Eighteen

This morning, I was leaning into the refrigerator to get the milk, and I was startled by a realization. Today is my eighteenth anniversary of getting sober.

Eighteen years is a long time. A lot of the memories are simply words now. The emotions attached to the words have faded. I remember searching for release from my demons. I thought liquor was the release. It wasn’t. It made matters worse. Sobriety and the steps and friends and therapy and medication for my mental illness and meditation gave me release.

Release certainly didn’t come in an instant. It took time. I slogged through years of depression trying one medication after another. None helped. When I was five years sober, I had a realization that I was attached to my suffering. I was able to slowly let go of my need to be sick.

It’s not an easy feat, but I’m not sick any more. I like being whole. I honestly love myself now, which is something I couldn’t imagine. I think I began to be completely comfortable with myself somewhere around thirteen or fourteen years of sobriety. I found unconditional love two years ago. It’s quite strong.

I don’t want to change anything about my past. I’m quite happy with my life now, and I have hopes that it will even get better. There’s still a few things I want to do.

Self-love

I have spent five decades of life denying my needs. I was raised to believe it was selfish to take care of me. As an active alcoholic, I practiced a great deal of self-hatred. Being gay in the family and society and time I was taught me self-loathing. I had little chance to learn to love me.

I have often heard it said that we each have to take care of us. In early sobriety, I was told this was not true for me. I was told I had spent many years drinking in a selfish way. Loving and appreciating my strengths was denied me. It now appears to me this was another Puritanical way to get me to practice more self-hate.

Today, I embrace the idea that I must love me first. I have to open my eyes and recognize my beauty and be happy about it. Anything less than loving me first is a disservice to me and my family and friends.

A long friendship of mine ended recently. Learning to love me first played a role in my realization that this relationship was unhealthy for me. It was a relationship born between two people who were unequal. One was the superior and the other the inferior. Over the years, we made changes to try to equalize us, but I was never able to release my inferiority. The fault of that lay strictly with me.

As I have grown over the last several years beginning to love me, I grew uncomfortable in my inferior role. Recently, I witnessed myself being abused by passive-aggressive behavior and manipulation. For the first time ever, I spoke up and stated firmly that I recognized this abuse and that I rejected it. My friend was misusing me.

I reject abuse. I am worthy of respect. I am lovable.

Those simple words have been foreign to me my whole life. I was acculturated early in life to believe I was vile and subhuman, because I was gay. I turned for solace to alcohol and became its slave. After the psychiatrist told me I had bipolar disorder, I felt the natural shame that accompanies a diagnosis with mental illness.

I lived my whole life hating me.

As I sit writing these words, I turn away from self-hate. I embrace self-love. I give me permission to love me first. My hope is by loving me I will be able to love others more freely and completely.

It has been a week since the end of my long friendship that was based in an old way of self-hate. In this time, I have spent hours ruminating over my part of our relationship and its end. I can say I feel free now. I walk taller. I am lighter.

It’s funny. With my new decision to try life loving me first, I find I look at others differently. I care more. I wish to cause less pain. I want to give love.

Being Left Behind

A former lover killed himself two days ago. He was a kind, sweet gentle soul who never uttered a harsh word against anyone but his wife. Yes, he was a married man, and that’s just one of the reasons he was a former lover and not a present one.

I first met him maybe six years ago, and I was instantly attracted to him physically. It was the kind of attraction that felt like pure, unadulterated need. Nothing came of it. He moved far away.

Then one day, he was back. We met for coffee, and in that public place, it was all I could do to keep my hands off him. He electrified me. I put my hand on his knee and felt the charge surge through me. I know he felt it, too, because we made it to bed rapidly.

The affair did not last. I could not satisfy his many needs, and actually, I encouraged him to get psychiatric help, which he did. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, too. He called me quickly after that asking, “Are we still friends?” “Yes,” I replied. “With benefits?” he continued. “No,” I managed to eek out.

I saw him several times after that in social settings, and the meetings were pleasant.

I remember his soft voice, his questioning eyes, and his wide hands.

I remember his want. He had an enormous void.

His needs, desires, wants, and that void are all gone now, and I am left behind to carry the sadness and the anger.

