225. osculate

anxietyFunny how I first learned the word “osculate.”

It was in men’s chorus at Northwestern, the conservative Christian college that I attended and graduated from.

And no, not how you think.

Unfortunately.

If the group was particularly well-behaved and productive in rehearsal (which, given a bunch of college-aged adolescent males, wasn’t very often), the director would promise to read from something referred to as (curiously) the “red book.” Essentially, it was a book of advice from the 1940s to young men on various topics… such as, how to woo girls.

As you might imagine, it was about as bad as advice from the same time period written to young brides. There was a chapter in this book on how to “go in” for the first kiss, and how to overcome any objections the young lady might have.

Because, you know, women are virginal and virtuous, and men are coarse animals who can’t help themselves.

There are two things I can recall about this book, the first being the stilted, unwittingly hilarious, horrific language the author used in basically recommending young men force themselves on women. It went something like: “If she backs away, don’t worry—women are naturally hesitant in these areas… If she tries to push you away, don’t worry… if she starts to claw at your face, start to worry.”

I’m paraphrasing, obviously. But not very much.

The second thing I’ll never forget about those days in men’s chorus, at Northwestern, and of all my growing up years was the intense attractions that I felt towards guys—and the equally intense anxiety of being found out and caught.

There’s enough anxiety around one’s affection being discovered and the fear of being exposed and scorned.

However, it’s a real brain teaser for a young gay man (or woman) to know that one’s romantic affection could get one expelled from school and from an entire community.

So, all this to say, I had a breakthrough a little while ago, thanks again to Hank Green’s Crash Course: Psychology.

“Say someone almost drowned as a kid and is now afraid of water. A family picnic at the river may cause that anxiety to bubble up, and to cope they may stay sequestered in the car, less anxious but probably still unhappy while the rest of the family is having fun.”

Earlier today, I went grocery shopping with my friend Matt. On the way in, I stopped to pick up some course-ground coffee for my French press for an upcoming trip (as I’m not a fan of drinking coffee that I can also chew).

One of the baristas was a young man who I’ve seen there before, and who I’m 99.99% sure bats for my team. (Not so sure, however, which position he plays.) I’m never sure if baristas (who I’m reasonably sure are homos) are actually flirting with me, if they’re being polite, or if they’re trying to get a bigger tip. But this guy was definitely laying on the charm in asking me if I’d done anything fun that day.

When guys flirt with me, especially seemingly out of the blue, it launches an internal monologue that goes like this:

  1. Shit, someone is talking to me!
  2. Wait, is he flirting with me?
  3. Is this guy even gay, or is he just one of those overly friendly straight guys? Because I can’t tell anymore!
  4. Quick, what can I deduce about his cultural and educational background? His hair is styled in one of those dumb faux-hawks. Is he a “club” gay? Will he even understand half of the words I use? Should I switch to one-syllable words? Wait, that’s so incredibly elitist and arrogant, making grand assumptions about someone based on their hair style…
  5. And wait, why would he be flirting with me? Guys don’t flirt with me. Yet, he seems to be flirting with me. Oh god, what do I do? Am I supposed to flirt back? What if he’s not flirting with me after all? Will that make me look desperate? Pathetic?
  6. Shit, he’s talking to me… oh, no, he’s still just waiting for me to respond to the thing he said two seconds ago.

Later, I recounted this experience to my friend Matt and he pointed out that there have been plenty of occasions where I’ve spontaneously come up with something witty or clever to say. So why is it so damned difficult for me to respond to flirts?

In other words, why am I basically Liz Lemon?

Enter Hank Green.

“Anxiety disorders are characterized not only by distressing, persistent anxiety but also often by the dysfunctional behaviors that reduce that anxiety.”

It doesn’t take a PsyD to recognize that my current anxiety about guys is directly caused by those closeted growing-up years. In every interaction with a cute guy, I feared that I might inadvertently say or do something to give away the fact that I was wildly attracted to him, i.e., gay.

