The sun is shining and the days are getting warmer. We may be about to emerge from our cocoons, and I’m reminded of last spring at this time when the world seemed like such a scary place. I stopped going to my office. I stopped going running because the trail suddenly filled with scads of people who were no longer going to work. Two of my best friends were trapped in Vermont, one was in the hospital. I met with clients all day on Zoom and then in the evenings, bewildered and disoriented, joined friends for virtual happy hours. Gone were side conversations and incidental run-ins with acquaintances.
I renewed my relationships with my neighbors, slowly, over the weeks as we dared to leave our homes, stunned, frantic, scared.
Eventually, I felt safe enough to go mountain biking, joined similarly isolated friends in outdoor meals, taking advantage of the improving weather and longer days. We gathered, carefully distanced, on decks, in yards, at the parks, still stunned, still disoriented. I spent hours plucking dandelions from my front yard and grooming my aging and cantankerous cat, Mittens, ducking back indoors to see clients on Zoom, urging them to not panic, assuring them they wouldn’t be trapped back home with mom and dad for too much longer. What did I know then? What did any of us know?
We knew we had to keep on. I kept on by throwing my hat in the online dating pool. I kept on by doing jigsaw puzzles and by hauling out the old Wii Fit. I went kayaking. I’ve already written here about how kayaking seemed a reasonable and safe first date in a plague. I watched ducklings from my kayak, monitored the lily pads’ blooming, spied on the great blue heron, and the parade of goslings. Kayaked at midnight to see the bioluminescence and did it again the next night and again a week later. Sat on the water in our kayaks and talked for hours with new friends and old.
I want to return to that feeling—the satisfaction of meeting someone new, of making a connection, of being in my boat, on the water, in my own skin, keeping on. In the face of a pandemic. In the face of a return to whatever normal will look like, in the face of a future that only unrolls a moment at a time.
So, I keep on. Working from home. Dating. Kayaking. Looking for The One. Making the most of the lessons I learn along the way.
Like all good adventures, this one begins with alcohol.
Last March, I hunkered down with everyone else, eschewing human contact, living hand to mouth surviving on the contents of my pantry (decades old rice cakes, expired cream of mushroom soup, rancid-ish rice, freezer burned chicken, ancient frozen fish). That was all fine, but when I ran out of cider, that was a bridge too far.
What to do? Naturally, I started ordering elderberry cider by the case from Lost Giants Cider Co. At first I told myself it was to keep them from going out of business. They had to survive the pandemic, I reasoned. One day we’d again sit inside and mingle with other cider lovers. And for a couple of months, that too, was good enough company for me. A can of cider, a jigsaw puzzle. Eventually I dragged out the old Wii. I spent those first weeks Zooming with friends, watching a lot of Netflix, writing. I could do this, I thought, sipping my cider and ordering another puzzle from Amazon. It’s not so bad. A few weeks of staying home and it’ll all be fine.
But by the time July rolled around and we were STILL stuck at home, I had grown tired of sitting on my front porch and waving at the neighbors for fun. I needed more. So, though I initially felt jilted and abandoned when my two (straight female) BFFs started online dating, after a couple of ciders and some peeking at a couple of dating sites, I joined them. Why not? I hadn’t dated in 20 years, but I had met my ex-wife in one of the very first online dating sites back in 1999 or 2000. That wasn’t all bad. Said the fifth case of elderberry cider.
By mid-July, I’d started corresponding with a likely candidate. She seemed intelligent and intriguing in all the right ways. We agreed on an appropriately socially-distanced kayaking first date. Always the prepared boy scout, I packed a mini-lunch to share: 2 ciders, some almonds, some string cheese, dried mango.
I knew my first date was doomed when she refused my offer of a cider after our paddle. We did not paddle again. My second (different) date, however, welcomed my cider offer midway through our paddle a couple of weeks later. After that auspicious beginning, we dated long enough to enjoy many ciders together, discovering an affinity for peppered ciders, jalapeno pineapple, habanero pineapple. We kicked it up to spicy town. For six months.
That’s more than my two BFFs can say. They’re still wading through sites full of pictures of half-naked men wielding fish as if that’s what attracts women . . .
