I Was Taught to Keep it All Inside

I’ve been on an honesty kick for a long time and it doesn’t always work for me.

 

img_2221

Up against a wall

 

You hear a lot about gay people “coming out” these days. There are many incredible stories; each unique and compelling. Mine is no different — act straight, marry, keep it from the boss, tell your sister first; she of course tells you she already knew and so it goes. What you don’t hear is that when you’re gay, you don’t come out once, you come out again and again . . . and again.

Allow me to explain. I’m at a fundraiser sitting at a table with eight strangers. They have no idea who I am, where I am from, and what I do for a living — let alone know about my sexual orientation. To be polite, we all make small talk. If I bring a female friend, she is automatically my wife. I am not being critical mind you, it’s a reasonable assumption. So one of the first comments is, “So how long have you two been together?” or “Do you have any children?” I’m wondering to myself whether or not to tell the truth. If I stay silent or play along with the charade, am I doing a disservice to all gays and lesbians? We fought long and hard to be out and proud; if I stay silent, I am complicit?

When I am honest with people I sometimes get these reactions:

“You don’t look gay.”

“I had no idea.”

“But you act so straight!” (Having worked so hard at acting straight in my teens and 20’s, this is my personal favorite.)

“If you were married to a woman, you must be bisexual.”

“Are you the man or the woman in a relationship?”

I have learned over the years that people can say some fairly stupid and insensitive things without intentionally meaning to offend. I either nervously chuckle or ignore the comment. Either reaction is not very honest, is it? What I would like to say is, “Now that you’ve made your bias clear, tell me what you really think about gay people?”

Let’s put it out there, have some dialogue. But, I don’t say what I’m thinking, I keep my mouth shut, remain silent and hope that the moment passes quickly. I do this because it’s what I was taught to do since I was old enough to comprehend life lessons. Adults teach children to keep the truth inside:

  • to spare the hurt feelings of others
  • to keep them out of trouble
  • to keep them safe
  • to keep children from sharing the truth about their parent’s lives (i.e., what happens in this family, stays with this family)
  • it’s the “norm;” that’s how we’ve always done it

I hid the truth until I was 28 years old; up until that point I worked hard to hide who I was from myself and everyone else.

Being honest, telling the truth, telling the whole truth, speaking your mind, sharing secrets, whistle blowing, and so on. They’re not the same things are they? Everyone seems to define “truth” differently these days. So when someone tells you that they are telling the truth, what exactly does that mean?

 

The Truth Can be Painful and Consequences Can be Real

Having made a conscious effort to be honest has been fairly difficult at times. People say that they want to hear the truth when in fact, they cannot handle the truth. I acknowledge that my truth may not be someone else’s truth — for example, politics:  I may believe that our current administration is corrupt and dangerous and others might believe that it’s the best leadership we’ve had in a long time. This is a difficult debate because one will argue the facts which are fairly skewed these days, depending on the reporting. This kind of truth aside, deciding to share the truth with someone can put both parties in a difficult position. The truth can do irreparable damage and that is something you may have to live with. I don’t believe examples are necessary since most people have experienced what I am referring to.

Many of us make a conscious decision to keep the truth to ourselves in order to keep the peace.  The problem with this decision is that individuals who need to be told they have an alcohol problem, or that they are being psychologically abused or that their severe weight problem is killing them, will continue to talk themselves into a lie. I have a friend who told me that her doctor told her that it is better for her to smoke cigarettes because if she quits she might have a nervous breakdown. She’s told herself this lie so many times, she actually believes that it’s true.

 

Coming to Terms with the Truth you Tell Yourself

A few years ago I found myself in a toxic work environment. Telling ourselves we are no longer happy at work; I believe it is one of the most common truths we may have to tell ourselves. It’s very easy to become comfortable and feel safe in a toxic environment; after all, it’s all you know and the alternative might be too frightening to face.

Once you are able and willing to be honest with yourself about your career or work environment, change needs to happen and the old adage that “change is good” will prove true once again.

There are many truths we keep from ourselves:  failing health, toxic relationships, financial ruin, alcohol or drug abuse, missed opportunities, why having an affair is hurting many people, etc. Facing any and all of these life issues can be challenging; however, failure to do so will only mean future problems that may end up being insurmountable.

 

My Future and How I Intend to Deal with Truth

One of the reasons for moving overseas was to find truth. Life for me was becoming mundane and way too simple; I was choosing the path of least resistance nearly every time. I’m not referring to seeking the truth about our existence, what I’m trying to find is my on truth:  who am I, what am I looking for, and how do I find it?

