Seattle Part 6: the HMO

October, 2014

On my first day, it took me nearly an hour to get to my new job, though it was only about 8 miles distance from my residence. I had to drive down a long, narrow, busy Seattle street through traffic and stoplights, then get on a congested freeway. Traffic moved very slowly across the lake, and there was no other way to get there.

I worked on the top floor of a medical clinic, the local face of a busy HMO (Health Maintenance Organization). The mental health clinic employed around ten therapists, and we were all kept significantly busy. Clients who held a particular insurance were given good rates to see a doctor or a counselor at the HMO, and they were charged a lot of out-of-pocket expenses to see anyone else, thus we always had a long list of people waiting to be seen by a provider. Someone might call in in some sort of crisis and then not be able to see a counselor for six weeks afterward, based on current openings.

I had worked at community health centers before, so I understood the medical model of therapy. I was a clinical social worker, or LCSW, meaning I could get higher than standard reimbursement rates through various insurances, including Medicare and Medicaid, and the company seemed happy to have me there. But this place worked at a much higher pace than anything I had ever experienced before.

First of all, consider therapy itself. A counseling session requires the therapist’s all. There can be no distractions, no phones or music or computers. It’s just the therapist and the patient. There can’t be errant thoughts, or outside stressors, or headaches, or upset stomachs, or sleepiness. The therapist can’t yawn, or stretch, or eat a snack. The client requires one hundred per cent of the therapist’s focus, as well as their clear memories of past therapy sessions, like names of loved ones and therapeutic goals. On top of that, therapists are often dealing with clients who have extreme trauma issues. They hear stories about combat, suicide, rape, abuse, grief, and pain. And when one client leaves, the next is generally waiting, and the therapist can’t still be thinking about the first or she won’t be able to focus on the second.

Doing three or four therapy sessions in a row requires a tremendous effort; doing seven or eight becomes downright exhausting if not impossible. The HMO required more. And doing that day after day, well, it’s not for the faint-hearted. In standard clinics, even busy ones, I became accustomed to doing four therapy sessions, having an hour lunch, then doing three more, with the last hour of the day being reserved for case and progress notes, treatment plans, and correspondence. It was already at a taxing schedule.

But at the HMO, the expectations were much higher. They had competitive wages (about 45 dollars per hour, consistently, on salary) and a great benefits package. But they had their therapists on a very rigid schedule, seeing a patient basically every forty minutes with no time for case notes built in.

A standard schedule might go like this, for one day:

8 am: ten minute staff check-in

8:15: first patient (let’s say an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s whose husband just died)

9: second patient (a teenage girl who recently attempted suicide)

9:45 third patient (a refugee worried about her loved ones in her home country)

10:30: fourth patient (a couple going through extreme marital issues)

11:15: fifth patient (a veteran struggling with PTSD issues)

12: thirty minutes for lunch

12:30: sixth patient (a single mother of four processing stress)

1:15: seventh patient (a woman with a new baby, struggling with postpartum)

2: eighth patient (a mother processing stress over her son coming out of the closet)

2:45: ninth patient (a man referred by his boss for losing his temper at work)

3:30: tenth patient (a ten-year old boy whose parents recently divorced)

4:15: eleventh patient (a woman with borderline personality disorder, recently out of the state hospital following a suicide attempt).

Then, after that, once your notes were finished, you could go home for the day. Every other week or so, there would be a staff meeting of some kind. And every second or third day, a client might cancel or not show up, giving a chance to catch up. But that many patients per day, every day, four days per week, generally meant between 36 and 45 people seen per week. Sessions had to be shorter and more goal-directed, and a failure to adhere to the schedule meant knocking multiple clients back. If a client came in in crisis, very little could be done to manage it without having to cancel another session afterwards completely, and openings after that became hard to find.

I came into the job with boundless enthusiasm. The team of people I worked with were amazing, funny, friendly, and supportive. The agency had great diversity representation, several gay therapists, and a good camaraderie. But as I finished my first week of work, beaten down, grey, and bitter, I began to realize how tired everyone was. It was like working in an emergency room, without breaks, day after day, every day. With an hour’s drive each way.

In Utah, my therapy work had almost exclusively been with LGBT people who were struggling to align their sexuality with their Mormonism. Here, I was seeing people from every walk of life, all struggling with their own sets of problems. The word Mormon wasn’t being brought up anymore, but there was constant depression, anxiety, trauma, grief, and emotional pain. And within two weeks, I found myself unable to offer my client’s my all any longer. Instead of being an incredible therapist, I was becoming a mediocre one, simply to survive the rigorous page.

