268. deliquesce

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birthday-cake-on-fire-fire-and-ice-the-birthday-hepivk-clipartThis past Sunday was my mother’s birthday.

Her 65th birthday, to be exact.

Unlike many gay men, I don’t have a particularly close relationship with my mother. Ironically, of all our immediate family members we’re probably the most alike (aside from my youngest sister), so naturally there was often a lot of conflict between us.

The last interaction I had with her was in May of 2014, just after I’d purchased a new pair of glasses thanks to the reforms of the ACA (a.k.a., “Obamacare”). She commented on them one evening, and when I told her how I’d managed to procure them, she made a snide, “joking” remark to the effect of: “You’re welcome since my hard-earned tax dollars paid for your socialist health insurance glasses.”

This is the same woman who once went on an extended rant about how Michelle Obama is conspiring with companies like FitBit and Nike to collect our private health data so that the government can dictate to us what we can and can’t eat, how we should exercise, etc.

I don’t think I’ve ever told my mother to fuck off, but I came close that evening.


Last night I was going through some PDFs in my Downloads folder and came across a document containing the email exchange that took place the night that I was outed to my family. Reading through those messages brought back some intense memories.

Because there are still days when I wonder whether or not I’m being the unreasonable one in deciding to cut my parents out entirely. They do love me, in their own way, and no doubt they miss me.

Then I re-read those emails and was reminded of exactly why they’re not in my life.

For new readers, I came out in August of 2008, and was outed to my parents on 16 November 2009 via an anonymous email, which turned out to be from a friend of my first boyfriend who was furious with me for having broken up with him in October.

What followed in the hours after their receiving it was a series of replies (that, I admit, grew increasingly hysterical on my part) concerning who sent the email, who they’ve told, who knows, etc.

This was a big deal at the time because I was actively involved in the music program at the church we attended, and I was also teaching piano lessons at a Christian music academy, so my employment could’ve been jeopardized.

In one email, my mother commented:

We are sad that you have chosen to go against God’s design, but we love YOU. This isn’t any different than your anger or any other sin—sin is just choosing your own way rather than God’s. Does He love you any less? No—you are His creation. Do we love you any less? No. … In fact, it kind of feels as if you’ve spent your life trying to do something to make us not love you. We’ll be here when you’re ready to talk.

This is what makes it difficult to parse the emotions here. On the one hand, they aren’t spewing hate speech, which is good. However, there are so many dog whistles in that one paragraph: homosexuality is a choice, it’s a sin (like murder or drug addiction), God intended you to be heterosexual.

Also, you’re to blame for feeling alienated from us.

I wrote in one reply:

… [One] of the biggest reasons why I’m [angry much of the time is] that I can’t be myself around you all and be accepted, and [I’ve always cared about that]… [it bothers me that you seem to be] assuming the worst about me… that [you’d automatically think] I’m living like the rest of the world…

I’m angry because I’ve had to hide all these years and keep walls up to keep you all from [finding out and] attacking me.

In another exchange of messages, my mother expressed dismay at my stating that I’d felt uncomfortable before talking to them about my sexuality, that online dating is “SO very dangerous, so we are concerned for your safety” (because gay men are sexual predators, riddled with AIDS/all STIs), and that I should be talking to a “godly counselor.”

Here’s another part of how she responded the next day:

I can understand why you wouldn’t like women—I don’t like the woman I was when you were younger either. But you can’t let the Enemy keep you in that place so that you see all women that way, you know? … Do you think that you’ve allowed your emotions to control your thinking, rather than letting the Word influence you thinking so your thinking could influence your emotions?

So the reason I’m homosexual is because she presented such a terrible model of femininity that it turned me off to women completely? That I was lured into this “sinful lifestyle” by secular, Satanic notions of, what, moral anarchy?

In another email she suggested that gay Christians who write about revised scriptural interpretations on homosexuality have fallen victim to “Satan’s counterfeit of God’s Truth”and that “it depends on whether you want to know what God thinks or to feel better about the path you’re on.”


There were a lot of words sent back and forth during those two days, and there’s also family history that complicates things further.

Bottom line is that, to this day, my parents refuse to revise their views on my sexuality. It’s easier to put that safely away in a box, pretending that my sexuality is somehow detachable, unlike theirs, which is integrated.

