Sex Education Part 6: Brotherly Love

Elder

I only had the one brother, and he was much older than me. I had lots of friends in the high school, but I kept my guard up around them almost constantly, so scared of being found out for being gay. I had one friend that shared a bed with me sometimes on sleepovers throughout high school and, well, that was tempting, but I still kept myself so carefully contained.

And then I went on a Mormon mission for two years. First there were three weeks at the Missionary Training Center in Provo. I was 19, and at the height of my sexual exploration phase, just like all of the other thousands of missionaries. I was 19, and surrounded by other 19 year olds. I had no personal space, no free time. I shared a room with good-looking young men. We studied scriptures together, read together, walked together. The only time I had to myself, literally, was when I closed the stall door in the bathroom. And, strangest of all, we showered together. No shower curtains. Big group showers with multiple shower heads coming out of each pole in the room.

I’m positive there were other gay kids in the MTC, but I didn’t know that then. The elders were relentless. The wore the name of Jesus Christ on their shirt lapels, but they were very young and very horny. Some walked around naked. They talked about girlfriends, and fantasies, and wet dreams. They openly discussed the size of their penises and sometimes showed them off. They bragged about past sexual encounters, the sizes of girls’ breasts, what they did on dates to stop from getting erect. I’d never been around other guys like this, and I wasn’t coping well. I had to cope by being pious, by being the most dedicated missionary possible. But when I did that, I didn’t fit in, and when I didn’t do that, I didn’t feel worthy. God was never going to cure me being gay at this rate.

And thus set up the following two years. A constant war with me trying to fit in and follow the rules at the same time, and both of those were impossible, because I didn’t fit. And I had nowhere to hide, no rooms to retreat to. The bathroom was my only solace, my only break. That and sleep. Depression set in deep, and the anxiety continued whenever I felt attracted to someone.

I found myself adapting swiftly to whoever my companion was. When I was attracted to my companion, I had a clumsiness and a defensiveness about me. When I was with a jock or a bully, I became the misfit, the awkward nerd who didn’t conform. When I was with someone with strange social manners, I had an air of impatience and superiority about me.

I wouldn’t realize it until much later, but at least two out of my fifteen companions were also gay and later came out. I haven’t ever asked if their internal struggles were like mine, but I found myself wondering after my mission, what if something had happened. What if there had been a mutual attraction, and someone had made a move, and the other had responded. What if we had found pleasure, found lust realized, found love back then, a fling during a time we should have been in college. The consequences at the time would have been devastating, humiliating. There would likely have been confessed sins, an early release home, a heartbreaking coming out to the family, some therapy. But maybe, maybe that would have propelled me out of the closet much sooner. Maybe it would have changed the entire course of my life.

Instead, the duration of my missionary experience was me staying tightly locked up inside of myself while I knocked on doors, faced the tedium of the day-to-day monotony of missionary work, read the scriptures, called in numbers to the mission president, hoped for success. I taught a few openly gay men on my mission, and I saw them as weak, morally inferior, as less than for submitting to being gay. I had grown to hate what I was, and hate it even more when I recognized it in others.

I certainly wouldn’t call myself free of sin during this time. I worked hard and studied hard. I prayed often, journaled, wrote home, asked for guidance and blessings, and tried hard to keep the spirit. But the depression got bad sometimes, and I frequently felt worthless, hopeless, and without any kind of drive. I lusted after some of my companions, and others that I met. I wanted so badly to be noticed by them, to have them desire me back. I had errant thoughts, sexual fantasies, and sometimes struggled with masturbation. And I knew that if I told anyone about this, they would respond that if I had even one sexual sin, how could God possibly cure me, how could I be considered worthy. God had given me so much, how could I make Jesus suffer like that with my sin? I was so locked up.

