236. alight

6888978424_0fff3d0e1f_kI had something of a breakthrough yesterday and am trying today to hold on to this sense of clarity.

Yesterday, I started listening to an NPR podcast called Invisibilia.

“Launching in January 2015, Invisibilia (Latin for “all the invisible things”) explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.”

The premier episode is titled “The Secret History of Thoughts.” It focused on disturbing thoughts and how we deal with them via the stories of two individuals who’ve had profound experiences in this area.

I was recently told by a friend that he occasionally has thoughts of harming or murdering people, especially those who have behaved ruthlessly or selfishly. He said that most people have these flashes of violent intention, itself an artifact of our evolutionary past that follows us around like cans tied to the rear of a car with a “Just Married” sign in the window.


During adolescence, my sister’s therapist would describe me as a “toxic volcano.” For various reasons, around age 13 or 14, I went from being a quiet and bookish boy to an angry and turbulent young man. In hindsight, my emerging sexuality and how it brought me into direct conflict with my religion was at the root of much of that. In evangelical Christianity, however, we weren’t encouraged to think much about mental health.

In late spring of 2008, I began experiencing suicidal thoughts. I’d just moved from my first apartment and was driving all of my belongings in my SUV to my new place. I was feeling alone and more than a little sorry for myself. As I pulled up to an intersection of a busy highway, I had the thought of just pulling forward into the path of an oncoming truck. The thought came out of nowhere, and it was frightening how calm and rational the thought sounded.

In the years that followed, even up to today, I’d have these random suicidal thoughts pop up. I’ll be working in the kitchen with a knife and think about slitting my wrists. If I turn on the garbage disposal, I’m afraid I’ll somehow lose control and stick my hand in. (Frankly, I blame M. Night Shyamalan’s dreadful 2008 film The Happening for that deep dark fear.) If I’m up high, say in an office building, I’ll think about falling—not so much considering it, but more what if I did.

Thankfully, I don’t dwell on these thoughts much. Perhaps because I spend so much time in my head, and because of my early interest in psychology, I learned to interact with these thoughts and deconstruct them.

In her 2013 Ted Talk, Eleanor Longden describes her journey with schizophrenia, saying that eventually she learned “to separate out a metaphorical meaning from what I’d previously interpreted to be a literal truth.”

“What I would ultimately realize was that each voice was closely related to aspects of myself, and that each of them carried overwhelming emotions that I’d never had an opportunity to process or resolve, memories of sexual trauma and abuse, of anger, shame, guilt, low self-worth. The voices took the place of this pain and gave words to it, and possibly one of the greatest revelations was when I realized that the most hostile and aggressive voices actually represented the parts of me that had been hurt most profoundly, and as such, it was these voices that needed to be shown the greatest compassion and care.”

While I’ve never heard voices, many thoughts I’ve experienced have seemed to have a mind of their own. I’d obsess over wrongs, worry over finding a job, whether or not my music or writing was good enough, personal failures (real or imagined), how I don’t meet the subjective—and arguably fickle—physical standards established by a seemingly monolithic gay community in order to be “desirable.”


Which bring me to the breakthrough I had last night.

Part of the Invisibilia episode on thoughts focused on Martin Pistorius, who contracted Cryptococcal meningitis around age 12 and spent thirteen years literally trapped in his body.

To cope with the sense of isolation and powerlessness, he says he learned to detach from his thoughts, almost engaging with them as another person in his mind. Eventually, he did regain some motor control, and now communicates much like Stephen Hawking.

And, at age 33, he got married.

This led to reflecting on my darkest thought: that I’m going to be single and alone for the rest of my life. I broke up with my last boyfriend in March of 2013, and been on one date since—and not for lack of trying or looking. Frankly, I’ve found gay guys in Minnesota wholly uninteresting. And if they are interesting, they’re taken or uninterested in me.

(My current fantasy is that I’ll somehow land a British guy, leave the United States and find a job as a librarian in England or Ireland somewhere, like the Bodleian or Trinity.)