It’s not so much the blatant ignoring of my sexuality that is bothersome. It’s the stolid, willful exclusion of all my sexuality represents: finding a partner, introducing him to my family, our parents meeting, getting married, navigating the choppy waters of where we’ll spend holidays.

These parts of myself are not disjunct. They can’t pick and choose which ones they’ll interact with.

It’s sad but clear which path they’ve chosen.

One that doesn’t include me.

239. refluent

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You’re quite a bit further out from your loss of faith than I am (I lost mine only 3 months ago)… I wonder if you’d consider blogging about how you survived your initial loss of faith, and if you have any advice for those of us who are earlier in the process? You may not have the time or the desire to address such things, but if you do, I’d be interested in what you have to say.

burnt-forestAin’t No Shrinking Violet asked this question in a comment on one of my posts about four months ago, and regrettably I’m just getting around to answering it today. This is partly because of how crazy my schedule has become with grad school and not having much time to write anymore. However, it’s also because until recently I haven’t had a good answer and have been avoiding dealing with that.

A few weeks ago I was on my friend Keith’s podcast, Vita Atheos, and he asked me this question, about how I survived my loss of faith. The short answer is that it took a long time to recover, and I’m still recovering. I was incredibly angry in the year and a half after I decoverted, and not without cause. I’d spent 28 years beating myself up for no reason—over struggles with doubt, my sexuality, and my increasingly secular outlook—and now it felt as if someone had been ransacking my house for most of my life, and I’d just noticed.

My set piece on this subject is that I went from being a Christian to Christopher Hitchens overnight. [Cue laugh track.]

Like many of us, my initial loss of faith was the shockwave of an implosion that happened almost a decade earlier—9 years, 4 months, and 22 days, actually. You can read about that story here if you like, but in hindsight, I wish I could have gone about it in a healthier way. My deconversion was the equivalent of going cold turkey off heroin after a lifetime of dependency on it.

As Julia Sweeney says in Letting Go of God, I had to “change the wallpaper of my mind.” Only I went a step further and burned the enire house to the ground. It wasn’t great, and I burned a number of bridges in the process. I have some regrets about that, about not giving some people a chance to get to know the “real” me, but I probably wasn’t ready, especially considering that the majority of my social circle at the time was evangelical Christians.

I will say that if the Secular Therapist Project had been open for clients in 2011, I would’ve been one of the first to sign up. As it is, it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally started seeing a therapist, and until last year that I finally connected with one who “gets” the deconversion and rebuilding process. It’s rough.

And it’s a different process for everyone. For some, it just made sense to stop believing in God, and for them it was largely a joyful and liberating experience. They don’t necessarily carry around the negative scripts and narratives that dominate the inner lives of former fundamentalist Christians.

I was raised in what in hindsight was an extremely toxic belief system. My parents, pastors, teachers and other authority figures taught me to not trust myself, to not trust others, to find fault in others, but most importantly, to find fault within myself. If I couldn’t find anything wrong within myself, I was to assume that I had allowed myself to become blinded myself to spiritual Truths (with a capital T).

Of course, these weren’t the lessons they were trying to impart, but it’s a natural and unavoidable consequence of the theology we accepted that this is how I’d come to see myself.

The reality I come face to face with today is not so much what they taught me as it is what they didn’t teach me, which is how to love and accept myself, and how to love and accept other people. You can’t truly do either of those things with the fear of eternal damnation continually looming over your head, and the fear that something you or someone else might do could put that in jeopardy.

So this is reality for me right now:

  • I don’t know how to be happy without the impulse kicking in to find something wrong with that happiness and ruin it;
  • I don’t know how to love myself because I can’t look at myself in the mirror without wanting to vomit or smash it, because I can only see the things that aren’t perfect or that don’t meet my impossibly high standards and expectations;
  • I don’t know how to let people in for fear of their actually seeing who I am and possibly rejecting that… or more like my inability to understand their acceptance when I can’t accept me.

That’s a long way of getting around to the question of how I survived my loss of faith four years ago. One answer is that I barely survived—I certainly didn’t grow. I lashed out at and pushed virtually everyone in my life away, especially those who were connected to Seth and his church. I retreated into an angry echo chamber of blogs, books, and online forums which only fueled my hatred of Christianity and Christians.

And a lot of people ran away. They could only see the angry, rage machine David, because that’s I wanted them to see. I didn’t want anyone to see the hurt, grieving, loss-wracked, and confused David who felt cut adrift and isolated from everything and everyone he ever knew.