All in all, during that two years, I did nothing egregious. I baptized a few people. And in those two years, there was only one companion I fell for. He was straight, but he was handsome, and kind, and attentive. He asked how I was and he listened. He offered back massages. He made me laugh. He thought I was cool. And we spent every waking moment together for three months, how could I not fall for him? One night, I told him in a quiet voice that I was attracted to boys. He responded that he wasn’t that surprised, and it didn’t bother him at all, but he wanted to make sure I knew he was straight. I assured him I was as well, and we never spoke of it again.

And thus passed my time from ages 19-21. The height of my sexual development. I spent it hiding, scared, ashamed, depressed, and feeling broken. I would later contemplate what it would be like for straight young men to be sent to live with beautiful women, to shower with them, to sleep in a bed feet away from them, to never be alone. What if we told these men that lusting was wrong, that they couldn’t masturbate, or deviate, that they couldn’t have sexual thoughts, and that if they did they were wrong, broken, and should be ashamed. Realizing this helped me realize what a torturous and cruel time this was. It was spiritual abuse in a concentrated form.

In December of 1999, I went home, my head and heart full of shame, my spirit dark. And I started college two weeks later.

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Sex Education Part 5: High School Dances

CTR

There was an expected ritual to asking out girls in high school. Just asking, with a note or, worse, a direct question, was frowned on. There needed to be scavenger hunts, puzzles, elaborate ruses, or public embarrassment of some kind, just to ask. Why ask the girl directly when you could hang a banner down the hallway saying “Will You Go To Prom With Me, Emily? From Travis”, or when you could have the girl pop one hundred balloons and then rearrange letter squares from in the balloons to find out who was asking her? The more elaborate the ruse, the more interested in the girl you were.

Of course, I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16. And then, I was only encouraged to date Mormon girls. And I would be chaste, moral, and pure until marriage, which was still years in the future. Dating at 16 was an early way of preparing myself for marriage to a woman.

I was fully coming to terms with being gay at age 15, and I finally needed to tell someone about it. I went to the bishop, a family friend, and told him, ashamed, with my head hanging low, that I was attracted to boys. He responded with kindness and compassion, and informed me that I was special and God was giving me an extra challenge to prove my worthiness. He gave me a book written by prophets, one that talked about how evil homosexuality was, and then he sent me on my way.

I did my best to avoid sin at all costs. I played Mormon music in my room, put pictures of Jesus and the temples and apostles on my bedroom wall, and kept my thoughts pure. I did all I could to avoid masturbation and evil thinking, but there were times I failed. Every dark thought led to nausea and stomach aches, sometimes gastro-intestinal issues, and I was having regular stomach troubles and anxiety on a daily basis from the 8th grade on.

Before I turned 16, I thought receiving my patriarchal blessing would give me all the strength I would need to move forward. It would give me the answers on curing homosexuality, striking it from my system once and for all, I just knew it. But the patriarch was a stranger, and his words rang with authority, telling me I was a choice son of God who should not disappoint God in any way. He promised me a wife and kids in my future if I just lived worthy.

And then I turned 16, and dating was both encouraged and expected. I pretended a healthy interest in girls. I had to. It was the only way to get through it all. I was occasionally teased for being sensitive or feminine, and I was at times called dork, or fag, or sissy. The worst bullying happened in my own home, where my stepfather used name-calling, threats, intimidation, and volume to keep a tight hold on all of us, resorting to violence when necessary. He doled out love and fear in proportionate measures, and we never knew what was next. He called me “little fairy-boy”, and told me directly that he’d never wanted a son like me. In his crueler moments, he would say he understood why my dad left. But he counter-balanced it all on other days by telling me what a great kid I was, what a strong man I was growing into. His love came with healthy heapings of shame and fear, and it felt a lot like the love I had come to expect from God.