So being surrounded by people who are dating, married, building lives together, talking about kids and vacations and so on triggers the thoughts and fears of being alone, that I’m unlovable, that I’m incompatible with everyone, that there’s something fundamentally broken about me, that I’m always going to be alone.

Thing is, I know that being in a relationship won’t complete me or solve any problems. The current theory is that, because I was taught growing up that gay people don’t have relationships and that it’s a lonely “lifestyle,” my fixation on finding a boyfriend/husband is based in the fear that they were right.

But hearing Martin’s story and how he managed to detach himself from thoughts that would’ve dragged him down into despair highlighted for me that reality that I can do the same with mine, that I can detach and deconstruct my own.

I had the thought last night that, if Martin found a wife at age 33 while confined to a wheelchair and communicating via computer, maybe it’s not impossible for me.

I don’t really believe it yet, but it’s a step.

235. astir

tombstoneI found out about a week and a half ago that my uncle died.

Out of respect for my family, let’s call him Nick.

Nick is my mom’s younger (and only) brother. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that his death was a surprise to any of us, including my mom. When my parents were last out in California, he’d gone missing. Again. This wasn’t the first time he’d disappeared or dropped off the radar for a while. Unfortunately, my uncle led something of a troubled life. That’s not how I’d like to remember him, but it’s how I do remember him.

Growing up, Uncle Nick was something of a byword in my family’s home. That may not be how my parents intended for us to hear it, but the ongoing saga of his life was basically presented to my sisters and me as a cautionary tale.

There but for the grace of God go any of us…

And that’s not to say that my parents weren’t constantly worried about him. Uncle Nick was an alcoholic, a drug user, and a host of other things, so he was in our prayers a lot. The main story that I remember was when he ended up going through the window of the Porsche that hit him after he got out of a taxi on the wrong side of the street while drunk and/or high one night. That trip landed him in the hospital, and also in a heap of trouble.

There was a time when he was going to church and seemed to be turning his life around, but apparently that didn’t last very long. The last my parents heard when they were in California last year was that he was living with some woman, and probably using drugs and alcohol again. It got to the point where they were calling county jails and even morgues to see if he’d turned up.

So when my mom got a call from a number she didn’t recognize about a week and a half ago, she called back and was asked by the woman who answered the phone who the name of the deceased was after identifying herself as calling from the coroner’s office.

This is the story from my mom, as we know it:

Apparently he had been drinking on January 1st, fell and broke his hand. Someone found him on January 2nd, face down (not sure if it was in the street or on the sidewalk), and sleeping. It had been below freezing, and he was just in street clothes—no blanket or sleeping bag. He was able to squeeze the paramedic’s hand when they asked him if he could hear them, but he couldn’t speak. When they moved him he became unresponsive, and died about an hour after he got to the hospital—10:12 am, January 2nd.

It was weird talking to my mom about this, mainly because it felt like talking to someone else about their family member dying. I mentioned this to my therapist in my last session: that as I get further along in identity building and more secure in a sense of authentic self, the less connected I feel to my biological family. And I feel bad about not feeling bad about this. While we share memories, and even a warped sense of humor, since reconnecting with them in the spring of 2013, I’ve struggled to find a sense of belonging with them.

Sadly, it probably comes down to my lack of religious belief. Some may think that a minor thing, but evangelical, fundamentalist Christianity is at the core of my parents’ and sisters’ identities. It’s not for me, and it probably never was.

This discussion led to something else in my last therapy session.

For a while, I’ve been trying to put a finger on why my being single bothers me so much. And as my therapist and I hashed out my feelings about my uncle dying, I hit on this:

I don’t really have any long-term relationships of any kind.

I’m still in touch with a handful of people from college and even from the church I grew up in, but these are largely online friendships. I don’t actually see most of these people anymore.

What bothers me is that for the last 10-15 years, I’ve been watching the people around my put down roots and grow in their relationships and marriages. I know very few people now who are single. But it’s not really just that that bothers me.

