. I will have clients take a close look at their satisfaction levels in relationships in six different categories. I’ll have them take a look at the present, not the past or future, not how things could be or how they used to be, but how they are right now (a key component to living for today, something I strive to do). I’ll have them rank each category with an A+ down to an F-, a standard grading scale. An A+ indicates that things are perfect for today, they couldn’t possibly get any better. An F- means things are so bad they couldn’t possibly get any worse. A C indicates an average grade, something securely in the middle.

Here are the six categories, with a brief description after each:

COMMUNICATION: feeling heard and validated, able to talk about difficult issues, able to resolve conflicts successfully without extreme measures (silent treatments, yelling, violence, storming out)

BEST FRIENDS: enjoy each other’s company, lots of mutual interests, ability to spend time together laughing and having fun and dating on a regular basis

INTIMACY: high levels of attraction on both sides, sexual compatibility and diversity and interest, emotional attraction and safety

CO-PARENTING (if applicable): mutual goals and good communication regarding raising, rearing, and discipline of children

FINANCES: adequate money to cover needs, compatibility in spending and budgeting

and, last, FUTURE PLANNING: moving in the same direction in life, compatible plans for big life plans (schooling, job, location, home-buying, family planning, retirement, etc)

While the individual applications for couples are unique to each situation, there are common trends for many couples. Joe and Sally have incredible sex and love spending time together, but money is causing so much stress that they can’t stop fighting. Mark and John have good sexual chemistry and really love each other, but their careers are taking them in different directions. Jan and Susan are best friends who feel secure together, but they are having sex less and less and are growing distant. Amy and Adam have good attraction and communication, but he really doesn’t want children and now they fight a lot.

Relationships are complicated. It can be so easy to fall into a space where one compromises parts of self in order to make something work. And I see it happen over and over again in human experiences, where we quiet parts of ourselves in an effort to be happy even while we deny ourselves happiness. Ultimately, this proves to be one of the greatest errors that humans make. We make excuses for ourselves, compromise ourselves, and then spend years wondering what happened.

Simply put, we all deserve happiness. We all deserve the right to have high grades in all six of the categories. Sex shouldn’t be sacrificed for financial security, laughter shouldn’t be compromised for good communication, a desire for children shouldn’t be set aside for emotional safety.

We all need love and fulfillment in not just some of the areas, but in all of them. We all need to love and be loved in ways that are ultimate for us.

This person that I hurt, he was in the deep end of the pool, treading water to the point of exhaustion, hoping that I would jump in and join him. Yet I stood on the steps of the pool, getting my toes wet and warm, then my ankles, then my knees. The water felt tenuous, confusing, out of balance. When I asked for patience and time, he hoped that I would be able to just dive in.

And there is nothing wrong with a leap of faith, a compromise, a grand move toward happiness. And there is nothing wrong with slow and careful measures, a strong sense of self and taking time. Ultimately both of us deserve happiness and love and fulfillment in not one, but all categories. All of us deserve these things. To feel desirable, to be cherished, to have laughter and light and love.

The best relationships, in my therapeutic and personal opinion, come from two separate individuals who are both on firm solid balanced ground, with brilliant foundations, who then choose to join those foundations together. Relationships can never be used to fill a void in self, to stave off loneliness, or to give a sense of security, not when there wasn’t a strong foundation to begin with.

And so these final words are for anyone reading this, for anyone I care about, for the man I hurt, and for myself:

I hope you can love yourself, can measure out the places that need love and attention and time and balance, that you can find happiness and security and love inwardly and then outwardly. Life must be lived day by day, in the present, with peace and strength, and it must begin within before we can ever find it without.

To every one who has ever broken a heart or who has had their heart broken, may you be able to take the plunge into the deep end of the pool. But dive in for yourself before you begin to look for others there. Once you are used to the water, then you may find someone who is there to swim at your side.

Deepend2

 

Enough

Enough

I have a serious hate relationship with the word ENOUGH.

When will I be good enough, smart enough, penitent enough, strong enough, fit enough, loved enough, rich enough.

We humans take the very experience of existence, a waxing and waning of needs being met and unmet (hungry/full, tired/slept, lonely/tired of people, hot/cold) and measure our worth in accordance to our experience with the word Enough. We create these picture perfect ideas of what it is that will make us happy, what will finally bring contentment.

