“What did he just say? Why? Why? WHY?” Rage…absolute, primal rage tore through my entire soul. Did that man…an apostle…just say all those horrific and condemning things about gays while I was sitting here just now…in my own home listening to General Conference? Tears were not capable of being held back. I could not breathe. I literally wished I could have struck him in my anger and frustration. Boyd K. Packer had always been a source of pain for me…but this…this was too much. I wanted with all of my heart to shout aloud all kinds of unkind and hateful things about his condemning words. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “HOW DO YOU KNOW, IF YOU ARE NOT GAY LIKE ME?!” But I couldn’t. The uncontrollable scene of frustration I was experiencing inside my head was unobservable to my family around me…my wife of 15 years whom I adored with all of my heart, and my three growing sons…because I was totally in the closet. And my response to those awful words had hit critical mass after 20 years as an adult in the LDS church because, you see, I had just been finishing two weeks of largely secret counseling to get help so that I would NOT complete the suicide attempts that had started to come weekly the month before. I still had many hidden bruises on my left arm from the deep arterial open IV line that I had started on myself (I am a nurse) two weeks before in an effort to end this suffering that, in Mr. Packer’s view, I had willingly chosen. I somehow…had chosen this. Who…in all their right mind…would choose this if they were Mormon, married, and a father to three sons?
It has been three years since those treacherous and life-threatening times. So much healing, health, joy…previously unknown to me…is now mine. I honestly almost cannot believe that such dark thoughts ever occupied my mind. Ending my own life seems like an unfathomable idea, and yet I still know precisely what it is like to feel that much despair and hopelessness. And that knowledge gives me access to the world in both a good and bad way. You see…it allows me to speak with perfect credibility to those who also feel such despair. And with that empathy and compassion I can, hopefully, spread love and hope and understanding to those in the darkest places. Of course, that is absolutely a good thing.
The bad…the bad…how do I explain the bad? The bad side of that suicidal period is that it was the culmination of years of abuse and attack over and over again in my experiences in the church. And when we experience traumatic events…especially over and over and over…an unfortunate and curious thing happens to our brain and body chemistry: we live in a state of ‘fight or flight’ that can be triggered at any moment by people, events, activities, places, even specific dates that mark trauma-related anniversaries…and well, a host of other things that can be anticipated, or worse…that come out of absolutely no-where.
I think it worth taking a brief moment to describe this brain-body experience. It is not hard to relate to really…everyone experiences this from time-to-time. It is part of humanity and in most circumstances…it is extremely helpful in keeping us safe from harm in perceived danger.
Here goes: you see, our brain has really deep, primal areas that function to prevent us from harm. These parts of our brain are tied directly to our heart, lungs, senses, veins and arteries through the Central Nervous System (CNS). When we feel danger…something in the environment that could harm us…our CNS is activated in what is called a ‘sympathetic nervous response’. That is neuroscience talk for ‘fight or flight.’ We all know what this feels like. We hear a frighteningly loud sound…cross paths with someone that we have reason to fear…are caught by surprise by a harmful insect or animal. And then our protective brain goes to work: our heart feels like it has had a burst of electricity too hard to contain; it feels forceful and burns and beats in a way that is totally out of control. Our skin becomes cold…then hot…then cold…we may even sweat as all of our veins get larger to pour blood into our muscles. Our senses become highly acute: we see and hear seemingly everything around us in a way to navigate the perilous environment. Our breathing becomes rapid and deep…we need oxygen if we are going to make a rapid escape. All of those things happen so that we can quickly respond and remain safe to what we perceive as a threat. All we want is to be in a safe place…and to be there as rapidly as possible to recover from the major flood of stress hormones that have taken over your body. When we do make it and we calm down…we tend to be very fatigued…everything in our body slowly returns to normal; except when we experience fight or flight over and over. Then…things don’t quite ever return to the way our bodies were before.
We have learned, largely from our fighting men and women in the military services, that when we have our CNS stimulated in this way repeatedly we may never fully recover and go about feeling normal or safe in our environments. Our senses become so acute and our hormones so quick to be released that they can cripple us at almost any time. We can anticipate some of these things…which we call ‘triggers’ or we can be taken totally by surprise. Psychologists have come to give these more severe experiences the name Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or variations (PTS) etc. I think we would be hard pressed to find anyone currently in our culture who was unaware of this phenomenon. But only those who experience it can truly know how debilitating and life-changing it is for a person. Imagine…if you can…that many times a day, week, month…your entire system loses control in this ‘chemical fire.’ Imagine how unpleasant, volatile, depressed, anxious, and fearful you must be when out in the world in your daily life; not knowing when you will feel terror like that again, but knowing it is coming. Over time…we may or may not find our way to greater health. Eventually, the experiences of fight or flight may not be as frequent; we may have discovered many of our triggers; we may even have found ways to take back control of our CNS by internal means (like meditation, intentional breathing) or by external means (avoidance of triggering environments, situations, or people). Of course when it does happen…how must that look to those around us? We certainly must seem aggressive; anxious, overly dramatic, unreasonable…even hostile…as we work so hard to protect ourselves and feel safe in the everyday life that seems so utterly peaceful to those around us. It must seem very odd to the unaffected: the trauma suffers live in the same place; but have very, very different worlds.