And with the reality of the new job settling in, Seattle didn’t feel quite so magical. It felt wearying, and expensive. Some cracks in the foundation of my dream life began to show.

And every night, there was the phone call to my sons, who remained far away, and who I missed very, very much.

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Good-Looking Murderers

A few days ago, it was reported that Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in jail. Hernandez, a famous sports star, rocketed into super-stardom when he was convicted of a brutal murder, and it came to light that he had been suspected in other murders. The reports on his death were grisly and left many questions.

When I checked my Facebook feed, a friend had posted an article about the death of Hernandez. I read the comments that followed the posted article. One, written by a gay man that I know, read, “He was hot! I wish he’d murder me!”

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As I processed through that statement and all that it implied about humanity, human consciousness, and social media, I scrolled farther down, where another friend had posted a meme about Hernandez committing suicide, a meme that also included Robin Williams, Kurt Cobain, and others, with a horribly unfunny joke about suicide. The friend had just written one thing about it. “What, too soon?”

I closed my computer and stepped away for a moment. As a professional, I have worked with the loved ones of those who have committed suicide many times over, and I have seen the emptiness, the pain, the shock, and the horror on their faces after the news comes in and in the days and weeks that have followed. I have also, to a lesser extent, worked with the families and loved ones of both those who have committed murder and those who have lost someone to murder. Going through something like that changes a person forever, irrevocably haunting them for the rest of their lives.

My mind flashed back to a few years ago, when I was running an LGBT history channel on YouTube, doing daily posts on events related to LGBT people and history. One day, I had done a post on Jeffrey Dahmer, a gay man who had committed dozens of horrific murders that defy explanation or understanding. Dahmer, now a legendary and, dare I say, celebrated serial killer was later violently killed while incarcerated by another inmate. The research I had done into his life and crimes had haunted me for days. I posted the video on social media, and someone in seconds had committed, “Mmm, look at him. Getting killed by him would have been worth it.”

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These thoughts stuck with me for a few days, disturbing, hanging out in the back of my brain. These people I knew were sexualizing murderers. Passive comments, for sure, and given without much thought. But an errant joke about suicide isn’t that funny if you’ve lost someone to suicide, and an errant joke about murder–well, frankly, neither one of them are funny at all. The killers and the victims were fathers, brothers, sons. They were humans who had lives and potentials. And when they were taken, gone, their pasts were all that were left. All of their potential, all of the paths they would have walked, all of the children they may have brought into the world, all gone with them.

My brain dredged up to similar comments I had heard over the years. When Dylan Roof killed 8 black worshippers in a church, I read a comment about ‘at least he killed old people’ on social media. In high school, when stories about Mary Kay Letourneau hit the media telling of how she had had sex with a much younger student, I remember some of the guys in my high school saying how lucky the student was, how much they wish they had had a teacher like that.

I wondered to myself the kind of world that we live in, where we as a culture are more focused on how hot or how young someone is, how desensitized to the news we are that we search for the horrific and titillating details, details which ultimately have little impact on us. This is a world where a woman makes a post on social media in support of Planned Parenthood, and a stranger comments on her feed that she deserves to be raped.

As I prepared my thoughts on this particular blog entry, I took a break and clicked on the news button on my iPhone. Four featured stories popped up, as they usually did. Something horrible about Donald Trump as usual, and then a detailed report about hundreds being killed in Syria in a brutal attack. Beneath that were two more stories, one about a celebrity divorce and a fourth about a celebrity’s plastic surgery mishaps.

A cold calm came over me as I realized the programming here, the way we view the news itself, the way we are indoctrinated into seeing the world. Hundreds of Syrian deaths mean nothing to those who aren’t Syrian, but the celebrity divorce gets clicked on because we have seen these people in a few movies. And the advertisers pay more for the stories that are clicked on. How quickly we cultivate an inability to feel horrible when we read something horrible. How swiftly we devolve into unsympathetic creatures when we scan the photos of murderers and victims and we focus solely on how attractive they were. We consider the mass deaths of strangers as shrug-worthy, and the tragic deaths of the young and beautiful a true tragedy.

And we are surrounded by men and women who feel no grief at the loss of life, yet they find value in the looks of the killers.

the Museum of Death

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A Siamese turtle! An actual Siamese turtle. About the size of my two open hands together, were they joined on the same wrist, the turtle swam  carefully in its large aquarium, positioned on a rock, both its heads above water. The large shell was conjoined, divided in the middle, so the two turtles each had their own heads, front legs, and front shells, but shared the back of the shell and the back legs. It was simultaneously adorable, mystifying, and absolutely frightening.