It’s the fact that I’m less than a month away from turning 32, and I don’t have any kind of long-term or enduring relationships in my life—including friendships. Some of that can be attributed to changing priorities and life circumstances. Some friends moved away. Others got married and had kids. Neither parties made much effort to keep up the friendship, though it’s probably more accurate to say that many friends gave up trying to make a friendship work with me.

It doesn’t feel great to admit that, but I’ve a sense that it’s true.

So the business of me griping about feeling old, and how now that I’m over 30 no guys are going to want me is less about age. It’s about realizing how old I am and how little I have in the way of relationships compared to others around me.

My housemate Matt is in almost constant contact with his parents and sister who have become like a second family to me. So many friends of mine spend holidays with their families. Their families love their significant others, and vice versa. Et al.

The image that came to mind the other day was of being on a raft, sailing down a river, and passing friends who’ve made homes along the shore.

My fear is that I’ll keep on drifting, sailing on and on without making real connections; that I’ll end up like my uncle, alone, having burned his bridges behind him.

Let’s sponge away the writing on that possible future.

234. consanguinity

“When people experience trauma, they feel bad; children, in particular, think they are bad when they feel bad. Chronic bottom-up dysregulation and distress lead to negative identifications, beliefs, and judgments about ourselves.”
—L. Heller and A. LaPierre, “Healing Developmental Trauma.”


yogaUnlike previous years, at least since I became an atheist, Christmas this year wasn’t the depressive shit show that it has is. Usually, I lock myself away, alone, hating the entire world for being so festive. I did decide against being with my family for the holidays, choosing instead to spend it with friends and family of friends.

One of my early anxieties about therapy was the fear that it would dislodge all of the toxic dark matter packed into my subconscious. Worse, that I’d end up in a psychiatric hospital. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened. Yet these anxieties have been present even when working with my current therapist, although I’m finding that it doesn’t need to be that way.

The past few days I’ve been getting back into Healing Developmental Trauma, the book I referenced in a blog post a few weeks ago, taking it in slowly and thinking. A lot of what I’ve been reading has triggered various memories and feelings—good, but unsettling.

To regulate the nervous system, it is more effective to work consistently with the organized “adult” aspects of the self in order to integrate the disorganized, regressed “child” aspects.” (22)

So I’m learning to live more in the present instead of the past, and to listen more to my body through things like yoga and mindfulness. I’m currently in the chapter on the Connection Survival Style. Right away I was hit with this opening paragraph:

As a result of the earliest trauma, individuals with the Connection Survival Style have disconnected from their bodies, from themselves, and from relationship… To manage the pain of early trauma, some individuals disconnect from their bodies and live in their minds… when asked what they are feeling in their body, [they] find the question challenging, anxiety producing, and often impossible to answer.” (37)

I ran into the latter part of this description a month or two ago at yoga when my teacher asked at the beginning of class what we’re feeling in our physical and emotional bodies. Admittedly, this was before I’d had any coffee so it was already hard enough to think, but so often I turn up a complete blank when asking myself this question: “What are you feeling?”

According to Heller, the compromised core expression for this survival style is: “I am… I have a right to be.” He also lists some of the associated “shame-based identifications”:

  • Terrified and inadequate
  • Shame at existing
  • Feeling like they never fit in
  • Feeling like they are always on the outside looking in
  • Burden on others

A real-world example of this was two Sundays ago when my car broke down. The average quote from a few shops within the free AAA towing range was $350. Aside from borrowing a car to get to band practice, I’ve been mostly homebound for the last two weeks.

You could insert a joke about men never asking for help, but in my case there is a great deal of anxiety in doing so, or in feeling needy. When I was subsisting largely on unemployment last year while job searching, I felt incredibly embarrassed and humiliated. I didn’t want to see anyone for fear that they’d ask what I did for a living.