If you’ve seen the video of the guy getting beaten up by his bigoted family after they learn he is gay, being outed in a predominantly religious community is a legitimate fear, whether of physical violence or being shunned.

For much of my teenage and adult life, I had to tell myself that acting on my attractions to other men, let alone having a boyfriend, was impossible. And though I’ve been out-gay for some time, there’s still that same unresolved anxiety running like a background app on my phone, draining the battery.

While it leaves me lonely, like the girl who survived drowning only to hide in the car when her family goes to the beach, I unconsciously shut down potential romantic or flirtatious interactions to reduce anxiety.

And, just as my depressed moods have a cause, it’s not that I can’t flirt. There’s just unresolved trauma. Phew!

What to do about it now?

That’s one reason why I’m back in therapy.

224. ethos

Malkovich

A few days ago I was watching a video in Hank Green’s psychology Crash Course on attachment style theories, parenting styles, the development of self-concept, and Kolhberg’s Stages of Morality:

The course has made me remember how much I enjoyed taking psychology classes, and how much I’ve forgotten in the intervening years.

This bit from about the 6:45 mark stirred up some recollections in my thinking space:

“… if one of infancy’s major social achievements is forming positive attachments then one of the biggest achievements in childhood would have to be achieving a positive sense of self. This self-concept (or, an understanding and evaluation of who we are) is usually pretty solid by the time we turn twelve.”

I’m not really sure what my very early years with my parents were like as an infant. I don’t recall my parents being overly distant or hovering. I can recall, as Hank describes in the video, that my parents were certainly authoritarian. There were sometimes reasons given for the rules we had to follow or why we were being punished, but those rules often seemed unfair and even a tad draconian at times.

“… by the time that tot is headed to kindergarten, their self-concept is rapidly expanding.”

Around the time that I turned twelve was around the time that I was figuring out that I was gay. So while my peers were getting settled in their “positive sense of self” as they moved from childhood into adulthood, mine was like to a field constantly being plowed and turned over so that nothing could take root. With every sermon preached on the sanctity of “traditional,” heterosexual marriage (although in those days there was no other kind), and with every winking or cruel remark someone in would unwittingly make about homos, it was gradually, painfully beaten into me that there was no place for me to be me in the world.

And, given the theology that I was raised with, a sense of self had virtually no currency towards a Christian’s future life in Heaven.

“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Romans 6:6)

It wasn’t until I got to public high school that I learned about attachment theory, or self-actualization, or anything that didn’t involve “becoming more like Christ” (1 John 3:2). What I heard growing up was that the chief desire of the Christian should be to literally one day in Heaven have your “earthly” self annihilated so that only Christ remains.

Apotheosis via annihilation. Quelle charmante

It reminds me of one of the weirder sequences in Being John Malkovich where John Malkovich climbs into his own head and everyone looks and sounds like John Malkovich.

Looking back on all of those Sunday school lessons, that’s almost exactly what the process of becoming “Christlike” is.


All that to say, virtually every day that I open Facebook to see the growing children of my friends who have been married going on ten years, and literally every day at home with my housemates, I’m reminded of the reality that I am today where most of them were about 10-15 years ago.

My friends Adam and Jesse who got married earlier this month met around the time that I was finishing college (age 19-20). They’ve been together for fourteen years. At that age, the idea of even being in a relationship with another man was something utterly foreign to me because it wasn’t even possible. One couldn’t be a Christian and be a gay man.

My friends Matt and Jason have been together almost twenty years. My longest relationship is barely 1% as long as that (i.e., nine months). Twenty years ago, I was just starting to figure out my sexual orientation.

So I’m just now starting to do the work at age 31 (well, let’s face it, at this point virtually 32) that most people start doing around age 12—that is, building a “positive sense of self.” And facing this reality is depressing and daunting, and bewildering.