I am aware that these are big questions and finding the answers is a lifelong journey. I believe the answers lie in self-reflection, self-assessment and shaking things up. Looking in the mirror can be difficult. If you look hard enough, you might see the truth. So many are reluctant to look because they’re afraid of what they might find. I’m not so much afraid as I am concerned. I’m concerned that I will not be able to change what I don’t like. For example, I learned awhile back that I can be unfairly critical. I can hold people to a standard that is unrealistic and unfair. I don’t like this one bit. The question is, can I change it? I’m not sure that I can, but I have made a commitment to try.

Other lies I tell myself:

  • One more cocktail won’t hurt you
  • You can leave your bicycle helmet home this one time
  • It’s better not to put yourself out there because men are all slime buckets
  • Trump will definitely be impeached
  • You don’t have to cover your head from the sun
  • You can eat whatever you want and work it off

Being open about these lies is a good first step; it’s time to face them. My friends and family tell me I’m too hard on myself. I believe it’s an easy out — I don’t want to face my shit so I’d prefer you didn’t face yours. I’ll have none of that:  “the truth shall set me free” (to paraphrase the bible and that may be a first for me).

 

img_2342

Tattoo on my forearm is the Chinese word for TRUTH. I had the word tattooed in this location as a constant reminder.

 

 

Disclaimer:  You may find that I repeat myself in a blog by sharing something I have previously shared. I must admit that I do not reread previously published blogs. If I re-introduce a story or topic, it is because I believe it is worth mentioning again. The way I see it, there will only be a problem if my story changes.

 

My Stepfather, Our Complicated Relationship and the Impact it Had on My Life

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, smoking and outdoor

This is my mother Lulu and my stepfather Frank, just a few years before they passed away. My mom died first and then my stepfather died about 18 months later.  Lots of irony because she took care of him for years after a stroke and then he outlived her. He actually came on to a mourner at her funeral. They had one of those on again, off again, mostly on again, relationships; it lasted over 40 years. I didn’t much care for Frank. He was an alcoholic who stopped drinking at a certain point, I don’t recall when. He married my mother with seven children, but he was selfish, crass and a racist. The conflict between us began the day they returned from their quickie marriage in Mexico. She divorced my father and married Frank on the same day. I still don’t know if that’s even possible; they might have been lying to me. Truthfully, I didn’t care.

I was eight years old when they married and my mother walked through the door first. She was in a festive mood and introduced her new husband; my stepfather.

Mom said, “Kids, this is your new father Frank,”

and he said, “You kids can call me dad.”

I thought to myself, “I don’t want to call this man dad, I have a dad,” but he insisted.

I knew of course that my mother had been sleeping with this cretin for a while; a long while. I knew that my father found out about their affair and threw my mother out on the street. She took us all to a Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, hotel that night and none of us got any sleep or at least I didn’t. Frank (not yet my stepfather) picked us up the next morning and I stared him down in the hotel elevator and point-blank asked him,

“Are you sleeping with my mother?”

I already knew the answer, but of course he denied it. One of the many reasons I hated the pig. It wasn’t long after this incident that they were married or at least said they were married. I admit I was a precocious child. I was super observant (still am) and I didn’t like what I saw. I felt that I was being forced into a situation I didn’t want to be in and I felt shame. Lots happened that seems almost fictional when I think about it today. Like the time we were camping in the woods and my mother pulled a rifle on Frank and we, my brothers and sisters, were certain she was going to kill him. I would have preferred to have Frank out of our lives, but I didn’t want to see my mother in prison. There were always lots of rifles around, Frank was a deer and rabbit hunter. He went hunting one time and my mother was in a panic because she hadn’t heard from him for days. I secretly wished him dead. A couple of days later he brought home a buck and we had to eat venison for a month. He often boasted about his kill and the number rifles he owned.

His rifles didn’t scare me, he scared me. There was a time when they were having a huge brawl in their locked bedroom. My mother was screaming my name and begging for help, but I couldn’t open their locked door. I called 911. When the police arrived they asked if there were any weapons in the room and I replied,

“No, just my stepfather’s hunting rifles.”

I remember the look the two police officers gave me. This was the chaos I lived in; sad to say, it all seemed very normal to me. I learned to be independent and resilient. I stayed away from home a lot and never told my mother where I was  and she didn’t ask. When it was just my mom and I, she would discuss her marriage with me. I liked being her confidant. I didn’t offer much in the way of advice; I hardly knew what to say. I  hoped she should leave him and she did leave him several times. Each time she’d call my father or her first husband Joe and allow them back into her life for a brief moment. Frank was always who she wanted to be with and she’d take him back in short order. As a child I believed that all marriages worked this way.

I viewed my own marriage as inevitable; everyone married didn’t they? My father had a gay son from a previous marriage and when I would ask why he wasn’t married, my father would say,

“He’s different.”