“How old is this turtle?” I asked the man behind the desk.

He looked up from his phone. “Turtles. Two of them. Twenty years old. The owner got them when they were babies, and they are healthy, so they could live another twenty. Heck, they will probably outlive me.”

I ended up in the Museum of Death on accident. I had been walking around, and literally wound up on its doorstep. Not one to question fate, I walked inside and bought a ticket.

The museum was crowded, with poorly organized displays and walls covered in photgraphs, newspaper clippings, and wordy biographies. The rooms twisted into each other like an old antique shop, with random collections of things shoved haphazardly into each space. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason except for the primary theme: Death. And I had to admit, a lot of the content was startling.

The first room seemed to almost romanticize and celebrate serial killers themselves. There were framed photographs of letters written by serial killers in jail, trading cards with their photos on them, and original artwork done by the killers during their life spans. Busy wordy posters told their life stories, including terrible details about their murders.

By far the most disturbing in this room were the photos of John Wayne Gacy, a gay serial killer who murdered dozens of men, in his clown uniform. Apparently, he used to host children’s birthday parties as a clown named Pogo. He drew himself as Pogo multiple times while in jail, and there the art hung, next to the massive shoes he wore during those days. On the opposite wall, stories about Jeffrey Dahmer, another gay serial killer. I’ve recently researched both men as I look into gay history, and their stories absolutely haunt me.

In the next room, it got worse. An entire room dedicated to the Manson Family murders, along with detailed stories and something I was completely unprepared for: the crime scene photos and the autopsy photos of Sharon Tate and the other victims. In another room, more photos of the like, including the Black Dahlia victim.

More autopsy pictures. Pictures of dead babies and beheaded soldiers. Crash crashes with corpses. Bodies found decomposing in the woods. It was all shocking, horrifying, sadistic, and stomach-turning. I wondered how I was even able to look at these pictures, and then remembered that I watch the Walking Dead and American Horror Story, shows that glorify horror and violence and murder. The difference here: these were real.

I left rooms discussing mass suicides and assassinations and suicides and mass graves and concentration camps. As I walked away, nodding at the Siamese turtle one more time, I contemplated death. Everything dies and decays. Stone cracks and splits, mountains erode, and humans live their lives and pass on to the next, returning to the earth they came from. Death doesn’t bother me. It’s tragic death that gets to me. It’s human cruelty and lives cut short. It’s lost potential and broken relationships.

When I slept, I didn’t have nightmares, I just felt sad. And then I remembered the Siamese turtle, a little creature that defied all odds and has lived decades, in an aquarium in the front of a museum that celebrates and glorifies death. And suddenly that irony brought a smile to my face.

Porn: the Public Health Crisis?

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Within the past few days, the Utah legislature passed a bill that declared pornography a public health crisis.

This is so painfully ironic on so many levels.

Point 1: No other state in our country has ever made an initiative like this.

Point 2: This year, the Utah legislature voted down a hate crimes bill (you know, hate crimes, where people are attacked, beat, stabbed, raped, or killed for being gay or transgender or handicapped or Muslim or Colombian or anything else that sets them apart from the majority).

Point 3: This year, the Utah legislature also voted down a medical marijuana bill, leaving those suffering from cancer, major depression, chronic pain, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and other painful conditions the same options to use major addictive pain killers that provide little relief, and ignoring the fact that medical marijuana has been proven in research to have positive impact on every level for these patients.

Point 4: Utah’s sex education plans are almost non-existant. Mixed in with this abstience only approach, where kids don’t learn about sex and then are thrown into marriage relationships early on… well… that leads to other topics entirely.

Point 5: Utah is among the states with the highest depression rates, and anti-depressant use, in the country. Go ahead, look it up. Utah also ranks among the highest for suicides.

Point 6: Utah has the highest rate of pornography subscriptions in the country. Seriously. Even though porn on the Internet is free, Utahans are number one in the nation for people who PAY and SUBSCRIBE to porn. It has jokingly been called the porn capital of America.

So… a public health crisis? Look at this quote from Mormon leader Jeffrey Holland just a few days ago. “Society must see this evil like the epidemic it is. This ought to be seen like a public health crisis, like a war, like an infectious fatal epidemic, like a moral plague on the body politic that is maiming the lives of our citizens… We do need to see this (pornography) like avian flu, cholera, diphtheria or polio. It needs to be eradicated.”