And so, I found ways to have crushes on girls. I chose those who had strong testimonies in the church, who were modest, who were pretty but not too pretty. I chose those who would respect that I was a good Mormon boy, and who wouldn’t expect anything physical from me. I sometimes chose girls who didn’t get asked out by other guys. And some of them got crushes on me, and I didn’t have crushes back. Some of them got hurt. I dated often. I double-dated with friends, guys I had actual crushes on, and I envied them as they danced with their dates and I danced with mine. The dates were always elaborate, pure spontaneous fun. There was movies and dinner, picnics in the park, silly board games, trips to the zoo or plays, hikes, and concerts. And there was always the school dances. several of them every year, and then the stake, or church, dances on top of those. Lichee, and Rochelle, and Tammy, and Malina, and Josie, and Karen, and Katie, and Meranda, and Malinda, and Larena, and Gelin, and Cathy. So many dates, some friendly, all respectful. Mormon dating. A young gay kid going on chaste and friendly adventures.

Sometimes we were lectured on morality and chastity at church. There was an emphasis on no pornography, no masturbation, no heavy-petting, no making out. Dancing was allowed, so long as hands were placed appropriately. Boys were told to keep thoughts pure and to stay worthy for our future wives. Girls were told that virtue was important above all else, because no one would want damaged goods when there were undamaged ones around. Sexual sin was bad, bad, bad, and just being gay was sexual sin already. I would have to work that much harder to prove God loved me. I had to be worthy of a cure.

I started my mornings with scripture studies. I prayed throughout the day. I sang hymns in my head. I did my homework, got good grades, was kind to my fellow students, reached out to the outcast and the misunderstood, and performed service for those I loved. I went to church on Sundays, paid my tithing, went to Seminary daily. I was a great kid. But I was constantly attracted to other boys, and it made me ill, and I started wondering how much effort it would take to prove to God that I was worthy of the cure he’d promised.

Over the course of a few years, I went on several dates with a high school friend named Karen. She was vibrant, beautiful, spontaneous, and fun. She wasn’t shy about her interest, but I remained carefully distant from her. I pushed and pulled. I wanted to date her to see if I could, but I didn’t want to because I lacked interest and attraction. I must have baffled her as she had no idea about the war happening under my skin.

One day, we sat in my car and talked, and she confronted me, asking me if I was interested or not. I was, I explained, but had a lot going on. She said if I was interested, I should show it, I said I didn’t know how to do that. She said it was easy, I should just kiss her. And I said I wasn’t sure how to do that. I’d never done that before, I explained. She rolled her eyes.

“It isn’t that hard to do, Chad,” she said, and she got out of my car. I didn’t call her back, and two weeks later, she had a new boyfriend. More evidence that something was wrong with me. I felt weak. I begged God for help. But I kept getting nauseous, kept dating girls, kept shutting my own heart and thoughts down. If I focused hard enough on church and school, God would cure me. He’d finally hear me.

He had to. He just had to. What other option did I have?

Sex Education Part 4: Scout Camp

My first day at Scout Camp, I rolled out my sleeping bag in the small tent, anxious about sharing my space with other boys in my ward.

There was Josh, my tall, gangly friend with his thick glasses. Stephen, the handsome nerdy guy with the perfect smile. Charles, too handsome for his own good, constantly bragging about girls. Sam, with thick blonde hair, who looked perfect with his shirt off. And scrappy little Daryl, who had a constant sneer on, always trying to pick a fight. These boys and ten others in our little troop, along with the Scoutmasters one tent over.

Sam was the nicest to look at, but it was Stephen that I had the biggest crush on. I often found myself watching him across the camp, wondering if he ever noticed. He was handsome and adorable all at once. I was only 14, but I wondered what a future with him would be like, if that was something that was allowed. But then I mentally flogged myself for feeling that way in the first place, knowing that even those thoughts made me a sinner.

The first few days of Scout Camp were a blur of skits and singing, flag raises, swimming, building fires, cooking eggs and bacon over an electric grill, and working on a number of merit badges. The leaders encouraged us to get as many badges as possible during the days we would be there. Every morning and meal started with a prayer, and we sang hymns and Scout songs throughout the day. It was meant to be the ultimate getaway.

I mostly stayed quiet as the other boys interacted. When the leaders were away, the conversation automatically steered to girls.

“Dude, have you guys seen Becky? She has the biggest boobs in the whole class and I heard she made out with Joe Adams once.”

“I totally made out with her.”

