Monthly Archives: January 2014

Friend Redefined

When you have an EMDR treatment, the therapist tells you that the memory you are reprocessing in therapy may come back to you a lot over the coming week, and that you should take that opportunity to continue thinking and processing, don’t resist the thought but just go with the process. My thoughts from my last session (detailed here) have left me pondering two interrelated ideas: abandonment and friendship. I’ve experienced a good deal of abandonment from numerous people throughout my life, and, partly as a consequence, I’ve had to constantly redefine what it means to be my friend.

Kindergarten was really the first time I ever met children my own age. And, so it seemed, everyone liked everyone else and  played with everyone else. It didn’t occur to me that there were kids who didn’t like me. (Imagine my shock when I worked in a daycare, and the three-year-olds cliqued off Mean Girls-style.)

But then I got to first grade, and everything changed. The children grouped up during recess, and I was left out. You see, I was the boy who played with dolls, thus violating the strict gender-segregation codes instilled in us by the pink-aisle marketing mentality. (I will say this for my parents–they let me shop in whatever aisle I wanted.) On occasion, a girl might let me play with her, but for the most part, I was a pariah.

At this point in my life, “friend” meant “playmate”, and I didn’t really have any. Sometimes a fourth- or fifth-grader would feel sorry for me and tell me, “I’m your friend,” but, of course, they didn’t play with me. Now I understand the vast developmental differences that justify why they didn’t play with me, but at the time their words sounded hollow.

In second grade, I developed a strategy. I would befriend “new kids” their very first day of school, before anyone could turn them against me. And I would have a playmate — until my friend moved away, which always happened, often in a few months’ time.

By third grade, with a sporadic history of playmates, I altered my definition of “friend” to “someone who doesn’t make fun of you to your face”. That was fully half my class. I had a lot of friends.

In fifth grade, it was “someone who sticks up for you”.

In seventh grade, it was “nobody”. What friends I had in sixth grade were not in my classes, and had taken an interest in girls.

In ninth grade, it was “people who spend time with you” — not far removed from “playmate”.

The line between “friend” and “enemy” blurred sometimes. Some of the members of my church youth group bullied me, but the youth pastor said it was because they liked me. And so I let them bully me some more.

In Bible college, “friend” meant “someone to whom I can entrust my secrets” — and I was carrying the biggest whopper of a secret: I was gay.

At age 29, it was “someone who stuck with me after I came out of the closet”. For a while, that was two people.

At 30, it was again “nobody”, as I pulled up stakes under duress and moved to Minneapolis.

It stayed “nobody” for two years. Then I randomly fell into a large circle of friends. And we spent a lot of time together. And we played games. And we would entrust our secrets to each other.

And along the way, I joined Facebook. I reconnected to friends I had lost along the way. As well as a lot  of acquaintances. But we don’t call it “acquaintancing” on Facebook. We call it “friending”. So in social media, the count of those who are considered my friend is artificially high.

But then, two years ago, I went back to school. For various reasons, I fell out of the circle of friends with whom I had spent time and played games and entrusted secrets. This hurt. I doubled down and focused on my schoolwork.

Now I look to relocate in a few months. And I find that my social life the last two years is nearly as bereft as it was my first two years in Minneapolis. I currently have some opportunities to develop new relationships, but it seems like a fool’s errand since I’ll be leaving them soon.

And I’m stuck wondering if this move will mean inventing a new definition of “friend” to tide me over until everyone leaves again.

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Voyager

This morning was my weekly EMDR therapy. This is my treatment for PTSD. I feel like I’m drowning in initials, sometimes.

EMDR stands for “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing”, but the name is a bit deceiving. Originally it involved eye movement , but now it can involve any number of sensory inputs. For my treatment, I hold two small vibrating devices, one in each hand.