Now I grew up Mormon, though not in Utah. As a young Priesthood holder, it was beat into our brains that pornography was the worst. That once you saw a pornographic image, it was melded into your mind, a permanent image you could never get rid of. That it gave unrealistic expectations for sex, and it ruined relationships, that it wiped out the spirit of God in the home.

If anything, all that talk about porn made me more curious about porn. I mean, I was a gay kid not allowed to look at or think about boys, no less date them, and I wasn’t allowed to watch them on the Internet either or my sole would be destroyed.

Is it like polio or avian flu? Is it killing people, wiping out generations, leaving people permanently damaged? There are entire mental health clinics set up here in Utah set up to treat sex and pornography addiction. And they do well in business. Parents catch their teens watching porn and take them in for sex addiction treatment.

When I was 12, a bishop asked me if I masturbated. I had to ask what that was, and he told me, so I went home and tried it. What curious kid wouldn’t?

When I was 16, an older man at church taught the boys about chastity. And I quote, “Gentlemen, we all know it feels good to touch our peckers. But we mustn’t for it isn’t of God.” Then he taught us how wet dreams were normal and natural, and not to feel guilty as long as we didn’t “interfere” with ourselves. Meanwhile, my sister was taught to protect her virtue for an already chewed piece of gum is less valuable than a fresh piece.

I avoided pornography like the plague growing up, just knowing it was evil and dark. But you can only fight off such drives and curiosities for so long. My hormones would build, and the computer and keyboard were right there. I remember wondering why a God would make boys go through puberty  and give them such powerful drives, only to teach them that those very drives were evil and wrong.

Now, I think porn is fun. A safe, easy way to explore fantasies and options. There are a million kinds of them out there. And I’ve done some research into sex. So many research studies show that sex education leads to better decisions regarding sex including abstinence, that masturbation is healthy for the body, and that pornography is only considered an addiction when the individual feels compelled to watch it for hours and hours in one sitting, a drive that is often fostered by religious shame issues.

So if you are one of those people who think that watching a couple have sex is sort of like being infected with malaria, and that cancer patients should have to cry themselves to sleep, and that lesbian teenagers who are attacked for being gay don’t deserve extra protections… well, come on over to Utah.

Like they say, this is the place… for crazy.

Helping the Helpers

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“Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!”

This morning, I walked across a parking lot toward my vehicle in a pair of jeans and a grey t-shirt that reads “That’s what.” –She, my backpack over my shoulder, car keys in my hand. An older woman, likely in her mid-70s, pulling an oxygen tank behind her walked toward me. She had a brunette perm, a flowered blouse, and baggy black slacks on. Her glasses slid down to the end of her nose in classic grandma fashion.

“Um, yes?”

She walked quickly across the parking lot. “What is it that you do? What are you any good at?”

“I’m sorry?” Concerned, I unlocked my car and set my backpack inside.

“I said, ‘what are you any good at?'”

“Oh, I heard you, I just didn’t really understand the question.”

She got closer to my car now, just a few feet away. “I need help!”

I looked at her with concern. “What kind of help?”

“There–there is a young girl next door,” she explained, out of breath. “She’s crying. I’ve never met her, but she’s crying, and I asked her if she is okay, and I think she said she wasn’t okay but I wasn’t sure and she’s still crying, and are you any good at that?”

I tilted my head and narrowed my eyes, suspicious. “Am I any good at what? I’m just out running an errand.”

“Son, I’m asking you what you are good at!” She stepped in closer. “She’s crying and I don’t know what to do!”

She suddenly looked angry. What in heaven’s name is going on, I wondered. “Well, if you are worried about her, maybe you should call the police.”

“She’s in a house I’ve never been in and I don’t have a phone! Please just come with me!”

“Ma’am, I’m very sorry, but I need to get going.”

She looked angry, then disappointed, then sad as I started my car, backed out, and began to pull away. A hundred scenarios flashed through my head. Was she trying to get me into the house so I could be mugged? Was she suffering from dementia and having an episode? Was there really a mystery girl next door crying in a house?

I drove past the woman and pulled out onto the small road next to the parking lot. One house down, I slowed the car. There was a girl sitting on the front porch in her early twenties, looking unkempt, in a white tank top and Capris. She had headphones in her ears and mussed hair. She looked up at me as I drove by slowly, her eyes streaked with tears, and we briefly made eye contact. She flipped me off as I drove by.

What just happened?

I pictured myself presenting to my college class later this week, as an ethical scenario. I teach social workers, all working on a masters in the field, and I enjoy presenting unorthodox scenarios and picking their brains. Was it ethically sound for me as a professional who upholds a license and a duty to help others to drive away from this old woman and crying adult? I could open the topic for discussion, but my students would already know my answer. In my office, it is my job to help those who are in front of me, but I was out on the street as a civilian. I need boundaries, and I’m not expected to put myself in potentially dangerous situations. Calling the authorities would be sufficient in the worst scenarios, and in this case I don’t have enough information to even do that.