I am reposting this today though I wrote it four years ago. Much has changed since then. I was thinking this week how we still aren’t completely free to be ourselves in public. I was on the Oregon Coast and walking down the beach behind what I assumed was a lesbian couple. We were at least a mile from the main beach and far from the public eye on a remote part of the beach before they held hands. They seemed oblivious to my presence a dozen yards behind them, but I couldn’t help wonder what if I had not been me, but someone who didn’t support LGBTQ rights? What if I were a homophobe and emboldened to act out as so many are these days?
It’s fitting that National Coming Out Day should fall during Mental Health Awareness Week. The two are inextricably linked.
We wore our cowgirl outfits to the wedding, after all the invitation had said country chic and it was being held outdoors in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with the reception to follow in a barn. Me: black cowgirl hat, pointy-toed boots, Western shirt with pearl snaps, bedazzled cowgirl jeans. The Little Woman: ruffled skirt, black cowgirl boots, black Western shirt with longhorns on the shoulders, pearl snaps. We had road-tripped down in our Jeep, all 1600 miles or so, through eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming. We were excited to see the family, to celebrate with my cousin Brad and his soon-to-be wife Megan.
TLW grabbed my hand when we got out of the Jeep and waited for my brother and his family and my father and his wife to debark from their vehicles and join us as we walked to the front of the (very upscale) barn. I let Nancy hold my hand then, but I could feel that familiar uneasiness creeping in the closer we got to the venue, and when I didn’t immediately see anyone we knew (i.e. members of the family) or anyone else so duded up, I pulled away and dropped her hand.
“So that’s how it’s going to be,” she said. “Really?”
At that moment, self-preservation trumped self awareness. I pretended not to hear and walked a little bit ahead, suddenly flooded with shame and hoping that either the ground would swallow me whole or that a whole posse of cowgirl lesbians might be waiting for us just around the corner. Of course neither happened. Around the corner waited only straight (as far as I could tell) normally attired wedding attendees—maybe a bit more casual than normal wedding attendees, but still, straight, suit jackets, dresses, the occasional cowboy boot. I wanted nothing more than to turn heel and run, to safety, to the familiar, to someone I’ve never been nor will ever be: a taller, thinner, more feminine, more socially acceptable me.It did not matter one whit in that moment that I was surrounded by people who loved and accepted me. It did not matter in that moment of panic that my brother was also wearing a cowboy shirt and cowboy boots and jeans and a cowboy hat. It didn’t matter that I had come out to my family years ago and that TLW and I were as accepted and loved and as much a family unit within the extended family as my straight cousins and aunts and uncles. All that mattered to me was my obvious otherness.
I did not flee. Even when I realized we were 45 minutes early and would have to mingle and make small talk or stand awkwardly with each other and sip the lavender water. I silently cursed the lack of pre-ceremony alcohol and our obsessive punctuality. I talked myself down from that internal ledge and tried to see us as others might. I tried to look at the individuals in the crowd and not at the crowd itself. I feigned interest in the barn and the surrounding grounds, and I eagerly greeted familiar faces as they trickled in. I reminded myself that I was 50 years old, goddammit and beyond (hahahaha) caring what other people thought of me and my life choices. I berated myself into behaving as if I actually believed that.
Eventually, I talked to enough people, had enough wine, ate enough dinner, spent enough time to re-inhabit my body. No one laughed at me. No one made fun of me for being a lesbian. In fact, just the opposite happened. I relaxed and opened up, and TLW and I danced. We danced together, alone, with strangers on the dance floor, and as we danced a funny thing happened: acceptance.
The wedding invitations had included RSVP cards to mail back. Each card asked for a song request, what song would we like them to play at the reception? TLW told me to put down “Same Love” by Macklemore. I seriously doubted that our song would get played—partly because it’s really not a dance song, partly because it’s gay. But wouldn’t you know it—about three quarters of the way through the evening, I heard those notes, grabbed TLW’s hand and pulled her onto the dance floor as I whooped and waved my hands in the air. We were the first ones out there, but not for long. My cousin wrapped us in a huge embrace and thanked us for coming. Strangers and relatives alike joined us on the dance floor in what felt like an enormous celebration of love. Period.
