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The long term reality of religious abuse

In my book (It’s Life Jim…) I cover the subject of mental health openly but fairly lightly.

Although these days I help many work through the debilitating trauma of religious abuse and it’s impact on LGBT people, I realise I haven’t actually shared much of my own struggles – only snippets really. I was wondering why I’ve avoided it, and I realise it’s because of the stigma. I’m afraid that it will invalidate me – that if I share too much, I will have no credibility in my work with Silent Gays and just be relegated to the rubbish heap of nutters!  But life is about facing our fears, so here is my day to day reality… (pull up a comfy chair, it’s going to be a long one)

The first layer of fear was from very young, realising I didn’t fit the expectations of family and society (although I couldn’t express it as that at the time). I was ADHD but it wasn’t a “thing” back in the 60s so I was constantly being judged for being a space case and a dreamer. I couldn’t focus for long on anything, always wanting something new and getting bored far to quick and most of the other classic “symptoms”.

The next layer was hitting puberty and finding that I had zero attraction to girls and it was the boys who would send my hormones on a rampage. But it was taboo to even talk about it. So I lived a conflicted dual life in my most formative years.

The next layer was the impact of religion, enforcing the stigma that anything outside of “normal” heterosexuality was living a dreadful sin. This drove me ever onwards to find a “solution”, get healed/cured/changed/whatever – anything but live in the excruciating pain of guilt and shame caused by the religious beliefs. This became the most damaging part of my life, as I pursued every imaginable way of becoming straight.

During all this time, through two marriages, numerous different church denominations, doctrines and theologies, and endless counselling, I fell deeper into depression and suicide ideation. But I couldn’t even let anyone know that either! I was already a “loser”, if not to those around me, most certainly in my own mind – I was a failure.

Finally, I embraced the “gay conversion therapy” practices of Living Waters for 15 years, clinging to the hope that this was going to finally change me and bring the freedom I was so desperate for. But of course, it didn’t. The depression became worse and I would become crippled with anxiety, but still I had to hide it and use every ounce of strength I had to live day by day. My marriage was an absolute sham, and my wife constantly shamed me. So often I felt like I would “explode” – what exactly that meant I’m not sure, but that was the feeling.

My wife died, and I collapsed. I had lost all my reference points, I didn’t know how to process what was happening and depression and anxiety left me needing “real” counselling (not Christian pseudo counselling) and medication. Thus began the slow climb out of the pit.

Here’s the reality though that so many of us who have been through something like this suffer. We “walk with a limp”. I don’t mean that in some nice wise sounding metaphor. I mean it as a limp with a bloody open wound that although it doesn’t stop us from getting involved in, and enjoying life, does mean we are always walking in the pain and effects of our injury. We do our best, and yes, it’s unbelievable better than what we lived through, but the wounds never seem to heal.

To put that into my daily practical affairs, here’s what my own “wound” is like.

I have ADHD, so my ability to focus is limited, unless I lock on to something that absolutely captivates me and then I can’t leave it. I am impulsive, get bored quickly, forget stuff, remember the wrong things at the wrong times, and all the classic ADHD stuff. But after the meltdown when Min died, these symptoms became heaps worse. I could pretty much work around them in the past, but now they are extreme. I have regular bouts of depression still, although not crippling like they used to be, and I’m sooo thankful for that! I get anxiety attacks too. At first they were pretty bad – things like freaking out in the supermarket and bursting into tears. But I still get them. I’ll start to get nervous and tense for no reason and keep thinking I’ve forgotten something really important.

I used to be pretty good with complex technical information and did well as a technical writer and instructional designer, but another aspect of my meltdown was that as the ADHD and anxiety had increased, I lost the ability to comprehend that sort of information any more. This has been a source of incredible frustration and sadness, especially as I was a bit of a wiz with electronic music and computers. I’m also a qualified trainer/facilitator but the thought of teaching IT or Health and Safety Systems (as I used to) sends me into a panic!

As a result, I couldn’t hold a job any more. I’m pretty much a liability, never knowing one day, or even one hour to the next, what my mental state will be. Pressure, expectations, deadlines etc cause my mind to go blank, which sets off anxiety because I can’t function, and become fearful that I’ll let people down. So I went on the sickness benefit (thank you New Zealand for your wonderful social welfare system – even if it does have it’s problems).

About a year ago I decided to try getting work again and coming off the benefit and the meds. It’s been one crazy year! I ended up doing security work, simply because its pretty chilled with low expectations, but there was constant pressure for long hours at crappy pay to cover the bills. 12 hour night shifts, brain numbing day shifts standing around, which for an ADHD person is living hell! I finally had to quit a couple of months ago because I could feel my brain falling back to the point of breakdown again.