But here’s the thing: we are never content. It will never be enough.

Make your million, then struggle with sadness because you are lonely. Find the love of your life, then realize you are bored at your job. Find the perfect job, then realize you hate the city you live in. Get in that perfect shape, then realize you are poor.

This is humanity. A constant state of searching and exploring and needing and wanting.

It will never be enough. You will never be enough.

Except that you are. In the very act of needing and wanting, in the very act of being human, in the very act of being a work in progress, you are indeed enough, not based on what you have or acquire or complete, not in a measure of anything except in being at peace with your very humanity.

And because we are so uncomfortable looking inward, we look outward. We see others who have things that we want, and then we measure ourselves against them. She has more sex, he has more money, she has more love, he is in better shape, her children love her more, he has more friends, he has his own company, she owns her own home. We look at all the ways people are better/more than we are.

And then we turn it around, we start measuring the ways in which we are better/more than others. I finished college, I work harder, I am in better shape, I am a better communicator, I am a better lover/cook/friend/parent.

I spent a lot of years measuring myself. Humans constructed a God that I was raised to believe in, one who wrote a list of rules for me to follow: the more rules I followed, the more righteous I was, the more I didn’t, the bigger a sinner I was. Judgment lied at the end: heaven or hell, the ultimate measure of worth.

It is only in the last few years where I have found peace with my own humanity, my own process of being a person with changes and needs and wants, with head and heart and gut, with spirit and intellect and feeling and form, all in careful measure. I am me. I like me. I am no better than or worse than any other, yet my only experiences are mine.

This peace within self, it is integrity. It is authenticity. It is strength.

Sometimes others who aren’t at peace with themselves, at least in my eyes, measure my worth against theirs. “I love you more than you love me.” “I work harder than you do.” “I care more about others than you do.” “I’m sicker, I’ve been through more, I feel more.” And ultimately, the message, “I need you to be different than you are so I can be more comfortable within myself.”

The very idea of this rankles me. It’s been a difficult quest to find peace. And yet, here I type about this experience, perhaps not as at peace as I had hoped I was, perhaps measuring my own authenticity against theirs and growing angry at the comparison.

And yet this is all I have, this control and centering over myself. Careful measures, open heart, balanced spirit, willing to change and grow and adapt over time, but not willing to be criticized for the person I am. Slow change over time.

Someone told me recently that I have walls up and I can’t let them go. And upon self-reflection, walls are things we put in place to protect things. And I have a wall or two that refuse to let me be actively dissatisfied with the person that I am, to be made to feel less, to be more or less than what I am now in order to find worth.

It will never be enough.

And in that, I am enough.

Enough is enough.

This me, the one that exists now in the here, this is what I have. And that’s enough.

Making Lemonade in Hollywood

Lemonade-Non-ShowRecipe-OR

Let’s say you love making lemonade. I mean, you love it. The whole process. You love blending the ingredients to perfection, and you especially love the huge refreshing and surprised smile people get on their faces when they taste it, cold and delicious. You have tried out several combinations and mixtures, from huckleberry to honey lime to chocolate peanut butter, and the variety is exciting, but it is that homemade original recipe that you love so much.

People ask you how you came up with such a perfect recipe, they wonder why it tastes so good, and you come up with a story about how you got it from your grandmother, but the truth is you made it all by yourself, and you don’t want to share the recipe with anyone else, it’s special and it is just yours.

Soon friends start asking you to make your lemonade for special events, weddings and receptions, company barbecues and family picnics. At first you do it for free, then you charge them just a bit, just enough to cover the ingredients, but then you get busier and you start charging for your time as well. But you charge barely anything. Making lemonade on top of your day job keeps you very busy indeed. But you love it still.

And one day a friend sits you down and says, you know, you could do something with this lemonade thing. You are the best. Just quit your job and open a little store front, or sell it online. Create a YouTube channel about your lemonade, make an Instagram account, create a Facebook fan page, put up a Twitter account, come up with a campaign, people of all ages loving your lemonade. And you are surprised, because even though you make the best lemonade, you have no idea how to run a business, how to market it. You live in a small town. You can’t just make lemonade, can you? But the idea sticks in your mind for a while, and you think, why not give it a shot. But you don’t quit your job, you try to do it smart.

