April 23, 2015

A Beloved Father and Pastor, and His Lesbian Daughter

Religion, science, and politics are currently tangled in a very messy dance over whether or not a person chooses to be gay, and what repercussions the issue should be allowed to have on our broader society. I think we all know the American conservative Christian position on the point, so let's not belabor it. That's a discussion for another time. Nor do I wish to discuss the current political wranglings. You can hear that argument anywhere.

I am interested in the best current scientific wisdom about when and how I "became" gay. Based on research surrounding twins, heredity, reported sexual attractions, and a host of other factors, the current understanding goes like this.

Photo courtesy of
Hybrid Medical Animation
This is an X-chromosome. I really don't know how that actually works, either, so let's assume we're all in this together. We know that XX means a mother's having a girl, and that XY means she's having a boy. If you look very closely at the photo, you'll see that wrapped up inside that chromosome is human DNA, and of course, that spiral is made up of individual genes, lots and lots of them. Apparently, genes have even smaller units attached to them, called epigenomes, that tell the gene how to behave, and they change and even get turned off as we mature. In the womb, male fetuses have an epigenome that ensures their sexual characteristics and preferences won't get changed by the fact that their mother is female, and vice-versa for female fetuses. Those epigenomes usually turn off once their carrier is born, but if they don't, then a father passes his masculine sexual characteristics to a daughter when he fertilizes her mother's egg. And just that fast, a new little lesbian is made. If a mother's epigenomes keep working after they're no longer needed for her, they'll pass in her egg right along to help shape a gay baby boy.

Dad was 6'2" and some 300 lbs of utterly heterosexual male, with all the attendant frustrations for Mom about issues like house-cleaning and drinking milk straight from the jug. I've never met a more self-secure man; he sometimes wore pink dress shirts while delivering his fiery sermons in church. When surrounded by a houseful of menstruating wife and daughter, he went calmly to the store and bought maxi-pads, totally unfazed by it. My father believed that homosexuality was a perversion of God's design for human sex, but he was in no way a homophobe, never fearing for a moment that his attraction to women could be rattled in the slightest. Are we in any way surprised that this man's DNA was powerful enough to alter my personality?

My mother also had issues with ME on matters like drinking milk out the jug, and never being able to clean a room to her satisfaction. I loved my mother so dearly, but I adored and emulated my father in every way I could practically achieve; very frequently, I considered him my primary model for mannerisms, a habit that frequently got me in trouble. For example, I had to learn to wipe my sweaty face with the collar of  my t-shirt, rather than the tail that my father used, so as not to flash the crowd. I wanted to make my mother happy, but I wanted to BE my father when I grew up. I'm proud to be my daddy's little lesbian girl, even though I know he would have been uncomfortable with such a statement.

Last week saw my partner, Kristina, and I pass the one-year mark in our relationship. She's a maddening joy and new-found wellspring of hope, constantly challenging me to become more the person I wish to be. My father (who died in 2007) made it clear he was proud that I was so much like him, but the one thing I earnestly wish we could have shared was the wonders and frustrations of loving a good woman. I wish I could call him and ask how he made my mother smile so genuinely for decades, that I could have questioned him while there was still time about how to help a woman's love for me endure like that.

April 20, 2015

PTSD 2--Automatic Mind

In my last post, I listed several new diagnoses for myself, and it seemed to spark similar questions for more than one reader, questions like, "Do you do anything but seek out labels for your issues? Isn't the actual diagnosis for one who constantly searches for diagnoses 'hypochondriac'? Does any of this then accomplish anything?" Today, I would like to address the ways in which my previous breakthrough has nothing but practical applications.

Defining Automatic Thoughts

Panic and anxiety sufferers like me are masters at a thought process called "catastrophizing," i.e. some little thing happens, and my mind has already built it up into the worst case scenario possible, then declared that outcome a certainty. Psychiatrists often refer to this pattern as "automatic thoughts," but the term is misleading at first. The thoughts to which they're referring did not spring to life from nothing, fully formed, to torment their patients. These patterns are built up year after very painful year, the patient teaching herself to panic first and think rationally later, if at all. However, once the habit is established, it is automatic; it happens before I'm even aware that it's happening, and therefore I have no chance to challenge it and calm myself down. I had to become aware before I could begin to change the mental behavior, and the resulting actions I take in response.

