Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Underneath This Skin There’s a Human

When I was 12 years old, my family moved to another city. Many would agree that Middle school is awkward enough all by itself, without throwing in a move to a different school half way through seventh grade. Up until then it proved to be the worst year of my short life. The new house was only 30 minutes away from the Orange County neighborhood where I grew up, but for a twelve year old, it might as well have been the other side of the planet.

Moving in the middle of the school year, as opposed to the beginning, prevented me from going to the school that most the other kids in my neighborhood attended. It was a “magnet school,” which is just a fancy way of describing a public school where the kid’s parents are present enough to actually arrange for their kid to be driven to and from school (there are no busses). They always have an air of selectivity and “elite-ness” about them and so these schools cap out at the beginning of the year.

As a transfer student to the district, there was no room to accommodate me which meant that I had to be bussed 30 minutes to an inner-city school called “Auburndale.” It was known to the kids in the suburbs as “Auburn-jail” because of the metal bars adorning the perimeter, the stereotypes about the student body, and the school’s sub-par acedemic reputation.

Camping with the family when I was in middle school.
I have to admit the curriculum at “Auburnjail" was a breeze. Many days felt like a repeat for me with very little new or challenging material. But it was difficult in other ways. As a kid, I never felt like I fit in— even before the move. Being the awkward transfer kid in the middle of the year in an unfamiliar school, however, was a whole new level of awful because everyone knew I was the new kid. At lunch, on my first day, I stood in line for my greasy pizza and fries— this was before the days of smartphones and iPods and lines were always longer when you were alone. Worse was the realization that I would need to navigate the unfamiliar lunch benches and find a place to sit where no one would notice me.

I walked down the line of tables with my eyes set on the ones at the end where few people sat. As I walked, however, a boy called to me as I walked by and so I stopped. He had just taken a bite of pizza and it was difficult to understand what exactly he had said to me, but I stopped anyway and stood there while he wiped his greasy mouth with a napkin, turned around, and stuffed it into my untouched pizza. I was humiliated. He and his friends laughed and I walked on to the end table throwing my lunch in the trash along the way. I wanted to run away and cry, but I knew I couldn’t. Real men don’t hurt. Or cry. It would only make things worse for me.

My mother can attest, however, (and I feel awful about putting her through it), that those tears flowed freely every night before bed. I’d cry myself to sleep every night for weeks until I grew a skin thick enough to endure the pain in the way men are supposed to endure it. Skin is meant to protect us from harm. It is our armor. It is the wall of protection which guards our bodies from being invaded by some evil outside force. And so one day, after I had built walls thick enough, I stopped crying. And I wouldn’t shed another tear for twelve years.

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Being gay isn’t everything that I am. It isn’t the one defining characteristic. But it is a very large part of why I am the person that I am. I learned from a young age to guard myself. I couldn’t let other’s see too deeply into me for fear they would discover the thing inside that I was desperately trying to eradicate. I was sure that being found out would destroy me. I knew my only choice was to take that secret to the grave.

Set up on a blind date at BYU by friends
When I was at BYU, I remember consciously observing the mannerisms and speech patterns of other guys. I made a concerted effort to mimic the things I observed and keep my own natural behaviors that might seem less “manly" in check. I would force myself to make efforts to date girls despite the fact that it felt unnatural to try and show physical interest. And while I longed for that closeness with another boy, it was forbidden, and I would not allow it. I built layer upon layer of protection around me and it began affecting me more and more negatively. You see, while the layers protected me from outside harm… the sheer size of these walls left me isolated and unable to connect deeply with people. Friends who knew me then can attest to the fact that I used to flinch at physical touch.

Camping in Moab my Junior year at BYU-2009
The eventual collapse of those walls nearly crushed me. And when they did finally come tumbling down, the tears came rushing back. It was like I was 12 years old again, crying in my bed. I was 24. I remember once, driving back to Utah after visiting my family in California, I was sobbing so hard I had to pull the car over. It hurt like hell, don’t get me wrong, but it also felt human. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt like a living breathing human being instead of the walking shell of a person I had come to be. At least I was feeling something.

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I wish I could say that after accepting my sexual orientation, it has become easier to let people in and see me for who I am. But I think I wrestle with the same insecurities I’ve always had. I fear how others might respond to what they see in me. Whether it is a seventh-grade bully that labeled me a loser,  or a college friend who might discover I was gay, or even a lover who will ultimately see all of my flaws; I have difficulty letting people in. It has taken me some time to figure out why this pattern repeats itself throughout my life in every stage, but writing this post has given me a lead.

From a young age, I felt fundamentally flawed… I was different. I perceived that difference as weakness— one which threatened to invalidate me in the eyes of everyone I knew and loved. Being “different” is something we all relate to. Some differences, like skin color, are impossible to hide. But I could hide my “flaw,” and hiding it was a better alternative than being perceived as different. I could “act straight.” I could control my actions, dismiss my feelings and rationalize my thoughts. I could pass as another member of the heterosexual majority.  And so, I became a master people-pleaser— believing that, perhaps, if I tried hard enough to be what other’s wanted me to be, this feeling of utter deficiency would leave me.