Of course, most people aren’t even aware of the (metaphorical) demons that prevent them from becoming the best versions of themselves. They don’t even know that this is what’s happening to them. They go through life doing what is expected of them… or what they believe is expected of them. They punch the clock. Buy the house. Marry the high school or college sweetheart. Have the kids. Buy the lake cabin. Put the kids through college.

Retire.

Expire.

But I also know some great people who know who they are, what they are capable of and what they want, and aren’t afraid to go after that.

All this is to say that it’s incredibly weird to be in this nether region of being the same age as people who seem to have their lives together (or at least going in a direction) and being nowhere close to having any of that figured out.

“Kids with positive self-images are more happy, confident, independent, and sociable.”

What’s most daunting is that I’m trying to launch this two-pronged attack of getting myself to a place in life where I’m the best possible version of me, while at the same time trying to get over the negative programming that was crammed into my head from practically the time I was born. Because I was given, frankly, a pretty shitty self-concept growing up.

So at the same time as I’m trying to build a healthy self-concept, I’m also trying to build a career and (ideally—not hopefully) find a boyfriend who could possibly become a husband.

Let’s not even go into all of the minefield anxieties that surround that idea…

The bottom line is that, yes, this is a mess, but it’s not an impossible mess to fix. I have a good therapist who works with people from my background on rebuilding their lives.

And I have good friends.

That’s as good a start as any.

223. cacography

Darcy“My good opinion once lost is lost forever.”

This past weekend my friends Adam and Jesse got married. They’ve been together fourteen years, which is a number I can barely grasp as an amount of time spent with one person. Aside from my family, very few of my relationships have lasted even remotely that long.

As expected, the weeks and days leading up to the wedding were difficult, partly because I was putting together all of the music for it, as is often my job. I wrote (and performed) a song for the occasion, something I haven’t done since college, a setting of an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road—”Camerado! I give you my hand.”

It’s tough participating or working on weddings when it seems like it will never happen for me. It’s like someone who works for minimum wage making products that they’ll never be able to afford. Now that I’m past my half birthday and virtually thirty-two years old, it seems even more unlikely that I’ll ever find a boyfriend, let alone one who might someday become a husband…

Weddings are also difficult right now, seeing as one friend after another has been getting into relationships, engaged, or married of late. Relationship statuses change, and friends post pictures of themselves with their partners, seemingly happy, doing things together, participants together in life. Which leads me to wonder if I’m truly living, and what that even looks like. Because it still feels as if I’m picking up the pieces of the remains of my pre-atheist, pre-Seth existence.

A few weeks ago my friend Sarah returned to the States after several months abroad in Europe. Sarah is a fellow graduate of Northwestern College (now the bizarrely re-named “University of Northwestern,” which led a friend of mine to comment: “That’s awfully specific”), and a fellow apostate and ex-fundamentalist.

To make a long story short, at the end of her sojourn abroad, she inadvertently found herself in a relationship with an Austrian fellow who she’d met at the beginning of the year and had been building a friendship with over the course of her travels. I got the whole story at the beginning of the month, and my initial reaction was like this: “How is it that this is so easy for everyone else?” Because it truly feels like my universe is shrinking.

Part of her story was Sarah coming to the realization that her lack of interest in guys was not so much that she wasn’t into guys (or girls) but rather that she hadn’t met anyone on the same level, with whom there was a mutual respect. She likened her relationship to Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

This struck a note with me, as I’ve been feeling similarly adrift, dating-wise. And for a long time I’ve felt like the problem is me, that I’m the one who is broken. Now I’m starting to think that maybe I just shouldn’t be dating American men—at the very least, not Midwestern men.

For me, the “Darcy” comparison seems particularly accurate (aside from not being worth $14 million). If you’re familiar with the novel, our initial impression of him is one of aloofness, coldness, and haughty pride. It’s only later that we discover his depth of feeling, fierce loyalty to family and friends, and the deep insecurity that drives him to keep most everyone away.