Image courtesy of Sports, Nutrition and Supplement Guide,
who offer very clear coverage of the subject

Some examples:

If someone says to you, "What's 2+2?", odds are pretty good that your answer is automatically "4". You don't stop to ponder, you just spit it out, and never question whether the mental path you took to arrive at that answer was accurate. But you weren't born knowing that answer; some diligent teacher drilled it into your head, or else you were just extraordinarily advanced and taught yourself. Either way, at the age of 6, you probably had to consider to come up with an answer. Equally, I'll ask you, "What is 3x4?", and you'll likely give me a quick and accurate response, but you wouldn't have when you were small, and still had no concept of multiplication. We function in adult society by using automatic thoughts all the time. Our thoughts automatically warn us that if a moving vehicle in front of us in traffic stops, and we don't, there will be a wreck, so we slam on the breaks. We don't have time to debate the point; we have to stop immediately, so our brain processes it all for us and gives us the answer. Now imagine if that function goes haywire on you.

Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS)

My discussion last time of the progression from being afraid of going to hell, to being afraid of God, to being afraid of any authority figure, to being afraid that any mistake can destroy my life, is an elaborate word-diagram of what now happens instantaneously in my head all the time. Someone says to me, "You need to go to a place to which you've never been before to fill out this paperwork," and right on the spot, I picture myself lost, roaming the streets of Minneapolis for hours, or reaching the office, but making a mistake on the papers that will somehow not only defeat my purpose, but land me in jail through some horrible misunderstanding. I'm not exaggerating. Every time I leave the house to do something I've never done before, that's a major triumph for me. After a lifetime of loved ones dying, people kicking my parents out as their pastor or fears that they might do so because of some mistake I made as the preacher's kid, living through a flood, my parents' bankruptcy and my own, I am accustomed to life going wrong, often without warning. My mind has me in a fictional account of the world crashing around my ears before I have time to draw breath.

A real-life example:

I'm on Medicaid as my only form of health insurance. Last week, I made a mistake and didn't inform a health care provider that I was going to have to miss an appointment. Several days later, I was notified that because the mistake was mine, the office was still going to charge for the appointment, and I would have to pay it myself. What are your first thoughts? Perhaps something like, "Well, that's unfortunate and a bit foolish, but mistakes happen. You learned an expensive lesson, I suppose! Won't let one slip past you like that again." Indeed.

MY first thoughts went something like this:

"Oh, my God! They'll probably take my Medicaid away over a screw-up like this! Why am I ALWAYS screwing up?! Even when I try to do everything properly and as they tell me to do it, I always manage to make a mess of it. What's wrong with me? What's wrong with the world, that there are always more requirements than I can ever seem to fulfill? I've never been able to keep up under the everyday pressures like all the normal people do, and I never will."

Maybe, like my partner, Kristina, you know me, and think to yourself, "But you look confident most of the time. I mean, you got all those degrees! Traveled the world! A lot of the time, it just looks like you don't want to do something, so you don't." Maybe. But now you know what it sounds like in my mind. I'm often terrified.

Awareness: The Only Cure

After so many years of believing such horrible things about myself, about the world and its perceived dangers, the only way I'll ever change these patterns is to first become aware of them. Like your brain when it tells you not to hit the car in front of you, mine tells me not to leave the house, not to take risks of any kind, not to try things unless I absolutely know I'm good at them, even things I think would be fun, and for years, I didn't question its pronouncements. I don't particularly want to work most minimum-wage jobs, that's true, but I really do want to meet new people, try new restaurants, visit stores and museums, and I often don't do those things for the same reason that I don't currently try to work. The same fear drives all that avoidance--the technical term for when a patient goes to great lengths not to do things that terrify them--and until I knew that, I couldn't counteract it.