I wish I could bottle the feeling I had at the end of that night, wear it around my neck and sprinkle it over me before I walk into new situations, because coming out isn’t just a one time event. Coming out happens over and over and over again, every day, every week, every month.
This is going to be a long and rambling blog. My apologies up front. Gender is a complicated minefield of a topic, and I have a lot to say about it. I am no expert, just someone trying to make sense of it all without offending anyone.
No matter what class I seem to land in seems to bring up gender as a recurring theme. I have to say, I know a whole lot more about gender now than I did two years ago when I started this program. Gender used to be binary—or at least we only ever talked about it in terms of the male/female binary. Now we discuss gender as occurring in a sphere. Two years ago, I had never heard of a pansexual or a demi-girl, or even the idea that gender occurs on a spectrum and not as the binary male/female boy/girl man/woman paradigm.
Take a look at this chart. It’s not a joke (although, I have to admit, when I first saw it I thought it was). Mind blowing, yes? These symbols represent the current (and rapidly changing) gender landscape.
If you’re like me, somewhere between the ages of 40 and 60, you grew up in a time when gender norms just started breaking down. I remember being a child and overhearing my parents and grandparents complain about the hippies, going on and on about how they could no longer tell the boys from the girls now that the boys had long hair. You grew up when girls no longer had to wear dresses to school and were no longer confined to three careers: nurse, teacher, secretary. If you were an athletic girl, you may have even tried out for the little league team. Title IX had an impact in that girls’ sports got funded, finally.
Women became doctors, lawyers, dentists, fire fighters, and police officers. Men became flight attendants and nurses, started taking care of children, changing diapers. Stay at home dads became a thing. Gender roles became more flexible, but generally males remained males and females remained females. Gay men may have been more effeminate and lesbians more masculine, but boys wore blue, and girls wore pink and nobody played coy about the biological sex of their newborn child.
I grew up as a gender nonconforming child, never fully comfortable in the trappings of girlhood. I preferred my Red Ryder BB gun to dolls and spent my free time outside, building tree forts, fishing, and playing baseball with my brother. I wanted to be a boy but not because I felt uncomfortable in my body. I wanted to be a boy because boys had more freedoms, fewer constraints.
When I was about six, somehow I had heard about sex change operations (what is now called sexual reassignment surgery). Since we didn’t have a television and were fairly isolated in our small community, I have no idea how I might have learned about such a thing. Nor do I know what possessed me to ask my Mema about it, maybe a sense that if I expressed my desire to not be a girl, she would stop buying me girl stuff. But there we were in her Gran Torino—I leaned over the console from the back seat. “Mema, there’s an operation you can have if you don’t want to be a girl anymore. I could be a boy,” I ventured.
She turned to look at me, taking a long drag off of her cigarette. After a moment she blew the smoke out the side of her mouth away from me. “Those people are sick,” she announced and turned around to back the car out of the driveway. End of discussion, but message received loud and clear.
These days I sit in classes with people who introduce themselves and then announce their preferred pronouns, as in, “My name is Jennifer and I prefer the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’.” I have to admit, the first time I heard such an introduction I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Many of my classmates identify as queer or pansexual, and there are a lot of trans* people at Antioch. I generally introduce myself as a lesbian, but I recently learned that many younger people believe that to be a lesbian is to be transphobic.
I am not transphobic, though I have a lot to learn and am still wrapping my head around what it means to be trans*. I’m pretty sure it’s more than feeling like a boy who is trapped in a girl’s body or vice versa. Recently, I’ve listened to speakers who identify as trans* but not as transwomen or transmen, just trans, as in somewhere in between or not even.
One speaker said that he (and he did identify as a transman) probably wouldn’t have transitioned from female to male had he stayed in his native country. In his homeland, being a butch lesbian pushed the cultural boundaries enough. But when he moved to the U.S., he decided to transition because being a butch lesbian wasn’t far enough out there, culturally speaking. He wanted to push the boundaries further.
I don’t think I want to be something other than a cisgendered lesbian. But I do understand what it’s like to be misgendered and misunderstood.