And so you start telling people about your lemonade. You put some money into creating a marketing campaign. You do daily posts on social media. You take pictures and publish them. You offer samples. You tell local companies about it, and put some ads up on the internet. And you stick with it for a few months, but orders don’t increase, and all that time and initiative you are putting into your lemonade promotion is yielding very small results. The people who loved it before still love it, but no one else is really trying it.

You talk to your friend again, and he tells you to keep at it, says the lemonade is the best. And you tell him that you agree, it’s damn good lemonade, but no one else is trying it out. Think bigger, he says. The talent is there, you just have to find it.

And so you save up a bit, and you take yourself to Hollywood, just to see. It’s beautiful there. The streets are lined with amazing buildings full of history and money and success, but also failure and pain and flops. Lemonade is everywhere in Hollywood, in every shape and color and on every corner. There are 50,000 people there making lemonade, and only a few thousand of them are doing well at it, and only a few hundred doing really well at it.

And you spend a few days drinking other people’s lemonade. It’s good, but not as good as yours. But this lemonade, it’s selling like crazy. People are raving about it. It is in shiny cups lined with sugar, in store fronts with air-conditioning and plush seats and soft lighting.

And after a few days of drinking other people’s lemonade, you wonder about your options you really want to keep making lemonade (and you really do), how can you be a success at it? You want to be one of the few thousand (not one of the few hundred), but there are a lot of lemonade stands out there. Do you need pretty packaging? A busy store front on a Hollywood intersection? A new label? Do you need to team with someone who is already making lemonade in order to make yours bigger?

Or do you just keep making lemonade and working the day job, hoping it will take off some day?

Or do you just keep making lemonade for the people in your small town who already like it, and be content with that?

Or do you stop making lemonade all together?

And so a few days later, you are back in your little kitchen and you are swishing your old familiar mixing spoon around and around your old familiar pitcher. Ice is clinking against the sides of the glass as the liquid beneath it swirls round and round. You see the sugar dissolving into the water, and the wedges of lemon bobbing up and down. It turns a careful beautiful bright yellow. And you know it will be delicious, not only because you have made it 1000 times before, but because you love to make it, you love this process, these careful calculations, the mix and stir and clink and swish and pour. You love the process even more than you love the taste of it on your tongue. And people come in and they drink and they say it is delicious.

And you hold a glass of cold lemonade in your hand, and you look out the window at the setting sun, already thinking about the batch of lemonade you will make tomorrow, and you wonder again about ambition, and potential, and doing what you love.

Validated

 

 

validation

I sat next to a friend the other day who was chatting with gay men over a social media app. My friend, who is in his late 30s and is a handsome and successful professional, sent a message to a younger guy, handsome and 19.

“You have a nice smile,” my friend said.

The younger man responded within seconds. “You are one of the ugliest humans I have ever laid eyes on. You think you are good enough to chat with me?”

This was such a brief exchange, and yet it represented to me everything that is wrong with the gay community these days (and indeed, much of the straight community). I’ve given this a lot of thought and come to some conclusions.

When my older son was 2 years old, he used to say things like “Dad, there’s the tree.” I would repeat him, “Yeah, buddy, there’s a tree.” And he would throw a holy fit. “Dad, no! I said THE tree, not A tree!” Toddlers learn the fine art of defining the need for validation, demanding it and hurting badly when it isn’t offered in the right way.

As children age in healthy environments grow, they should be learning the skills to be able to do three things: to accept validation when it is offered, to validate themselves, and to ask for validation when they need it. These lessons are reinforced in the childhood and adolescent years, and practiced often as adults. In short, we always need validation.

When we grow up in homes or environments where these skill sets aren’t emphasized, we lose the ability to do these things. We think compliments are disingenuous, we lack the ability to offer validation to ourselves, and we have no ability to ask for validation and instead simply expect it. We develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to get alternatives to validation in other regards.

LGBT people generally grow up feeling unaccepted, knowing they are different than those around them. Simply put, they learn to hide in plain sight. I learned how to pretend to be interested in girls, how to pretend I was not interested in boys, how to blend in with straight guys. With parts of myself hidden deep down inside, I had no capacity to validate myself. I threw myself into church responsibilities and only considered the most worthy members of the Mormon church as worth the greatest amounts of trust and attention. I sought higher Priesthood callings and opportunities to sacrifice in order to show myself I was a worthy person.

