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.)

 

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Naked, with grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

“Cause ew.”

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

“I don’t want to see that!”

“And yet you see it every day.”

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

“Hmm.” I responded.

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

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

She laughed louder. “Stop it!”

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

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

I non-chalantly sipped. “This morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed harder. “I fucking love you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Self-disclosed

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

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

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

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

self

“I felt you weren’t listening.”

“You were too tough on me.”

“You weren’t tough enough on me.”

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

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

“You were too critical of my life choices.”

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

“You aren’t competent enough in _____.”

“You shared too much about yourself.”

“You are too closed off.”

And on and on.

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

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

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

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

A few examples of self-disclosure follow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the One Who Was Cheated On…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You were hurt.

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

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

Seattle Part 11: Resignation

February, 2015

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

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

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

“Can you tell me why?”

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

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

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

“It’s more than that, isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Bank Robbers

Bankrobber

The scariest bank robber I ever came across wore a mask and carried a gun. I never met him personally, but I saw the pictures. He wore a Halloween mask (not unlike the one in the picture above, which was worn by an actual bank robber in Pennsylvania a few years back) and he entered the bank aggressively, brandishing his weapon.

The man in this particular robbery hit at least two banks in Salt Lake City, a few years ago. He walked into both banks arrogantly, careful not to touch anything, and he pointed the gun at the helpless tellers, demanding money. He knew what he was doing. He asked for cash from secondary drawers, knew to demand no trackers, and brought in his own bags. He climbed behind the counter and pointed his gun at people’s heads, even into their mouths, promising to come back and hurt them if he was caught. He was gone in less than a few minutes and fled.

Of course, the police caught him, but it took them a little bit of time. The aggression of his actions, with a weapon and threats, escalated the crime to the highest levels with nearly maximum sentences. Bank-robbing is federal crime automatically, but using a weapon and delivering threats escalate the crime, though taking hostages, or hurting or killing someone, would obviously result in a more severe sentencing.

As a clinical social worker, I’ve worked the last 15 years doing crisis response work, on the side from my professional business. Though I’m self-employed, I make myself available to businesses who have been impacted by crises. Tragic employee deaths, suicides, corporate downsizings, industrial accidents, and, yes, bank robberies. Bank robberies, over the years, have been the most frequent crisis I get called out to. At this point, I’ve been to the sites of dozens of them (they happen more often than what people think), and I usually arrive just after the FBI has left). All of them are traumatic in their own way, and it is impossible to walk out of one of them emotionally unscathed.

But this man, this selfish, scary, arrogant man in a mask, he spent two minutes trying to get some quick cash, and then he lost everything, facing decades in jail. But for those he hurt, those half dozen people that he threatened and frightened, for them, this experience lasts forever. He never saw them, he only aimed the gun and then ran. He didn’t see them as humans. He didn’t realize that one of tellers would later break off her relationship with her fiancee because she couldn’t handle the nightmares, that one of the men would turn to alcohol to avoid the flashbacks he was having from the war, that an older single mother would quit her job because it was too scary to return, or the young man who suddenly couldn’t get the image out of his head about how his father used to beat him. The robber didn’t realize that some of them would be forever altered by this.

Most bank robberies aren’t this abrupt or violent. Often the robber is quiet, quick, or even apologetic. They are sometimes under the influence of drugs, or mentally ill, or just plain desperate. They might stand in line like a regular customer, walk up to the counter, calmly, and pass a note. They may or may not imply that they have a weapon in their pockets, a gun up their sleeve, or even, as one robber pretended, a bomb strapped to his chest under his shirt. They might simply rush out of the store as quickly as possible. One robber I’m aware of hung out in the bank branch for nearly thirty minutes, stating he was waiting for someone, before he finally handed his note over.

Bank robbery notes themselves are fascinating. Some are short and direct. “THIS IS A ROBBERY! PUT ALL THE MONEY IN A BAG AND DON’T SAY ANYTHING TO ANYONE!” Some are apologetic. “I’m so sorry to have to do this, but my family is starving. Please give me $2000 in twenties and tens as fast as possible. And don’t call the police!” And some fill an entire page with detailed instructions. “This is a robbery. Do not call the police. Do not signal anyone for help. There is a gun in my left pocket. Before you read any further, raise your left hand in the air to indicate understanding, but do not look up at me. After raising your hand, I want you to take the bag I am placing on the counter and then…” The notes might be legible in lined blue ink, monstrous scrawls in black marker, or even pre-typed on carbon paper.