“No you didn’t!”

“I so did. She’s dumb as rocks though.”

“Whatever, I made out with your sister!”

The boys talked about their crushes, their conquests, their future wives. And I didn’t participate. I tried to blend in to the background, wanting to fit in but not wanting to engage either.

“What about you, Chad, who do you like?” Sam asked me over the fire one day.

My eyes immediately shifted to Stephen across the camp, then I lowered them to the ground. “Oh, I don’t really talk about that stuff. I’m trying to just stay focused on school and church stuff until my mission.”

Sam nodded, laughing. “I respect that. I’m into this girl named Amber. She’s really cute and want to know my favorite part about her?”

“Sure, what is it?”

“Her butt. She has the perfect butt. Want to know how I know that?”

I looked over at him as he stared in the fire. “How do you know?”

“Cause my hands have told me so.” I looked over in surprise. “Yup, that’s write. She let me grab it once. I think I love this girl. I told her I would carve her name into my arm with a knife, but she didn’t want me to do that.”

“That’s… intense,” I thought, and my eyes flashed back to Stephen.

Daryl was the toughest one to be around. He’s the only one what wouldn’t let me blend in. He pushed and pushed. It was like he had something to prove.

One idle morning, the guys lined up and wanted to see who could throw logs the farthest. They chucked them across a field, trying to hit a far away tree. I stood timid, in the background. When asked if I wanted to throw a log, I simply said ‘no thanks’.

And then Daryl turned to me. “What the hell, Chad, you can’t do anything! What kind of man are you! I’m shorter than you, and I bet I can throw one farther than you! Hell, I bet my dick is bigger than yours, too!”

I didn’t engage. I simply walked away.

Every day, I was becoming more and more aware of how different I was from the other guys. I had no words for it, but it consumed me, those differences. I was unworthy, aberrant, an other. I felt unseen constantly, but also like everyone was constantly staring, noticing every glance and every movement. I wanted to hide, but more than anything, I just wanted to be like them. No one understood. I was an island on my own, sharing space with everyone else who belonged.

I avoided showering for days. There was a big group shower up the hill, an open room like those at community swimming pools. 15 shower heads lined the walls, all pouring hot water from the tank outside. Should I wear a swimsuit in there and claim modesty? Should I wake up extra early and shower before anyone else? I wanted to see the other guys, be part of them, but that was the last thing I wanted as well. What if I got aroused? My body had a mind of its own sometimes.

But on day three, I couldn’t avoid it anymore. I shut down my brain and marched with the troop up the hill to the shower. In the locker room, they all undressed and I kept my eyes fixed tightly on the floor. My heart was pounding. Stephen was right there, and Sam, and the others. And then everyone was naked except me. I wore a bright orange swimming suit as we all walked into the shower together, me doing my best to keep my eyes on the floor.

There were six other boys in the shower, all older kids from another troop. Tall, strong, good-looking guys, all of them naked as well.

One of them noticed me and shouted across the echoing room. “Hey! There are no swimsuits in here!” I looked up at him in surprise. He grabbed his dick and balls in his hand and shook them back and forth. “Welcome to the Ball Show! This is where we see who has the biggest wang and who has the biggest balls! How can you play with a swimsuit on?”

I finished my shower quickly, keeping my head down, never saying anything. Some of the guys in my troop compared penises. A few lobbied teasing remarks to me.

On the hike back down the hill, I mentally flogged myself for not fitting in again. I thought about the other guys, talking about their crushes on Lindsay Lohan and Hillary Duff, about their talks about Becky’s boobs, and Amber’s butt. But I couldn’t say anything. If I talked and was honest, they’d know my crush was on Zach from Saved by the Bell and Wheeler from Captain Planet. They’d know I didn’t like boobs or girls, and instead that I had crushes on Sam, and Stephen, and my algebra teacher, and the neighbor who mowed the lawn with his shirt off, and the wrestler kid in my PE class. I was different and there was no changing that. I would never not be different.