Most of my character faults can be traced back to a fear of rejection and failure. At the wedding this weekend, I watched everyone else interacting with a seeming fluidity and natural ease. It always confounds me how most gay men seem to flirt with blithe nonchalance. Of course, that may just be my perception, and that I’m only seeing extroverts.

The reality is that I find it difficult to interact with most American gay men. The stereotypical enjoyment of popular culture and trivial conversation is mostly lost on me. As a friend of mine once observed, I don’t suffer fools. Does that come across as Darcy-like arrogance? Probably. But as an introvert who finds most human company exhausting, I don’t understand the need to fill every moment with noise. That seems to be a defining characteristic of American gay culture.

The sense of dissatisfaction in my dating life up until now seems to come from the lack of any potential romantic partners who I can respect as an equal. That probably doesn’t sound very flattering, which is where the Pride & Prejudice metaphor comes in handy.

Elizabeth is perfect for Darcy because she is a strong, independent-minded woman with her own opinions (contrasted with her sister Jane’s demure, more compliant personality). She stands up to and challenges the men in her life, even supposed authority figures. Like Darcy, she is fiercely loyal to those she loves, to the point of disregarding social proprieties when she walks to Netherfield Park after learning that Jane has fallen ill.

Towards the end of the novel, Elizabeth asks Darcy what attracted him to her when they started as rivals. She suggests: “The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused and interested you, because I was so unlike them.”

And that’s what I’ve failed to find in dating American men—a man who distinguishes himself and challenges me. (There’s also the stunting influence of Puritanism and internalized homophobia, a rant for another time.) American gays seem caught up in the rush of culture, fashion, hookups, and fetishes, and I’m not into any of those things. Whatever happened to the likes of Gore Vidal, Oscar Wilde, Benjamin Britten, or Christopher Isherwood? (They were seemingly replaced by the likes of Perez Hilton and Ru Paul.) That era was no cakewalk and they were all flawed people, but that’s the ilk of man I’d want for a partner.

Now, to find him…

222. abscond

image While trying for the umpteenth time in the last couple of weeks to finish last night’s blog entry, it became clear while lying on the floor of my writing studio that I’m headed downwards into yet another depressive cycle. I’ve known this on a conscious level since probably Sunday, that this is coming, but like a weather forecast I wasn’t 100% sure when the storm was going to make land.

I’ve started keeping a list of topics to write about on the ever-handy Evernote. So after publishing the last entry about revising the narrative about my parents, I tried to start into the next topic on the list.

And all I could do was lie there on the floor, staring at the screen, just wanting to sleep. The thought of putting any more words to paper, of trying to form intelligent, coherent thoughts, felt daunting beyond all imagining.

The last couple of weeks have been good. I’ve had creative energy again; there’s been a lot of good things happening; I’ve been going like a marathon runner from scheduled event to scheduled event. It’s worn on me, but I’ve still felt “up.”

Now, I’m not feeling “up” so much. This is the “down” part of the cycle that inevitably comes around.

This seems especially apropos after the suicide yesterday of Robin Williams. I saw dozens of posts and news articles about his death and how sad and senseless it is.

All I could think when I first heard the news was a kind of sorrowful kinship with this man I’ve never met. Because I can grasp why someone would go to those lengths, out of exhaustion and pain, wanting to permanently escape the constant sadness and emotional weight of depression.

Later, I actually felt a little indignant—not at Robin, but at some of those posting about his death. Why is the only time it’s seemingly appropriate to talk about suicide and depression right after the act has been committed? When it’s too late? It almost seems like a guilt-ridden act of contrition.

And what would most of those people say or do if Robin or anyone else confided in them that they were having these dark thoughts and feelings? Because I can tell you what I’m always afraid of hearing:

  • “What happened?”
  • “Hang in there.”
  • “But I thought things were going so well for you right now…”
  • “You just need cheering up.”

