It’s been a busier but kinder week here at Lake World-be-gone, my new home. Weeks of rain—great for our huge maple trees—has finally given way to something more like summer here at last. We shared the finally burgeoning sunshine with some amazing friends last weekend—he’s a nurse and military fitness instructor, and she’s a firefighter/EMT—who effectively convinced me to embrace the benefits of eating like a glutton, and were also very helpful with redressing the digital deli meat on my left hand. (I’ll be getting those stitches out tomorrow, and it looks like the finger will live. :])
I was this week’s ‘featured writer’ at a local twice-monthly spoken-word open-mic event here in town on Thursday night. I read three episodes from TWICE to an appreciative audience at The Barnacle—Eastsound’s most charming and delightful little bar. They comp their featured writer’s drinks, and create a special cocktail for each of these events. This week’s was called the ‘Purple Rain’. It had sparkle in it. Like…actual sparkle. So, I and many others here are pooping like unicorns now. That’s Orcas for ya.
My mom, and my ‘middle’ brother from Idaho, came across the water to join Shannon and I for that event (the reading—not the pooping) and have spent a lovely weekend with us. They are sleeping in the rooms around me as I write this.
In between all these lovely distractions, I have somehow managed to get out yet another episode of TWICE—right on time again on Friday afternoon. And look! Here’s another blog post too! Such efficiency rests sits strangely on me, but I’m still hoping to get used to it.
Now, where did I leave you all last week? …Oh yes, still floating through the Tunnel of Love…
So, today we get past the fan dance at last to the real hat trick. The mental contortion that finally insured a lengthy fall from grace which would define my life in fits and starts all the way through college and beyond.
Believing that a so-called ‘minor sin’ invalidated my whole identity and potential as a person was just the first shoe to drop. Managing to ‘redeem myself’ by largely aborting a whole stage in my developmental transition from childhood to maturity was the second shoe, but not the last. (And as I sum all that up, think way back—to the earliest posts in this series. Hearing any strains of my father’s desperate compulsion to be inhumanly ‘good’ here? I guess I’d already managed to become him by then—if not in any way that either one of us could have recognized.) The real punch line, however, dropped with the third shoe. My quandary now is how to explain that last shoe to you—believably? Because this wasthe kind of insane maneuver that only an agile, adolescent mind already stretched and bent in some unusual ways could possibly have pulled off.
Before we go there, however, it may be important to understand how incredibly talented at compartmentalization my ‘abstinence training regime’ had made me. This ability to isolate things from each other within myself was, perhaps, all that made the contortion I am about to describe remotely possible—even for an adolescent me.
Way back in Post 22: Of God and Gandalf, you will likely not recall anymore my passing reference to the idea of ‘complete surrender to God,’ which became a somewhat focal concept for both me and my mom—in our different ways—during that ‘charismatic church-group’ phase when I was in junior high. I mentioned then that this topic would matter later. And later is now.
The long campaign to bomb my body’s new appetites into the ground for God had—as I mentioned last week—involved a LOT of failure and shame. And, as I also mentioned, each one of those failures caused me inordinate amounts of pain, as—being me—every one of them invalidated all my most heartfelt aspirations and core identity all over again. (Yes, yes, roll those eyes. More warm-up can hardly hurt, given what’s coming.) So, how to deal with such frequent and painful failure without just becoming completely immobilized by shame and despair? Well, I pulled out that old ‘utter-surrender-to-God’ technique: if your burden seems both beyond resolution and too painful to keep carrying, don’t keep trying to ‘work it out.’ Just let it go. Give it up to God—unresolved—and move on. Hadn’t that been why Jesus took all our sins upon himself on the cross? So we would not have to carry them? So, that’s how I’d kept getting back on the horse during those six or seven months I’d spent trying and failing and trying and failing to master and banish my dreadful infidelities to God.
But I, of course, had taken the concept to a whole new level—’cause that’s what I’d been trained to do—in so many ways, if you look back and think about it. By my sophomore year at Cirque du High School, I wasn’t just handing God the occasional broken appliance. I was consciously and intentionally putting my entire life to death every night as I went to sleep. That’s right. Since the spring of my freshman year, I’d been enacting a formal little mental ritual—every night—in which I put the whole day vividly todeath in my mind, and buried it—deeply and forever. As crazy and overblown as all this must have been sounding—for weeks now—I felt it all soooo deeply then that, if I’d had to carry one day’s failures forward into the next day for any period, it really might have crushed me. Romeo and Juliet were not the first or last teenagers to take excessive adolescent gravity all the way to suicide. So I made sure every night that whatever I’d suffered or screwed up that day was truly, deeply, permanently left behind, and that every morning marked—literally—‘the first and last day of the rest of my life.’