When I first entered the field of social work, I was surprised by how often strangers and family members would solicit me for advice.

“I think my husband is cheating on me, what should I do?”

“My daughter’s friend said that her daddy touches her sometimes and I don’t know what that means, but he gives me the creeps. Should I call Child Protection? What do I do?”

“I’ve been having flashbacks to my brother’s suicide, what does that mean?”

Even worse are the date therapy sessions. Meeting a guy for the first time and having those awkward conversations about where you grew up, who is in your family, and what you do for a living.

“I’m a clinical social worker.”

“Oh, really? I have a counselor. I’ve had one for years, in fact. After my dad left when I was a kid and my mom married a guy who later went to jail, I attempted suicide and sometimes I still think about it.”

I have a tremendous amount of compassion and I like helping others, but not at the expense of myself, and not on a date. Extending too much of myself leads to a little thing called compassion fatigue, a fancy way of saying burnout. I care too much for too many and too little for myself, and suddenly instead of helping a few people a lot I only get to help a lot of people a little. And I go home exhausted.

I sometimes have friends who worry about being able to confide in me about their struggles. But that’s different. In a reciprocal friend relationship, I can rely on others just as they rely on me. If we hang out three times a month and you are having a bad day, sure, call me up and let’s chat. But if I haven’t seen you in five years and you call for advice on your estranged mother, well, I’ve got a little less to offer.

It must be worse for nurses and doctors.

“Is it normal for this to be this purple/stiff/dry/swollen? Could you take a look?”

So, to the old lady and the crying girl who randomly crossed my path this morning, I hope the help you need. You just won’t get it from me.

Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide

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Sally Ride loved science more than anything.

And when her parents fostered a sense of purpose in her, during her upbringing primarily in California, Sally knew could do anything she wanted, at a time when many women did not realize their potential. In fact, after she made history by being the first American woman in space (two Soviet women beat her to it), she devoted decades of her life afterwards to inspiring middle school age girls to love and be inspired by science.

And when Sally recognized that girls are vastly under-represented in the fields of science (including math and engineering), she realized that 13 year old boys who get a C in science are told they can grow up to be anything, and that 13 year old girls who get an A in science are encouraged to be nurses and housewives.

And when Sally herself realized she was willing to live up to nothing less than her potential, while hitting tennis rackets on a nearly professional level, she put herself through college, excelling in a field dominated by  men.

And when NASA, after decades, finally opened up its recruitment to women, Sally applied, and moved to Texas to train as an astronaut. She worked tirelessly, using her analytical brain to solve complex problems, practicing for untold hours until she was skilled and it all made sense.

And when Sally was selected to be the first woman from the program to launch, she herself became an international celebrity, something she was quite unready for. In fact, Sally was a very private person. She had never even told her husband Steve, at the time, about being a lesbian, about falling in love with a woman in college. For, like so many others, it took her time to sort out her feelings from the expectations of her culture.

And when, for months before and after the launch, Sally endured exhausting questions from reporters: What makeup will you wear in space and If the pressure gets to be too much, will you just weep and They are working you so hard, you have no choice but to submit, I guess it is like being raped, you might as well just lay back and enjoy it and do you worry that the flight will harm your reproductive organs, and Johnny Carson made jokes about her bra on television, and Billy Joel immortalized her name in the song We Didn’t Start the Fire, tucking her smoothly in between Wheel of Fortune and heavy metal, suicide in his complicated lyrics, Sally smiled, nodded, quipped back, and asked the reporters why they weren’t asking these same questions to the male astronauts on her team, a team of equals.

And when Sally received her NASA uniform, she had the tag read, simply, Sally, not Ride or Dr. Ride, just Sally. 

And when Sally chose to be an astronaut, and her sister chose to be a minister, Sally’s mother joked that at least one of her daughters would make it to Heaven.

And when the Challenger exploded, and later the Columbia, Sally worked tirelessly until she found out why, exposing corruption within the industry that had resulted in the deaths of her peers.

And when Sally fell in love with Tam O’Shaughnessy, a beautiful and independent woman she had met years before, she quietly left her husband and moved in, telling no one, even her family.

And when Sally got cancer far too young, she suffered quietly, telling no one except her closest loved ones until the very end. And when Tam planned a memorial for Sally, and wondered how she should define their relationship, Sally thoughtfully considered coming out of the closet finally, but worried about its impact on NASA.