Bank employees go through a rigorous training in order to work in banking institutions. They learn protocols for how to handle it. They are taught to remember as much as possible, to comply with all possible requests, to focus on safety first, and to get the robber out of there as fast as possible. They are told not to argue, to keep their voices calm, and to call the police in a calm manner afterward, giving them all the details possible. But no amount of training can prepare you for the moment a man (they are almost always men) comes in with a note, an implied weapon, and a threat. Adrenaline kicks in, trauma is triggered, and the heart rises in the throat, and sticking to the training is not always easy.

Immediately after the robbery takes place, the bank tellers have to notify the police and authorities, check on the customers who have been impacted, shut down the branch, and then write down everything they remember. They have to be interviewed by the FBI agents who arrive, provide descriptions and details, make camera footage available. This can take hours, and generally they don’t have a chance to even call their families before that is over. Regardless of whether they are angry, scared, anxious, panicked, numb, or triggered, they have to follow these protocols. And then they have to deal with the trauma for the following days.

Imagine going home to your car after a robbery and having to drive home. Imagine getting home and facing your family. Imagine closing your eyes for sleep that night, images flashing in your brain as you wonder if you locked the door or not. Imagine having to walk back into the bank branch the next morning to start the new shift, all over again. Imagine checking the news repeatedly to see if the police have caught the guy yet. Imagine worrying every time that you leave your branch that your coworkers might get robbed while you are gone.

I enter banks differently now. I view the tellers, young and old, with new respect. They aren’t paid well, and often don’t have a lot of support, yet the put themselves into these dangerous situations generally because they love customer service and they are dedicated employees. Sitting with them in the roughest moments, after their traumas, is difficult, but it is my supreme honor.

the Licensing Board

FBI

“Hi, Chad, I’m Fred Hill, from the FBI.”

I shook the agent’s hand, confused. “O-kay, Mr. Hill, how can I help you?”

“Well, first, why don’t you take a seat.”

He indicated a hard-back chair across the table from him. We were in a conference room at my workplace at the Department of Children and Family Services, where I had been working for the past year in my first post-college job after getting my Masters degree in Social Work. It was an incredibly stressful job. I was living in north Idaho and being paid minimally to work in an extremely high stress environment, trying hard to get children reunited with the birth parents they had been taken from for one reason or another. I was constantly stressed out and losing sleep, and could feel my hair going prematurely grey. In my capacity as a DCFS worker, I had met with policemen, judges, attorneys, guardians, parents, teachers, therapists, medical professionals, and probation and parole officers in this room, but this was the first time I’d met an FBI agent. I automatically assumed he was here regarding one of the teenage kids I represented for the state. A few of them had a penchant for getting into major trouble from time to time.

“Chad, it has come to my attention that you recently took a licensing exam for your professional licensure with the state of Idaho, is that correct?”

I furrowed my brow in confusion. “Yes. About a month ago. I barely passed the exam. I got a 72, the passing score being 70. I’d taken the exam once previously and didn’t pass, getting a 68. ”

The idea of the exam itself still put giant knots in my stomach. It cost hundreds of dollars and was a four hour test. I’d had a 3.9 GPA in college, yet this impossible exam with its subjective and misleading questions filled me with anxiety. Not passing it meant waiting months to take it again, paying full price each time, and it directly influenced my ability to be hired. It was like the Bar exam for attorneys, except much less stressful and for social workers.

“Yes, I had those facts already.” The agent consulted some notes, then looked up. “It appears you are being charged with potentially undermining the integrity of the exam itself. Pardon me, not charged. Accused.”

My heart started thudding. “Accused of undermining–I’m sorry, what?”

“It seems you might have cheated to pass the test.” His eyes were on mine, searching. Only later would I realize that he was watching closely for my reaction to his accusation, seeing if I looked guilty or not.

I was flabbergasted. “What are you talking about? I barely passed it!”