I can’t tell his friends we were lovers. He was not out of the closet. I can’t tell my friends I lost a lover to suicide. We knew the same people.

It’s all bottled up inside me. The cork stopper is pushed down tight, and I so want it to pop open and release the pain and tension that boils in my stomach and sits on my shoulders.

I feel very much alone.

My Hundredth Post

The music is something I like and celebrates the milestone of 100 entries to this blog.

I have been sick. Again. During my week off training. Again. The last week-long break I had, I was sick with a terrible head cold. Either the same thing returned, or I had something different. I’m feeling much better today, and I’m getting excited about going to my final week of training. I’ll be there from Monday to Friday next week.

The third week of training was trying, to say the least. The subject matter was great, but the delivery left something to be desired. Unfortunately, the style of the training changed. Where it had been trainee centered, it became a lecture. For the first two days, in fact, we sat and listened. It was not pleasant. By day three, we were given the chance to do some serious role playing, and that was enormously helpful.

Week four promises to return to the trainee centered nature of a collaborative environment. We’ll be studying more about WRAP and specifically about facilitating groups of individuals designing their own plans. When we finish this week, we will be trained to work with individuals with mental illness on their recovery journeys and with groups in WRAP and Seeking Safety. It’s already proved itself useful in my life, and I am excited about the prospect of reaching out to others and encouraging them to make strides in recovery.

As I look over these few words here, I’m astonished at the change from so much of the previous writing. I have hope today. I mentioned that word in my regular therapy session yesterday, and my psychologist perked up. She mentioned that she thought it was the first time I’d ever used it in her hearing. I couldn’t remember using it there either.

I’m still an alcoholic. I still have bipolar disorder. I still take medicine to control the mental illness. None of that has changed.

But I have changed. I’m brighter inside.

My caseworker noticed it this week, too. He said that I looked better despite the cold. The change shows outside.

I am enormously grateful for where I have been and more for where I am today and most for where I am headed. I survived a fatal disease, alcoholism. I’ve battled the giant of mental illness, and yet I’m going to a place I believe will give me fulfillment I’ve never had.

Once when meditating in my happy place, I asked what I was supposed to learn in this life, and the answer came instantly. “Learn how to help.” Finally, I’m doing just that. I’m learning. It’s helped me. Sooner than I can guess, I’ll be helping others.

A Book Recommendation

I want to make a short post to recommend a book. It’s short, because I’m busy getting ready to leave for my third week of job training to be a Certified Peer Specialist in mental health.

The book is The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. (More information here.) It’s worth a read for almost all the gay men I know.

Alan Downs, PhD, the author, writes well about the struggles gay men face growing up and maturing into fully realized adults. The first point he asserts is that gay men are assaulted with shame at their homosexuality. He writes, “There was something about us that was disgusting, aberrant, and essentially unlovable.” (Emphasis by the author.) That thing had to be hidden, and by hiding it, we learned shame. We spend a lifetime overcoming this feeling.

He names three phases we pass through on our journeys. They are similar to the phases faced after being diagnosed with a mental illness. The beginning phase is being overwhelmed by that shame. Where have we read that before? Here Dr. Downs talks about denial and drowning. I know those well. I denied my sexuality until I was 35 years old. He also describes the lengths gay men go to in order to escape the shame of their sexuality. I went far. I married a woman, fathered three children, and became an alcoholic.

Phase two is given to compensating for the shame. The book relates stories of the heights gay men strive for in all areas of life. We look for the perfect job, for more money, for eternal youth through time spent at the gym, and for validation from our peers by having perfect homes, exotic vacations, etc. All is done searching for a way out of the shame.

Finally, the third phase is cultivating authenticity. All the compensation and probing for validation reach nowhere, and a gay man must look inward to find peace and satisfaction with himself and life. A good deal of the search for authenticity in the book is about healing trauma, which I am studying in my job training. Dr. Downs says that we are essentially looking for contentment, and I don’t disagree with him. He puts forth three ways we look for it: passion, love, and integrity.

Integrity really cuts to the core of the struggle of the gay man, meaning integrate all parts of oneself, or more formally, the state of being undivided. (Emphasis by the author.)