Years later, looking back on this time as an adult, I realized that I wasn’t all that different. I was a typical boy, pumped full of hormones, obsessed with sex jokes and fitting in; I just liked boys instead of girls. But while the other kids were learning how to have crushes, fall in love and lust, be rejected, and fit in with other guys, I was merely learning how to hide everything about myself. The repercussions of this would last a lifetime. For me, and for every other gay kid like me.

BoyScout

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.)

 

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.

Sexual Predators

feral

“Am I a sexual predator? Are there people out there who think I’ve sexually harassed them?” and “Have I felt sexually harassed by others? Who, when, and why?”

I found myself wondering those questions over breakfast this morning, after a late night conversation with the boyfriend about these very topics. Lately, the news has been inundated with stories of sexual harassments and sexual assaults by celebrities and people in power. Social media has been full of outrage at Kevin Spacey, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and dozens more, all of them men who used power and manipulation to harm women (or in some cases men), or who excused their predatory behavior with “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing.”

But that leads me to think back to my own life and experiences, asking two questions internally. Are there times when I have felt sexually harassed, and are there times when others have felt sexually harassed by me?

Are there times when I have used “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing” as an excuse, and are there times when I’ve used those same excuses to explain away my feelings at the hands of others?

This is actually a really painful space to think upon. As a gay man, I’ve had plenty of evenings in gay clubs with loud music and drinks, where I’ve danced with a partner, and that can easily turn into kissing and groping. I’ve been approached by guys in a similar manner. And there is constantly either verbal or non-verbal consent or refusal happening. If someone grabs me in a club and I liked it, I might grab them back, feel flattered, or express mutual interest. If someone grabs me in a club and I didn’t like it, I might move away, give them eye contact to indicate I’m not interested., or feel disgusted or furious. Even more complex, if I flirt and someone doesn’t flirt back, I might feel angry, confused, or rejected, and they might feel things when I don’t flirt back. These basic encounters have sometimes left me feeling like a predator or like a victim, they just feel like part of the process.

But I can also recall times when guys have aggressively grabbed me in clubs. Strangers who have groped me while I walked by, or who have tried sticking their hands down my pants or unzipping my pants, times when guys from behind me have reached up between my legs from behind and grabbed hard. Those times have made me angry, downright furious, and I’ve forcefully removed hands and pushed guys away, giving very direct ‘NO’s with my voice or my eyes. Consent was much more apparent here. (And I’m never that aggressive in my own flirting).

That same feeling of discomfort has existed within me during more subtle encounters, however. I’ve felt anxious and angry at men who give too much eye contact or who aggressively follow me or pursue me at a party or a park. I’ve grown outraged with people who text too much or too aggressively, or who send unsolicited naked photos, or who brag publicly or privately with friends about sexual experiences they have had with me. These encounters have left me feeling unsettled and unsafe at times.

However, examples from both of the previous paragraphs have also been completely okay at times as well. I’ve had guys aggressively grab me and I felt flattered, men have pursued me or sent naked photos and I’ve liked it, guys have bragged about me and I felt happy about it.

It seems to come down to timing, trust levels, readiness, and level of attraction. And it’s difficult to know what will happen or how I will feel.

Self-inventory then ensues, and I begin to wonder about the times I’ve grabbed guys or have flirted too much or have followed a guy with my eyes in a coffee shop or I’ve complimented too easily. There are very likely people who have felt like I’m being predatory and who have felt unsafe, upset, or harassed by me. And that makes me feel worried and terrible.

Isolated encounters almost confuse me more. I think back to a time when I went on a weekend trip with a group of friends. We were in the Hot Springs together, and one of the guys got very handsy under the water, with his partner standing nearby. At the time, I found it enticing, and it went on for a while. It was only later that it bothered me. I never said no and I enjoyed the encounter, yet now when I look back I felt uncomfortable and maybe even a little harassed.

