227. azoth

rock_gardenLeaving Seattle to return to Minnesota yesterday was surprisingly heartbreaking, even for the three short days I was there. One thing I know for sure at the end of it: I’m going back soon.

Overall, it was a good trip. It was the first time I’ve ever really gone somewhere on my own, for no other reason than to go. Other trips have had a purpose—a wedding… well, mainly weddings, I guess. There was also the western camping excursion a few weeks ago, and the gaming weekend in Wisconsin in April. But those were trips with people. There was a plan, an itinerary.

flight_rockiesThis trip to Seattle was good in that it pushed my boundaries, as well as affirmed to myself a couple of things. One realization was that, while I can be terribly absent-minded, I’m actually a pretty capable person when it comes down to it. There were some flustered moments trying to navigate the Seattle transit system, but I had some great encounters with helpful transit officers, one of whom even recommended a great hostel to stay at next time right near Pike Place Market, the Green Tortoise.

However, I think if I had a few more days to familiarize myself with the streets and neighborhoods, I could be a savvy bus/link rider in no time. The biggest challenge to navigating the city was bus fares, so next time I’ll just get an ORCA card for the sake of getting around by “bus, train & ferry—it’s the easy way to get there.”

As a traveler, I’m not really into touristy things. I had a list of things that would’ve been nice to see, like the EMP Museum (which was terrific), the Underground Tour (also fantastic), and Capitol Hill (Seattle’s gayborhood, which I got just a glimpse of on Saturday). I skipped the big attractions, like the Space Needle and the Big Wheel, or anything that typically attracts large numbers of swarming tourists.

waterfront_dayThe biggest disappointment of this trip was not getting to see more of the city, mainly because I wasn’t prepared to deal with bus fares (and while cheaper than a taxi or renting a car, Uber is still pretty expensive). I’m trying not to focus on that as I’m aware of my tendency to ruin experiences by allowing my high expectations of what they could’ve been to spoil them. So I’m trying to keep the good things in perspective.

overlooking_pugetHow I prefer to encounter a city is by walking its streets, watching the people, getting a feel for the rhythm and the energy. You can’t do that by mingling with only those who are there just to take what the city has to offer, like a souvenir shot glass.

My only moment of touristy indulgence was visiting the original Starbucks location on Pike Street. Even then I was a little disappointed. There were a few touches to indicate that this was the “flagship” location, but like any tourist attraction, it ultimately doesn’t deliver as an attraction. Coffee is coffee at Starbucks.

This brings to mind those passages from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which puts forth the idea that, whether they know it or not, the very act of people visiting these locations, as in a yearly pilgrimage, imbues them with power—the power of human belief. It is this concentrated belief that makes places like the House on the Rock, Spring Green, WI or Rock City, Lookout Mountain, GA (in the novel) places of power. I had this thought when visiting Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, or walking through Pike Place Market on Friday afternoon.

waterfront_nightPerhaps that’s why I intentionally avoid “tourist traps.” I don’t want to see what everyone else sees. I want to see the places that people love, that they go to every day, that are a part of their everyday community. I think what bothers me about tourist traps is that they smell too much of theater, of being façades.

What I was really hoping to gain from this trip to Seattle was space to breathe, to think, and to just “be.” On my last day there, in the afternoon, I was in a bit of a strop over having such limited time and having to get on a plane in a few hours and fly back to my life in Minnesota. I was particularly irritated that, because I hadn’t planned enough for transit, I wasn’t going to get to the Chihuly Garden and Glass in time, or the Olympic Sculpture Park, or Gas Works Park. I wouldn’t have time to get to Bainbridge Island (would’ve needed at least a half-day), and would’ve needed to stay a week (or longer) to do any real hiking. And then, I would’ve needed a car.

kells_irishbandBut as I was eating lunch in Westlake Park, I realized that I didn’t need to see those things to have had a fulfilling trip. Focusing on my inexperience as a traveler or on all the things I didn’t do was only going to ruin the good. Yes, I mainly stuck around the downtown area and saw mostly urban landscapes. But on the train I saw plenty of Seattle that I’d like to return to and explore.

And I met up with a guy I’ve been Facebook friends with for some time, who lives in Capitol Hill with his partner Andy. I had a terrific time visiting with them.

The main realization I left with, however, is that the Midwest is no longer home for me. Maybe I need to do some more traveling and experience different cities and cultures, but I felt at home in Seattle in a way that I don’t feel anymore in Minnesota.

Maybe I’ve just had enough of “Minnesota nice.” And there does seem to be a community of gay guys there who’re more on my level.

