Aaron's Story...or, at least a part of it.
In September 2010, after my family returned home from our vacation in Yellowstone and Montana, my mental health fell apart completely. The stresses of many years finally took their biggest toll on me and I became suicidal. And not just thoughts of “I wish I was dead”, but I actually had plans and means and was sure I would be dead by October. I was using my very dangerous nursing knowledge to make it happen but I was stuck because of the equally deep need to care for and love my family. I couldn’t abandon them with nothing. This was not the first time in my life I have had very significant thoughts about suicide, but it was the first time I had active plans and a means to make it happen. And I made three distinct attempts.
All of this happened because I couldn’t deal anymore with the knowledge that I am gay. I've been out now for over 20 months or so...in a slowly increasing way. The boys have known for over a year. But I am ready to just let go all together and I will be speaking about this much more openly and publicly now that my immediate family is in a safe and strong place. And before that happens, I want all of rest of my family to be in the know. It is time.
In case of any immediate worries about my dearest wife and kids, it is important that you know I have been complete in my fidelity to Stephanie, whom I love very deeply and truly. We are true soulmates. That said, there is much more that I need to share. I was not clear about my sexuality until Stephanie and I had been married for 5 years or so. I had feelings of attraction for both females and males in my teen years and it scared the hell out of me. I was so afraid of what that might mean that frankly I didn’t date anyone in school. I joined the Mormon church senior year and had a complete and authentic conversion that carried me through to a mission in London where I felt I gained great strength to deal with what I was being taught was completely immoral. After my mission, when Stephanie and I met, she and I fell head over heels in love and I thought “oh good…there is the promised blessing…now I know that I am not confused after all…I just needed to meet the right person.” So there was no deceit on my part. I had simple but powerful faith that this was all clear now. But after those first few years, I realized that my attraction to men was not something that would go away and in fact, it became much stronger as I lived everyday life feeling totally incomplete and hating myself for it. Something was terribly wrong to be so in love with Stephanie and yet have it feel so very incomplete in so many ways. It is hard to describe as it was much less a physical incompleteness but rather an emotional and mental one. Some would have us believe this is about a physical urge or addiction or temptation. It is NOT. Physical urges for sex and intimacy are a fundamental and undeniable part of the human being. However this is only PART of connectivity, identity, intimacy, and love. It was the absence of these other pieces that started me on a pathway of hopelessness. I spent every day with someone who offered me her whole self: body, mind, heart, and soul, and while we are definitely soulmates I came to learn that it is simply not possible for me to receive all of these gifts. Can you imagine the anxiety, guilt, fear, and loathing that comes from being in that position? Imagine if you can, that you are straight but that the world is predominantly gay...so much so, that it is actually part of the religious beliefs that you love with your whole soul. You want to obey and have faith and so you do all the things you are supposed to do. You become attached deeply to your best friend of the same gender: you are like brothers or sisters in a way that feels as though they are just a part of you. So you marry them...because that is the plan, right? And you really do love and care about this person...maybe your soulmate in a way...but ask yourself in your mind: WILL YOU EVER BE CAPABLE OF BEING AND GIVING ALL THAT THEY NEED FROM YOU? No. You will not. So you are trapped between your faith, your family, and yourself. It feels like an impossible situation.
When I look back, I have always known this about myself on some level, even as a very small child. But as I said, at that time I was only five years into my marriage when it all finally clicked and all of a sudden my life made sense in a new way. When I finally was able to piece together that this was who I really was, I felt hint of peace inside like I had never felt. But given the teachings of the church that this was some kind of illness or disorder I realized that I was going to have to deal with this in a difficult way. Thinking something was wrong with me was the root of a decade of serious problems for me. I have learned that I had to discard this thinking that there was something wrong. This is not something people choose or can change. Who would choose this? Gay was the worst thing to be for a man in that time especially, no one, especially an LDS man, would choose this. I didn’t for sure. It is, I can tell you from experience, something completely inborn. Of course at the time, I had to believe as my faith had taught me. From that point on---10 years of my life---have been nothing but going on a completely downward spiral as I did everything I could to make this stop…to make it go away…to be ‘cured’. There were years where I paid well more than 10% for tithing; where I would fast 3 to 5 times in a month; where I spent hours with my bishops; where I would put my name on the temple list for years at a time; where I threw myself into work, church, volunteering…anything I could do to distract me from who I was and causing any pain to my wife and children. Stephanie knew what was going on…after coming out to myself I went to Stephanie and we talked about this in a very ambiguous way, but it was enough for her to join in supporting me in some way without really telling her I was gay. But it became the elephant in the room…the thing we never really talked about but always knew on some level was there.