Going to therapy has helped. Finding the Former Fundamentalists helped. If it had been around in 2011, Sunday Assembly might have helped.

But it was ultimately writing, and this blog, that saved me. Sharing my story and connecting with others with a similar story helped contain that fire.

I’m still recovering, still rebuilding. But it’s still a long road ahead.

238. caustic

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cups08I’m now into the twelfth week of classes in my library science master’s program, and between working a full-time job and doing monthly music for Sunday Assembly there hasn’t been much time for writing. With seeing my therapist every two weeks, there’s been plenty of personal reflection, but not much time to actually meditate about it, which has been difficult. Writing is how I process those things, but when one’s life seems to be flying along at 600 miles-per-hour, some things take a back seat for the sake of steering.

So a few weeks ago I was finally on my friend Keith’s podcast, Vita Atheos. It’s terrific, and you should check it out. It’s devoted to “telling the stories of atheists, their journeys towards non-belief, and the struggles that they faced in the past, or still face today because of their lack of belief.”

We’ve been talking about my being on for a while now, partly because of how unique my dual coming out story (gay and then atheist) seems to be in the community. It was an interesting experience being interviewed, and the conversation actually ran about two hours and fifteen minutes. And I didn’t even get to talking about my family!

It had also been a while since I’d told my deconversion story in detail. Most people in my life know the details so we don’t have to rehash them. Although recently, there have been conversations about the weird, fucked up things that I was taught growing up. At times it feels as if I truly came from another culture, or even from another planet entirely.

Because there are few analogues in “normal,” mainstream life—that is, for those who didn’t grow up in a conservative, fundamentalist, religious community. The “real world.”

One of the themes that has come up with therapists over the past few years (including my current therapist) is a sense of being just broken and fucked up from all of the religious programming in my early childhood years, further compounded by internalizing the homophobia that surrounded me at home and in my community. One of the things that’s come up is my inability to truly forgive myself for not knowing better, for not being stronger, for not coming out sooner and standing up for myself.

But as Lalla Ward is quoted as saying to her parents in The God Delusion: “But I didn’t know I could.”

That sort of historical musing is easy to do. It feels good to put ourselves on the moral side of history—standing up to the Nazis in Germany, or standing with Martin Luther King, Jr. against racism. Fifty years from now, children will read with similar horror about homophobia and opposition to gay rights. Of course I wish things could’ve turned out differently, and that I wasn’t trying to rebuild my life and constantly struggling under the weight of depression, anxiety, and inherited self-hatred.

The past few months I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around why I’m currently so obsessed with my age right now and being gay and single at 32. I think I’ve written about this before, that part of it the need to validate myself against the messages I got growing up, that gays don’t have relationships. Part of it is the rampant ageism in the gay community, and the fixation on being young and fit, and I frankly don’t see myself as either of these things anymore. I don’t have time to work out, so I’m still rather scrawny; and now that I’m in my mid-30s my metabolism isn’t what it used to be. I’m not overweight, but I am “gay fat” by the standards of the community (i.e., not having a gym-perfect body, BMI is over 12%).

Maybe it’s just Midwestern gays. I’m starting to wonder if that isn’t what it is.

The reality is that I’m where most of them are when they were in their early twenties, leaving me feeling hopelessly behind and outpaced. It seems so easy for everyone else to find boyfriends and relationships, and I don’t even know how to date. Perhaps it would be easier if my standards weren’t so high, or if I could just have fun; but it’s difficult as it is for me to connect with other humans in general, and I’m really not one for casual dating or sex, which frankly doesn’t leave many options in the Twin Cities since that seems to do it for most guys around here. Everyone here seems to be on Manhunt, Grindr, or Scruff.

#notmyscene

But there’s a much darker reality that I’ve just recently become aware of. It’s so new that I haven’t had time to put it into words, so this may not make much sense, but here goes:

Basically, at this point, I don’t know if I could be with someone when I can’t even accept myself.

Central to Christian fundamentalist teaching and Calvinism is this notion that humans are basically shit because of Adam and Eve. An ongoing theme of my childhood was a virtual obsession with sin and confession, because God is always watching, and Satan is always trying to trip Christians up. Constant vigilance. What could go wrong with teaching a child to believe that they were born flawed, and that even the most minor of unconfessed sins could land them in Hell for eternity?