Basically, when someone undergoes severe trauma, their brain gets rewired to process sensory data differently, so they’re always on guard, hypervigilant. It makes the sufferer tense and anxious and worried pretty much constantly. In EMDR, the therapist goes back into the traumatic memories with the aid of the sensory input to undo some of the traumatic damage and make the patient’s life less tense — easier.

My description doesn’t really do the process justice. I’m making it sound like the therapist is minimizing the trauma, trivializing its impact. It’s not that. It’s more that it takes away the power that the traumatic event has had over you. It helps you overcome.

As I was going through my memories today, strangely enough, I kept coming back to scenes from Star Trek: Voyager. Of course, I’ve been running through the series on Netflix (just finished Season 2 Episode 12 a bit ago). But I also have recurring dreams set in the show, in which the Borg are attempting to assimilate the U.S.S. Voyager.

The ship of my dreams, literally. From http://memory-alpha.org

At first, I tried to pull my thoughts back to the memory I was supposed to be working on, but my therapist told me to just follow this train of thought and observe it.

And I flashed through all the characters on the show as if they were photos in a family album.

Family. It struck me that this is the appeal of the show for me.

If you’re not familiar with the show, a very simplified version of the plot is that the crew of a starship is hurtled halfway across the galaxy, and they are trying to get back to Earth with none of the support or allies they are used to having. So the crew all have to learn to rely on each other. And as the series goes on, the crew think of themselves more and more as a family, even using that word for themselves.

And it strikes me that this is a common theme in shows at the time. (Voyager ran from 1995 to 2001.) I came across a critique of the show Friends a couple of days ago. (If I have time, I’ll dig up the link later.) It decried the show for featuring the most self-absorbed characters in history, that their entire lives revolve around their immediate relationships, with no connection to the outside world.

I think the critic is missing the point. Like many shows that achieve a certain canonization in our culture, it depicts a fantasy. It gives its characters the very things we wish for in life.

And for a child of the Nineties (which is really more what I am despite the fact that I’m pushing 40), this idea of security in relationships means everything. We, the generation whose families broke up, whose parents may not have been around (in the same way they were so conspicuously absent in John Hughes movies and suchlike) craved some depiction of the comfort, safety, and love we so desperately wanted in our own lives.

I may well find myself back on the bridge of Voyager after I drift to sleep tonight. And when I do, I’ll see a reflection of the sort of connections I’ve always wanted in my life.

“Crazy”

I’ve been meaning to follow up my last blog post, because the incident has still left me with a lot on my mind. You see, the thing is, the gentleman caught me catching the bus on a Wednesday afternoon. If he had caught me on a Monday morning, I would have been indeed on my way to the “crazy clinic”.

I have a multitude of psychological impairments for which I have been treated for years, and which I have talked about with some regularity on this blog: generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, delayed sleep-phase disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. With the exception of the circadian-rhythm issues, these all came from having lived a less than easy life. There were a lot of bad things I went through as a child that left a permanent mark on my psyche. And I’ve been working diligently with medical professionals to erase that mark the best I can.

What if the gentleman had encountered me on a Monday morning? Who knows. I would most likely have changed bus stops, but I probably would have been in tears along the way.

I like to pretend that my disabilities are invisible, that you would just assume I’m healthy if you passed me on the street. This isn’t really the case, though. My disabilities leave me with tense body language and a hypervigilant engagement with my surroundings.

And some people, rather than observing such symptoms in a person and reacting with sympathy, instead erase them with words like “crazy”. Sadly, the mental illness known as lack of empathy is underdiagnosed in our culture.

I will not be erased. I will stand. I will stand for those unable to stand for themselves.

Dear Gentleman at the Bus Stop

Dear Gentleman at the Bus Stop:

First off, I want to thank you. You see, I’ve been experiencing a bit of writer’s block lately, and I’ve been looking for inspiration. Our ninety-second interaction encapsulated so much of what is wrong with society that I now have writing fodder for days.

And because you don’t know what was going on before our unfortunate encounter — not that you bothered to ask — I thought that I’d fill you in (on the snowball’s chance that you happen upon this post).