Because of this…what I think of as a fundamental denial of who I really am as a person…because of this supreme dishonesty with myself and my own struggle to deny that reality…that is when I truly started a decade of intense spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical erosion. I was dying. I gained 70 pounds. It often got to the point that I thought off and on about suicide…became bitter and angry with the church…and emotionally distant with Stephanie and the boys. I lived in the same house with them, but I didn’t live with them. I didn’t live at all. So when I hit the crux of this crisis in September of 2010 and Stephanie was there for me…even though I would have rather died than tell her in clear terms about my sexuality, it finally just came out into the open. I had started seeing a mental health specialist who kept me from killing myself. And I was never pressured or counseled to take any specific action in relation to acknowledging my identity, but when the final night of extreme depression got to be too much, Stephanie just calmly told me to say it…to say what we both knew we had been avoiding for 10 years. Stephanie was and is amazing. I love her more now than ever and we are closer now than ever. But what we went through in that first week of October…it was truly a crucible for us. To anyone of a Christian background who says they don't comprehend what Gethsemane was like for Jesus Christ, I can say "Well, I get it." It was an exact approximation of that night when He begged to have this 'cup pass' from him only to know it was not possible. We couldn’t stand to be apart for more than moments at a time. We went through cycles of crying that would last for hours and then stop for a few hours and then start up again. We went through every emotion, taking turns supporting each other through them in the style that has always matched our team-based relationship. From that point on, I have started to get better…much better. And so has Stephanie. We still have some very hard moments…but they are getting fewer. The first week was the hardest and I couldn’t bear to keep going through the awful cycles of emotion and tears for either of us so I called Stephanie’s mom and dad and told them to cancel their trip to California and come to be with us. I was able to tell them…the second hardest thing I have done in my entire life…and they were just amazing. They completely understood and, thankfully, believed me when I said I hadn’t ever acted out of accordance with my marriage. That is so important to me that our family know that. From what I have learned in the last few months, it is very rare…some men and women in this position get to a crisis point where they start breaking their vows and I just could never stomach doing something like that to people I love as much as Stephanie and our boys. I am so proud to be able to say that this situation had not come about at all. That said, I understand better than anyone the feelings of desperation that can lead a wonderful, centered person to just cope however they can. I don't make my statements about fidelity through all of this to indict anyone. There is NO room to judge another's journey by my own experiences.
To give you a sense of context...it was only 4 weeks after dealing with this together...4 weeks after the suicidal attempts and thinking stopped that my dad called me to say he was dying. As you can imagine...the convergence of all of this became unbelievable. It really complicated the sensitive time Stephanie and I were going through. But in many ways, it was those two months caring for dad and walking with him in his decline that I was able to achieve a greatly distilled sense of peace and calm about the entire situation. You may wonder if I told my dad in those early days when he was still cognitively intact. I had a huge choice to make with that. In the end I chose not to tell him. But here is why...I did tell him the first big piece for me when he was asking me to see if I could get the LDS church to help with a building for the services. I had to tell him I couldn't do it...that I had left the church and so my sister would have to take care of that for us. Of course he was surprised and asked why. Because his needs were truly his...because I didn't feel that these last weeks should be filled with worry for Stephanie and the boys...I decided not to tell him I was gay, but rather simply stated that I didn't support the church's view on families and that because of my values conflict on that point, I left the church. I was about to follow that up more fully as needed in that moment. But he just said "That is so brave...you've been so deeply involved for so long...but I admire you so much. I never could understand the Mormon's and their issues with the California laws about gay marriage. I was so disappointed in your church for that. I mean really, what family would not love their child or want them to be happy just because of who they fall in love with? I just never understood why any parent or person would not love someone because the were gay." And so, in that moment, my needs were totally met and rather than stress my dad with details that were still so uncertain in my own little family, I decided that I would keep the focus on helping him achieve peace and rest. It was the right decision. And I have no regrets. But I must say, having all of this happen with dad only weeks after getting help for my own suicidal problems was an overwhelming journey at times. And it is the reason that my timeline of moving through this coming out process has been what it is.
