Monday, April 02, 2007

Lessons learned at TWC

I started this post a week ago, and somehow left it in draft mode (what folks in tech support would call a SUE - stupid user error). But I wanted to follow up on my experience at my first-ever gay/lesbian recovery conference - the "Together We Can" conference in Troy, MI.

It's been amazingly eye-opening. My exposure to a whole bunch of people in recovery - some of whom have been out for years, and some of whom have just come out (like me, or even more recently) was a real blessing. And I've learned some real truths about myself - not all of them pleasant.

From the very early parts of my life, one of the seeds of my addictive insanity was an insatiable desire (from a very early age) to be approved-of, to be "good enough," to be validated. And yet at the same time (8 or 9 years old) I had a deep sense that I was not-right, that I was evil, that the essence of what-I-was was wrong in some undefinable way. For years, I believed it to be some kind of basic understanding of original sin or something. (At least that's how I rationalized it.)

I now know the reason that I felt "wrong" in my life was because I knew, deep down, that I was gay. Even before I understood what it meant, I had that sense of being what one dear aunt called "a bubble off square." And even then I understood, from everything around me, that being that way (though in that day, it wasn't "gay," but instead was being a queer, homo, sissy, pansy, or fag) was wrong. It was unacceptable. And the one thing I didn't want to be was unacceptable.

The other thing I've come to learn a bunch about is my resistance to physical intimacy. In this way, I do fit the stereotype of the absent father (though I hate like hell to admit that I fit any stereotype!). My father was gone a lot while traveling for his job, and my mother depended a lot on me. I know now that my relationship with my mother fits under the category of covert incest - a situation where a dependent parent effectively makes their child their partner. (I've got a lot to learn about covert incest...a friend here recommended the book Silently Seduced, as a starter. I've got lots of work to do on that topic...

My relationship with my mom had to be asexual; the "friendships" I made with other boys had to be asexual. So the lesson became: deny what you feel; you're good so long as you lie. That's how I learned relationships were. (Just in case you were wondering, that's not a good thing.)

Resisting inappropriate affection led me into marriage with a woman who cared about me deeply, who was committed to the relationship, and whom I desperately wanted to be "right" for. The problem was, I was absolutely incapable of being a passionate partner - I was a lousy lover (which was bad) and I knew it (which was worse). That tragic self-knowledge left me with a big dollop of shame and self-hate - which was great fuel for my journey deeper into alcoholism.

Even once I got sober, the pattern continued. I tried, time after time, to find romance and passion with women, and ended up friends every time. The friend I went to live with kept trying to fix me up - I told him that I didn't want another relationship, and he kept saying, "So how 'bout some cheap gratuitous sex, instead?" He couldn't possibly know it was the sex I feared as much as harming another person in a relationship again.

And though the church fed my need to be needed and wanted in many ways, they also fed me the same message I'd been getting - intimacy is not right, celibacy is the norm. "True love waits." It's great to be straight, bad to be "bent." In addition, people-pleasing was disguised as "servant leadership" or "sacrificial giving." The churches I joined after I got sober were themselves needy, codependent, addictive groups whose drugs of choice were over-commitment and overwork. And I just continued to stick the needle in my arm...

I knew the "real me" would be unacceptable, so I became a star in service, in teaching, even preaching. If the church was open, I was usually there. But I hid my true self away - unable even to bring myself to the secret sexual releases so common to gay men in the church. It was only after the church rejected my candidacy for ministry (on financial grounds, not on any moral or sexual issue) that I allowed myself to even consider the possibility of coming out.

It took the efforts of two caring, honestly-open-and-out gay men to show me that "being gay" wasn't about who I slept with (since I'd been celibate for a decade) or what stereotypes I fit (because I didn't fit most of them). It was about who I was, and who I was attracted to. And if I was going to be honest, I had to come out. Tom and Michael were (and are) definitely gifts from God to this crazy, mixed-up homo...

So there I was: a week shy of fifty years old, at this conference. On the one hand, I found the freedom and the honesty almost intoxicating. Simply having the chance to see attractive men, and to be able to look, without fear of being harrassed or bashed, was amazing. But with that freedom came the knowledge (once again) that I wasted 35 years - fifteen of them sober, and in supposedly-loving communities of faith - hiding in fear. Loveless, affectionless days wasted, never to be reclaimed.

And while I celebrate my sobriety, and the chance to grow in faith and love, I also find myself furious - with my family, with my church, and with myself - for perpetuating the lie that I was (and at times, still feel) undesirable and unacceptable.

On Saturday night, the conference held a dance. I haven't actually gone dancing with anyone in fifteen years - and have never danced with another man, ever. I've never kissed another man in public. And once again, I was 14 years old and full of insecurities - again. I thought I was past this - but it all came screaming back that night. Quite a serenity buster, actually.

The Friday night Alanon speaker spoke of the promise of Joel 2:25 - "I will restore to you the years that the locusts have eaten." I don't think for a minute that those 35 lost years will come back - and I have to live with the consequences of a life lived in fear. But her words were a reminder that perhaps, this day, I can begin to live a new life - the life God always intended for me to live.

The dance came. Partly, the fear won - I just couldn't bring myself to ask anyone dance for the few slow dances. But I did actually get out on the dance floor for a number of songs; it seems I have at least part of a groove thang left (though I'm definitely going to have to get in better shape before the next conference, just from an endurance standpoint!) I won't ever end up on American Bandstand or dancing on anyone's bar anytime soon - but it was good. Score: B-minus/C-plus, overall.

I have to admit, it was interesting to see some of the other people God put in my life through this conference. Another guy named Steve - who is easily 1/3 again bigger than I am - was one of the most loud-mouthed, boisterous, out-and-in-your-face gay man I've ever met. He made Drew Carey look like an introvert! And the one moronic twink self-centered young man who kept referring to anyone over 35 who looked at him as "old trolls" would have been cruisin' for a bruisin' with any group but this one. Not to mention the group of close-cropped lesbians who looked more like twinks than some of the was, well, diverse, to say the least. But a blast nonetheless...

And I found that I have much to share in my recovery community, despite my lack of homo-experience. That still felt good. The fellow who roomed with me was a 40-year-old HIV-positive fellow who's 11 months sober, and unemployed. He wouldn't have been able to go if I hadn't already had the room, and a group of folks from my home group got him his registration. It was just so cool to see the light of his new life start shining into his mind. He'd never seen 300 people in recovery together - let alone 300 GLBT folks in recovery. It was great to watch.

So now, the challenge is how to carry this new knowledge into my daily life. It will be an interesting head-to-the-heart journey, I suppose. But for now, I am blessed to know that there is hope, even for a guy like me. Thank you God, for that beautiful gift!


  1. Congratulations Steve!

    It is so affirming to be in a group of 'mos. To see that there are people who not only tolerate the life but thrive within the community. What a great step for you!

  2. Glad you got to Dance. May you find joy in the music and the movement many more times.