This also meant that for the past two weeks I haven’t been to yoga, which has been a huge stress-reliever for me, both in the exercise and in the community. I didn’t want to ask anyone for a ride there as I live about twenty-five minutes south of the studio, didn’t want to be a burden on anyone (I almost wrote “unnecessary burden” just now), and didn’t want anyone looking at me as a failure because I couldn’t afford to fix my car.

But the truth is, I don’t feel worthy of help, that it’s selfish to ask, that there are others more deserving, that I’m less if I require assistance. It was a shock when people actually showed up to help me move in May, or to my birthday party… hell, whenever people are excited to see me! These feelings run deep into the core of how I see myself as a person.

Heller goes on in this chapter to describe some of the behavioral characteristics of this type (I’ll list just a few that particularly describe me):

  • Use interpersonal distancing as a substitute for adequate boundaries.
  • Withdraw in emotionally disturbing situations.
  • Tend to relate in an intellectual rather than a feeling manner.
  • Seldom aware that they are out of touch with their bodies.
  • Feel like a frightened child in an adult world; do not know how to deal with or appropriately manipulate their environment.
  • Strong need to control self, environment, and other people.

I have a distinct memory from around age eleven or twelve of being in the car with my family, and for whatever reason feeling disappointed and angry with my dad, and deciding that from that moment on I would renounce love entirely; that it was intellectually inferior; that it was inconvenient and messy; that enlightened persons shouldn’t need any form of love.

[Insert Nibelung steel strikes here.]

Not sure why I had that reaction, but it’s defined my relationship style: my tendency to withdraw when feeling overwhelmed or stressed, to avoid people, to live in my head, and to feel overwhelmed in social situations.

Because of their inadequate sense of self, they often try to anchor themselves in their roles as scientist, judge, doctor, father, mother, etc. When functioning in a role, they feel comfortable and they know what the rules are; being outside a specific role can feel frightening… They tend to withdraw or break contact in emotionally disturbing or stressful situations.” (39)

 

233. happenstance

sängyssä

Quick disclaimer: this post will deal with my sex life in unsexy and entirely untitillating language. Because my relationship with sex these days is… well, complicated.

I haven’t had many relationships that could be described as healthy. Beginning with my family (our first relationship lab, as it were), through my tumultuous teenage years, up to present-day, my life has been a decades-long exercise in keeping people closest to me at a safe and comfortable distance.

Clearing my orbital neighborhood, so to speak.

There was also the culture of shame endemic in the evangelical Christian community. Religious fundamentalists in general are adept at wearing masks to hide their true faces from each other for fear of judgment, shaming, and reprisal. In my community, it was often done with a smile. under the guise of “prayerful” good intentions; and in my family, Bible verses were often used as reminders of how we weren’t living up to the Bible’s standard for Christian living.

Not only did our parents disapprove of us—God also disapproved.

Consequently, as I wrote about in a recent blog entry, virtually all of my relationships up until now have been based on fear. I learned to fear everyone, regardless of whether there was something there to actually be afraid of.

At the same time, I desperately longed for acceptance, for belonging, and safety. The cognitive dissonance was, and still is, deafening.

This has played itself out in my sexual relationships in a number of highly toxic ways.

For one, I’m ashamed to say that once I became sexually active, I began using sex to try to achieve intimacy. It’s not the sex part that shames me in hindsight as how embarrassingly stereotypical that was. And it never worked. After I broke things off with my first boyfriend (i.e., “Aaron 1.0”), I had quite a few hookups on the way to my second boyfriend (“Aaron 2.0”) as a way of “catching up” to where I figured most gay men my age were—that is, age 26.

Even in those hookups, I was still hoping against hope to find a partner, someone with whom to find mutual belonging. I must have been looking so intently that, even if I had found someone compatible at that point, my expectations for the relationship would’ve doomed it to fail from the start.

Of course, after Seth I went on a sex binge, trying to literally fuck him out of my system. That didn’t work either, and each time the disappointment and the dissatisfaction deepened.

It was a cycle of self-perpetuating and self-propagating shame.