Stephanie and I both have come to realize that this is not something that can change or even be influenced. One is or is not gay. I am. I am not bi-sexual or some other place on that spectrum of identity. I am gay and this is about my identity as a person and the need to live in a world where I don’t want to die every day of my life. It is about being completely authentic, or honest, from the deepest part of my soul out to the most visible actions of my life. I am still the same person I have always been…though I have to admit I am so at peace with myself. To Stephanie and the boys I seem like a completely changed man in daily life. I am so honestly engaged and interested and happy. I have actually smiled and laughed in ways I haven’t done in my entire life. I am losing weight almost without even trying now that I have stopped abusing myself so much…I have no desire to actually hurt myself at all now most of the time, though I would be lying if I were to say that in times of difficulty I still don't consider it. I had no idea what happiness could feel like…I really didn’t. Most people...probably all the people I know...would never have guessed at just how much I hated myself and felt like such a horrible failure as a person. This is the first time in my entire life that I haven’t hated myself…that is pretty sad for someone who is 40 to say. But it is also been the best year of my life in the last 12 months. I am turning 40 finally as me. I can't tell you how much that is worth in the grand scheme of things.
And the best part for me, is that in this process, I have been able to actually believe in God again. My belief is much more abstract and existential...much more spiritualist and humanist than religious in any way. In those desperate weeks of suicide attempts I had a voice come into my mind for the first time in nearly 20 years that said to me “Aaron, you are not broken. This does not need to be fixed.” Stephanie and I both believe that this is true. I don’t believe in a God that expects any of his children to live each day wanting to die. I do believe in the much bigger spirit and universe.The church and sexuality will likely never see eye-to-eye. This is what precipitated my formal leaving of the LDS Church. I am back to my core self...the spirituality that was developing in my youth. I see God as principle and truth and goodness and much less from the Judeo-Christian perspective.
Stephanie and I have finally been able to create the relationship that really mirrors the true nature of ourselves. It has come quickly and with much depth, understanding, and peace. We are a joyful couple in so many ways. We don't exactly know what our family will look like over the years...it will be different for sure. Nor do we understand when all these changes will occur. But it will be authentic and happy just like we are now. And while there is no word to describe our relationship...all of the terms seem inadequate for one reason or another...we are just Aaron & Stephanie. We are family. We share our lives,together, and we are evolving as a group. When and how that will change, I cannot say.
Stephanie and I are working every day to figure out how best to move forward. It has not been an easy journey since my dad told me of his cancer only 4 weeks after my coming out with this to Stephanie and her parents. And of course since dad died in Jan we had to put lots of things on the back burner in our lives. We have both decided one thing for sure and that is that we are not going to allow people to choose sides between us, regardless of how we end up organizing our family structure. People can only choose our family or not choose our family. While this is not at all what she or I imagined, it is clear that we have to change things in some way. We both know for a fact that I can’t continue to live in this way and actually survive. And I can’t withdraw emotionally from Stephanie and the boys again…I just can’t. I love them too much. Another thing that is certain is that even though Stephanie and I will have to redefine our relationship, I will never stop supporting her or the boys in any way…financially, emotionally, morally, physically…they are my family and always will be. I made commitments to Stephanie that are lifelong…I won’t back down on them. So our future, while it looks somewhat unconventional or nontraditional…it is still OUR future. This is our family and we will always be linked on a daily basis. I am not abandoning my family. There is no reason for this to tear my family apart. I will fight every day, no matter how hard, to keep all of us together as a family. No one else writes the rules for our family…we are in charge of how we say it works and while some may find that odd, we will make it work. That does not mean it has been or will be free of structural and other life changes.