And when Sally died at age 61, and Tam told the world about their decades long relationship finally, the critics came out of the woodwork. The homophobic were outraged that a lesbian was such a public name. And among the LGBT community, they berated Sally for not coming out as a gay icon years before. And Sally’s family grieved on their own terms.

And when Sally’s name was used on scholarships and elementary schools and even a mountain range on the moon, Sally must have smiled, somewhere somehow.

Because Sally Ride loved science more than anything.

 

We are Miracles, All

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One of the great lessons I have learned as a therapist, hearing human stories from every age and perspective, is simple:

In any given moment, we are as authentic as we know how to be. And the only moment we have is this one.

Picture a piece of string, fixed to one wall and stretched to the other.

This is your life. One small strand, whether you live to be 2 or 102.

We have a certain amount of control over that life span, with healthy living choices and self-preservation. Yet we are very fragile creatures, subject to injury and disease and depression, and sometimes to the poor or violent decisions of others.

And that timeline string follows rules. You can only move chronologically along it, from left to right, like flowing water. Each moment you exist feels real and vibrant and full with whatever you are feeling and experiencing. And then another moment goes by and the one you were living becomes memory, for now you are living another.

Along this timeline, we can look back at what has passed, viewing it from our present. And we can look forward with wonder or dread, also from our present. But even those moments of reflection and wonder are quickly replaced by another.

And so we face each moment with the amount of authenticity we are equipped with at that exact moment.

When I was five, and I sat in the driveway at my house feeling like my world was going to end because my mom went to the store without me… well, that’s easy to smile about now, but at that time, the pain was intense and real.

And when I was thirteen and my face broke out in terrible acne, and I looked at myself in the mirror with horror and anguish, that was real.

And when I was twenty-two and felt overwhelmed by college finals mixed with a full-time job and mounting bills and religious obligations, and I felt I would crack, that was real.

And when I was thirty and held my oldest child, newly born, in my arms for the first time, and my heart expanded to twelve times the size, and I felt elation and fear and responsibility and love beyond anything I had ever known, that was real.

And when I was thirty-four and I dropped off the divorce papers to the courts, and I grieved my marriage and my faith deeply while looking forward with steadfastness and strength and resolve and hope, that was real.

And now I’m thirty-seven, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop, and it’s cold and dark outside, and a policewoman sits next to me looking weary, and my coffee is luke warm, and my soul feels inspired, and… well, this moment is real as well.

I have been through some terrible things in my lifetime. We all have. It’s part of the human condition. I have ached and cried and hurt and struggled. And I have been through some wonderful things in my lifetime. We all have. It’s part of the human condition. I have rejoiced and basked and thrilled and sang.

And each and every one of those moments are moments that I have lived, authentically. And each of them has passed, as they will continue to do so until my timeline is complete, and I know not when that will be.

And the end of life, people say the same things, lessons learned with full perspective: that we should live for the now, that we should live without regrets, that we should be ourselves and be true to ourselves, that we should embrace our loved ones and spend time with our friends, that we should travel and love and dance and climb.

No one, with perspective, wishes they had spent more time in pain, more time grieving losses, more time surrounding themselves with those that do not love them, more time in debt or disease or obesity or anguish or abuse.

We must, simply put, lean ourselves toward love.

I have had times in my life where I felt I wasn’t worthy of love, happiness, or peace. I felt burdened down by financial expectations or weight or religious requirements or relationship responsibilities or physical constraints. And there will always be things to hold us back. It takes a very careful balance to find love and peace for the beings we are, and to work on changing and amending our beings toward happier realities over time.

For if it took me four years to put on eighty pounds, it will certainly take me more than four days to lose it. I can’t erase tens of thousands of debts overnight. If I have suffered from heavy depression for years, it may take several months to get used to feeling hope and joy again. If I have hurt others with my choices, it will take time to reestablish trust. And if I have lost a loved one, a period of grief is necessary for healing.

The quest to find ourselves in a happy present is a noble, difficult journey. And once the present is found, we have to continue finding it, for it is always new.

But oh, what a worthy journey, when we find ourselves on new horizons with the sun on our skins and the air in our lungs, for we are miracles, all.

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Dear Mormon leaders,

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I don’t plan to send this letter, but I’m writing it just the same. I won’t send it, because I already know what your response will be: no response at all.