I missed a bus. By thirty seconds. That was to take me to an appointment that I have been waiting on for two months. I needed to contact the clinic to let them know I was running late and to see if there was any way they could accommodate me. But I didn’t have the clinic’s phone number. You see — as I’m 99% certain you noticed — I don’t have a smartphone. Because I can’t afford one. I get my phone through the LifeLine program, and it offers no internet capacity.

So I was stuck trying to figure out how to get their number. I tried calling someone who I figured would have the number, but we had multiple issues in getting the correct number to me. And in the middle of all that, I thought to contact directory assistance. If you haven’t used it lately, it’s all automated, and you have to say things very clearly, like “MIN-NE-A-PO-LIS MIN-NE-SO-TA” and “MED-I-CAL CLIN-IC”. And as clearly as you’re talking, over the din of the downtown of a major metropolitan area, you can barely understand a word the computerized voice is telling you. You’re just looking like and idiot saying “MIN-NE-A-PO-LIS”.

And as I’m doing all this, I’m pacing about. I know, this is verboten in Minneapolis. At a bus stop, you’re supposed to stand still. Well, when it’s below zero out, I move, because moving keeps you warm. And all that pacing may make you look like an idiot. But —  unlike everyone else in this town — I don’t complain about the cold.

So, in the middle of all this, the lady standing next to you asked me if I was okay. And I replied — in the foolishly honest manner that I have — that I missed my bus to go to the clinic and that I was having trouble getting their phone number.

And at this point, you engaged me. You told me that my shoe was untied. And I thanked you, but said that I needed to focus on something else right now. Because it was more important that I get hold of the clinic in a timely manner than that I tie my shoe. And, quite frankly, in forty years on this planet, I have never once tripped on my shoelaces.

And then you noticed my coat. And you decided it was not a winter coat. I hate to break it to you, but I was actually warm underneath my coat, probably warmer than you . It has a fitter cut than the enormous parka you were wearing, and so at first glance might appear more appropriate to spring or autumn, but I’m baffled that you didn’t notice how ridiculously thick the fabric is.

And that’s when you told me that I wasn’t dressed for winter. I forget the exact wording, because shortly after this statement, your reasoning spiraled so far out of control that to take down an exact quote from you for this blog was not the first thing on my mind.

Now, here, sir, was your first mistake. Because one would think that if a human being observed another human being underdressed for below-zero weather, and they were engaged in conversation about this very fact, the first thing you should have done was to inquire whether there was anything you or anyone could do to ensure I was more warmly dressed.

(And yes, I said “should”, despite all that liberal-arts public education I’ve had that has told me the word “should” is a bad word. But — and I hate to break it to the academy — this damn relativism has produced an I-can-do-whatever-I-want mentality that is, frankly, screwing society over. I only hope it’s not irrevocably so.)

Now, inexplicably, you decided that my supposedly thin coat made me “crazy”. And that the clinic I was going to must be the “crazy clinic”.

And so, sir, you might have felt quite proud of yourself for your quick-witted jibe. But you know what? Your snide statement only further contributed to the stigmatization of mental illness in our culture — and that stigma leads to people killing themselves, because words like yours make it harder and harder for them to seek the help they need. So, if you notice an infinitesimal smudge of red on your hands tonight, you know where it comes from. Words have consequences.

Now, sir, I don’t know what you thought I was going to do next. Since you had deemed me “crazy”, you might have thought that I would punch you, or rant about the aliens that live under my tinfoil hat. But you seemed to enjoy what I did next.

I’m about to get to the point where I question your upbringing. But, you see, you said “thank you” as I walked off to the next bus stop. You thanked me for removing my allegedly “crazy” self from your almighty presence. And because you have the capacity to say “thank you”, I know that somewhere rattling inside you is some modicum of decency.

So why did you not use that decency at any point within our interaction? You seemed quite proud of your capacity to bully an emotionally distraught person. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find anyone other than yourself to give you an accolade for doing so. Did you honestly think I was going to just stand there and continue to listen to your insults? No, sir, because that would be “crazy”.