Having said that, we haven't told many people in our local community. Not because I am ashamed, but simply because I don’t think it would be fair to the boys…they may suffer too many social consequences that I don’t think they deserve. I think they need to be the ones who decide if, when, whom, and how they tell their friends. Both Stephanie and I have become so emotionally close lately that we often get frustrated that this situation ever had to happen. It is not fair and just that the world expects people like me to live a lie that only ends up hurting so many people. And I am lucky because I DIDN’T kill myself. There are plenty of times we get going as we talk and both of us want to stand right up in church and just tell it like it is to everybody because they all need to change. We can’t let this happen to people. Neither Stephanie nor I want to see some family torn apart by this through suicide or just plain hostility or the actions of a hopeless spouse who harms his or her family through secrecy because of thoughts that being out will destroy them. This just does not need to happen. I don't judge anyone for where they are or how they have come to their place in their journey. I just want to offer a bit of comfort and to be an example of the good and joy that can come through being true and honest. Some couples may stay married. Some may not. Some may create open relationships, some may cope in other ways. There is no one right way to do this. Your path must be in alignment with your truth...that is the best thing I can offer. My path...our path...will be true to both of us, our hopes and dreams, and our clear reality. It is my hope that it will be the same for you.
Stephanie's Story...or at least part of it.
If someone 15 years ago had told me the turn my life would take, I would never have believed them. I had done everything right to have the life that I wanted. I had married the nice and kind boy, had three children, and was staying home to raise them. It was what I had always wanted. Sure, life wasn’t perfect, but that is what is real. Real life is hard. But it was about to get harder. For years I had watched the sweet man that I had married slip in and out of deeper and deeper depression. Things were really at an all-time low. Aaron would go for days without speaking to us, except for the most essential of communication. He hadn’t looked me in the eye in months, maybe years. There was nothing that I could do to make a dent in his sadness. To compensate I would try and take any family pressures off of him that I could. I let him retreat into his sadness until he was able to resurface and join the rest of us again. But the Fall of 2010 was different. He would spend nights talking to me, weeping. He had started to go to see a mental health professional again, and that seemed to be helping a little. At least he was talking again. He admitted to me that he had nearly taken his own life recently and that the only thing that had kept him from doing it was thinking of leaving us destitute. But there was something that was more there, I knew. I worried that perhaps there was some trauma from his childhood that was surfacing. But I could be patient. He would share with me when he was able. I loved him. We had faced terrible things together in the past, we could do it again. For some reason, it never occurred to me in those emotional nights that it would be this.
It sounds odd to say this but I knew that Aaron was gay from really early on in our marriage. But, I hadn’t put that name to it until earlier that year. However, I was confident in our relationship because he had chosen me. We had children together, and were close friends. But here he was on our couch, weeping in my arms, telling me that I am the only woman he had ever or would ever love. That is when I knew what he had been hinting at all those weeks. In that moment all of the pieces fit together. But I knew that he couldn’t tell me without me giving him the permission. I felt a strength and calm flood through me. It replaced the fire of anxiety that had been there a moment before. I knew what I had to do.
“Say it,” I gently urged. “Say it.”
I felt like I was now the labor coach that Aaron had been for me. He had stood by my side as I labored through 3 children’s delivery. He never left me. We were a team. It was so hard and agonizing but it felt possible because Aaron was there supporting, healing, and loving me. It was my turn to be his coach.
“Say it,” I coaxed.
“I’m…I’m…I’m….gay,” he sobbed.“I know. It’s OK,” I choked out. And I held him.
I let my strength envelope him. I felt powerful and helpless at the same time. My perfect and comfortable future was gone but the raw honesty was empowering. There was clarity to why my husband had been so sad, why he couldn’t look me in the eye, why he had tried to take his own life.