It frustrated me how friends of mine could have so much sex with seemingly no emotional consequences. There’s that line from the chorus of a recent Daft Punk song:

We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky

“Good fun” was something I was not having.

After I broke up with my most recent boyfriend in March of 2013, every sexual encounter started to leave me more and more depressed. I was thirty years old, and the rest of my life looked to be a series of endless, unsatisfying hookups.

Plus, as I wrote recently, I had defined success for myself as finding a boyfriend and partner, because that was one thing I grew up believing I could never have. So with every disappointing hookup, my parents’ voices in my mind saying that gay men lead sad, lonely lives grew more terrifying.

So I probably put myself in situations where that prophesy was mostly likely to come true.

A foursome I had last fall (which ended with me being a third wheel after one guy went to bed and the other two guys were into each other but not me) left me feeling undesirable and even more out of phase with other gay men than ever.

Meeting the bisexual tree scientist this summer (who I was actually, finally into—until he told me that he’s still in love with his ex-boyfriend and that they were trying to get back together) left me feeling as if there’s a game of musical chairs going on, and everyone else is faster than me.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of impossible expectations and a ton of emotional trauma (yes, some of it self-inflicted) wrapped up in sex besides just getting off with another person.

So much that I can’t enjoy it properly anymore.

For example, a couple weeks ago, a friend introduced me to a guy at a gayming party, texting me before I arrived that he’d found my “future husband.” I shouldn’t have taken it seriously, but before I could stop myself, I started surreptitiously studying this guy, imagining our future together, in Technicolor. We did hook up later that evening, and while he clearly had fun, he also made it clear that he’d just got out of a five-year relationship and wasn’t interested in anything serious.

Just like all of the others, I thought.

So I’m taking a break from sex for now. It’s just too confusing and unhealthy. I’ve been saying that sex is like advanced graduate studies in relationships, and I’m still trying to just finish high school. Frankly, I need to get to the root of this need to base my self worth on external factors, like looks and performance, first.

The tough thing about that is that it’s hard not to resent everyone who is in a relationship, or who is able to enjoy sex without the resulting existential tsunami. Of course, we can’t know what’s really going on in other people’s relationships or in their minds. Maybe everyone else really is just as afraid and insecure, but can simply cope better. However, when your emotional vocabulary is based on fear, it’s difficult not to invent reasons why a relationship is already doomed, or turn an otherwise fun, pleasurable experience into an emotional minefield.

Fear fuels self-belief that I’m broken and damaged became a reason to preemptively sabotage potentially fruitful relationships.

This is why I’m in therapy, folks.

232. degust

Christmas_tree_farm_fireI hate Christmas music—but not the for reasons you might think.

Sure, I hate going into a store in December (sooner in some places) and hearing dodgy lyrics written about a mythological baby god-king.

  • “Worship Christ, the newborn King”
  • “Go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.”
  • “Jesus Christ was born to save!”
  • “Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Unless you’re someone who left behind a religious community saturated with language like this, you’re probably not going to notice this very much. Most people don’t. To most, Christmas music is often infused with rich and fragrant memories of childhood, of time spent with family and friends, and of the beauty of winter (if you’re into that sort of thing).

And most people have likely never stopped to question the logic of the whole Christmas story. A teenage girl in Iron Age Palestine suddenly becomes pregnant with the son of the Hebrew God, who himself is the Hebrew God in human form? As David Hume (via Christopher Hitchens) once quipped, “Which is more likely, that the whole natural order is suspended or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?”

And why did Jesus have to temporarily suspend his divinity and come down to Earth as a dirty, squalling, snot-nosed infant? Because four thousand years earlier, two presumably immortal humans who lived in a mythical garden ate a piece of fruit that they were warned not to after a talking snake (just think about that for a second—a talking snake) told them to go ahead and do it anyway.

Because of this, God got royally pissed off; threw them out of this garden and put an angel with a flaming sword to guard the entrance; cursed them both with mortality, with work (for the man), and with painful childbirth (for the woman). So now every human born since then was also cursed with this “original sin” and is doomed to burn in the eternal fires of Hell.