I honestly have no idea what your story is — because, from the outset, you ensured that we would never have a chance to exchange stories. Oftentimes, when people act as you did today, when they have the hopelessly wrong notion that some human beings are ontologically superior to other human beings (and of course, they usually see themselves in the former group), I assume that their parents must have somehow inculcated that idea in their heads early on.

This is, of course, a drastic oversimplification (but you were in the mood for oversimplification today, weren’t you?). The majority parents do the best they can, there are societal pressures that undermine good parenting, and some kids just grow up in defiance of their good upbringing.

And yet, I’ve also seen bad parenting in action. See, one of the great many things you don’t know about me is that I spent several years of my career working with families, and I saw all the good attitudes and the bad attitudes that parents pass on to their children. And, frankly, it’s the kids who are being brought up with the bad attitudes that make me nervous for humanity’s continued survival.

But regardless of where nature and nurture fall in this equation, at some point, we all grow up. We become adults. And, for the vast majority of us — with the possible exception of those whom you might erase with the word “crazy” — we become responsible for ourselves. We have to take stock in our lives, and if there was some poor nurturing, whatever the source, that wove its way into our history, we have to take responsibility to unweave it.

You looked to be about fifty. About time you grew up.

I hope that I just caught you on a really bad day. When I was working with families, I was taught to always assume that bad behavior was merely indicative of a “bad day” and not of a larger pattern — even when I saw the same bad behavior from the same people day after day. I hope that whatever got stuck in your craw worked its way out and that you had a good day.

If this is not the case, if your behavior today is the norm for you, then I hope that you’re not a parent. I hope that you haven’t raised your children to believe that your behavior — so utterly lacking in grace, compassion, and the most rudimentary elements of humanity — is somehow socially acceptable. And if that is how they were raised, then, by all that is good and just, I hope that they have taken up the responsibility to undo those lessons.

You see, I don’t get the privilege to be a parent. The best I can hope for is to admonish every person I come across to raise their children to be loving and kind and compassionate. See, I’m committed to making the world a better place, and that means doing everything I can to undo the consequences of the sort of behavior I saw in you today.

You were astonished at my behavior today, though I fail to see how I did much of anything that was beyond the pale, other than that I didn’t exhibit the icy unflappability that is considered the greatest Minnesota virtue.

Well, guess what? When I crossed Hennepin Avenue, getting hold of my acquaintance once again to finally get the correct phone number, I shared my amazement and befuddlement at how a grown man saw fit to run off another man from a bus stop.

Some would say your actions were “crazy”. But I’m not going to erase you with that word. I’m just going to hope for good things for you.

You surprised me, because somewhere in my head, I have this notion rattling around to assume good things of people.

And I guess we’re not yet to the point where I can make those assumptions about everyone.

But, I tell you, I’m going to do my damnedest to work for a world where we can one day.

Peace to you,

Whittier

PS Since you didn’t ask exactly where I was going, and only assumed: I was going to a dental clinic, not a “crazy clinic”. And they were able to fit me in when another patient didn’t show. And now I have a nice smile — one that you can never take away.

On the Impossibility of Turning into a Giraffe

You will notice above this post a link to a new page. This page will lead you to the .pdf of a multigenre essay I wrote this past summer, entitled “On the Impossibility of Turning into a Giraffe”. (Alternately, you can click here.)

The essay details the history of Exodus International, from the perspective of former leaders and clients, as well as from my own experience. I have chosen to publish this story for free and online so that anyone may have access to the information therein, and learn about the inherent dangers of attempting to change one’s sexual orientation. I hope that this work might help anyone who wants to know more about this history, or who might be considering such treatments.

Fleeting

I was working on a different story this morning. But I just hit delete, because now I am haunted.

