June 29, 2010
I knew from an early age that I liked men's bodies. In central Florida where I attended junior and senior high school in the '60s, chain gangs regularly scythed the tall grass that grew alongside the state highway that intersected the road I lived on. I spent many afternoons hidden in tall grass looking through my father's army binoculars at the sweaty, shirtless convicts in striped prison pants as they toiled in the hot sun. When I went to the circus, I loved to watch the male trapeze artists in their tights and bare chests. Gym class was only bearable because of the showers afterwards. I still remember a blond god of a boy who caught me looking at him and took his dick in his hand to show it to me.
But, like so many gay boys, I felt very guilty about my feelings for men. By ninth grade, these feelings of guilt and shame began to affect my behavior. My grades declined, I began to argue with my mother, and I started hanging out with a rough crowd at school. I spent a lot of time in my room fantasizing about a world where people like me could live without hassle.
I started during this time to have heated discussions with my teachers over what I saw as a clever agenda of indoctrination in the school curriculum. I remember that during this time I was most afraid of becoming the breadwinner for a wife and two kids, which seemed inevitable for men in those days.
The school guidance counselor recommended to my mom that I should see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist I saw was a kind man who listened to my adolescent angst and prescribed 250 mg of Thorazine three times a day. It was while seeing him that I tried to kill myself.
I had learned to make elderberry wine from one of my mother's cookbooks and had brewed a two-gallon jar of the stuff in the attic above my bedroom. On the day I decided to end my life, I had had an awful day at school. I had been called a fag multiple times, had flunked a bunch of tests, and my best friend had told me he no longer wanted to hang out with me because I was "strange." I came home from school and began to drink the elderberry wine and pop Thorazine. At first, I was only trying to make the hurt go away, but soon I determined that I would float away from a world that didn't want me in it.
I lost consciousness at some point. Witnesses told me later that I ran naked down my street screaming at the top of my lungs. I woke up days later in a psychiatric ward where the psychiatrist I was seeing came to examine me. He asked me why I had tried to kill myself, but I didn't feel safe telling him that I thought I was gay and hated myself. After I was released from hospital, I ran away from home and stayed with friends for several months until I was arrested on a runaway warrant my mother had sworn out.
After my arrest and a two-week stay in juvenile hall where I was forced to strip naked in front of leering guards each afternoon, I was scheduled for a hearing before a county judge. Prior to the hearing, I was left in a room with the psychiatrist's report as my mom and the social workers talked about my case in an adjoining room. I flipped open the report and read in horror the section that said that I had an affective adjustment disorder and should be confined to a mental hospital for treatment. Basically, the psychiatrist had scoped out I was gay and wanted me treated for it to eliminate the stress that was causing the adjustment disorder.
The window in the room where I read the psychiatrist's report was open and I went through it. I ran to the highway where I thumbed a ride to a friend's house where I stayed for nearly a year.
You have to remember that at this time being gay was considered a psychological disease. If I had been hospitalized, I would have most likely been treated with electroshock therapy to get the gay out of me.
Eventually I was caught on another runaway order my mom had sworn out. This time the court took no chances. I was accompanied at all times by an armed sheriff who saw to it that I didn't bolt. The judge was a kind man who, rather than send me to an asylum as the psychiatrist had recommended, ordered that I undergo 12 sessions with a court-appointed psychologist.
The court-appointed psychologist was a wonderful man with a shaggy beard and mustache who had studied under Fritz Perls, who developed Gestalt Therapy. The core of the Gestalt Therapy process is an enhanced awareness of self in the present moment. This psychologist was the first person I told I was gay, to which he replied, "Oedipus Schmedipus, as long as he loved his mama." He meant that being gay is not wrong as long as you are aware and invested in your feelings in the present moment. For an adult to tell me that it was OK to be gay was liberating.
In our sessions, he taught me to become aware of the trouble I had relating to people and how to be better at it. He taught me that to be different was a gift, but that I had to learn to communicate with people who weren't as special as me nonetheless.
I remember that one of his lessons was for me to close my eyes and to reach out to another person with my hands. He then asked me to open my eyes and look at my hands. They were in a limp, downward position. He said, "How can those hands ever touch another person?"
From him I learned to be in touch with my feelings of being gay and to lose my fear of expressing my specialness to others. Since those days, I have never been ashamed of being myself. People may say what they like, but I am still me. From this psychologist, I also learned to be in the moment and in touch with my feelings. It was as if all the armor I had built to protect myself fell away and I became free to be me, unafraid and unashamed.
After our sessions, I met a man in Atlanta on a long weekend away from home who asked me to move in with him. I accepted and flew to be with him in the last month of my senior year. My foolish belief that all men could be trusted with my love is stuff for another post. My mother swore out a commitment order when I left based on the psychiatrist's recommendation. I was not able to see her because of that order for 10 years. My mom and I tried to heal our relationship many times, but while we reconnected, it was never right.
I owe my life to that psychologist with the mustache and shaggy beard. He retired soon after we finished our sessions and he recommended to the judge that I should remain at home. We wrote each other for a while. He would tell me about his farm in Maine and I would tell him about how stupid men were about love. After a while, the letters stopped and I lost touch with him. I imagine he lived out his days picking apples on his farm, at peace with the universe.