Now that I know what automatic gymnastics my mind is performing, I can say to it, calmly and internally, "That simply isn't true. You won't go to hell if you go to church and God notices you're gay; that assumes He didn't know before, and trust me, He knew a lot longer than you did. No, you won't lose your medical coverage over one mistake; you'll just have to pay the doctor's office a small monthly payment until that debt is cleared. No, not every mistake could cost you any job that you do land. When the moment comes, you'll admit your mistake, and carry on with your work day."


So, I'm all fixed now, right? There should be news of a job within the next few weeks! No, it's not quite that simple. I spent 37 years building up these mental pathways for my automatic negative thoughts; it will be, according to my therapist, at least a few more months before I have enough practice under my belt with automatic POSITIVE thoughts that I will no longer burst into tears in the middle of the bank if my boss is frustrated with me, as I once did when I was 18 and made a mistake at work. Still, after last week's revelation, I filed my own taxes correctly, tried two new restaurants with my partner, met one of her friends from work for the first time, and have started writing again. I don't do self-analysis as a hobby; I do it to begin to rebuild my life.

April 15, 2015

PTSD 1--Afraid to Do

I have spent a lifetime searching for the information I found today on the internet in a 20-minute search.

I don't mean I just wanted to know what I found; I was desperate to know, terrified there was something horribly, fatally damaged in my character that would always leave me a procrastinating wastrel.

So if it was vital to know why I do certain things, why did I never just enter those search terms into a Google screen before and find my solution?

I call him "Google Monster"

I'm about to explain. The answer lies within the question.

[WARNING: Diagnoses ahead. If you truly believe that these days, everyone has a label instead of just taking personal responsibility, then this post will infuriate you, and I can't help that. You may not wish to read it.]

Frequent visitors here know that I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and that it stems not from any military service or pattern of childhood abuse, but from the trauma of events such as surviving a flood at age 13, and living with two terminally ill parents, until their deaths in 2007 and 2011.

However, you may not be aware that from about the age of 8, I have experienced anxiety and occasional panic attacks when confronted with a new task about which I do not feel confident. For many years, life has felt as if it adds more and more demands upon me, and each one takes a toll. So what, right? It does that to everyone. Very true. But not everyone lives in terror of not doing it perfectly the first time, no matter the task. And not everyone fears going to hell if they don't accomplish that mission impossible.

My father was a Pentecostal pastor nearly my whole life, and at the age of 4, I really listened to one of his sermons promising heaven to the saved and hell to the unsaved, and believed that I would go to hell if I didn't go forward to the altar and pray "the Sinner's Prayer" with him.

This old-fashioned Pentecostal "altar" is housed at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
Known in the early "Revival" days as a "Mourner's Bench,"
it was a place where penitents sat, and later more commonly knelt,
to pray for immediate conversion and forgiveness.
I said my initial prayers while kneeling at the single-railed "altar" in the
Church of God of Mountain Assembly, in Salem, Indiana, c. October 1981.

In the minds of everyone around me, this was an extraordinary and blessed event, a wonderful thing for me to do at such a young age. No one seemed to take into account the very real terror of going to hell, nestled in the mind of an impressionable 4-year-old, that inspired the move.

by Hans Memling

DIAGNOSIS #1--Hadephobia, aka Stygiophobia/Stigiophobia--a fear of hell, of being eternally damned to hell, so severe that it can debilitate the sufferer. At best, a person with hadephobia may spend most waking hours trying to decide how best to please God in order to avoid this eternal fate.

Even though I was so young, I do remember that before these events, I loved and respected God, just as I loved and respected my father/pastor, and I saw them as very similar in behaviors, motivations, and affections toward me. Now, God became a source of terror, even though my father certainly never was. If anything, the fear of God began to color my view of my father, making me afraid that failing to please one directly equated to being eternally judged by the other, a fear I had never envisioned before. Soon my mother, and then all authority figures, were swept up into the mental fray; any failure of any kind could lead me straight to hell.