I’ve written about this before here, but it’s a story worth repeating. A number of years ago, I took my then four-year-old nephew to the community pool near his home in a very upwardly mobile suburban enclave in the Pacific Northwest. I wore my one-piece speedo swimsuit and a pair of cargo shorts, and sat on the edge of the hot tub where he enjoyed a soak and roughhoused with a couple of friends. He looked up at me as I dangled my legs in the bubbling water.
“Auntie Pammie,” he said, “are you a boy or a girl?”
I looked back at his wide open and innocent face, and I could tell immediately that he was genuinely puzzled, that his four-year-old awareness of what made a boy a boy and a girl a girl was in direct conflict with what he saw represented in me. In his world, girls did not have short hair and wear cargo shorts. In his world there was one way to be a girl and another to be a boy, and he could not figure out where to put me.
“It must be confusing,” I said to him. “You don’t usually see girls with such short hair or wearing clothes like I wear. But, I’m here to tell you, I am a girl, buddy. I’m definitely a girl.”
I smiled at him and thought about all of the ways I could identify myself as a female. I have big boobs for one thing, but I wasn’t going to go there with a four-year-old. I wore diamond earrings, but that didn’t make me a girl anymore, not like it did 25 years ago. I shaved my legs. I was, in fact Auntie Pammie. I tried to think of how else I could convince him that I was a girl, beyond the obvious.
“Okay,” he smiled and went back to playing with his friends in the water.
I breathed a sigh of relief, and his question has become a bit of family folklore. My brother and sister-in-law were slightly mortified when I relayed the question to them later, but once I started explaining his confusion, they began to understand. He wasn’t being impolite or impertinent. He simply had no social construct for me.
While I can easily forgive my nephew his four-year-old’s confusion and innocent question, I’m more hesitant to grant a pass to the woman who mistook me for a man in the women’s restroom awhile back. I had just finished washing my hands in the public bathroom at an Oregon beach when a woman entered, saw me, and, obviously startled, went back out to look again at the sign on the restroom door. I just shook my head and walked by her, leaving her to puzzle things out on her own.
Incidents like the one at the beach happen to me fairly often, more so recently. I would like to say that I am unfazed by people’s confusion, but their obliviousness continues to bother me.
We need to push the boundaries in order to stretch the social construct. That’s what this shift in gender identity is all about. And while many of us are beginning to understand and accept that some people are born “in the wrong bodies” and want their minds and bodies to match (though, there is a school of thought that purports if we could culturally accept gender as nonbinary, and accept everyone just as they are, there would be no need to make our bodies and and our minds match vis a vis sexual reassignment surgery, but it’s a controversial stance. For more info, check out Alice Dreger and her TED Talk), it’s still pretty radical (and, frankly challenging to grasp) to consider gender as nonbinary, as not an either/or but as a whatever.
Changing (or negating) our genders to push the boundaries? I guess that’s where change happens. On the boundaries. If no one ever pushed, nothing would ever change.
Turns out that April is Counseling Awareness Month. Isn’t this just a serendipitous turn of events? I’m writing a blog a day, A to Z about my adventures as a graduate student in Mental Health Counseling and the American Counseling Association is making it a special month. Pretty sure I can’t take credit, but still . . . (maybe tomorrow I’ll tackle Delusional and Diagnosis).
I have a long history with counseling. I started seeing a psychologist in 1992 and have been in therapy of some sort consistently since then. For a long time, I thought of myself as having a serious character defect. I was young. I didn’t really understand how counseling worked, or could work. I had only a vague notion of Freud and his couch and Woody Allen’s neuroses.
Prozac and SSRIs hit the market about the time I began therapy* and not long after my psychologist diagnosed me with depression, she and my general practitioner agreed I would do well to try the new wonder-drug, Prozac. And, honestly, I looked forward to some relief. At 29, in 1992, I was a fairly new mom of an adopted bi-racial daughter, in a relationship with a woman 13 years my senior. I had just sold the bookstore I started, owned, and operated for three years, and I had moved back home full-time after living 90 miles away for most of each week. To complicate things, my fundamentalist Christian parents were only just beginning to adjust to my, er, lifestyle (as we called it then) and its unconventionality.