I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve appreciated it, and I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve been annoyed, sometimes avoiding them or even blocking them on social media because of it. I’ve had massage therapists get a little bit sexual and sometimes I’ve liked it and sometimes I’ve given a firm no and stayed furious about it. I’ve had clients flirt with me, and sometimes I’ve gotten angry and declared clear boundaries, and other times I’ve kind of enjoyed it and perhaps even subtly flirted back.

I once sat next to a friend during a movie, among a group of friends. During the film, I moved subtly closer until our legs were touching, then I moved my hand a bit closer to hopefully touch his. He responded by getting up and moving away, sitting on the floor, and later he’d told me that made him very uncomfortable. That had been hard to hear, but I respected that, and we are still good friends. I was happy he spoke up, and I was willing to listen.

Consent can be a bit confusing, honestly. And rather than saving my outrage for men in government and Hollywood who I have never met, who have preyed upon others, I’m taking the opportunity to do a bit of self-inventory. There are times when flirtations are just fun. And there are times when flirtations have caused me to feel unsafe and harassed. And there are times when flirtations have caused others to feel like I am harassing them.

I’m not sure what to take from all of these thoughts except to realize that asking is always better than assuming, that consent should be a part of every conversation and flirtation, and that I never like feeling unsafe, and that I don’t ever want anyone feeling unsafe around me.

Harassment and predatory behavior can show up in any space, through unwelcome compliments, eye contact, energy, or gestures. It can show up at work, in friend circles, and in bars. But it’s going to require us all taking stock of our encounters, apologizing when we need to apologize (without making excuses), communicating consent much more quickly, and setting clear boundaries when we need to. We are all sexual beings in our own rights, who experience attractions to others. But someone feeling like they have been marginalized or victimized, including myself, is never acceptable.

We live in a predatory community, and the way men treat men and especially how they treat women should never be focused on excuse-making and feeling rejected, but instead on conversations and consent. But it is very complex when we apply it ourselves. We all need to be using our voices and our ears much more. No one wants to be harassed, and no one wants to feel like they’ve harassed others.

Sends Nudes: thoughts on gay sex and vulnerability

nudes

Welcome to 2017, where, for many, sending pictures of genitalia is more comfortable than exchanging a first name.

I may never get accustomed to this, logging into a dating or chat app and having someone send me a photo of their erect penis, yet say they are discreet or shy when I ask for a photo of their face. A few months ago, during one chat, I got a dirty photo from someone I’ve never met, unsolicited, and when I said I prefer to chat a bit before going there he responded with, “Look, bro, if I wanted a chat, I’d call my mom. I’m looking to bone, not be your friend.”

In the gay male community, there have always been strong elements of sexual expression, and sexual oppression. In the generations prior to mine, men weren’t allowed to be sexual with other men without serious consequences, from being arrested to disowned to fired to attacked to shamed. For most of human history, there has been an element of danger to gay sex–it had to be private, it had to be discreet, it had to be secret.

In Brokeback Mountain, the first time Ennis and Jack have sex, they can’t look at each other and there is no intimacy. Ennis shoves Jack’s face forward and gives in to urges. After that, they develop an intimacy when they are alone, an affection and love toward each other through looks and handholds and private jokes. But in public, there can be none, no errant glances, no physical contact. If someone suspected their love, there would be public shaming, humiliation, lost jobs, and lost families.

And this became the culture of the gay male community, by and large, over the years. The wider public sent the message that gay men do not belong, that they should not be seen, and that they should be taught a lesson if they are seen.

“What they do in their own homes, I don’t care, as long as I don’t have to see it” and “I didn’t plan on hitting him but he looked at me funny and I would have been made fun of if I hadn’t fought back” and “Can’t we just round them up and put them on an island some place where we don’t have to look at them” and “If we let gay people teach in our schools, our kids will get AIDS and turn into fags” became normal messages on television and from church pulpits and around the family dinner table.

And so gay men learned to hide, and to have two lives. In one life, they had jobs as teachers and doctors, dancers and hair dressers, social workers and CEOs, police officers and judges; and they had families with mothers and fathers and often wives and children; and they had lives, on their local bowling leagues or PTA committees.