I spent my childhood, adolescence, and much of my adult life believing that you had my best interests at heart. I have the same story that you must have heard hundreds of thousands of times by now. I knew I was different from other boys from the time I was five years old, I knew to hide it by seven, and I started getting teased about it at 10. While all of you were (presumably) learning how to like girls and what that meant for you, I was learning how NOT to like boys, how to form a part of myself deep down inside that no one could know about.

I don’t blame you for any of that, of course, that is just how society treats gay people. But here’s the part where you are to blame, where you hurt me: you created and backed up church policies that taught the contradictory doctrine that God loves his children and creates them in His image, yet he doesn’t create gay or transgender people. You published books that taught me that being gay was being selfish, was not trying hard enough, was a crime against nature, was an abomination, was wrong. You taught me how to be ashamed of who I am in God’s eyes, and perhaps worse, you taught me that I could cure it, if I just tried and kept trying.

And so I spent days in prayer and fasting, nights and mornings on my knees pleading, wasted energy in public service. I asked for blessings, I served in every calling, I was faithful and true, I served a mission, I was unfaltering in my resolve. And every General Conference, I would tune in with open heart and ears, hoping beyond hope that there would be guidance from God on how I could live with myself, hoping I would finally fit in and belong, feel that God loved me.

What I didn’t know is that my story is the story of hundreds of thousands of other gay and lesbian Mormons, and it is even harder out there for the transgender Mormons, the ones whose spirits don’t match their bodies, and the ones who are made to believe they can’t even exist. No answers came, not ever. And worse, no compassion. Only calls to repentance.

Because I was raised this way, because I was made to believe I was broken, I never held hands with or kissed another person until I was 26 years old. I married a woman and we had children. I went to therapy. I did everything I was told, and I was a shell of a person, empty and broken and bleeding and pleading. My entire life.

And there was no light from God, no compassion, no love. I began to hear of other gay Mormons out there, excommunicated for being homosexual, being told to marry someone of the opposite gender, being sent to reparative therapy camps where they would be abused. I heard about the Proclamation on the Family, Church’s stance in Proposition 8, and I heard about the suicides that resulted after both. Dozens upon dozens of bodies that were broken and bleeding like me until they couldn’t do it any longer. A mass grave of God’s LGBT children, dead because of the words you spoke.

And now, I am no longer a member of your organization.  I finally accepted myself for who I am. It was like coming up for air after years of holding my breath. I finally felt what it meant to kiss someone, to hold hands, to feel whole. I finally understood that God loved me, once I realized the words you speak are not the truth. I was, quite literally, born again, my baptism and rebirth made possible only through leaving your organization.

I now reside in Salt Lake City, just blocks from where you meet, from where you make decisions and policies that impact the lives of my loved ones and community and family. Though I am not a member of your church, I see and feel the pain you cause in the hearts of LGBT members around the world, and the wedges you drive into families. Every few weeks, there is some cold and painful new announcement from your mouths, or from your offices, that sends furious winds across the lands, and every time there are those who are like I was, silently suffering and hoping beyond hope that you will show your love instead of your disdain.

I grew up with an abusive step-father. Much of the time, he would just ignore the fact that I existed. Then he would get violent, with flung fists and objects, ugly and painful words. And then, on rare occasions, every once in a while, he would do something just a tiny bit kind, and I would light up and think that he loved me again. Days later, the cycle of ignoring and abuse would start all over again.

And it dawns on me, that this is you. This is how you treat your LGBT members. You ignore them most of the time, then you are cruel and spiteful and mean. You use penalties and punishments, lay out impossible expectations, give poor counsel, and throw around harsh words like apostate and sinner and abomination. And then, from time to time, you will say or do something just a tiny bit kind and everyone will hope beyond hope that at last you are changing, at last you will show love. Then the cycle of ignoring and abuse starts all over again.

And yet the thing that makes me most furious? Only the merest shred of kindness on your parts is needed to save lives. No dramatic change or reversal in policy is necessary, no temple acceptance. All it would take for you to save lives would be just a few words of kindness.

Elder Nelson or Elder Oaks or President Monson, any of you, standing up and saying, “My dear brothers and sisters, those of you who are gay and lesbian and bisexual and especially transgender, we want you to know that God loves you and he wants you to be happy. You are welcome in our wards and worship services. We love you and we want you to be part of us. We are so sorry for any pain our actions have caused. Please, never never think of harming yourselves. We love you and are here to help.”

A few words and hearts would heal. Lives would be saved. Families would be reunited.

Men, there is blood on your hands. Every time a Mormon mother throws out her lesbian teenage daughter into the streets, it is on your hands. Every time a young transgender boy cries himself to sleep, praying for God to make him a girl inside, it is on your hands. Every time a gay man takes a woman to the temple, promising to love her forever yet knowing he can’t, it’s on your hands. Every time a council of men gathers to excommunicate a member of their ward for daring to find love in the arms of someone of the same gender, it’s on your hands.