The agent explained that there were allegations by the testing center that I had compromised sensitive testing materials. The exam had been held by an independent testing center in Spokane, Washington, at the local community college. I had had to sign up weeks in advance. On the day of the test, I’d arrived early, checked in all of my things, and been shown into the testing room where it was just me and a computer, with four hours to answer the multiple choice questions. During the test, I was given two sheets of scratch paper and a pen, and those were the only tools I was allowed to use. I’d been allowed one ten minute break during the test. During the long, anxiety-ridden test, I had made random notes of words and numbers on the scratch paper, and during the break, I’d placed those random scribblings in my pocket while I’d gone to the restroom. I’d been out of the room approximately seven minutes.

“Upon reviewing the video footage of your test, we noticed that you removed the papers from the room. I was brought in to look at the results and determine if you did or did not cheat. I represent the testing agency in this region.”

My head was pounding with stress and confusion. “Wait, my random scribbles on a page–in the bathroom–how would I have cheated?”

He shrugged. “Maybe you showed the notes to a friend. Maybe you had a fax machine or a cell phone ready.”

“That’s ridiculous! Every exam has randomly assigned questions in a random order! How would I have possibly cheated! What good would those scribblings do anyone?”

“Mr. Anderson, it was against the rules to remove those papers from the room itself.”

“I just went to the bathroom!”

“Yet you removed those papers. Did you or did you not know it was against the rules?”

“I–sure, I guess so. But I wasn’t thinking about that then. I had to pee, and I was full of anxiety. How would I have helped anyone cheat?”

The agent’s voice lowered and he asked me several more questions. He told me he would need a written statement from me, and stated that I might wish to consult with an attorney first. I told him that one was absolutely unnecessary, and filled out a lengthy statement right then. Weeks later, the agent told me that my candor and unwavering statements confirmed to him that I wasn’t suspicious and helped him believe my story that nothing illegal had happened. I’d made a mistake in following rules, but that he believed it was accidental.

Two weeks after his visit, I lost my job. It was illegal for the state to keep me employed without a license. Tw months after that, the state board of social workers met to review my case and, determining I had done nothing wrong, finally issued my professional license. Ultimately, this series of events left me briefly unemployed, and then finally hired by a different agency as a therapist, an entirely different career track than the one I had been on, and one that I found paid better and was intensely less stressful.

That was 2005. It’s now 2017, and I’ve been operating as a fully licensed professional for over 12 years. As part of my professional responsibilities, I supervise a group of recently graduated social workers who are preparing to take their licensing exams. At that time in my life, that was the scariest thing that had ever happened to me. Now, this story gives me one hell of a cautionary tale to tell.

Healing

healing.jpg

Healing from something means you never quite heal. In order to heal, there is a recognition and an acceptance that damage has been done and futures have been altered, and then there must be a slow and deliberate choice to walk forward from the events that caused pain. Healing means realizing that you have been hurt and that you will never be okay again, while simultaneously realizing that you are definitely okay, and that the sun continues to rise as the Earth continues to rotate.

For example, when I work with victims of abuse, I see them using all kinds of tactics to avoid the pain they feel from it. They can tell themselves that what happened to them wasn’t as bad as what has happened to others, making it easier to push their own pain away. They can focus on taking care of the needs of others to avoid their own needs. They can drown their pain in work, or alcohol, or co-dependent relationships, or religion. They can scream and rage at the world for not giving them an easier break after what they have been through. They can learn to hide in plain sight. But none of these are healing, and all of them can go on for a lifetime.

As a therapist, I’m astounded at how often victims of abuse come forward, much later in their lives. Rarely do I hear stories of violent sexual assaults, instead I hear stories of coercive date rape, of fathers convincing their sons to do special favors or visiting their daughter’s rooms after mom has fallen asleep, of babysitters who took advantage while parents are gone. And the younger the child at the onset of abuse, the longer the duration of the abuse, and the greater the severity of the abuse… well, the more impactful the damage seems to be.

I myself am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a male family member. As a child, when these events took place, I had no context to understand what had happened or why it was a problem. But years later, when I approached adolescence and began experiencing sexual attraction, and I realized my attractions were toward men, I began to realize how impactful the abuse had been. I reasoned internally for many years that the reason that I was gay was because I had been abused, and that reinforced my religion’s principles that homosexuality was something that could be cured. I learned to avoid pain through helping others, through work and school achievements, and through religious devotion.