Many other gay men, rather than church callings, throw themselves into building the perfect physique, and only see other men who are their ideal physical type as worth their attention. Others do it in careers, or their definitions of success.

And when others don’t meet standards of self-identified perfection, many gay men (or humans in general) see them as worth less than others. We like being noticed on our terms, and we see these as healthy validations.

Yet there is a simple truth, we can’t be truly validated by others unless we can validate ourselves, and we can’t validate ourselves unless we have integrity, and we can’t have integrity when we feel broken inside, or when we treat others like they are worth less.

As a teenager, I would shame myself so badly over not being like other guys, particularly when it came to competitive sports. I would use humor and excuses to avoid these interactions, feeling miserable inside, and then I would internally blame these other men for not accepting or including me. Because I lacked the ability to validate myself, I expected these strangers to do it for me.

I’ve reached a stage in my life now that I’m confident in myself and the things I’m good at. I can compliment myself and mean it. I can take compliments from others. When I feel a lack of integrity, or when I experience shame or guilt, I’m honest with myself and I ask myself or others for what I need. I don’t expect crowds of strangers, or even my close loved ones, to know what I need when I never asked for it. I don’t let myself be shamed by those who don’t love themselves, or who don’t see me as someone of value because I don’t meet their self-standards of perfection.

In the age of social media, it is so much easier to be cruel to strangers, calling them ugly or worthless in bizarre instant messages or public comments. One I saw recently from one stranger to another: “You think you are hot, but you aren’t. Try a diet and the gym.” It is also easier for people to demand validation from strangers, as we post lengthy comments on social media sites about how we have been slighted by others. A post I saw on Facebook recently: “I went to the club and no one talked to me. Gay people are the worst.”

Validation, integrity, and authenticity are hard and painful battles to be fought. Yet the alternatives are much more painful in the long run: invalidation, feeling broken, and feeling lonely.

the Bisexual Ballet

Annex-Tone-Franchot-Between-Two-Women_02.jpg

It started with two women kissing.

One, her long flowing hair pulled back into a ponytail that fell all the way to her hips, pulled the other, her hair short and even, in by an arm, their legs flowing beautifully out to the side, and they gently kissed.

Soon, a young man joined them, in a tight white shirt and jacket over jeans. He danced with one woman, then the other, then both.

The dancers took turns in various trysts, drawing into their partners, then pushing away. He would want one, then the other, then both, then neither. He was needed by one, then the other, then both, then neither.

At various points, the dancers stood to the side, pulling out their cell phones and ignoring the others, while the other dancers sought to reclaim their attention. One dancer, frustrated, pulled the phone out of the hand of the other, then checked it, leading the other to snatch it away in frustration.

A full orchestra backed the dancers, harps and horns, strings and pianos and drums, but they somehow faded into the background behind this powerful portrayal of human need.

I was moved by the performance, caught up in the idea of this new generation realizing that one person can’t always meet your needs, nor can two people. Ultimately, each person must respond to their own needs, then join others to find fulfillment, energy, attraction, love, desire. What we need yesterday isn’t what we need now, and what we need now isn’t what we will need a few hours from now.

The dancers pulled a set piece around, revealing an intricate office space, where they continued to vie for each other’s attentions in the workplace. Another flipped around to represent the home of one of the dancer’s, as the man and the woman arrived and departed, together and apart.

As the dancers leaped and pirouetted, gave and took, flowed and formed, I thought of all the couples I know, and the constant negotiation to get their needs met through all of the chaos and distraction of day to day life. Technology, errant glances from strangers, work, emotional baggage, personal pain.

The short-haired girl pulled tightly into the man, breathing him in deeply, clutching on to him in utter fulfillment, and then moments later pushed him away, frustrated that it could not be sustained. She danced on her own for a moment, then latched on to the dancer with the ponytail, then pushed her away too.

Back and forth and in and out and up and down and around and over. I need you, I want you, leave me alone, no one understands me, you are the only one who understands me, she understands me too, it’s so wonderful, it’s too much, it feels good, it hurts, i love you, i hate you, i don’t understand you, you have never made more sense to me, hold me, let me go, why didn’t you come after me, you should know what i need even when i don’t say it, i told you what i need, how am i supposed to know what you need, why can’t you need me more, why doesn’t she miss me, i miss her, i need space, i want i need i desire i love i hurt i feel i breathe i ache i am at peace i’m so happy i may never be happy.