For clarity, this nightly ritual was not in any way gruesome or unpleasant. There was no grizzly or self-hateful imagery involved, nor any whiff of ‘self-punishment.’ These were not penitential or sacrificial deaths. They were peaceful surrenders, entirely about release and relief. They were escapes into permission to keep going and try again without being hogtied by the crippling weight of whatever I’d failed to be or do the day before. These deaths were about renewal, and they always left me with an amazing sense of peace.
But they still left every single day isolated from the ones before and after. That’s how I dealt with the agony of being me: literally ‘one day at a time.’ Which is, perhaps, how I managed to take this darkly comical dog-and-pony show where it went next.
And, where was that, exactly? Well, as I grew more and more successful in nipping my own experience of gendered sexuality in the bud, I became strangely more and more aware of its unfolding expression in everyone around me at school—especially in other boys. Not that I saw any connection between those two things. The guys at school all seemed to exude a raw, masculine charisma—in dozens of dazzling flavors—that I—can you imagine!—found nowhere in myself, nor any capacity to share in or connect with, however deeply I wanted to. As we observed way back in Post 23: An unqualified success, I had always known I was somehow intrinsically unqualified to be a real boy. That had been clear to me—unconsciously—long before my father ever took me in for that Buccal Smear test when I was eight. But now, even as I finally won my hard-fought war to redeem my identity and reclaim my deepest aspirations through ‘self-discipline,’ I just felt stranger and less ‘qualified’ to belong anywhere—with anyone—than ever before. I had never in my life felt more like some third species, in, but utterly apart from ‘the herd.’ And here’s the most astonishing part of my achievement—at least to me: I could not for the life of me see why.
I saw no connection at all between the absence within me of this masculine charisma or tribal connection I saw all around me, and the fact that I’d been working day and night for half a year to snuff those very things out in myself wherever, whenever, and however they cropped up. So completely had I formatted myself to navigate my weirdly tortured existence not just one day at a time, but one problem at a time, one fix at a time—constantly cutting my struggle up into ‘bearable moments’ and navigable tasks—that it was literally years before any hint of this obvious connection between what I’d ‘lost’ and what I’d so willfully exterminated even occurred to me. Seeing that connection would have required lining up yesterday and today—looking back over whole stretches of my own decisions and behavior to recognize patterns and cause-and-effect relationships. But I was dealing with—and surviving—the contents of my head by looking at nothing more—ever—than my feet, right now, right here, just this one step at a time. So even GIANT patterns of developing consequence could—and did—escape me entirely.
Yeah. Take an agile, if volatile mind immersed in the turmoil of adolescent transition, sufficiently focused on the right obsessions, filtered through the right set of wrong assumptions—and that kind of ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ really is possible. But I wasn’t done yet—not by a long shot. (And no, I will not make you wait ’til next week to find out what that means. )
For a while, I lived with this confusion—as I’d lived with all the rest. I kept on churning out artistic and theatrical ‘talent.’ I kept getting decent grades. I remained safely invisible by keeping everybody laughing at the ‘me’ I manufactured to ‘entertain’ them with. I hung out with my Christian friends like always, having ‘deep conversations’ with them about their struggles. I was a wiser and more caring guy than ever—while inside, I was caving in. I had ‘won’ my war, yet I didn’t feel redeemed. I just felt empty. Having put my sinful flesh behind me, I felt only more and more dead, while all the guys around me, who’d made no effort to put anything behind them that I could see—as if there were nothing in them that needed putting behind—seemed more and more alive to me. And still, the obvious explanations would not—could not—fall together in my head. It all just felt more and more bewildering.
Sometimes, one piece fallen out of place—in a house, or a car, or a person—knocks another piece loose on its way down, which falls into some part unrelated to the original malfunction, knocking it into still other parts, until the whole structure begins to twist and break. This proved to be just such a cascade. Way overdue, I suppose, given how long and hard I’d been trying to construct a life out of broken, borrowed, or entirely mislabeled parts.
I began to sleep a lot, and dream more and more vividly—all night long, every night—epic, complex, narrative dreams, in vivid color, which then started becoming ‘lucid.’ More and more often, I knew very clearly that I was asleep—that this was ‘only a dream’ where I could do whatever I wished. One night I ran around a room pulling new walls out of old ones, re-sizing windows and exchanging existing furnishings for different ones just by waving my hands—simply because I knew that, in a dream, I could. Eventually, I pulled a glossy black, grand piano out of thin air, which, oddly, arrived with a woven straw basket sitting on its lid. “In a dream,” I crowed to no one in particular, “I can eat that basket, and it’ll taste like candy!” Then I grabbed the basket and took a big bite out of it to prove my thesis. …But, to my amazement, it didn’t taste like candy. “This tastes like a basket!” I exclaimed in astonished outrage--and woke up. I closed my eyes again immediately, trying to get back inside the dream to make that basket taste the way it should have—like candy, damn it! …Was there a message here from me to me? …Clearly. But I failed to understand the memo.