This story (trigger warning: cancer) showed up in my Facebook feed. It features a four-minute video that covers the life and death of a young woman. If you have the emotional space right now, I recommend you watch it

And I watch that, and it seems that any piffle I could write this morning pales in comparison.

Because life is oh so fragile. And we don’t like to confront the fact that it is fragile. We busy ourselves with a million distractions to keep our thoughts away from the awful fact that every single one of us will die.

And life is so unpredictable. We don’t know when we will die. The young woman in the video had a couple of months’ notice. But some of us get no notice at all.

I look back on my life and see so many opportunities missed. Risks not taken. Chances squandered.

The party I skipped out on because I was too tired to go — the lost chance to spend a few precious moments with friends.
The date I didn’t ask for because I was sure I would be turned down — the missed possibility of friendship or romance.
The injustice I did not speak out against — the forgone opportunity to make the world a better place.

And, of course, I run the risk of wasting my hours and days and years looking back on a life of regret, rather than seizing the moment to better my life, to better the world, thus perpetuating the cycle.

So how do I make these few fleeting moments of life worthwhile? This is a question only I can answer for myself. But it must be answered — before it’s too late.

Wake-up Call

So a couple of weeks ago, I started experiencing some weird physical symptoms. I just mentioned them in passing to a medical professional (who I was seeing for unrelated reasons), and before I knew it, I was sent off to the ER and embarked on a few days of heart tests.

The good news is that the symptoms I have been experiencing weren’t related to my heart. (This of course means we still need to track down what’s causing them, but at least we’ve ruled out the most serious culprits.)

I want my ticker to run a long time. Photo by Salticidae via Flickr.

The bad news is that I must make some changes to my lifestyle. I’m pushing 40, so you know what that means:

Exercise and diet.

I generally hate exercise with the blinding passion of ten thousand suns. First off, I find it boring. It is almost impossible for me to get bored, so this is saying something. I think some of it has to do with the repetitiveness, but more of it has to do with the isolation. Unless you have the money to plop down at a gym (which I don’t), exercise is a solitary endeavor that grates against my extrovert nature.

Of course, you can exercise in public–walking, jogging–and it doesn’t cost a dime. But then you have the prying eyes of the public upon you. Yes, I know, I shouldn’t care what strangers think, but I do. I don’t have much lung capacity; I get totally winded if I run a couple of blocks. (Or so I thought until I did a stress test–apparently I can jog for a while as long as I gradually build up speed  and don’t care about collapsing into a heap for fifteen minutes afterwards.) I don’t like that I get winded so easily, and don’t like the idea that everybody on the sidewalk can gaze upon my ineptitude in all its glory. (Remember that I live in the downtown of a major city, there are always a lot of people around.) And I know that the only way to increase my lung capacity is to do those exhausting four-block runs and build it up gradually. But it’s hard to wrap my mind around the long-term benefits of temporary embarrassment.

As to diet, I have an absolutely crappy diet. Mind you, I love cooking–but I hate cooking for myself. So I gravitate to foods that are simple to prepare–peanut-butter sandwiches, nachos, frozen pizzas. This is compounded with the fact that I have a bad habit of forgetting to eat. I get so wrapped up in the projects I’m working on that sometimes it’s 5 pm or so before I realize I haven’t eaten yet. This does not set one up for healthy eating, either.

And I’m sitting here writing this, and I envision all of you sitting back and pointing at me and telling me I’m making excuses. And, of course (assuming you’re actually doing this), you’re right. I’ve been sitting on these excuses for far too long. I’ve been letting stupid things get in the way, like the trauma of middle-school PE (which is supposed to set you up for a lifetime of healthy habits but more often than not dissuades you from doing so).But I simply have no choice now. My blood pressure, which was once fantastic, is now elevated. My HDL cholesterol is too low. And I can’t ignore my family’s history of heart disease, either.

And so I must figure out how to make myself eat well, and get over my dread of exercise. Because I have no intention of dying at 59 like my father.

In other words, I’m 39, and it’s time to grow up.