I’ve actually had people essentially tell me that I have no right to feel depressed when there are people in other parts of the world who have it much worse.

  • “At least you aren’t running for your life through some African jungle.”
  • “At least you aren’t starving to death.”
  • “At least you don’t have Ebola.”

All of which is really helpful. Yeah. Thanks.

It underlines the reality that we don’t have space in American society for mental illness, to talk about these things without alienating or even blaming individuals for their condition. It’s a squeamish issue for most people, probably because it’s still so misunderstood. We think “mental illness” and the opening and closing scenes from the film Amadeus, in the halls of the lunatic asylum, come to mind.

Growing up, depression was always a symptom of a spiritual disorder, evidence of some sin in my life that I had committed. Depression was my fault.

We often view people with mental illness as being weak, broken, dangerous to be around, and maybe even somehow infectious—as if one could contact schizophrenia from a schizophrenic.

There are even some who think that mental illness doesn’t exist; that it’s all a choice; that a depressed person just needs to stop feeling sorry for themselves, pick themselves up by their bootstraps and stop being such Debbie Downers.

I’ve heard all of those, too.

We desperately need to be able to talk about suicide and depression at some other time than just after someone has killed themselves. This is the next big closet door we need to kick down. Just as we had to create safe space for gay people to come out and create a cultural context for that, we need a better cultural context for mental illness.

We need space for depressed people to feel comfortable opening up about their feelings (and—yes—sometimes dark, destructive urges), where they won’t be blamed or pathologized for how they are. Hell, we don’t blame a child for developing leukemia or a woman for breast cancer.

Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s no one’s “fault.” So why do we still react as if depressed people are culpable for their condition?

That’s all I can manage to get out right now. If you’re still reading, no, there’s nothing you can do besides just be there. And no, I’ve no intention of hurting myself. This is why I write about my depression—so that it doesn’t get to that point, and so that people know.

It will get better. I rationally know this, though it feels like it’s going to last forever. I just have to hold on to my mood charts that confirm that, no matter how bad the darkness gets, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel will eventually appear.

221. gibbosity

parent-yellingAt our last session, my therapist said something interesting at the end: “We need to find your inner nurturing parent.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that the past couple of weeks. We’d been digging into the idea of me becoming my own inner, harsh parent as a child when my parents relaxed more after my youngest sister was born.

As I wrote last time, I’ve been doing some revising of my childhood narrative, getting away from this notion I’ve had over the years that my parents were awful, emotionally abusive people. To be sure, they made mistakes. All parents do, especially with the first born. The first born is the trial run kid, the baseline.

By the time my youngest sister was born, my parents pretty much figured out by then that, aside from some basic necessities, babies are low-maintenance. That, and making mistakes is a normal part of the growth and maturing process. I can recall the feeling of being a disappointment to my parents, of not living up to the expectations they had for me. They would get exasperated or impatient when I’d drop something or make a blunder.

After my youngest sister was born, as I wrote, they lightened up a bit. For me, that was a shock to the system that I grew accustomed to as a child. The expectations were almost like a structure upon which to pattern my life as I knew it. The more they backed off, the more the anxiety and negative self-talk ramped up, crying out for the familiar structure.

  • “What’s wrong with you?”
  • “Your sister got it sooner than you did,”
  • “Why can’t you be more like ____?”

These strident voices were with me throughout my childhood and young adult years, and even now. Thinking about it now, my parents must have been mystified at my behavior. I’m not even sure where my models came from in building this parent persona. Television shows? Movies? I must’ve unconsciously sought out every angry father and spiteful mother represented, patterning the self-responses in my mind after their likeness rather than engage with the actual parents I had.

So much of what I’ve done has been in the service of placating these inner parental voices. I had to become the best at the piano. I had to become a great writer. I had to become a first-rate composer. And every time I didn’t meet those expectations, to be everything that my angry, hateful parent demanded that I be — to win, to annihilate the competition — then it meant that I was an abject failure, and a bad person.