This is my life – I never know from day to day how my mind will be. I’m really good at putting on a happy face, and I’m always the funny guy, but I’m broken. I’m happy, in fact life has never been better, but my wounds are deep and I simply can’t function in life as we are supposed to.

What happens is that the mind is deeply scared from having to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms all its life. A life of shame and guilt creates patterns of thoughts and reactions that simply don’t suddenly leave, especially as you get older and the responses are so ingrained. Things that may appear “normal” life to others trigger me into confusion and anxiety. I can start the day with the best of intentions and find that suddenly my brain has totally lost the plot and I can’t complete a single thing I’ve planned.

I can however, communicate! I can write with passion about religion and being gay. I can talk to a crowd for hours about it! I can take people on roads of self discovery. I can run workshops and seminars, and feel incredible compassion and empathy for the broken like myself. But ask me to sort out technical stuff like my website, and accounts and running a proper organisation and I grind to a halt – despite the fact that in my past life I was very capable and even had small business management qualifications.

These days I’m trying to find part time work that I can actually handle, that pays enough to cover the bills while I try to build some online work to finance my passion of helping others.

Anyway, I’ve rambled somewhat, but only in the hope that I’ve created a picture of the ongoing effects of mental illness. I’m at peace in many ways with it all however, as long as I allow myself to roll with it. If it’s a “bad” day, I try to just chill out in the knowledge that tomorrow will be different. Not always easy of course when I’m often faced with daily simple tasks, but I’m getting there, despite the niggling shame that persists for not being “normal”. Things like mindfulness meditation have been the biggest help, as well as long walks on the beach.

That’s my “limp”. That’s my life. It’s a good life, but only if I let it be a good life in the full acceptance of my limitations, embracing all that I am right now, with all its mess and unpredictability. I love who I am now. I have no regrets. I don’t live in constant shame and guilt any more. I want to live, and live that life to its fullest, which is amazing considering most of my life was spent figuring out ways to kill myself and spiralling through chronic depression and fear.

Yep, this is me, warts and all!

Division in the ranks

The term “LGBT community” is an immensely broad brush stroke that tries to define all the variations of sexuality and gender humans experience. We are often obliged to add more subgroups into the term to embrace everyone) LGBTQIA etc. The list keeps growing as we all desire our own label to communicate exactly who we are to others.

This is a normal human reaction to life. We love labels!

But there’s a problem with labelling in regards to sexuality and gender. We are all, every single human on the planet, somewhere on the sliding scales of sexual identity/expression and gender identity/expression as well as physical gender attributes. There simply aren’t two people who experience exactly the same identifications and expression. The following chart explains the basic spectrum for all humans. While not perfect, it does give us the basic idea.

The significance of all this is obvious – labels are almost redundant and quite often, counterproductive, creating misunderstanding, rejection and division – despite our best intentions to find our own unique niche.

Ideally (and yes, I’m an idealist), we should all have the freedom to simply be who we are, whatever that looks like. Don’t get me wrong, we do need some way of identifying ourselves so that we can find friends and communities we can relate to. But there is a lot of bigotry and judgement that goes on, even (or especially?) by others who identify as being on the spectrum.

Drag queens, cross dressers and trans women often don’t see eye to eye. Butch lesbians and trans men get into spats. Asexuals feel left out. And of course, the attitudes towards the flamboyant feminine gays by masculine gay men can be disgusting. I even found a group that call themselves G0ys (that’s gay with a zero instead of an a). These guys identify with the idea that we are all on a spectrum of sexual attraction, but they actively denounce anyone who doesn’t fit their “look and behave like a straight male” paradigm and have extreme opinions about the evils of anal sex. Sadly, just another bunch of people who, while trying to create a broader acceptance for the male sexual continuum, have created deeper bigotry instead.

My dream is to slowly lose the LGBTIQwhatever label as we learn to accept our uniqueness. Let’s stop denigrating others because we don’t understand or they “aren’t like us”. There’s enough of this in all areas of life without it affecting those of us who have to battle for the right to simply be who we are.

I’m “gay”, I’m only attracted to men, I express myself as reasonably masculine but have some aspects of the feminine psyche that “soften” me (damn those jazz hands). But that doesn’t mean I want to be pinholed as a bear or whatever silly sub-label you want to dump on me.

I’m Jim.

I love and respect every human equally, and I accept that no two people are at exactly the same point on the spectrum of gender and sexuality. We are bigger than the stereotypes!