I looked around at the audience in the symphony hall, dressed for the symphony and ballet. The numbers before this had been beautiful also, but this one was a limit pusher, two women kissing on stage in front of a primarily Mormon crowd in a primarily Mormon place. A couple in front of me clutched their hands in their laps and gave each other a few errant glances of disapproval, as if to say we should not be seeing this; when the number ended, they refused to clap.

An older woman in a daring gown, sequinned and black and purple, seemed hauntingly fulfilled by the number, and I wondered if she was thinking back to lost loves and unfulfilled desires.

Soon the number ended, in a crescendo, with all three dancers laying on the floor in each other’s arms, him and her and her, but they were already moving again as the light’s dimmed. They had found satisfaction, and were all ready to begin searching for it again.

I stood for this one, my hands powerfully clapping at this flawless performance. I clapped for the dancers and the orchestra, but mostly I applauded the choreography.

I applauded this brassy, bold, bisexual ballet.

 

 

Physician, Heal Thyself

Physician_heal_thyself

Sometimes I wonder what it would look like if I did a therapy session with myself. If I did one today, it would probably look something like this.

“Hi, Chad, thank you for coming in today. I appreciate you reaching out for help and support. You had a chance to review the confidentiality paperwork and sign before beginning?”

Yes, thank you for having me. I did review the paperwork and I don’t have any questions.

“So, let’s just jump right in. What brings you in today?”

Well, I have a pretty complicated life. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do for work. I’m co-raising a couple of sons (they are amazing, by the way). I’m having difficulty feeling grounded in my life. And dating, ugh, don’t get me started.

“That does sound complicated. Sounds like you have a very full plate.”

Honestly, it feels more manageable right now in this moment than it ever has in the past. I feel like I have it under control, except for the being grounded thing.

“What makes it feel more in control now than it has in the past?”

Well, we don’t need to spend a bunch of time on this, but it’ll help to know my origins. I grew up Mormon in Missouri in a pretty complicated family. Chaotic, lots going on all the time, lots of drama, but also lots of love. I was the family social worker from my youngest days, learned to take care of everyone else’s problems as a way to avoid my own.

“And what kinds of problems were you having?”

I realized pretty young I was gay. So despite the family drama stuff, I found a way to hide that part of myself so I didn’t have to ever deal with it. I mean, being gay just wasn’t an option. And because I acted like everything was fine, no one really noticed my struggles. I learned to hide in plain sight, even from myself.

“I could ask a lot of questions here, but you mentioned you didn’t want to spend a lot of time on that part of the story.”

Right. So, to sum up, I spent a lot of time trying to cure myself, like my religion promised I could, by being unselfish and serving God, on and on. I spent a ton of time in church, paid my ten per cent tithing, spent two full years as a missionary, went to a church college. Praying, always praying for a fix, and always feeling broken, distant, different from other men. Dated women cause I was supposed to, but was never attracted to them, not even a bit.

“Go on.”

I met Megan when she was 18 and I was 21. It wasn’t until six years later, when we had been dating for a while, that she asked me finally why I hadn’t kissed her or held her hand. I finally told her I was gay. She shrugged, no big deal, we were married a few months later.

“So you hadn’t been physically intimate with anyone during that time?”

No. And I had only come out to religious leaders. But I still did the church thing, got my Masters degree, and started working before I got married.

“Sounds like you have always had a lot of drive.”

Yeah, I think so. Anyway, Megan and I had a great marriage, except for the whole I’m not into women thing. We had a kid after a few years, and I finally started to shut down. The cure thing wasn’t working after years of trying. I got depressed, gained some weight, snapped out of it, lost the weight, and finally came out of the closet, left the Mormon church. Megan was pregnant with our second during all of this.

“My word. That must have been a very difficult period. How long ago was this?”

Four and a half years now. Things are good between us now. We moved to Utah, are raising the kids together. There was this crazy couple of years at first. Brand new out single gay male, ex-Mormon, dating for the first time, and with two kids under three to raise.

“And all the while having to work and take care of regular day-to-day life.”

Yeah, there were some rough patches, but to feel alive, you know? It was like coming up for air after years of holding my breath.

“Well, I have a million questions, but let’s bring things up to the present. How are things for you now?”