And in their other life, the gay men noticed handsome men around them and hoped to catch their eye. They learned of public spaces to meet other gay men, in public parks or on the third floor or the local library behind the biography section or in the alley behind a particular club, or in the local gay club or bath house, although those were a bit scarier. And they learned to relate to other gay men on a purely physical level, focusing solely on sex and body image, shaming those that were not their idea of physically perfect or those who wanted some sort of emotional connection. They learned to mask feelings with alcohol and drugs, often to enhance the pleasure of the sex, and then they stepped back into their daily lives.

These social and psychic trends seem pretty rampant in the gay male community among men who, primarily, grew up divided within themselves, longing for acceptance, community, understanding, validation, and love, and who instead divided themselves up into spaces where vulnerability is frightening and sex is simple.

All that said, there is nothing wrong with sex in any of its forms, so long as the person engaging in sex is educated, honest, and ethical with themselves and others. Engaging in random illicit sex with a stranger, a threesome with a few friends, or even a bathhouse orgy, those are viable options for gay men, but they won’t serve as healthy alternatives for loneliness, depression, self-shame, family problems, or religious discord. The person who chooses to be sexually active should do so from a place of self-acceptance and confidence, and the ability to realize that the person or people they are engaging in sexual activities with are also human beings who have stories and families and needs.

I viscerally remember the radio commercial from my youth where the deep voice stated, “Remember, sex lasts a moment. Being a father lasts your whole life.” And there is absolute truth there. The man who chooses to engage in sex should be able to recognize the risks of pregnancy, the potential for STDs, and the ability to realize that the human heart is a part of sex, both for him and for the other person involved. (And yes I realize that gay sex does not result in pregnancies, but the other truths hold valid).

So go, have sex. Have fun. Have adventures. But know yourselves first, and know your motivations. Look at your trends. Can you only have sex when drunk? Are you only seeking to dominate someone else? Can you look your partner in the eye and have a conversation? Are you seeking to escape the stress and expectations of an unhealthy marriage, religious obligations, or the family you’ve built around you? Do you reject anyone who isn’t your ideal of human perfection, your exact type? Do you realize and acknowledge that there is another person there with a story, with needs, with struggles and situations different but just the same as yours? Do you understand the history of where you’ve come, and do you have an eye on where you are going? Do you think that having someone in your bed will take away your pain and loneliness and make you like yourself?

I guess the take away I hope others to get in reading this is just to know yourself, to question your motivations a little bit, to explore your concepts of vulnerability, and to be able to realize there is another person on the other end of that exchange. The world is about more than naked pictures and quick sex, it’s about safety and kindness and attraction and love. But that has to be toward yourself first.

 

 

 

love/hate Las Vegas

VegasNightSky

A friend asked me this morning what it is that I like about Las Vegas. I gave it some thought and realized quickly that I don’t actually like Las Vegas all that much.

Las Vegas is dirty, it’s grimy, it’s hot. Everyone is in a hurry to have their needs fulfilled. Here is some cash, now feed me, entertain me, dance for me, liquor me up. I want it all and I want it now. Las Vegas is cash and booze and sweat and flashing neon lights and sex and sultry street corners.

Las Vegas is a middle-aged woman, weather beaten and exhausted, standing in an assigned section of casino, wearing a pink fluffy feathered headdress and a corset and a sequined tight dress that exposes her shoulders and legs and cleavage, with bright pink lipstick, holding a tray of drinks as she pretends to smile at each tourist rushing by her but she really just wants her next cigarette break and to get back to the couch that she sleeps on in her small apartment but she still has six hours of work ahead.

Las Vegas is the six college guys who flew from the east coast for a weekend away, all sharing one hotel room, and all with different goals for the weekend: pool lounging, sheer drunkenness, getting smashed at a strip club, picking one slot machine and not leaving it until the bank account is empty or the jackpot is won, finding one girl on vacation and spending the entire time with her, and betting big at a poker table. And they will all find it, with ample amounts of food, before they trudge back to their plans on Monday morning, exhausted for the long flight home.