Importantly, the final chapter speaks exclusively to skills for attaining an authentic life. He even gives a chart for tracking progress on a daily basis. The list is long and thorough, so I won’t go into it here. Each skill is written carefully, and background information is given to flesh it out. The skills encourage us to look long term in our actions and search for authenticity.

I like the first one: “The man I would become.” The skill is to ask at each important decision, “What would the man I wish to become do in this situation?” I am experiencing a great upheaval these days, and I need to remember that question. It’s something to add to my Wellness Toolbox, I think.

There was much in the book I could relate to, and the writer relates many stories from his patients that were familiar to my own experience. What I found encouraging was that I honestly feel like much of the shame and pain surrounding it are in my past. It’s been a long road, but I’ve turned an important corner. I’m not going back.

I am cultivating authenticity.

Bipolar Dating and Love

How are you feeling? Loved and supported or abandoned and neglected? How is your mood? Have you checked in with yourself today? Here’s a simple question: did you brush your teeth this morning?

I am concerned about how we people with bipolar approach dating, romance, and love. Ah yes, amour. The best way I know for me to keep track of my feelings is to watch my daily insignificant behaviors. Am I concerned about my hygiene? Am I eating food that will give my body a healthy dose of the energy it needs? Am I reaching out to those around me with helping hands?

It’s my opinion that I’m on an even keel when I can answer those questions affirmatively, and love adds a layer of joy to the reaching out. I have many more questions to ask, but they’re not necessary to list here. I try to keep them simple, though. Complex questions confuse the issue.

I’m in an interesting dating relationship. My beau lives two hours away by car, so we don’t get to see each other regularly. He works a difficult job, too, and his hours are long. I live on disability, so my hours stuck in my head are long, too. Those hours spent rummaging through the entrails of my memories and musing about future possibilities are dangerous territory. I want to fill them up with him. Him!

Why can’t I just pick up the phone and call? Why can’t we spend hours together talking over coffee or even lying in each other’s arms? Why?

It’s a puzzlement, and I’ve had experience in the past with dating and love and revealing my illness. In my current relationship, I waited a month to tell him I was a recovered alcoholic and another month to break the news of my bipolar. I took it slowly due to past problems with those issues.

I have given out the information up front at times and had men walk out of my life immediately. That pain is fleeting. I once dated a man for eight or nine months, during which I was stable. At least, I think I was. I told him about my recovery from alcoholism and my diagnosis of bipolar, and he left, too.

Come to think of it, that last man wasn’t the best of those I dated steadily. He was inconsistent with his availability, often wouldn’t return my calls, and rarely initiated contact. The relationship was my responsibility, it seemed, and it made me nuts. It drove me batty.

I learned a very important lesson from him. I had three choices of how I could react to his behavior.

  1. I could want more of him and be miserable.
  2. I could accept what he was willing to give and when he was willing to give it and be happy.
  3. I could end the relationship.

I chose number two with that particular man only to have him walk out on me when I became open and vulnerable, but the lesson learned has stuck with me.

With my new job training and the life lessons it is teaching me, I know that I don’t have to run from the idea of opening myself to new loving relationships. My admirable qualities make me a great catch for some man. I’m recovering from mental illness. I’m not dying because of it. I have a lot to offer in the way of dating and loving.

I approach dating differently now. I used to throw myself into a relationship 100% from the beginning. When things soured, I backed off giving only 75%. Slowly, things would diminish, and I would be down to giving little more than 10%, and then the breakup would occur.

My current relationship is about ten months old. We started by trading personal information and stories via emails. We waited to meet for coffee, and then we had a lunch date. I told him my darkest secrets as I mentioned above, and he didn’t run from me. Over the intervening months, I have shared my emotions with him. He’s known when I’ve been down. He’s stuck around.

Maybe it’s because he knows we’re in this for a longer term. This relationship was started with the idea of becoming friends and working our way up to lovers.

Or maybe it’s because he likes me. That thought gives me a smile.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. The distance will keep me away from the one I call “my man,” but I have someone to calmly think of fondly. My smile is instant at the idea.