I told my family about the abuse in a rather dramatic moment on a Sunday afternoon over dinner. I was in trouble for something trivial, like dropping my fork, and my step-father snapped at me, and I snapped back that maybe he should go easier on me because of what I had been through as a kid. It was a bombshell, and I’d rushed off to my room, but just a few days later, everyone stopped asking questions and stopped talking about it. It became the big family secret, at least it felt that way, a thing that was known but never to be discussed.

Years later, while I was a Mormon missionary, struggling with crippling depression over my inability to stop being gay through church service, I began journaling about my abuse for the first time. I wrote down everything that happened. I had vivid flashbacks to that time in my life. I checked out books from the library about healing from abuse, and I kept them hidden from my companions so that they wouldn’t know what I was reading. Over time, I grew to separate out the abuse from the other areas of my life. My being abused, for example, had nothing to do with me being gay, yet it did negatively impact my feelings about being gay. I did a lot of crying at the time, and then I put my journals away and kept them there for years longer.

And then, in my mid-20s, I started going to therapy. I wasn’t ready to come out of the closet yet, but I was ready to heal from that portion of my childhood. I told my stories about what happened, I learned how they had impacted me, and I learned that I would never quite heal from them. As my therapist at the time vividly put it, “You are never going to wake up one day and say ‘I’m so glad this happened to me!’, but you can wake up every day and say ‘That sucked. What happened to me was horrible. And I’m okay. I’m living life on my terms, and I survived, and I’m okay.” I learned not to compare my abuse to the abuse of others, but just to let my story stand on its own. I learned to recognize the impact it had on my development. I learned to embrace myself with whatever I was feeling, be it scared or furious or devastated, and I learned how to feel the feelings and decide what to do with them in healthy ways, rather than avoiding them or pushing through them with unhealthy habits.

I received a surprise phone call from my mother yesterday. She and I talk nearly every day, but this time she had a different tone in her voice. She told me she had come across some photos of me as a child, and she’d been thinking about that day at the dinner table when I told everyone I had been abused. She apologized, sincerely and sweetly, for not being there for me at the time, for not getting me into counseling then or at least asking me what had happened and how it had impacted me. We had a long conversation about things, and I told her that I accepted her apology, and that it was beautiful of her to offer it. And I told her that, these days, I give little thought to the abuse itself. It changed me, it altered me, and I’m not happy about it. It still makes me feel gross and in pain when I remember it. But I’m doing fine, and I’ve created a wonderful life for myself. I help others with their healing. I’m a good person who is working hard to make a difference in the world. I have love and light, people that I love and people who love me. And I’m a father.

And that conversation led me to thinking about my children, one turning nine soon and one newly six, and I realize that I was that small when abuse was happening to me. And the sharp jab I get from that realization teaches me once again that I’ll never be okay from all of that, and that, once again, I’m completely okay. I’m okay because I let myself feel the pain, and I choose what to do with it. And I choose to help.

And that, for me, is healing.

Repressed Memories

Brain.jpg

“So I have this client who thinks that something might have happened to her when she was a kid. She wonders if she might have been abused or something, but she doesn’t have any specific memories.”

I nodded. “Okay, and is that something you are exploring in therapy?”

The clinician I was supervising tapped his pen against the pad of paper, collecting his thoughts. “I’ve been looking into it some. If there are repressed memories, it seems there are a number of ways to discover them and heal from them. Hypnosis can work, dream journals seem to help, regular meditation. I’m just not sure that I’m all that equipped to help her. I’m brand new in this field.”

“The operative word in your previous paragraph? If.”

I watched him write the word IF on his paper. “If. If there are repressed memories.”

“Right. She doesn’t know if there are or not. If there are repressed memories then hypnosis and those other methods might help. If there aren’t?”

“Then there wouldn’t necessarily be anything there. Okay, interesting.”

I let him collect his thoughts, then began asking questions. “So the first thing to wonder, why does she think she might have repressed memories?”

He smiled, enthusiastic. “I actually asked her that question. She had a decent childhood, so far as she remembers, but some traumatic stuff happened to her later on. Now she is realizing there are blank patches in her childhood memories, so that leads her to wonder if something bad happened and her subconscious mind blanked it out.”