I moved back to Utah in April after working in Seattle for six months. I see my kids a ton and they are thriving. And, well, I feel like a 20 year old. I have no idea what I want to do with my life. I mean, I’m here in Utah and I’m not leaving again, they are too important to me. But I don’t know what to do.

“What do you mean, you feel like a 20 year old?”

Most American kids go through that period of discovery after high school. They ask themselves the hard questions, travel, study, go in to debt, fall in and out of love, decide what they want to do when they grow up. They make mistakes, drink and have sex and take road trips.

“That sounds fairly typical to the American 2o-something. What was 20 like for you?”

Oh, God. 20 for me was wearing shirts and ties, knocking on doors, and telling people to come to Jesus, all the while living around a bunch of 20 year old guys doing the same thing, pretending I fit in and that I wasn’t attracted to them, and praying constantly I wouldn’t be gay anymore.

“That’s a very different upbringing. And you feel you are 20 now?”

In some ways. I mean, I’m 36, not 20. I have my college education. I have dependents, and bills. I have no desire to shed all responsibility and make enormous mistakes or drink myself to sleep, or to fall in and out of love over and over.

“So clarify for me, then. How do you feel 20?”

I have no idea what to do with my life.

“Let’s jump a couple of months in the future. It’s early fall and everything in your life has gone perfectly between now and then. You have found your grounding. In fact, everything is going just the way you want it. What is different in your life then?”

Well, many things are the same. I’m here in Utah. I have my sons often. I have my friends.

“And what is different?”

I’m in a relationship that is building toward permanent. I’m making better money doing something I love.

“Anything else?”

I’m out of debt, exercising more often, traveling more. I’d feel more self-assured. But those things would come with the relationship and job, I’d expect.

“Those things you are listing, being in a relationship and working at something you love, those don’t seem that unrealistic.”

Ugh, they shouldn’t be.

“‘Ugh?’ Why ‘ugh’?”

Those are the very things that have eluded me the past few years.

“Can we spend some time breaking those apart a bit? Dating and career?”

Yeah, that would be really good actually.

“Let’s start with relationships. Tell me what’s going on there.”

I don’t know if I have the objectivity to even tell you that. The gay community is complicated. A huge portion of it is very body and sex focused, hugely focused on alcohol. And there is so much emotional damage in the community. You have all of these grown-up men with jobs and families who act like teenagers when it comes to sex and alcohol because they did what I did growing up, hiding themselves in plain sight, and now they have to make up for lost time. I know not everyone is like that, but it is a huge portion of the dating pool here. Perfect body looking for perfect body, gym, booze, sex, and on to the next. It’s exhausting.

“And where do you fit in to all of this?”

I’m… different. I don’t know. Maybe it’s having kids, or being a bit older. Maybe it’s what I do for a living or the age I came out. I just want more than that.

“Can I challenge you on something?”

Yeah, absolutely.

“It seems almost as if you see yourself as separate from this definition of the gay community. Like you are above it, perhaps.”

That stings to hear, but I can see the truth in that. I drink sometimes. I enjoy sex sometimes. I go to the gym. I had a period of ‘making up for lost time.’ I don’t think I see myself as ‘above’ so much as I’m just having a difficult time dating in that world.

“Well, it’s very different from the world you knew. Mormon kid in Missouri, missionary, college student, professional, married straight man with kids, all with this very confining Mormon standard of morals and ways to live.”

Yes! It is very different.

“So why do you think you have had such a difficult time with dating?”

Okay, instead of comparing myself to the community, let me just talk about my experience. What works for me. When it comes to dating, I’m straightforward. I share what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling. I’m bold. I’m romantic. I’m not a jump into bed quickly kind of guy, not until I feel that connection and chemistry with someone.

“Go on.”

So it tends to fall apart in one of two places. Once we have passed that whole ‘I have kids’ thing, which is a barrier to some, and once I see that a guy is stable financially and emotionally, then we get to that first date. I’m not afraid to ask someone out, and if I have a good time, I’ll ask them out again. A lot of guys seem to wait to be asked out.

“So you go out on a date, and then?”

First dates are usually coffee, dinner, a walk, something like that. Simple. Get to know you conversation. Now I’ll rule out the terrible first dates that could never lead anywhere, dates where the guy is a jerk or monopolizes the conversation or treats our first meeting as a therapy session, and the ones where the guy is a huge flake. I seem to have some sort of curse when it comes to the second date.