(Brief side note: Hell is actually a Greek invention and wasn’t included in Christian theology until a bit later as a means of capitalizing on fear of death to control behavior (especially sexual behavior). Just in case you hadn’t figured out yet what a ludicrous invention this story is.)

As if that wasn’t overreaction enough, now all of creation—every tree, rock, animal, star, planet, galaxy—is cursed and spoiled because of the presumed disobedience of two humans on an insignificant piece of rock orbiting a small unregarded yellow sun (as Douglas Adams once wrote) “far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy.”

Anyway, that’s the fundamentalist Christian take on the story.

And let’s not even get into the fact that early Christians didn’t observe the birth of the their Lord and Savior. According to the website Biblical Archaeology, “Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices.” It wasn’t until late in the 4th century CE that the date of Jesus’ birth was moved to December 25th and celebrated, mainly as a way of appropriating pagan holidays. December 25th has been the date of several Roman holidays, including Saturnalia and Sol Invictus.

Sorry, guys, Jesus was not a Capricorn.

And what are the chances that other gods like Krishna, Mithras, Horus, and Buddha were also born on December 25th? What a crazy coincidence!

For me, the atonement theology underpinnings of Christmas were impossible to miss growing up. It was drilled into us virtually every day that humans are sinful, and the reason that Jesus had to come to earth to be murdered was because of how sinful we are. The whole Advent calendar was essentially a daily theological lesson in how awful humans are, and how the only redeemable thing about us is Jesus dying for our sins to make up for the fact that God loves us so much that he wants to torture us forever to show us how much he loves us.

So you’ll excuse me if I don’t find Christmas carols particularly heartwarming. In those lyrics I hear the self-hatred and self-loathing buried deep in the heart of Christianity, that tells us that not only are we not good enough—we’re fundamentally flawed and broken.

You know, the language of an emotional abuser.

But that is not the reason why I hate Christmas music.

And it’s not necessarily that I hate Christmas music. Some of the melodies to the songs are quite nice. And I do have some warm and fragrant memories of Christmas from my childhood. It was a magical time of year. Everything was transformed, by the cold and snow, and by decorations around town and around the house. We used to put cloves in pomegranates and oranges and hang them around the house, so the house smelled like spices.

When I became an atheist, it was as if twenty-eight years of my life no longer belonged to me. All of those memories, all of the enjoyment that I’d found in singing songs at Christmas, in the celebrations, in the community, were all part of someone else’s life.

You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share
What you are with what you were.
– C. F. Ramuz, Histoire du Soldat, trans. by Michael Flanders

So that’s why it’s hard for me to listen to Christmas music. It’s not so much the lyrics that bother me anymore. I’ve developed enough coping strategies to walk into a store without asking to yell at a manager to “turn that shit off!”

Christmas music is a reminder of everything that I lost when I jettisoned my faith. Further, it speaks to the fear I have of what I may never have—a family of my own to make new memories with, to banish the sadness of the old ones.

But who knows. Anything’s possible.

231. nostomania

couple-holding-handsThis’ll be a quick download on Thanksgiving and how things ended up not going with my family.

In short, I told my mom that while I appreciated her invitation, it’s not a good idea for me to spend major holidays with them right now.

But first, a video.

Like many things YouTube, I discovered Sexplanations through the Green brothers’ creative and informative YouTube channel.

“Field of eligibles” was a new term for me, but it put a name to something I’ve been struggling to define for a while. Because while there are a good number of gay men in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area, eligible, as she notes, doesn’t aways translate to desirable.

And we’re not talking about a huge population to choose from here. If statistics are true and only 5% of the U.S. population is predominantly gay, of the 1.86 million males in Twin Cities metro area (the current estimate is that 49.7% of the population here is male), probably around only 93,000 of those are in my field of eligibles.