Add to this the lessons we were being taught in church and at home:

  • “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)
  • “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” (Romans 5:12)
  • “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

To quote Christopher Hitchens, we’re born sick and commanded to be well. Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, we’re fucked before we even have a chance to screw it up on our own. Before we can even wipe our own asses, already we have the weight of several millenia of sin and guilt on our tiny shoulders.

And, of course, the key to not being damned to Hell for all eternity is to confess all of your sins (1 John 1:9), even ones that you didn’t know were sins, because God sees everything. So on top of the neurosis of having an inner parent from hell, I was also being taught to be self-critical, to the point of obsession.

One of the things we talked about a lot, both in church and at home, was being a “fake Christian,” or “casual Christian” — or, more plainly, a hypocrite. I haven’t watched Jesus Camp, mainly because of the memories and emotions that it triggers for me. Thank humanity, then, for YouTube. This excerpt is something I heard a lot growing up:

“Name it out loud.”

Shame is an integral part of Christian fundamentalism. It was no stranger in my childhood or early adult years, especially once my sexuality became evident. It was something I never said out loud, not until 2008, when I attended a “prayer healing” seminar and was prayed for by a Christian husband and wife. I sobbed for nearly half an hour the first time I ever said, “I’m gay.”

This is the result of pathologizing otherwise innocuous, normal human nature on the so-called authority of a nearly two-thousand-year-old book and its Bronze Age morality.

Teaching children that they’re broken and sinful is sick. It’s wrong. It’s deplorable.

And it must stop.

But back to therapy.

One of the side effects of jettisoning my Christian identity in the way that I did was that I’ve developed emotional amnesia about everything prior to 2011. This is probably a defense mechanism, but memories from that period seem like dispassionately watching a movie of those events. I can see them happening, but can’t recall the feelings.

So, like a literary critic deconstructing a novel, I can see with almost sickening clarity what a monster I was during my early adult years, what an emotional terrorist I could be at times, and how devastatingly unhappy and hopeless I’ve been for most of my life.

I can’t recall the fact of ever feeling truly safe or secure with anyone, perpetually terrified that someone would find out my secret and punish me for being gay.

So “being kind to myself” seems a Herculean labor. It doesn’t make sense.

The angry parent in my mind has been the familiar voice for as long as I can remember. It’s been there to beat me up after a rejection letter. Tell me how I fucked up and sabotaged yet another failed relationship.

The sick thing is… I still believe that parent is telling the truth.

220. tumultuary

PsychotherapyI started seeing a new therapist on Wednesday. It’s through the same agency as my last therapist, but it’s the woman I initially got connected to back in 2012 through the Secular Therapist Project. Apparently I was the first client to contact her through that site, but due to our schedules not quite aligning it didn’t work out the first time. She said she now has about a dozen clients who are recovering fundamentalists, which is really awesome.

She’s also a recovered, ex-Mormon, which in some ways is probably a harder thing to be than an Evangelical fundamentalist. From what I know of them, Mormon communities are much more tight-knit than most Christian communities. Your family is the core of your world. Leaving that behind can be truly catastrophic.

Our first meeting went well. There’s always a first-date quality to an initial session. What’s going on, what brings you to therapy, etc. Thankfully, I don’t have to explain why I am no longer a Christian. That part is always annoying.

One idea I’ve been exploring lately, that I brought up in the session, is that my childhood wasn’t nearly as awful as I remember it. That’s not to say that it wasn’t traumatizing in its own right, or that my parents didn’t have a hand in causing some of the damage. But I’ve been doing some revision.

So far, the narrative is that, as the first born of the three kids in my family, my parents were the hardest on me throughout my life and that this is why I’m currently so hard on myself. I’ve pictured my parents as slightly less psychotic versions of the iconic stage door mom or angry soccer dad.