“Okay, good job exploring that with her. There certainly could be repressed memories. In times of trauma, for adults or kids but particularly for kids, the brain can enter a mode where the person shuts down for a while or where they kind of leave their own body in order to survive. There are also times when the brain can hide or omit memories from the consciousness as they would be too disturbing to the person. When those memories show up, it can be in the form of flashbacks or panic attacks, and it usually happens after something triggers the trauma memories, or, ironically, the memories can show up during times of safety, when everything feels comfortable and okay for once so the memories are able to finally come to the surface.

“But the key here is she doesn’t know if she has repressed memories. She might and she might not. She’s simply wondering at this point if there might be. During the 1990s, there was a lot of repressed memories topics showing up on talk shows and soap operas, and suddenly everyone was coming forward as having repressed memories. It became kind of a craze. But wondering if something bad might have happened in childhood, or even wondering if more memories should be there where there aren’t any, that doesn’t mean there is any evidence of repression.

“Of course, it also doesn’t mean that there isn’t.”

The clinician clicked his pen in frustration. “So what do I tell her to do?”

I smiled, knowing this would annoy him. “What’s the first question we always ask ourselves?”

He rolled his eyes. “‘What is my role here?'”

“And your role in this case?”

“Is as her therapist.”

“So what is your job regarding this?”

“My job is to help her meet her goals. We are working on getting through depression and PTSD.”

“Right. So your job is to help her talk about it. Which you are already doing. Help her talk about her trauma, about why she thinks she might have oppressed memories, about her actual childhood memories. Then explore with her the options of other treatment methods if she feels they can help. There is hypnosis, there are mindfulness groups, there are dream journals. All of those take effort, time, and money, and she can pursue any of them that she wants to. But regardless, your job is to be there with her, week to week, whenever she is in front of you and needs help.”

“Okay, right, but are repressed memories an actual thing? Is that something you have come across?”

I moved my tongue along the inside of my cheek for a moment, thinking of the best way to answer. “Well, yeah. But it isn’t as simple as all that. Trauma can impact a person in a myriad of ways. It can show up as anxiety, as depression, as apathy. It can result in withdrawing from relationships, in sexual promiscuity, or in crippling fear. We can research trauma for years, but we can never have a clear mapped path that shows its results on a particular person. Even if we understand how a trauma effects someone, that effect can change with age or time or stress. Someone can live with trauma unseen for years and then have it show up much later in life.

“Here, I’ll use a personal example. When I was a kid, I went through a period of sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. For years, I didn’t understand how serious that was. As a kid, I also knew I was different from other kids, but didn’t know what that meant. As an adolescent, when I began to realize I was attracted to boys and not girls, I didn’t have any context to understand this, so in the beginning I automatically assumed that the abuse was causing the attractions, when in fact there were no direct correlations.

“When I was 20, and on my Mormon mission, I hit a slump of pretty low depression. Life was very much routine. I was mugged and knocked unconscious one day, which was its own separate trauma. But something about that particular incident seemed to knock something loose, pun intended. I began getting flashbacks after that back to the abuse from when I was a kid. Full on trauma flashbacks. Like in my brain I was the young kid for a while, then I would come back into my own adult skin. I wrote down everything that was happening, in detail, to get it out of my system, and after a couple of weeks, the flashbacks went away.

“So using that example, we can see the impact of trauma on development, and we could run down the list of trauma symptoms. Yet those symptoms showed up differently in childhood and adolescence than they did in adulthood. And a separate trauma caused me to have flashbacks of my childhood trauma.”

The clinician was scribbling notes. “So would you call those flashbacks that you experienced repressed memories?”

“I wouldn’t, actually. But some could. They were memories that, for whatever reason, I had to relive in order to move on. And they were repressed. But they weren’t forgotten, or omitted by my subconscious. I had no sense that parts of my childhood were missing, yet they were also memories that I avoided completely because they caused me discomfort.”

“Okay, okay.” He underlined something on his paper. “I get it. It’s complicated. We can study the topic, but it’s gonna show up for the individual person in different ways at different times. And my job is to be there with them, talk it over, help them meet their goals and explore their options.”

“Right.”

He gave a deep sigh. “What we do isn’t easy, is it?”

“It most certainly isn’t. But we get to help people who ask for help. And that makes it worth it.”