I certainly did not want to be different; therefore, despite my orientation, I started thinking about a wife and family. When I was nineteen years old and a college student in North Carolina, I was set up on a blind date with Lisa (not her name). Lisa was beautiful, smart, funny and perfect in just about every way and I knew almost instantly that I wanted her to be the mother of my children. Did I know I was gay? I knew that I had an attraction to men, but it was very easy to tuck that away into the far corners of my troubled mind. What I wanted more than anything else was a “normal” life. Of course I regret having pulled Lisa into this dishonest vortex, but that story is for another time.

Lisa and I were engaged about a year after we met and decided to marry after completing our undergraduate degrees. I can only tell you how it was for me; I was excited to have found someone exceptional to spend my life with. We spent all of our time away from university, together. My mother was thrilled to have a family Thanksgiving dinner that included Lisa and her twin sister. We were all excited about the day as we awaited its arrival. However, as with my holidays in our house, this one too would be filled with drama — I should have known better.

On Thanksgiving eve, 1979, my mother and stepfather had a big argument. My mother called me when I was in my dorm room preparing to return home for the holiday (I was about 35 minutes from home and I had a car). My mom asked me to come home right away. She said that my stepfather had “come after her” while they were arguing and that she was hemorrhaging badly. I said,

“Mom, shouldn’t you call 911?” and she replied,

“I’d rather wait for you to get here.”

I was home in 30 minutes, having gone way over the speed limit, to once again, rescue my mother. We sat in the emergency room for four hours until she was finally admitted. She kept repeating,

“I feel so badly that Thanksgiving is ruined.”

I, of course, assured her that we would find a way to make it happen and we did. My mother was released Thanksgiving morning and I agreed to do all of the cooking. The only dish I was unsure of was her stuffing recipe and my mom said she’d walk me through it. The whole time I was cooking, I was concerned that my stepfather would return home. At one point I heard him enter his camper in the backyard. My mother assured me that we didn’t have to worry about him. She said that he’d just stay in his camper and get drunk. She also shared that he was very angry that I brought her to the hospital. He felt that even though he had argued with her, it was his place, as her husband, to care for her. This was the mother/son, husband/wife, tug of war we battled throughout their entire marriage. What happened that Thanksgiving day is forever etched in my mind.

I cooked all day preparing for a 4:00 p.m. dinner. Lisa and her sister arrived at around 3:00 p.m. They sat with my mom and I was happy to hear laughter coming from the living room. I began thinking that I might be able to pull this off. My younger sister set the table and we called everyone to dinner; there were seven or eight of us. We were in middle of expressing our gratitude, about what I’m not sure, and my stepfather walked into the dining room, obviously intoxicated. He had come into the house to get a jug of wine. I couldn’t even look at him. Odd that this is almost 40 years ago, but I can see and hear it as it were yesterday. Frank glanced around the table, showed his teeth and said,

“I hope you all choke on your food.”

I admittedly have never been able to remain quiet and so I spoke up,

“Maybe you’ll choke on that wine.”

Then, all hell broke loose. He lunged for my throat and most of what was on the table ended up on the floor. There was lots of screaming and Frank’s hands were squeezing harder. I could not breathe. My younger brother grabbed him from behind, but Frank threw him off; my mother pleaded with him to let me go. I don’t actually remember what I was feeling while he was choking me. I do remember thinking that this was the way I was going to die. Frank must have had a moment of clarity and he finally let me go. I gasped for air and surveyed the dining room. Dishes, glass and food were everywhere; not a morsel was edible. Lisa and her sister were holding each other and crying. My brother Leo was talking Frank down and my mother was weeping in the corner of the room. The turkey was upside down on the floor next to the table.

I walked over to Lisa and her sister and said,

“Come on, we’re getting the hell out of here.”

We went to Lisa’s house so that we could calm down and process what had happened. My neck had huge welts and two large handprints. My mother called me and begged me not to involve the police. I told her that I wouldn’t call the police and that I never wanted to see or speak to my stepfather again. She said she understood and that she would be throwing him out and divorcing him.

Lisa’s family prayed and asked me to join them; I pretended to talk to God. What I did instead, was to tell myself that I would never again subject myself or anyone else I loved, to such abhorrent abuse.

I did eventually forgive my stepfather. I also stopped calling him dad.

 

 

———————————————————————————————

My intention is not to hurt anyone by dredging up the past. My parents (all of them) are deceased and my siblings have moved on. It’s more about sorting it out in my own mind; giving myself permission to be truthful with myself and others. I believe it helps for friends and family to know why I married and why I often react the way I do, in certain situations. Why I often seem insecure and why I fight certain causes; why honesty in relationships is so important to me.