Then factor in my personal preferences—well-educated, cultured, geeky, secular-minded (ideally, atheist/agnostic), self-reliant, mentally and emotionally stable, physically attractive (to me), and reasonably hirsute (that’s more of a nice-to-have than a must-have), to name a few of the qualities that I look for in potential partners.

Even just using a couple of those filters rules out a huge percentage of the gay men around me.

The reason that I was thinking about this in these terms today is because yesterday found me single yet again at Thanksgiving. It’s been almost two years since I’ve been in a relationship. And I realized the other day while cooking for the Sunday Assembly Thanksgiving that the last time I really cooked for a holiday was when I was with Jay, and that brought up a whole lot of sad memories and feelings.

One of the things I’ve been exploring in therapy lately is why I’m obsessed with being in a relationship. From what I’ve been able to parse out, for most of my life I’ve had all of these external measures of self-worth. Even though I grew up hearing about unconditional love, the kind of love I actually experienced as a child was anything but that. The standards for being an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian were pretty steep. In short, we were expected to live up to the model of Jesus’ life on Earth, although that was only the minimum requirement (the rest I’ll get into another time).

Basically, I was unwittingly trained from a young age to compare myself to others and base my self-worth on how I was or wasn’t up to par. That paradigm transferred over into other areas, too, from basing my self-worth on how good a pianist, to how good a composer, to how good a writer I was, and so on. It was all performance centered.

I attended an evangelical Christian liberal arts college where the saying “ring by spring” was only partly a joke. The expectation was that by the time you’d graduated, you’d have a degree and your opposite-sex life partner. On the drive into campus, there’s a large rock that students would paint in the way of an engagement announcement. Usually it was just the couples’ initials or names, but often it was quite artistic. By the time I graduated, virtually everyone I knew was engaged or married.

Soon, I was often the only (or one of the few) single person at a gathering. In the years before I came out gay, the reason for my singleness was difficult to explain to anyone. Working all the time was a convenient excuse, but even that started to wear thin after a while.

After I came out, finding a long-term boyfriend became even more of a measure of success. Especially for someone like me, it would signal having overcome decades of oppression and religious abuse to deliver the ultimate “fuck you” to an institution that had told me for years that my limited choices were to change my sexual orientation, embrace a lifestyle of total celibacy and be alone for the rest of my life, or burn eternally in the fires of hell.

A real brain teaser.

So all that to say, holidays can be a real downer for me.

The only time I’ve been with a partner for Thanksgiving and Christmas was when I was with Jay. To be honest, I more enjoyed being with his family than I did with him, and they’re the only thing I miss about dating him. Because those times were the first I can really remember feeling welcome and accepted at a family gathering. While I know that my biological family loves me, there’s so much tiptoeing that I’ve had to do around them, always worrying about what not to say or do. That feeling intensified once I became an atheist.

And forget about bringing home a boyfriend or husband to meet them. While I’m sure they’d try to be tolerant and civil, I doubt they’ll ever be truly accepting and welcoming.

Yesterday, I spent Thanksgiving with my housemates’ family. And it was lovely. The only time religion or politics came up was when explaining to Matt’s mom why I wasn’t with my own family. The rest of the time we just enjoyed being with each other. I could be myself. And it was terrific!

While I was the only single person at the table, looking around, I could see myself bringing a boyfriend home to meet those people. Of course, there’s tons of work to ahead before I’ll be capable of dating anyone. Establishing stable friendships is difficult enough. I have to scrape away decades of internalize self-loathing and self-hate, and the fundamental beliefs that I’m not valuable, not worthy, not lovable, that I have to have achieved something or look a certain way for anyone to accept me, let alone think I’m worth dating.

But regardless of how long that takes, I’ve at least found a place to call home.

230. chiaroscuro

“My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary.”
― Margaret Edson, Wit


ADRIFT_ON_BREAKINGFrom my experience over the last few months, the therapeutic journey is a lot like exploring a TARDIS—the further in, the bigger it seems to get. Each new revelation puts the past in a different light as pieces swim to the surface of my consciousness.