I still remember all those dreams—in graphic detail—all these years later.
One night, I was explaining the whole ‘we’re not really here; I’m in bed dreaming’ thing to a chimpanzee with whom I was hiding out behind a rocky outcrop above a desert basin somewhere. We were accomplices on some sort unspecified but adventurous ‘spying’ mission. He couldn’t speak, but I knew he could understand everything I was saying. He could even answer me, because I heard his thoughts as clearly as he heard my words. We were watching an empty-seeming adobe settlement in the distance, where something important was about to happen. When it did, the chimp and I jumped over the rocks to go play our part, and that’s when I suddenly understood that knowing this was a dream—and using that knowledge for my own purposes—was unspeakably dangerous, for some reason as unclear to me as it was viscerally certain. I woke with a gasping spasm of fear—and prayed all night for protection from whatever I’d set in motion now. And that was the last lucid dream I had for decades.
In fact, dreaming of virtually any kind shut down for me after that—literally overnight. But I went right on needing more sleep than ever—all night, and for as long as I could in the morning, and for a few hours in the afternoon if I could swing it. I still buried ‘today’ as I went to bed each night, but I no longer woke up feeling free or fresh. I felt profoundly exhausted—all the time. I shuffled through the Cirque’s hallways to classes and lunch as if wading through sand, putting on a kind of puppet show starring ‘Mark’—the well-behaved, wise and caring, funny as hell, anti-hero hobbit guy—as if. After school, I went home and straight to my room to lie down and sleep some more. If I couldn’t sleep, I just rested my head on my arms and rocked my head back and forth—for hours. As winter passed, my skin grew waxy, tinged with green around the eyes. My hair turned wiry and changed color, from the ‘almost blond’ it had always been to a darker, reddish color. I had always been skinny, but my ribs began to stand out so much that one day in the locker room, a ‘fun-loving’ jock in my PE class walked up and ran his finger down the ‘speed bumps’ on my side. “You should spend some time in the weight room, Ferrari.” His buddies laughed. “You’re lookin’ like a toothpick.”
Of course I did. He and his buddies were full, but I was empty. I could think of nothing funny to say. He was the comedian-on-call that day. My brand was ashes, and I knew it. I just still didn’t know why.
Eventually, even my parents noticed that something was wrong. I wasn’t the only one who looked at me and saw a wraith. We all wondered if there was some physical problem that medicine could fix. I hoped there was. I wanted this fixed very badly. They took me to a doctor, to whom I described my exhaustion—and all the sleep I seemed to need—the way my appetite and appearance had changed. He asked a lot of questions, which I answered as completely as I could. And then he asked me if I’d ever considered talking with a therapist.
I still remember how the hair stood up on my arms. A weird, silent shout banged through me. Then everything inside snapped shut. “I’m fine,” I told him. “I don’t need a therapist.”
He gave me a long look, then shrugged amicably. “Okay. If all this doesn’t improve, come back and we’ll take another look, but right now, I can’t find anything here to treat.”
I thanked him and left, certain—all the way down—that I would not be coming back. He’d checked me over, and I was fine. That was all I needed to know.
And just like that, I was fine. I went to school the next day feeling calmer than I’d felt for years. Within the next few weeks, my skin returned to normal—along with my sense of humor. I went to see a barber, and damn if my hair didn’t grow back out in its normal color. I was fine. Just fine. There was clearlyno need to go see my old therapist again. My work there had ended years ago. All finished—successfully. And I was fine. …Have I already mentioned that?
Everything was ‘chill’ after that. Except, I still never, for a minute, really forgot that, deep down, where not even I could hear me scream, I would never be qualified to be a real human being.
I never really stopped trying to find even just a shard of that ‘spark of life,’ that ‘real boy’ charisma, somewhere inside myself—but now I searched for it ‘secretly.’ Like, if I were stealthy enough, not even I would catch me doing it. I’d have given anything to find some sign of real life in there—as long as it didn’t lead to anything as dangerous as physical arousal.
It was during these ‘secret searches,’ I think, that I first stumbled upon ‘the obvious truth.’ Though all of my now-banished sexual fantasies had revolved around sex acts between a boy and a girl, that boy had never quite been me. …Well, not the tiniest bit like me, actually. He had never looked anything like me, or acted remotely like me. That boy had always been someone ripped, and good looking, athletic and confident—someone qualified to be in those fantasies at all. It didn’t arouse me to imagine having sex, I slowly conceded. It aroused me to imagine someone qualified having sex. Someone allowed to have sex. Someone erotically equipped and fully charged. Someone…else.