And so…having given a bit of a lesson in physiology and psychology, I can turn to the deeper subject at hand: Charlie Brown.
Many of us who are at least over the age of 30, are intimately familiar with Charlie Brown and his often piteous life. As a child of the 1970s, Charlie was somewhat at the height of his fame. We saw Charlie and his friends daily or weekly in the comics of the newspaper. Kept up with Snoopy and Woodstock (who honestly were my favorites!) and non-so-patiently awaited the seasonal arrival of the whole gang in the all-too-rare television specials. Ahh…who can forget the Great Pumpkin?! And…no matter what the situation, poor Charlie Brown was left to experience the short end of many sticks: No Valentine’s Day cards; rocks for candy at Halloween; the SADDEST looking little Christmas tree…oy…poor Charlie. Watching those year after year after year…I think it is safe to say we all hoped that some wonderful magic would occur. And even though we knew he still would get no cards or candy or accolades…somehow we just hoped with our whole souls that this time we when we watched…somehow…it would be different. And Charlie —who was probably one of the nicest kids of that entire gang and utterly loveable—would open that mailbox and one full metric ton of Valentine love would pour out.
I think this eventually led to a great deal of frustration within me. Man…every time I would see Lucy and a football for example (which was OFTEN throughout the year) I would cringe. “Dear Heavenly Father…this time…please…let Lucy be nice or at least let Charlie be good enough to finally kick that ball higher and farther than anyone ever had before!” Of course…sigh…disappointment. I really honestly came to resent Lucy. She was so darned mean! It got to the point that anytime I’d even see her character I’d get that feeling she was going to do something awful to poor Charlie. She didn’t always act that way…at times she seemed to act somewhat civilly and I was a bit surprised; surprised enough that I’d have a glimmer of hope that THIS time…she would not move the football. Especially when she when she would coax him with seemingly kind and supportive words.
Poor Charlie Brown! I often would feel just like him as a kid watching or reading about the football set-up. I would feel myself in his body…determined to make it this time. Determined that I would find a way to be successful and kick that silly football. I felt my heart race as he ran…as though I was running…I was holding my breath with tension…so tight. Here he comes! Then “WOOSH”…there he would go, flailing helplessly in the air, as if the rug had been suddenly pulled out from under him. Tumbling…I could feel his embarrassment…my face would get red. I would feel at once so foolish and angry…so hurt for poor Charlie. And then he would land with a huge thud. That impact must just have shaken every bone in his body…and with a head that size (you were thinking it too) I could only imagine the headache that kid had. At the same time…as I grew…my empathy waned a bit while I came to think…why on earth does he keep falling for this? When is he going to realize it will always be that way? When will he finally end the pain and humiliation and just walk away from Lucy when she calls out to him to come and give the ball a kick?
Obviously, Charlie Brown is relatively lighthearted exemplar of common childhood challenges. However, it is a great metaphor. And when used along with the understanding of trauma triggers it is useful in understanding the lived experiences of many LGBT persons as they navigate every interaction and encounter; every place, and activity of the church. Years and years of harmful comments; fearful anti-gay rhetoric; discussions of sin and perfection; bishops’ interviews; church youth dances and camps; quorum meetings; home and visiting teaching visits; the frequent focus on families and salvation…the cumulative message that you are not ever going to be enough; that you are ‘less than’. And of course, when you are in the closet and even after coming out…it is likely that you encounter these minefields of danger in every setting.
And in that context and moment you feel your body triggered and you experience your nervous system take over. “DO THEY KNOW? DO THEY SUSPECT? I could never share this…never…I would lose everything…my friends, my family…my church…my salvation. This would destroy my life. I’ll never be one of them. I will never be good enough. I will never have a family. How can I go to the stake dance when I will have to stand there and watch everyone around me enjoy dancing with something they have feelings for…when I cannot? How can they stand there right in front of me and say something like that? Oh great…another talk on being a good husband/wife and how precious your spouse is to you and how glad you are for families and know that your salvation is, at least, possible because of your marriage in the temple.” If you are out to your family and ward, you may still feel these triggers evolve into similar or different ones. Regardless of your disclosure status, when a trigger occurs, you become flooded with fight or flight chemicals and your body is no longer your own. You want to flee…but there is no escape. No way to let it out. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.