Of course, I’m not the type to pick up and go, but after this trip I’m giving serious thought to moving to Seattle, maybe in the next year or so.

waterfront_seattle

226. demesne

Well, it looks like it’s been about a month since I last updated. It’s certainly not for a lack of anything to write about. Quite the contrary. There’s almost been too much to write about!

To begin with, I’m currently in Seattle for a short vacation. It has been almost ten years since my last actual vacation, which was in London in 2005 with my friends Mark and Emily. That was my last plane ride as well. So I literally landed here about four hours ago, was very happy when my luggage turned up with me at my destination, and managed to get myself from the airport to the place where I’m staying. This is also my first solo excursion anywhere, so it’s a bit of an adventure!

zeitgeistSo I’m sitting in a coffee shop (the one pictured on the right, which is not Starbucks—still haven’t made up my mind just how touristy I’m willing to be… I’ve already made up my mind to skip the Space Needle), and this is the first time I’ve felt like there’s time to actually breathe and gather my thoughts.


 

As prelude to what I wanted to write about today, last Thursday, my housemates had an acquaintance of theirs, Jacob, over for drinks and conversation. He’s a 23-year-old recent college graduate who used to clean their house several years ago, and who they recently ran into at a local theater event (thus spurring the invitation).

For about a week leading up to his coming over, there were some jesting comments about the possibility of Jacob and me hooking up at some point during the evening. And not without cause.

Prior to moving into their house this summer, this was a fairly common thing in the months following the breakup with Jay (my last boyfriend) in March of 2013. Considering how little and poor the quality of sex I’d been having in the last few months we were together, I felt justified in having a slutty phase to make up for lost time.

In fact, the couple who’d later become my current housemates were incredibly supportive in the months following the breakup. And there were quite a few evenings when I’d be over at their house, and they’d have another single gay guy over, and we’d all have a little too much to drink and I’d end up spending the night with him in one of the bedrooms. Some evenings were more regret-inducing than others.

But shortly after I got laid off from the university job at the end of June in 2013, all of that changed. I’d just moved to the Uptown area of Minneapolis the month before and wasn’t sure when I’d find another job, or how I’d pay bills. It was around this time that I descended into one of the longest and most profoundly depressive periods in my life. I felt unattractive and undesirable in virtually every way possible.

And having nothing but time has a way of bringing to the surface long-buried thoughts.

It was during these months that I realized just how deeply my fundamentalist Christian upbringing had deeply scarred me. In the months that I was working with Sarah, my last therapist, some of this came to light, but it was when I was sitting alone in my apartment, looking through job description after job description, that it really sunk in.

In short, the depression killed my sex drive, or at least that’s how it felt. There were a number of disastrous experiences that also contributed to this, such as an ill-begotten four-way that left me feeling even more dysfunctional and undesirable than ever. Then there was the date from this past May with the bisexual guy who failed to mention before our second date that he’d been thinking about getting back together with his ex-boyfriend. Last I heard, that was what he decided to do.

So all of that is a prelude to last Thursday.

At some point in the evening, my friend Joe texted me this picture:

grace-church

We used to attend the same church, Grace Church, and it’s a picture of me singing in the worship band. I’m not sure when it was taken, but my guess is somewhere between 2005 and 2007—pre-atheist and definitely pre-coming out.

Maybe it was because I’d had quite a bit to drink at that point, but seeing that picture brought back a wave of painful emotions and memories from that period of my life. Those years were very angry for me, full of despair and hopelessness. I was struggling with my sexuality, still unable to resolve the dissonance between my feelings and my faith.

So perhaps that’s why after my housemate Matt left the steamshower where we retired that Jacob and I went at it. There was no actual sex, but this was the first actual sexual contact of any kind that I’d had in… well, months.

My therapist wasn’t surprised when I mentioned this incident on Monday. Seeing that image was, for lack of a better word, traumatic. That word gets thrown around a little too freely, I think, but given what I’ve been through, this was the revisiting of a traumatic event. And considering how deeply it was connected to my sexuality, it makes sense that I’d attempt to cope with these feelings by acting out sexually with someone with whom I had no history. As a way of trying to establish normality.

I hope that makes sense.

A big reason why I haven’t been interested in sex the last couple months is that, especially after the bisexual guy (who I was getting interested in when he ‘fessed up to not being available after all), it more that I’m not interested in anything that isn’t going to go anywhere. It takes enough energy as is to connect with anyone (sexually or otherwise), and having sex just isn’t as important right now as is building an intimate relationship with someone I care about.

Moral of story: No random hook-ups in Seattle this weekend.

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.