Have you guessed yet what my fertile, doomsday mind did with that realization?
Of course you have.
The sympathetic but unyielding voice inside me that had spent so long learning to confront the worst, at whatever cost—the voice that knew what terrible consequences flowed from refusal to face the truth—that voice said, very sadly, “You’ve always fantasized about boys with girls, Mark, but it’s the boy in those fantasies you’re aroused by, isn’t it? Not the girl. You have never been qualified to be a ‘real boy’ because you’re clearly gay. Haven’t you always known that?” (Always known what? How could I have known that? Where would such an idea have come from? …I still had no conscious clue about my father’s long-standing fears concerning my sexual orientation. He’d hidden them quite carefully, and effectively, from my conscious mind—even as they’d gone on, year after year, shaping and defining so much about our daily rapport, or lack of it.) “…You’ve done a very decent job of standing up to your body, Mark. But are you strong enough to deal with THIS now?”
Just as sadly, I assured the voice of ‘conscience’ that I was.
Oddly, this new thought that, yes, of course, I must be gay, summoned not a single fantasy about guy-on-guy sex. This didn’t feel like any ‘moment of discovery’ to me at all. It just felt like the final, irreversible death of everything I’d always most wanted to be. The fact that I’d never once experienced a fantasy, or had a single dream, of any male-on-male sexual encounter didn’t even register then. The fact that thinking of such an encounter now that the possibility had occurred to me only filled me with dread—as if it were something unpleasant I might now have to do someday—skipped right past my attention, much less my calculations. While I had felt plenty of envy and/or hero worship for guys like ‘Billy,’ I had never felt any sexual attraction at all to him or any other guy—or, for that matter, any other actual living person of either gender—yet. But what did that prove? After years of therapy, I knew very well what ‘denial’ was. It was trying to get out of facing ‘the truth’ by hoping for something better than the worst. But I had learned long ago that ‘the truth’ was invariably ‘the worst,’ virtually by definition.
It would be more than a decade later before I even came to suspect, much less understand, how very much alike ‘what one wants to have,’ and ‘what one wants to be,’ can feel and function inside of us. Imagining how it would feel to be a sexually potent man can be as arousing as imagining what it might feel like to have one in bed with you, though these are verydifferent wants. But any such distinction was utterly invisible to me then, and would likely have been dismissed by me as ‘cowardly wishful thinking’ even if I’d been aware of it. I had been conditioned for so long, in so many different ways, by so many different people, not just to fall into this kind of error, but to refuse any ‘easy’ escape from it. This was my perfect storm, at last. Everything I’ve told you in all these posts to date had finally come together here, to steer me exactly wrong at every turn. As I’ve already observed about houses, cars, or people, when one part is twisted out of true, it soon twists things around it until the whole structure becomes skewed.
For clarity, the actual thing twisted out of true here had virtually nothing to do with being or not being gay in itself. If I had been gay, then this moment, however difficult, would have been one of crucial, constructive discovery, and, in time, cause for celebration. If I had been gay, this moment would have steered me at last toward my real and right community, not to mention my only true path to several kinds of ‘love.’ In time, I’d have come to see that there was nothing there in need of fixing—even if it were a thing that could be ‘fixed.’ If only I had been gay, I’d eventually have come to see this moment as the first step toward knowing and celebrating who I really was, and should be, and embracing what was really ‘happening on the ground,’ instead of continuing to run fruitlessly toward or away from empty inventions in some ‘guidebook to what life should look like—when you get there—which the author clearly never has.’ Which is what most of us are given to read as kids.
Not that the sixteen-year-old boy I was did, or could have, understood any of that back then.
But, for all my tragic certainties back then, I wasn’t actually gay. I was something else. Something stranger and less likely, which I would not come to recognize, much less find language to describe—even to myself—for many, many years. What was twisted out of true then was my false and fearful misapprehension. Having ‘dug down far and hard enough at last’ to find ‘the real problem’—my father’s secret fear, mistaken for my own—I was now pointed and launched at years of ‘fixing’ the biggest thing yet that had never needed fixing—misfiled in every direction, unsuited to belong anywhere. The journey from that point would prove very long, and, in some ways, very costly—though I would eventually emerge from it, having learned a thousand things I’d never dreamed of knowing as I entered this long, dark ride. Most of them bright and very useful lessons, it turns out.
But I could not have guessed that either, way back then. Few if any of us are born ‘enlightened.’ Enlightenment, in my meager experience, comes most readily from having really, really, really fucked things up—many more times than once. I hadn’t had anything like enough time for that—yet.
And what has any of this to do with that ‘invisible, train-less train wreck’ I’ve periodically referred to? That, I will wait until next week to explain. :]
Until next week, cyber-pals, I wish you lots of sunshine, warmth and relaxation—and not just at work!