So even though I know intellectually that I’m likable, even desirable, I don’t feel it. It’s the emotional equivalent of an eating disorder, I guess. What I see in the mirror is not everyone else seems to see. I see trash, failure, ruin, someone whose prime years were stolen by religion.

It’s as if, because I deem myself unworthy, I reject anyone else’s approval of me as a matter of course. Is that arrogant? Probably. But when you grow up fearing the disapproval of everyone around you, it becomes the lens through which you view all relationships.

An examined life may be admirable, but can also be unlivable.

234. consanguinity

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“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)

 

231. nostomania

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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

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“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.

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“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

− Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion”

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This past April, I was delighted to reconnect with a friend from college, Noelle, who is currently documenting the rebuilding her life after leaving fundamentalist Christianity:

https://noellemarieblog.wordpress.com

She writes with such elegant frankness and vivid detail of her early experiences as a young Evangelical. In one of her recent blog entries, she recounts when her father sat her down to explain the facts of life: that is, that we are disgusting, perverted sinners who deserve an eternity in Hell for the heinous crime of being born (because Adam and Eve, y’all); whose only worth is the fact that Jesus loves us in spite of our hideous, evil selves.

Noelle’s Jesus is not the Jesus of recent evangelical Christianity, the deity that Richard Dawkins pointedly describes in his controversial 2006 book. She believes in a loving God that bears no resemblance to the hateful, spiteful, malevolent deity we were taught to believe in, love, and fear as children. Though we aren’t geographically close, it’s been an honor to renew our friendship and to be able to encourage her in whatever way I can in her journey towards rebuilding a life based on truth and authenticity.

It’s an interesting time to reconnect as I’m essentially doing the same work of rebuilding my own life after living adrift for so long. It’s daunting work, especially the further down the rabbit hole I get into therapy, as I realize how many unhealthy fundamentalist Christian scripts there are still rattling around in my mind.

In talking with other ex-Evangelicals, one experience we’ve all had in common is how ingrained mask-wearing was to our upbringing and daily lives as Christians. It’s a curious phenomenon, especially in a culture that supposedly holds honesty as a virtue. From an early age, we were inadvertently taught that there are certain faces you wear to church, our in public, at home, and with different social groups.

There’s a lot of pressure to appear spiritual, godly, and pure. Shame is employed as a means of policing behavior in the church under various guises, usually as concern for someone’s spiritual well-being. Prayers would be offered, sometimes publicly, for people who were known to be “struggling” with certain sins. “Helpful” advice would be proffered, with corresponding Bible verses to justify behavior that would otherwise be considered intrusive and even offensive.

“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Galatians 6:1-3)

As I grew up, I developed personas (even different personalities) for various situations and people. I knew which face to wear at church, at Bible study, at choir practice, at youth group, at church band rehearsal, and out at the bar with friends. When I came out gay, I was one person when out with friends and another just a few hours later when I’d go to church. I even went to service one day after having had phone sex with my first boyfriend the previous night.

It was schizophrenic.

And none of this would be were it not for the culture of externalized self worth and affirmation that’s central to the fundamentalist Christian worldview. Every desire and action for the evangelical Christian is subject to the approval of God via the Bible — that is, the approval of those “qualified” to interpret the Bible based on their personal beliefs and prejudices.

The result is that for many years, even after coming out gay and then atheist, was that I was constantly and unconsciously looking for the approval and affirmation of others who I looked up to and considered authority figures.

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)

I didn’t trust myself or my own desires. After all: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). It took almost an entire decade to accept that my same-sex desires weren’t pathological, or evidence of my rebellion against God’s will.

To an extent, I still don’t trust myself. I struggle with the worry that I spent too many years ultimately pursuing the wrong career and educational path for me, having allowed other people’s ideas about what I should want for a career trump my own desires; that I lack the practical experience to make informed opinions about everything from dating to job searching; that, after everything, I’m just a poor imitation of a real human being.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4, ESV)

An insidious effect of these early formational lessons was coming to believe that what I wanted didn’t matter. To have personal desires was to be selfish. “Dying to self” was the chief ambition of the Christian. “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”

I’ve often said that fundamentalist Christianity relies heavily on Stockholm syndrome—of teaching people to be their own jailers and tormentors. And the system only works so long as you believe in it. The moment that you stop, it all falls apart, emotionally and psychologically.

Until a few months ago, my personal desires were virtually indistinguishable from the desires of people around me. Understandably, this had profound effects on friendships and romantic relationships.

More on this next time…