DIAGNOSIS #2--Hagiophobia--fear of anything holy, including God, Saints, and sacred objects or buildings.

If God was willing to send me to hell for even small mistakes (again, the understanding of a child mind), then He was best prayed to daily (i.e. appeased), and then avoided as much as possible. Who knew when I might fatally disappoint Him? Churches were terrifying places, a truly debilitating state of affairs when your parents were full-time pastors. We were in the church house any time the doors were unlocked, even if only to clean it or mow the grass! There was no escaping the place!

However, this fear of churches didn't develop all at once. It built up over time, compounded by a growing awareness from a very young age of another issue God was supposedly willing to smite me over--bisexual orientation. I describe it for people this way: "I discovered both boys and girls when I was three, and Jesus when I was four." Along with surety of my family's love, the fact that I had a crush on another little girl was one of the few certainties in life that I experienced BEFORE I became a believer in Christ.

By the time I hit puberty, several things about my character were set in stone:

(1) I was a Christian, by choice, but also by fear.
(2) I lived with such terrible dread of hell that I was in constant fear that I would, or already had, "blaspheme[d] against the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 12:31, Mark 3:29, Luke 12:10) (KJV). My parents had to talk me through this issue many times, and long stretches of my teen years are a horrible blur of terror when I look back on them. I didn't even want to think about the Holy Ghost, and to this day, prefer the term "Holy Spirit," because it does not engender the old fear. It's hard to love someone who you think is constantly waiting for a reason to hate you.
(3) I was gay, by birth, and living in terrified denial. I had fallen in love with a girl, and was no longer young enough to dismiss it as just one little kid being fond of another. Through one awful summer, I burst into tears every time I stepped into a church building, because I was sure God couldn't love me any more, even though I was pushing down the feelings as hard as I could and had no intention of acting on them.
(4) After so many years of fear, I was terrified to make a mistake, which leads us to...

DIAGNOSIS #4--Atychiophobia--commonly just described as "fear of failure," it is really much deeper and more horrifying than that. It is a paralysis that comes on any time I am asked to perform a new task, one in which I am not 100% certain of my ability. What if I screw up? With all this background noise of panic going on, I see every potential slip-up as another way to fail an authority figure, and if that happens, we all know what the ultimate result will be.

This mosaic of Hell by Coppo di Marcovaldo was placed on the inner dome
of a building where new converts were baptized. What a welcome to Christianity.

Only now do we reach the era of my childhood where we must add...

DIAGNOSIS #5--PTSD, aka Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Psychiatrists place very strict criteria on diagnosing PTSD, and virtually all of them center around a fear of death, either one's own death, that of loved ones, or in cases of extremely traumatic events such as war, witnessing the deaths of a number of unknown people. Living through a flood, during which an entire town must flee uphill in the middle of the night before rising waters, naturally creates a certain fear of death. Being forced to watch the slow, wasting deaths of both parents also counts, for sure. All create a fear of someone else's death, and ultimately a fear of my own mortality. So, where does this leave us?

I fear going to hell, therefore I fear the One who supposedly sends people there. Thus, I fear making a mistake, and naturally just freeze when something I've never done before, or something about which I don't feel totally confident, is required of me. (Imagine how much fun that makes it to try to hold down a job!) Finally, because I've seen death and people threatened by death, I fear that any medical issue could kill me, which would only send me to hell FASTER. So we start back at my fear of hell, and VOILA! One really mean vicious cycle.

"Vicious Cycle"
(courtesy of a site called, believe it or not,
Alligator Sunglasses)

Which may all leave you with one big question: Why on earth am I telling you all of this?

Honestly, I'm not. I'm thinking in print, telling myself, and finding new freedoms for the first time ever, by discovering why I'm afraid to do anything. Not just worried, or hesitant, or I just don't like doing lots of things, so I don't do them. Nope. It's so much more than that, and understanding it is the first step to overcoming it. I just put my discussion with myself here, in case any of you realize that you see some aspects of yourself here, as well.
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