There’s more, but that’s enough. You get the idea. I was a stress monster. The crinkling of a tissue set my teeth on edge. The noise of someone actually blowing their nose sent me over the edge. The first time I swallowed one of those little green and white pills, I felt like I was taking communion. I crossed myself and sent up a prayer.
After four weeks of taking that precious little capsule every morning, I no longer cared who sneezed or how loud. Irritation rolled off my back. The grey veil that separated me from the rest of the world lifted, and I started seeing in color again. Cliché, I know, but accurate. Everything sparkled. I got a good job as the bookstore manager at the local technical college with a great boss as well as health and retirement benefits. Did the little pill have anything to do with my new job? I believe happier, less-stressed, less-depressed people tend to have more self-confidence and do better in job interviews, so yes. But I digress.
I felt good, and I loved talking to my therapist. I loved paying someone to listen to me. I loved the 50 minutes of uninterrupted attention. I could do this for a living, I thought. I’d love to listen to people’s stories, to help them make sense of their feelings, to help them gain the confidence to reach for their high dreams. I had no idea that someone who went to counseling could actually ever become a counselor. I thought my diagnosis and being on meds precluded me ever being in the field.
I had never heard of Jung’s Wounded Healer. I was an English major who, stupidly and stubbornly, avoided all social science classes. The books cost too much. The classes met on Fridays. What can I say?
I wanted to get off the meds, though, yet every time I quit taking them, things in my life would head south, and the psychologist would exhort me to stay on the meds. I got stuck in a loop and never really got to the issues that were causing me to become depressed. I’d just start popping the pills again, and things would improve. Etc.
I spent about twenty years with the psychologist before I found a new therapist, and the woman I chose to see was an LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor). I didn’t know what the difference was when I made the switch, I was just seeking someone a little more flexible and spiritual, a little less dogmatic and not so pharmacologically oriented. Turns out the switch worked very well for me then. I made several changes in my life at the same time: I got a new job, I relocated, I started taking writing classes and running, and found new community with both activities.
The psychologist got me up and out of the depression and quite literally saved my life on many occasions. And the LMHC has helped me move forward from there, developing self-confidence, practicing mindfulness, introducing me to non-Western philosophies. I have learned so much about myself, about why I am the way I am, and how I can move forward.
I’ll never be done working on myself, but it turns out, I can become a counselor anyway, not in spite of my past, but because of it. Jung believed that disease of the soul could be the best possible form of training for a healer. And as Victor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” By these measures, I am perfect for this job.
*for a more in-depth—but still inadequate—explanation of the differences among therapy, counseling, psychotherapy, and psychology see this previous blog
Writers and therapists live twice—first when they experience events and a second time when they use them in their work. Mary Pipher, Letters to a Young Therapist
A few months ago, I met up with a former therapist, a woman I hadn’t been to see in about 20 years and who had since retired. I wanted to talk to her about adoption and addiction since she had been known as something of an adoption guru while she was still practicing. As I explained my course of study and my intentions for becoming a counselor, she exhorted me to pick a theory, a modality to call my own. “You need to decide which theoretical model you’ll work from,” she said. “You need to pick one to ground yourself in and work from there.” She then ticked off a list: Bowen, Adler, Rogers, Jung. I looked across the table at her and shrugged. “I think they all have something to offer,” I said. “I guess if I had to describe my orientation, it would be diverse.”
“That won’t do,” she exclaimed. “You need to be grounded in something. Anything. Just pick one. Bowen is good.”
I shook my head slowly at the thought of Murray Bowen taking up permanent residence in my head. Sure, I can see the value in looking at a person’s issues through the lens of intergenerational patterns and family systems, but as my only, primary orientation? No. So many others had much more to offer, from Jung’s wounded healer to the post modernists and narrative therapy, feminist theory, attachment theory. I couldn’t imagine latching onto just one way of being a counselor when so many modalities offered so many ways to work with people with a variety of needs.