All that I knew was that I loved him. So I held him to my chest, rocked him and said, “It’s OK,” over and over again. I had nursed him through illness, financial ruin, and shattering depression. I had also cheered him on to open his own businesses, to go back to college, and to obtain his PhD. I didn’t think of me in that moment, only him. He could have lost everything in sharing that with me. I knew how much he had sacrificed for me and the children. Our whole life together Aaron made me and the children his priority. I knew in that moment that he had been protecting us. All of the depression and conflict had been to protect us from him being gay. It was my turn to do the protecting. This was about him. And so we wept together.That night when we crawled into bed together, we slept clutching each other’s hands all night. For the next few weeks we couldn’t be separated because to be apart brought on crippling anxiety for both of us. We would pull ourselves out of bed by sheer will and get the kids off to school. And then we would spend the crisp fall mornings walking and staving off anxiety trying to process what was happening to us and to our family. We strategized. At night I would read from Carol Lynn Pearson’s books. And then the next day I would share what I had read. We shed a lot of tears that month.
I wasn’t always the model of support and strength. One particular morning after the kids had gone to school I was overcome with fear. I realized that I had not held a job in nearly 15 years. Who would want to hire me? I have a college degree in Art History. How useless could you get, philosophy maybe? How would I care for our children if Aaron wasn’t living with us? I literally collapsed on the floor in the hall wailing, “Where will I go? What will I do?” Other times I was filled with rage at the injustice of our situation. One afternoon, I had slipped to the floor between the wall and the bed and screamed, “Why me, why this?” Aaron found me each time and held me. “Stephanie,” he pledged, “You are my family. You will always be part of me. I will always take care of you and the boys.” “I will never stand by and not take care of you.”Really, it would have been much easier for him to cut out and make his own way. It must have been torture to comfort me knowing that his announcement was the reason for my distress. But he didn’t. He stayed. Because that is what he does, he is a caregiver. But he was not alone. He had me. I am fiercely loyal and protective of those that I love too. Sometimes it was Aaron that would dissolve into regret and fear. Many times he tearfully expressed to me his wish that he had never said anything, that he could take it back. I have told Aaron this many times, “Yes, this is the most difficult thing that I have ever done, but you are worth it.” And he is worth it. Our family is worth it. This message felt like the most important thing I could ever convey to him. He spent so many years feeling unworthy I didn’t want him to feel that way for another second. I was so proud of him for his bravery and selflessness. I told him over and over. I wanted him to know that I was behind him. We would take this difficult journey together.
The main thing we agreed upon during those walks is that we are a family. We are a unit. We recognize that we will never be a conventional family. We didn’t want to be divided. And we didn’t want our family and friends to start picking sides. It would be very easy for people to identify with my side of the story and vilify Aaron. The idea of anyone putting me in the role of victim and Aaron in the role of the villain was unacceptable to me. This was not a case of him being unfaithful, underhanded, or abandoning us. This was a necessary change. Keeping things the same was going to result in Aaron killing himself.Slowly, we have come to terms with different aspects of what this means to each of us. We mourn what we wish could be. But really, for the first time in nearly two decades Aaron can look me in the eye. We have since shared with our families, our children, and close family friends. We widen the circle gradually, allowing our children to gain strength and understanding.
Aaron still lives with us, and that is what works for us. We are the best friends that ever lived. And in many ways we have a healthier relationship than we ever have. There will still be many changes here in our family. And at sometime we may have to go our separate ways. It is not what I would have planned. But we are thriving. Some days, I am still overcome with the feeling of loss and grief. Some days, I feel like I have failed as a wife and woman. Some days, I wish that it was all a bad dream. But those days are getting fewer and farther apart. Most days, I am thriving. Most days I see the life around me in such vivid color and clarity that I feel like I have been held up by angels. Perhaps I am being held up by the hosts of heaven.I have been given a gift. As I write this I can see Aaron sitting across the room with a peaceful smile on his face. The man that I love, the one that is bright and sparkly in personality is back. He now has permission to be himself. He is at peace, perhaps for the first time in his life. And that is a gift. He is worth it. Our family is worth it.