Last week, on recommendation of a friend of mine, I started reading a book by Laurence Heller and Aline Lapierre, Healing Developmental Trauma: How early trauma affects self-regulation, self-image, and the capacity for relationship. Because the more I unpack my childhood and young adult years with my therapist, the more I’m realizing how deeply scaring the experience was.

Everyone’s childhood fucks them up. Parents don’t know what they’re doing, and to a certain degree everyone re-enacts with their own children the very mistakes their parents made with them. Some of it is simple social learning. We are primates, after all. Most parents just do the best they can.

And there are people who have had legitimately horrific and brutally traumatizing experiences. I have never seen anyone murdered before my eyes. Ditto being raped or sexually assaulted. Or suffered a debilitating physical injury.

But spending the majority of my formative years trying to suppress my true identity ingrained unhealthy and pathological behavioral scripts in me. This is what I’m in therapy for.

In the first few pages of the book, there’s a table that describes the various responses to when our core human needs (i.e., connection, attunement, trust, autonomy, love-sexuality) are either not met or outright denied us:

Adaptive Survival Style Core Difficulties
The Connection Survival Style Disconnected from physical and emotional self
Difficulty relating to others
The Attunement Survival Style Difficulty knowing what we need
Feeling our needs do not deserve to be met
The Trust Survival Style Feeling we cannot depend on anyone but ourselves
Feeling we have to always be in control
The Autonomy Survival Style Feeling burdened and pressured
Difficulty setting limits and saying no directly
The Love-Sexuality Survival Style Difficulty integrating heart and sexuality
Self-esteem based on looks and performance

Read through that list a couple times and see how many of them describe how you relate to other people and to yourself.

This table describes virtually every friendship and romantic relationship I have ever had. I think the next couple of blog entries are going to be unpacking each of those lines and what they have meant for my life, one by one.

What I’ve realized over the past couple of weeks is that the vast majority of my relationships (romantic or otherwise, but especially sexual and romantic relationships) have been based on fear. Fear of rejection, failure, and even success.

Growing up, once I realized that my sexuality fell outside the bounds of what was considered “acceptable” to my community, I couldn’t afford to let anyone get close to me for fear of them finding out my deep, dark secret. So I became exceptionally good at blending in, at becoming who I thought someone expected me to be.

It’s surprising how easy it is to do. And still is.

In essence, my identity growing up was built around what I thought people didn’t want me to be. It was a negative self-image.

The thing is that this identity was bolstered by the Christian theology I was raised with. And one of the core beliefs we had was that pursuing our personal desires was sinful: the phrase often heard in my house was, “dying daily to self.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

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)

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

I memorized these and many other similar Bible verses growing up. Combined with constant exposure to weekly church sermons, Bible study groups, and in general being surrounded by evangelical Christians every day, as I grew up, it gradually became clear what I should want: to be annihilated by Christ. My personality, my very identity, was so deeply warped and perverted by my sin nature that it needed to be wiped clean and rewritten with that of Jesus: the only truly perfect man who ever lived.

That did wonders for my self esteem, as you can imagine.

How this eventually played itself out was that I didn’t believe that I had permission to want anything for myself. I majored in music because, while I enjoyed music, that was what my father and music teachers wanted for me. It never occurred to me to ask what I wanted.

I pretended to be heterosexual for fifteen years because that was what good Christians were supposed to do, though it was suffocating and miserable. I even pretended to be a Christian long after I’d stopped believing because I thought that was how I’d win Seth over.

None of my romantic relationships lasted long as those guys weren’t dating a 100% real person. They were with the David that I thought they wanted to see. And it’s not inaccurate to say that I stayed with my last boyfriend as long as I did because I didn’t think that I deserved better.

So my current project is to learn to get comfortable in my own skin, to listen to my wants and desires, and learn how to communicate them to others when appropriate.

It’ll be by taking small steps and embracing those moments when it feels like I don’t know my lines that an authentic “me” will emerge.

Hopefully.