And every time a 15 year old child wraps a rope around his neck and hangs himself from a closet rod because he believes God didn’t love him enough, it is on your heads.

You claim to speak for God, and you deliver words of hatred. If you could look your own children and grandchildren in the eyes as they sob, and tell them, “I speak for God. You are broken. He loves you, just try harder to change. Anything else is a sin. Try harder.” If you can do that… well, I can’t imagine how the spirit of God you strive for could possibly dwell in you.

I could never look into the eyes of my sons and see anything but a miracle. Not something to be fixed or amended, but a perfect child who deserves every ounce of happiness in the world.

You who are men. White, elderly men. You who are retired fathers and grandfathers, men who wait for years for seniority appointments into the roles of apostles and prophets. You who speak in the name of God to millions of his children here on the Earth. You who say that you don’t, you can’t make mistakes; and that if you do, they are the mistakes of men, not of God. You who hold the powers of life and death in your hands.

If you see dead teenagers and broken marriages and parents disowning their children and pain in the hearts of your LGBT Saints as acceptable collateral damage in your quest to enforce your views of the laws of God, well, then, I want no part of the God you believe in. The God I believe in is one of love.

I won’t send you this letter because I know it will be met with silence.

A few words of kindness and compassion from you is all it would take.

Brethren, people are dying. Children are dying. And it’s on you. The blood of children is on your hands.

first-presidency

Boys will be boys

original_Stu-Ungar

“Boys will be boys,” parents say, to excuse skinned knees, black eyes, broken windows, and bad smells.

“Boys will be boys,” school officials say, to explain absences, aggressive behavior, and drug and alcohol use.

“Boys will be boys,” wives say, to quiet doubts about late evenings at work, lipstick smudges, raised voices, and household budgets.

“Boys will be boys,” the courts say, to dismiss drug offenses, sexual assaults, and domestic violence.

And in this boy-loving culture, where boys fill the seats of court stands, elected offices, church leadership positions, and chief executive officers, the boys are excused, the bad behavior overlooked and shrugged off. Because, after all, boys couldn’t possibly help their very nature. They are driven toward aggression, sex, and conquest, and it simply can’t be avoided. In fact, boys who aren’t driven toward those things are aberrant and less valuable.

And thus, the politicians go to war over oil and debt and revenge, and millions are killed, while human atrocities are ignored, rape and famine seen as the natural consequences of male behavior. And the fathers smile at their sons, pat them on the back, tell them “I’m so proud of you.”

And this was the world in which Stu Ungar was raised in. Stu, often called “the Kid” affectionately, lived from 1953 to 1998. Stu’s father, Ido, had a wife and a child when he started his bookie business, paying off all those he needed to to keep the cops and the mafia off his back. Ido soon left his wife for one of his mistresses, Fay, a beautiful socialite who liked a lot of attention. But that’s okay for Ido, because boys will be boys.

Fay had two children, and the oldest, Stuey, had an aptitude early on for cards, realizing that a mix of skill in the game and a capability of reading people lead to victory every time. Using contacts from his father’s business, Stuey played a lot of cards and won a lot of money, shirking school to do so, because boys will be boys.

After Ido died, Fay sunk into drugs and depression, and Stuey found a new mentor in Victor Romano, a made mafia man, one who had memorized the entire dictionary during his lengthy prison sentence. Romano got Stuey involved in mafia-led card games of Pinochle, Poker, and Gin Rummy, giving him protection and women and money for as long as he kept winning for them, because boys will be boys.

And as Stuey watched men around him die and disappear in mafia hits, he racked up debts, more than he could pay off, so he ran to Las Vegas to try and make more money. Without a drivers license or a Social Security card, and having never worked for a wage, Stuey drifted from game to game, winning vast sums then losing every dollar within hours, over and over and over, for years, because boys will be boys.

And then Stuey started cheating on his wife, leaving her home with his daughter and stepson and using drugs, disappearing for weeks at a time. But he was great at poker and began winning world championships, and he was celebrated, lauded, and honored, because boys will be boys.

And when Stuey’s stepson committed suicide by hanging himself at a construction site, Stuey grieved by gambling and snorting cocaine, until his nasal cavity finally collapsed in on itself, because boys will be boys.

And when Stuey was found dead at 45, in a hotel room, from a drug overdose, everyone shrugged at the sadness, because boys will be boys.