 

Image may contain: 6 people

This is me with friends on our 66th Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I’m the kid on the top far left. I always hid behind others; I lacked confidence. I didn’t like to be in photos then and I don’t like it now. The kid with the bat was my best friend Joey. He had enough confidence for all of us. I followed him everywhere and kept my mouth shut. Joey’s parents were my self-appointed God parents and they knew all about what was happening at home. It was so bad for me at one point, they crossed the street and calmly spoke to my mother. They asked her if it might be easier on her if I lived with them for a while. They told her I’d be close by and could see her everyday. My mother threw them out and I was grounded for a week. Myrna and Joe were the best kind of people. They raised me up and empowered me. The two of them and Myrna’s mother Anne, taught me the power of education and hope. We all have a story and our stories sum up who we are.

 

'I was 17 years old'

Dad and I at one of our weekly dinners @1976. Notice how I was hunched over and looking away from the camera.

I Couldn’t Save My Mother

But I Can Share My Story . . .

 

It was the middle of the night and a timid five-year old boy lied awake listening to his parents argue. They’d argued before; many times before. Their voices were raised and his six brothers and sisters who were all sleeping nearby, didn’t seem to hear them. Conflicted, he loved his parents, but he wished they’d stop. His mother seemed to be making his father angry and he didn’t understand why she was doing it; why she was cursing at him; why she was being so mean. In his head he just kept repeating,

“Mom, why don’t you just leave Daddy alone.”

But his mother was his entire world and he couldn’t be angry with her. And if his mother was his world, his father was his universe.

Scared and afraid to wake his siblings, he crawled out of bed to a dark corner of the bedroom he shared with his younger brother. It was a safe corner where he could become invisible. Nobody ever noticed him there. And there he sat, curled up in a blanket, listening and wondering what he had done this time; was he the cause of their argument? He didn’t know or understand that things happen in the world that he had nothing to do with. He was never told that he was not to blame. And so he sat in the corner and cried and wished it would stop. It never stopped and it wasn’t going to stop on that scarring night.

Just when he’d thought his parents might have gone to bed, he heard his mother scream. He was frightened, but his mother needed his help. He ran to the kitchen where the voices were loud and the language biting. As he entered the hallway facing the kitchen he could see his mother yelling at his father and then suddenly a coffee cup hit her head and blood spattered on the wall behind her. His mother slid down the wall and her tears fell to the cold tile floor. The boy ran to console her, but she was inconsolable.

His father ordered him to go back to bed; instead, he crawled under the kitchen table. Then his father grabbed his sobbing mother’s arms and began to throw her against the wall. The boy dared not leave his hiding place. He’d never seen his father this angry; he feared for his mother’s life; he didn’t know what to do. If he ran to try to find help, his father might  beat him as well. He waited, shivering and watching for his father’s next move.

His father raised his fist and was about to strike his mother again; she begged him to stop and he hesitated. He mumbled something about how she drove him to this point — she would never leave him alone. He turned and walked out of the kitchen. His mother spotted him under the table and placed her finger up to her mouth. The boy dared not move. The front doors slammed and they waited in silence. It seemed like hours before his mother pushed herself up off of the floor and grabbed a rag from the sink. She placed the rag up to her head to stop the bleeding and silently wept.

The boy tentatively moved toward his mother and she opened her arms to embrace him. He told himself to be strong for her, but he wanted to cry and knew he could not. He kept hearing voices from everywhere telling him that boys didn’t cry. He didn’t cry, he whispered,

“Mom, I won’t let him hurt you.”

The boy’s mother appeared broken and exhausted. She slowly retreated to her bedroom and collapsed onto her bed. He followed her and listened for the front door. She motioned for him to sit on the edge of the bed. Her movements were slow and she seemed to be in a great deal of pain. He didn’t know what to do; how to help her. He watched her eyes flutter as she fought sleep. She reached over, grabbed his forearm and said,

“Watch for daddy, if he comes home wake me,” and then she slept.

The boy knew that if his father returned home, it would be bad. His thoughts went from terror to relief; relieved that his mother was still alive, but terrified his father would soon come home. He knew that if his father came home, he wouldn’t be able to protect his mother. All he could do was wait and warn her.

The boy stared into the darkness and listened for any sound. The boy was me.

Postscript:

Friends and relatives called me after reading my story. Most were supportive and wanted to show their love and support and some asked me why I wrote this now.

There are many reasons I wanted to put my experience out there, but I’ll share just a couple. First and foremost, the constant emotional abuse I experienced throughout my childhood followed me into adulthood and created problems for me in almost every relationship. Therapy and a good deal of soul-searching has been helpful. I want parents to be aware that exposure to domestic upheaval will cause a lifetime of pain for a child; their innocence and naiveté prevent them from understanding their role in the anger and pain around them. I believe one of the reasons I never had children, was the fear of putting a child through what I went through.

I also told my story because of my present life journey. To be blunt, I’ve had enough of carrying this shit around and it is time to shed it; writing about it is one way to accomplish that goal.

Coming soon:

Portimão, Portugal next weekend:  I’ll be sleeping on a sailboat and documenting the whole thing . . . well, almost the whole thing.

Catania, Sicily, October 1 to 8