What I didn’t realize was, not only did I forfeit to others the power to define whether I was a failure or success, but I positioned myself in such a way that I could never actually believe I was a success even if others expressed it. It was an unquenchable thirst for validation. I immediately dismissed any praise by accepting the lie that if they knew my secret, they would never say such validating things. And although I have learned to accept myself as a gay man, I have yet to learn to accept my flaws. I still feel invalidated by them. I build walls around me to keep people from seeing them.

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I need to learn to accept myself along with my flaws and my weaknesses. I must stop sharpening my flaws into barbs which I wear as punishment. When I can learn to be more kind to myself and see myself as a success, even with my shortcomings, I think I could start to deconstruct those walls for good and open the doors at last. Perhaps then, I could finally let people in instead of running every time they get too close. I want to connect deeply and genuinely with the people I meet and love. Writing helps me to be vulnerable. It helps me reveal the human under this skin. And while it may open me up to criticism, and although people might be offended occasionally by what I write, and even though my words are often insufficient or awkward, I am tired of wearing such a thick skin.

I don’t want to live a life behind walls I've self-constructed based on the fear that everyone outside is potentially that seventh grade bully. I don’t want to give power to others to define my worth or value. I’m tired of feeling ashamed of the human underneath this skin. It is too heavy a burden.


“A man's shortcomings are taken from his epoch; his virtues and greatness belong to himself.” 
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 



“Accept yourself: flaws, quirks, talents, secret thoughts, all of it, and experience true liberation.”
-Amy Leigh Mercree 

8 comments:

  1. Jonathan David: I am very happy for your insights, and I hope the way will be easier to transitate. At risk of saying what you maybe know, the books of Brené Brown are helping me much. It is very important receive the authentic signals of love coming from the others, because they help us to establish a common ground of acceptance. And, yes, we must accept and thank the gifts of imperfection, because they show us humans. By the way, I accept you as you are, with your vulnerability, and with your flaws and weaknesses Don't we have them because we are humans? I wish the best to you, and your actual life. Receive a real hugh without flinchhing, Lol!

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  2. With your words you make us living with yourself the struggle of the life. Exactly as happened when we read your other blog. Thanks for enriching us with your experience and makin us reflect in our own experiences that manifested our humanity. P.S. I also was bullied in fourth grade, after the change of primary school, and also was terrific the recognition of my gayness after many, many years. The moment I accepted myself and thanked for being as I am, was luminous.

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    1. Thank you. It is mostly self-therapy-- but I'm glad other people can relate to some of my experiences/ thoughts. I'm sorry for your past experience with bullying.

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  3. Richard Rohr in book "Falling Upwards" sums up there are two chapters of life. The first chapter has to do with discovering the script; dealing with issues of identity,
    security and sexuality. We ask questions like: "Who am I? How do I fit in? How can I survive?" The second is living the script out. Building "towers" of success in a career, a partner, peers, family, and a legacy from our found purpose (from our identity.) You can be twenty years old and move to chapter two or seventy years old and still be in chapter one. Can you divide your life up into chapters? I think you have done so here in this post in brief glossed over glimpses.

    In all the chapters, we have a spiritual outlook. That outlook changes, over time, that outlook naturally grows deeper. If we get stuck Rohr writes, we find that we are emptier if we aren't growing. I continue to be excited for you in these reflections because anyone can already see that by having been pushed down and choked out by others (as tragic and painful as that is) you are naturally now "falling upwards" into the second chapter of life.

    There will still be suffering. But adventures in never land as well. I hope it isn't too lonely. I hope you no longer feel like a "lost boy" waiting for a peter pan to validate you as 'one of the guys.' You are the man God created you to be. It is here where Augustine reminds us, "A heart is restless, until it rests with God." The asterisk here is, the heart that rests with God, grows with God. Are you wrestling, or are you resting, or is it a bit of both? If you haven't discovered who you are in the first half, you'll never get to what to do now. Only you know where you are. Only you can keep falling upwards.

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    1. I definitely can split my life into chapters. Currently, I believe I am wrestling. I am restless. But I have hope that it is the final fight before I achieve that restful state. Perhaps I will soon summarize the chapters of my life thus far, here on the blog. And though I am restless, I don't confuse this with being lost. "Riding the wind" sounds tumultuous, and it is-- but eventually it stops blowing and I will find myself in the place I was always meant to be.

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  4. Does your family accept you, or is it that they shun you because their belief says to ? when you are excommunicated from the church, for being gay, how does that intersect with family? Would like more explanation, as I thought family was given the choice, and would also be shunned by the church, and memberrs if they talked to their gay son

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    1. My family does accept me. I was very lucky to have a family that did not choose dogma and religion over their own blood. I was not excommunicated. I chose, instead, to officially resign my membership. My family's support has effected each person differently. Perhaps I will write more on this in the future. One sister has left Mormonism. Another is still very much a part of it. My mother is on the fringes of the religion and continues to find herself less and less comfortable within Mormonism. My dad still goes through all the motions of being a Mormon man. The way my coming out, and the subsequent support of family members has affected myself and my family is, indeed, interesting. You can likely get some glimpse into all of this if you look back on my old blog- ingaymormonshoes.blogspot.com

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  5. This was a pleasure to read. I love that you've been able to articulate your experiences so well.

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I'm a filmmaker a blogger and hundreds of other things. Life is full of possibilities, twists, and turns and I don't pretend to know exactly where the road will lead. However, I do intend to share the journey.