The most unfortunate thing about this is that we are taught from our youth that it is within our homes, families, churches, and temples that we can and should feel safe. It is with these people and in these places we are constantly told we are protected, loved, and cared for. It is in these holy places that we are supposed to stand, become immersed, and serve those around us. These sacrament meetings, hallways, Sunday School lessons, temples…they are supposed to be our perfect sanctuaries. And often they can be; and often they are. But like Lucy to Charlie Brown…they are just positive enough that we go on, thinking it may be different next time. And kick the proverbial ball and find ourselves once again triggered to feel, self-loathing, fear, humiliation, and pain. We go…again and again and again to these places that feel like sanctuary to all those unknowing persons around us; places that seem so warm, friendly, inviting and inspiring only to be confronted with that horrific response of flight…again and again and again. Enough to keep you feeling hopeful that things might change…that there may be a day when you truly become ‘enough’ and accepted without reservations…and that all things are just, equal among the Saints. And then, predictably, that hope and peace is totally swiped away and we find ourselves tumbling in the air bracing for the impact that is sure to follow.
And so…many gay members who live this experience day after day, week after week, year after year develop something akin to the PTSD of our military counterparts. All one needs to do at a certain point is say words to me like “General Conference” and I am immediately transported back to that terrible moment when, in all the strength I could muster NOT to take my life, a church leader stood in front of me condemning me for what I had ‘chosen’ to be. Of course, the church immediately clarified the content of that talk and removed the thoughts that had been expressed which were not in accord with the church policies on the matter. But it makes no difference. The trigger is set. It became set in that moment of silent rage when Boyd K. Packer’s words rung in my ears with such ferocity, that I had to overcome the most intense flight response I had ever experienced: the most intense need to commit suicide and put a final end to it all. The strength of the urge to die upon hearing those words was frightening. I cannot imagine how many of us experienced something like that in that moment. And if not in that moment, some other General Conference moment. Or temple interview moment. Or Family Home Evening Moment. Or Relief Society moment. Or Elder’s Quorum campout moment. Or foyer moment. Or family home evening moment. Or youth dance moment. The truth is…all LGBT LDS persons have had those moments; most of us over and over and over. Enough so, that even in what seems the most pleasant conference session or sacrament meeting to our straight family and friends around us, many of our hearts are racing, our skin sweating, our fears peaking, our anger and frustration rising, our desire to flee almost completely overwhelming us: a silent battlefield; a desperate need to protect ourselves.
And this is why…for many LGBT LDS persons…we leave the church. It may appear self-indulgent. It may appear faithless. It may appear weak. It may appear angry. It may appear bitter or resentful. But I would like to offer a different interpretation: that it is as a protective response; a need to remove from our environment all of the triggers that instantly rob our bodies of the feelings of love, safety and peace. We must take control of our environments since we often lose our place of safety. Just speaking from my own experience of triggers, I dread the first weeks of April and October when it becomes time for General Conference. I know that my social media will begin to fill with pictures and quotes of authorities; and that feeling of panic sets in…fight or flight mode…that can be triggered by anything from the sound of a pipe organ to a picture of temple square. These things, which bring such beauty and inspiration to most, trigger horrific panic and physical symptoms for many of us. Not always, to be sure. But it is not uncommon. Goodness…I was even triggered this summer when my middle son turned 14 because it occurred to me that the ward leaders would start showing up to talk about advancing him in the priesthood. Honestly…every phone call or door knock that came around that time sent irrational washes of adrenaline racing through my heart.
And so…with the programming set…we withdraw to protect. We find other means of fulfilling our spirits while avoiding the triggers that cause terror, anxiety, and protective anger within us. We may no longer attend church; we may remove our names and scour our homes removing all things church related…just so we can survive with a measure of peace. And you know what? Many of us are successful. We do move forward. Our traumas and responses diminish…not entirely and not globally, though for many…comfortably. But the mind/body/trigger connections are made. And they are real. And often only after much professional help we learn to take control of our bodies back…though they will likely always experience some level of response to triggers. And I just want all of my friends out there reading this to know that even with the tides and messages that seem to be turning toward compassion for folks like me…some of us will simply never be able to expose ourselves to those environments and have a healthy response again. And some of us may view every messaging attempt by the church to engage gays no different than Lucy calling to Charlie Brown. And some of us may never be capable or even desirous of engagement with these triggering people, places, and activities again. Of course, this is not true for all LGBT LDS persons. I would never presume to speak for each and every such person with an LDS background. Nor is it true that every one of us experiences these trauma responses with the same degree or frequency. Some people will have found a different path of coping in LDS life and participation without separation. But many, many more of us have not, and likely cannot, no matter how friendly the call.