Las Vegas is the sixty year old couple from Tallahassee who think $3.50 is too much for a shrimp cocktail, and where is the best buffet, and can they fit in five shows in three days and still get in time to shop at that mall over there.

Las Vegas is the mother of four, setting her kids loose on the casino amusement park while she slumps in the corner with a margarita that is taller than her toddler.

Las Vegas is me, in a 26th floor hotel room at Circus, Circus, standing in the window at 5 am and looking out at a city that comes at me in layers. Brown rolling mountains on the desert horizon, a sun rising slowing in pink and orange. Massive shiny hotels looming in patchwork sections of the landscape, massive juggernaut structures full of thousands of people, all pursuing their vices. Long roadways with hundreds of cars zooming in every direction, every one of them impatient. Sporadic green trees withering in the already 90 degree heat. Helicopters hovering in the sky. Small homes and local businesses, all brown and red and tan, where the tired masses head from work to home or home to work, all exhausted. And the connecting pieces between them, every inch neon and concrete, electricity and stone. It’s heavy and hot and fast and exhausted and shiny.

Las Vegas is… vice. It’s sin. It’s all of the baseness of humanity stripped down to its core. People come here for the heat and the sin and the neon and the concrete. And while those are the very things that repel me, I suppose that is the very thing that I love about Vegas. The baseless humanity of it all. The opportunity to go away, sin and get dirty, and then get back to regular life.

It’s gross/beautiful. It’s filthy/pure. It’s love/hate.

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

 

Condolences

sincere-condolences-autumn-leaves-main

Ten conversations you have after your best friend dies

One. 

Chad, I’m so sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you. He meant a lot to me.

Yeah, hey, you’re a therapist, right?

Yup.

I’ve been meaning to ask you. I was dating a guy and he said he loves me but he hasn’t been texting back lately. What should I do about that?

Two.

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

He died in a car accident, right?

Yeah, it was really sudden.

Oh man, I had a friend die in a car accident once. He fell asleep at the wheel. I got pulled out of work to be told. It was the worst. 

Yeah, I know how that feels.

I mean, he was the best. It’s been like 12 years and I still miss him all the time. Wish I could say it gets better. Anyway, gotta run, good luck. 

Three.

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

It’s been, what, three days now?

 Yeah, it happened Sunday.

Huh, well, you should be over it by now. I’ll see you at the gym some time. Looking good! We should grab a coffee some time!

Four.

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

What happened? Tell me everything. I mean, I never met him, but I saw your blog and the news article and everyone is talking about it. What happened? Does his family know? Is his fiancee healing? How are his kids taking it? Was anyone else involved? Who found them? What did the medical report say? Where is–

Whoa, that’s a lot of questions.

I’m just really sad about this!

Did you want to grab some popcorn, or…

Five.

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

Are you doing okay? I mean, really. I know you two were really close. 

I’m doing okay, yeah. It’s been tough, but I’m going through the grieving process.

Here, sit down. Talk to me. Tell me how you are.

Ugh, it’s hard to talk about. It just came as such a shock. I mean, I was working and I found out through a text message. It was–

Oh hang on, my phone. I got a text. (pause) Oh god, my roommate’s hilarious, look at this. 

Six. 

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

Look, if you get sad, just go to the gym. It’ll fix everything. You just gotta punch it out. Or porn and sex work too. Seriously, it sounds dumb, but those are the best things when you’re grieving. 

Uh, thanks for the advice.

Seven. 

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you. He was my favorite person.

Can I give you a hug?

Absolutely.

Look, I’m here. If you need to talk or vent or cry or just have someone around, I’m here. 

Thank you. Seriously, thank you.

Can I bring you some soup later?

Oh my god, that would be amazing. You’re so sweet!

I know what it is like to lose someone. I’m here for you, I mean it. Your job is taking care of other people, make sure you are taking care of you, too. 

 

**In all sincerity, thank you to everyone for the support on a difficult week. I’m amazingly blessed with loving and incredible people from every area of my life.