The truth is more nuanced.

From what I can recall, and from some of the things my parents have admitted, this is partly true. As the first born, they were a little harder on me, at least at first. They freaked out more when things happened, and were probably harsher in scolding me when I did something wrong. Expectations had to be adjusted as my sisters were born and they learned from their experiences, and by the time I reached middle school age, they’d chilled out a lot – at least when it came to pushing us to achieve.

Something I hit upon while discussing this on Wednesday was the idea that, because my early childhood was much more intense, when my parents backed off I essentially became my own crazy soccer dad. When I made a mistake and they didn’t yell at me, I was screaming from the sidelines at myself, to pick myself up from the dirt, to quit being such a fucking loser, to stop being such a disappointment.

How this played itself out as I got older was that I drove myself to be the absolute best at everything. I was determined to be the youngest published author ever, so I worked like mad at becoming a great writer. I was determined to be the best at piano, so in addition to practicing long hours and refining my technique and musicality, I eliminated any possibility of sibling rivalry by dropping subtle hints to my younger sister (who was taking piano lessons with me at one point) that she wasn’t any good and should quit. Which she did.

When I got to college and majored in music composition, I would write late into the night, sacrificing sleep and often my health to become the best.

However, the truth is that no matter how hard I worked or what I achieved, I was never satisfied. No effort was ever good enough, no progress far enough. The more disappointed I became, the more I hated and loathed myself. Even my efforts to force myself to be straight failed, although i can’t say that I regret that one too much.

This is why I’m particularly unhappy about being single right now, because almost everyone else I know is coupled, and it feels as if I missed learning some life skill that came easily to everyone else. My housemates have been together twenty years, and married for the last sixteen. Another friend of mine is getting married next month and has been with his boyfriend for fourteen years.

My longest relationship is barely nine months, the last three of which I was waiting for the right moment to end it.

My current refrain is that no one wants a thirty-one-year-old gay man. Some have said that this is ageist; that thirty is the new twenty; that age only exists in the mind. In the past couple weeks, I’ve realized that this anxiety is less about being single and more about an acute awareness of how “behind” I am compared to most people I know. At thirty-one, it feels as if I’m truly starting over at a point when most of my friends are coming into their own.

Being raised a fundamentalist Christian did stunt my growth. Now that I’m out as both gay and as an atheist, I’m finally getting to a place where I can begin to grow. It’s just difficult to do that while my friends are so much further ahead in their personal lives and careers.

On the surface, just as I fear being looked down upon for not driving a nice (i.e., adult) car, I worry about being viewed as less-than by those around me. Intellectually, I know this isn’t true; that everyone struggles with the grass-is-greener mentality. However, I do seemingly lack an internal locus of reference for my identity and sense of self-worth that most people develop in their formative years. So if I perceive someone as doing “better” than me, it means that I have nothing, that I’m an abject failure. If I am rejected, it’s because I’m worthless. Are these thoughts rational? No. But it’s what I feel. And depression is an illness of the emotions.

So what to do? Well, getting a handle on my depression seems the first step…

219. balmy

b050_zagreusI’ve decided to work on achieving the next level of my Doctor Who nerd cred that I’ve been meaning to do for some time, especially after the Doctor Who convention in May: the Big Finish audio adventures.

This is an aspect of the series that not a lot of fans know about or get into – especially newer fans of the 2005 reboot who have debates over whether David Tennant or Matt Smith is the best Doctor evaaaah.

Personally, I’m a fan of the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee. A lot of people aren’t crazy about him. They find him cold, condescending, and even callous. But he’s the scientist Doctor. There is no mystery he can’t solve by using calm logic and deductive reasoning. And when all else fails, there’s always Venusian aikido.

So back to Big Finish.

The British company was founded in 1996, and they started releasing Doctor Who stories in 1999. Basically, they’re audio plays that follow the first eight incarnations of the Doctor and his companions outside of the TV show.

