What Support Groups Did For Me
If you knew me 22 years ago, you would have not really have known me. Who I was on the inside and who I was on the outside were two different men. There’s an old Freudian-type of idea that men with facial hair are symbolically hiding something. I don’t really buy that idea, but for me I think it was true.
It’s hard to describe the inside-man. So much time has passed since I knew him that I don’t remember him that well.
I know that he was happy. Any pictures I have are of me smiling and it was as genuine as it looks, but the happy moments were often interrupted by dark, shameful thoughts that I couldn’t shake without ignoring them and doing something that made me happy.
It’s not really all that unusual for people to deal with negative thoughts about themselves that they push down inside by concentrating on the more joyful aspects of their lives. It’s not even a bad way to cope and I might have gone on with that forever.
When the inside man came out, however, it wasn’t just me that was unhappy. It was others around me. I was quick to anger. I could go from being calm to enraged in no time at all and I was big and scary enough to make people afraid.
I fought with waves of depression and desires to throw my whole life away and start a different one. I’ve never been prone to suicidal thoughts, but I did sometimes fantasize what it would be like to just disappear and be someone else.
People held me in high regard and genuinely liked me. I was fun to be around and I enjoyed having a good time. Yet, in a crowd of people, like a church social, I was inwardly feeling completely alone and like I didn’t belong. I felt like a fraud, and indeed I was.
For me, disappearing to start a different life would easily have meant leaving my wife and family and finding a man to share my life with. My mind, my emotions, and my urges were all homosexual and I had known it for most of my life.
I need to say right here that I didn’t want to leave my family. I’ve always enjoyed family life, wife and kids, and all of the great stuff that goes with it. I had married well and our children have always been wonderful to me.
As great as it was, there was still a deep and abiding hunger in me for something different and I had decided that if I just stayed focused on my family, I wouldn’t have a problem. That strategy was working well, or so I told myself.
Growing up in the Mormon church, it was common to hear jokes about men like me. Everyone pretty much assumed that there weren’t any gay men in the Church and if there had been, they would have all eventually leave. There was no room for a same-sex attracted man who was determined to not let those feelings dominate his choices.
Either you were secretly gay and on the verge of running off with a man or you were straight and you didn’t have any untoward feelings towards other men. This cultural landscape gave me little choice but to shove down my feelings of shame. I reasoned that I was completely alone and unique in the church and the best thing I could do was keep up appearances and never talk to a living soul about it. It worked pretty well, because I refused to talk to myself about it as well.
So, you might wonder why, if what I was doing was working, what’s the problem?
The problem is, that if you’ve developed the skill of hiding your feelings from not only others, but also yourself, you exercise that skill in everything. You can easily find yourself in an unguarded moment that leads to unguarded hours that lead to poor choices and unfortunate decisions. You can do all of those things without even thinking of it, because you’re so good at hiding the truth from others and yourself.
Such was the case with me. Over a period of about five years, I found myself going to great lengths to get the attention of men whose looks or personalities had captivated me. I inserted myself into their problems under the guise of a really caring and helpful friend. I ended up overwhelming most of them and becoming more of a nuisance than a friend.
When the object of my attention was a straight guy, it would go in the direction of wearing out my welcome, but with others I found myself more and more tempted to go down a path that would have destroyed my family. This prospect frightened me enough that I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I finally admitted that pretending I didn’t have homosexual feelings and just focusing on my family wasn’t working and would probably lead me to a point of no return.
I started looking for resources. I got a therapist through my employer’s health insurance plan. That therapist was of the opinion that a man like me couldn’t be permanently happy married to a woman and she was going to help me stay married long enough to have it not impact my children, and then guide me into the life she felt I was meant to live. I fired her.
I found an online support group that I could participate in anonymously and as great as it was, it lacked something. I began to feel that I wasn’t as strange and unique in the Church as I thought I was, but I was still faced with powerful temptations and a sense of being alone.
One of the people in the online support group told me about a group here locally, one for Mormon men who dealt with feelings of being attracted to other men. He invited me to come join them, but I felt there was something I needed to do first.
I needed to tell Barbara about all of it. I couldn’t picture myself sharing my secret struggle with strangers if I hadn’t shared it with her. I owed her that and much, much more.
The night I told her, it went very well. My revelation had answered many of her questions and it revitalized our relationship for me to finally be so open with her.
A day or two later, when I told her I had found a support group, her understandable response was something like, “I don’t know if I’m going to let you go to that.”
Without hesitation, I told her, “I wasn’t asking your permission. I’m letting you know my plans.”
I completely understood her hesitation. She thought it was too risky to spend time with other men like me and likened it somehow to a diabetic hanging out in Dunkin’ Donuts. She had all sorts of objections, but I stood my ground.
I knew that I had to make a choice between appeasing her fears in the moment and doing something that would give me concrete and crucial support. She would just have to trust me, because for me the alternative was to continue my downward spiral and land in the place I didn’t want to go. I had to man up and own my problems and confront them as directly as I could. I could not choose the route of compliance. There was too much at stake to cave in to fear.
The first group I attended was fairly good for me. I was able to shed the shame and negative self-talk about me being the worst Latter-day Saint man on earth. I got to know some men who had the same feelings I did, and I as I began to admire them for their courage, I realized I could find my own.
It wasn’t meant to last, because the economy sent me looking for a job elsewhere. We landed in Ohio and were part of forming a new group there. That group was operated and hosted by a couple and they took us in and really gave us the respect we deserved. I was finding my courage and gaining confidence that I had never previously enjoyed.
We moved back to Oregon when my mother fell ill with cancer and I was instrumental in starting a new group here, the former one having disbanded during my absence. There were also couples assigned to help the new group and between the new friends I was making who were like me and the kindness and care of the couples assigned to mentor us helped me think of myself as not only someone who had a place in the Church, but someone to be admired and supported.
Not all experiences in groups were positive. I not only learned from men who were making good choices, but also from men who were making poor choices. I saw what worked and what didn’t.
I saw men who could not keep coming because they had succumbed to the fears of their wives and decided it was easier to stay in their wives’ control than to learn how to be men who make their own choices. There is nothing sadder than to give up your agency to someone else unless it is to be the kind of person who willingly takes another’s agency.
I learned that I can only control me and I can only learn to control myself with the full possibility of failure. I came to understand that I had to choose the right, not have someone else choose the right for me.
Through all of these group experiences, I gained a new perspective on my life, my struggle, and how much my family really meant to me. Instead of seeing myself as a misfit who needed to hide, I saw myself as someone that people could look up to.
I’m grateful to my wife, who only let her fears overwhelm her temporarily. She has spoken to groups of other wives and advised them to not keep their husbands on a short leash.
Twenty-two years ago, I felt like I slipping away from the life I had come to love and cherish. Today, I have no worries about my future as a husband, father, and now, grandfather. I often say that through groups, I got to know myself, but discovered to my surprise that I was worth knowing.