“You’re giving me a lot to follow up on, but let’s start there. What is the second date curse?”

When I let myself get interested in a guy, which frankly takes a lot at this point, something seems to happen before the second date occurs. Three recent examples: one guy relapsed on drugs after five years of sobriety, one guy let me know he changed his mind about dating and he just wanted casual sex, one guy–

“I’m going to stop you there. Again, I’m getting that ‘above’ thing. A second date curse isn’t a thing. Take a wider view.”

I… truly don’t know. I could be coy and just say I haven’t found the right one yet. I could say my expectations are too high. I could go internal and say I need to love myself before I can love someone else. I could get cynical and say maybe relationships aren’t for me, or successful relationships aren’t possible. To keep it simple, I guess I’m just sick to death of searching for something that consistently eludes me.

“And why are you ‘sick to death’ of it?”

It’s, frankly, just exhausting. I see successful relationships around me. Guys that have been together for 20 years, or 10, or 5, who have homes and kids, who travel together and enjoy being together. I want that. And I have no idea how to find it.

You aren’t unique in that, you know? That’s every single person on the planet. That’s every person, gay or straight or bisexual, who hasn’t found someone, or who has had their heart broken. So let me ask a very simple question. Why do you want to be in a relationship?”

For the simplest of reasons. I want someone to share my life with.

“Tell me more.”

Even though I was closeted, I was married for years. I liked that, except for the whole wrong gender thing. I liked having someone to check in with at the end of the day. Good mornings and good nights, evening walks, cuddle time, meals and family events together. Hell, having a second income was great. Not some co-dependent thing. Just someone to share life with. I want that.

“Have you had that with anyone in the past four and a half years?”

Briefly. I fell for this guy long distance for a while. When we were together, it was great. Reciprocal. Eye contact and affection and laughing and silliness. It was good. But then he’d be gone and we’d fight or grow silent. Ultimately it just didn’t work, but during those brief times we were together, it was great.

“So when it comes to dating, I basically see three options for you. One, you can give up, quit trying, and just focus on yourself. Two, you can keep putting yourself out there and trying (but maybe lose the ‘I’m cursed’ mentality). Or three, you can jump into something and just hope it works out.”

Clearly the second option is the best one.

“I don’t think your expectations are unrealistic. You want to find someone who is put together and who wants to be with you. That makes sense. You want the unicorn in the field full of horses. How do you feel right now, having talked about this?”

Relieved. Exhausted, but relieved. It’s nice to have it all out there and to realize where I’ve been screwing up. Can we talk about career a bit?

“Yes. What do you want out of your job?”

I want to make more money doing things I love.

“And what are those things?”

To be honest, I’m not sure. I feel like I could divide myself in 8 and do each of them full time. I could continue doing social work. I could teach college full time. I could write and travel. I could make documentaries. I could–

“You have varied interests, it seems.”

I absolutely do. It’s back to the 20 year old feeling. Guy enters college, takes some classes, figures out what the hell he wants to do with his life.

“And what do you want to do with your life?”

Make money doing something I love.

“We seem to be in a circle. You want money and to do something you love, but you don’t know what that is.”

That is absolutely correct.

“So let me challenge you. Try thinking of this like a 36 year old father, and not a pretend 20 year old. What do you want?”

I… don’t know. Okay. Let me think. I don’t want the life I had before, working 60 hour weeks at a mediocre job. I want to work for myself. I–

“Do you want to keep doing social work?”

I… don’t think so. I think I want to write.

“You want to be a writer?”

Yeah, I think so. I want someone to give me a hundred thousand dollars a year and I will just write and share my ideas and insight with the world for the rest of my life. I’ll be like David Sedaris. I’ll make people laugh and smile and think and feel and cry. I’ll help through words. I’m good at it, but I have no idea how to make a living at it.

“We’re all out of time for today. Let me ask what you learned today, what insights did you gain in today’s session?”

Well, I’m no different than anyone else. I’m unique and I’m looking for things that are right for me, and I should’t get down just because my life hasn’t mapped out the way I’d expected.

“Great beginnings. For next time, I want you to let yourself think of becoming a writer. One who inspires others and maybe even makes that hundred thousand a year. What would that entail and how could you make a living? I’ll see you next week, Chad.”

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