I got into radio plays as a teenager with the Focus on the Family radio theater productions of The Chronicles of Narnia, which I still think are the best adaptations of those stories. Radio is a different medium than television or film. The action takes place in your imagination. It’s so much more engaging, in my opinion.

So yesterday, I downloaded my first Doctor Who story: Zagreus (2003). In short, the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) and the TARDIS are exposed to anti-time after an explosion and he is taken over by Zagreus, a creature from an ancient Gallifreyan nursery rhyme. There are quite a few references to Alice in Wonderland, which in several places feels a bit silly. The Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors are pulled into the story and help Eight regain power over himself and defeat Rassilon. Rassilon is one of the founders of the Time Lords who turned out to be something of a psychopath and even a shadow of Josef Mengele after he experimented with Time Lord physiology to give the race its thirteen regenerations.

There was a moment at the very end of the story though that took me by surprise. Leela, the “savage” companion of the Fourth Doctor, made an appearance. I love Leela, partly because she’s one of the strongest female characters in the entire series, and is probably the most capable and independent of all the companions.

Her weapon of choice in her first episodes is the Janis thorn, a plant from Leela’s home world that causes paralysis and death in victims, something the Fourth Doctor finds so disturbing that he forbids her from using it anymore.

She doesn’t hesitate to fight or to kill, and shows no fear of death or dying. In one episode, The Horror of Fang Rock (1977), Leela is temporarily blinded by a flash and asks the Doctor to kill her. “It is the fate of the old and crippled!” she says. In The Image of the Fendahl (1977), she says to the Doctor, “There is a guard. I shall kill him.” He tells her not to, explaining that it’ll disturb K-9 (his robotic dog).

In The Sun Makers (1977), Leela is about to preemptively kill a guard. The Doctor stops her, saying that he hasn’t done her any harm. She replies, “Then I shall kill him before he does!”

At the end of Zagreus, the Doctor has told Charley (Charlotte Pollard) that she can’t come with him into another universe; that it’s too dangerous and that he doesn’t trust that he’s entirely free of Zagreus. She and Leela are sitting outside the TARDIS.

Leela: You are crying, Charlotte Pollard.
Charley: I am not.
Leela: Not on the outside. In my tribe, a witch-woman grieves on behalf of us all. Better that than for an enemy to witness a warrior’s tears.
Charley: I am not crying, all right!
Leela: Then let me cry for you.

It was a moment that really took me by surprise for how moving it was. Leela is a woman of action. She doesn’t hesitate to fight, to kill, to charge into battle. And here, we see that she is also a woman of deep feeling, that she can also allow herself to take on and feel the grief of another person.

That is notion of grieving with and for another person is something that, in the United States at least, is a very foreign idea. We don’t do very well with “negative” emotions as Americans. We try to get through them as quickly and privately as possible. We slap a smiley face on everything to pretend that it’s all okay.

It’s a practice that is also common in many other cultures and parts of the world. When someone is killed in, say, the Middle East, the entire community turns out to mourn. Men and women wail and weep loudly. To our emotionally repressed Western eyes, it’s something that’s distasteful, unseemly, immodest — savage, even.

Community is not something that we do well in the Western world. There’s more a sense of communal living in places like Europe. But we Americans like our space, independence, and freedom. We lock ourselves away in our houses, in cars as we drive to and from those houses. We have offices and cubicles at work that we stake out as “ours.”

“Let me cry for you.”

Grief is an intensely private thing. Rather than let others join with us in experiencing and mourning loss, we shut them out. We gather with close family and friends, but for the most part we cry alone. And we heal alone.

A friend of mine recently lost his grandmother. He got the news that she was dying during one of our recent band practices for Sunday Assembly, and a few days ago she died. We had a discussion that night about community, and how we deal with grief and death as atheists.

I wonder: how would it be if we could cry for each other?