The metaphor is overdone, but apt—the more tools I have in my tool belt, the more useful I can be to more people. Every client is going to be different. I need to be able to adapt. There aren’t many similarities between working in technology and working as a counselor, except this one: sometimes there are a variety of ways to approach a problem and finding a good solution is often a matter of “testing and tweaking” to see what works best.
As a writer, reader, and storyteller, I’ve always found narrative therapy to be the modality that draws me in. I am attracted to counseling for the same reasons I am a writer—I want my misery, and indeed everyone’s—to be meaningful. As Mary Pipher writes in her Letters to a Young Therapist, as counselors and writers, we get to use our experiences twice and encourage others to do the same. Additionally, I am attracted to narrative therapy’s post-modernist bent, the idea that it is not the individual who is sick, but the culture in which the individual lives. That depression, anxiety, PTSD for example, are legitimate responses to living in a culture that too often demands we abandon our authentic selves. Not to mention that we live in a world that insists on dividing us by race, socioeconomic status, ability, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, religion, and more.
I began this graduate program with the vague notion that I would emerge in two years, somehow qualified to sit and listen to people for a living. As I progress through each quarter, I become evermore convinced that two years is not nearly enough time in which to prepare me to not just listen to people’s stories, but to help them make sense of their stories, make meaning in their lives, forge on into the future with hope and a sense of purpose, with a deeper understanding of what serves them, what doesn’t, how to make good choices, how to hold onto their dreams, how to have a voice, leave an abuser, nurture their children, their relationships, find meaningful work.
How do I become that mirror, sounding board, holder of stories, cheerleader, confidant, advocate?
From the client side of the couch, I have found Gestalt and mindfulness to be the most effective therapeutic methods. Most breakthroughs in my personal therapy have come when I’ve been talking to the chair, role playing, or acting something out with my therapist. Mindfulness and meditation have worked for me outside of the therapist’s office as a way to self-regulate and deepen personal awareness. So, it’s not really surprising that over the course of this quarter I have gravitated to both, though I see Gestalt methods as being more relevant to therapy and mindfulness as a useful (and indeed maybe even necessary) adjunct for clients to use between sessions.
Gestalt therapy with its focus on the body/mind connection, lends itself well to supporting other interventions and modalities. Rogerian Person-Centered Therapy (PCT) with its mandate for unconditional positive regard seems like it should underlie every therapeutic encounter, particularly the initial few sessions.
Gestalt works well, too, with mindfulness, attachment, and sensorimotor therapies, which focus not only on how the body holds trauma and past experiences, but also on awareness and connection between the client and therapist. By encouraging clients to stay in the here and now, Gestalt leaves room for the therapist to introduce the client to mindfulness techniques which support being present and staying in the moment when things get emotional or difficult in session.
In my initial session with my practice client, employing PCT worked well to establish rapport and an initial baseline of trust. Once we got to the primary issue, however, Gestalt would have been a great way in to exploring how she was feeling in the “here and now.” I might have employed the empty chair technique had the session gone longer—I could have had my client talk to any number of representatives from her past: her parents, her younger self.
I also might have had her explore her stress about her issue and how it was sitting in her body—what does the stress feel like? Look like? How big is the stress? What color is it? Where does she feel it the most? My therapist often tells me to invite my distressing emotion in rather than trying to banish it. “Invite the stress in,” she says. “Ask it what it wants. Have tea with it.” This technique, of anthropomorphizing the disturbing emotion or feeling and dwelling on it, illustrates one way of working with an issue. When we avoid something, it gets bigger and more intense. By inviting our distressing emotion in and asking it to stay, by getting to know it, we rob it of its power.
In our second practice session, I employed both Gestalt and mindfulness (as well as Roger’s unconditional positive regard), encouraging the client to make her physical agitation bigger (I had her stand up and shake out her anxious feelings) and to incorporate some breathing techniques. This session took the client deeper emotionally than the first session, even though both sessions lasted about 20 minutes and demonstrated my improved ability to sit with a client in their discomfort. I was able to witness her experiencing emotion and hold the experience rather than try to rush her through it in order to alleviate my own discomfort.
As always, I need to be mindful of my clients’ particular culture. Every client, regardless of how they present at first glance, brings with them an individual set of circumstances that sets them apart from every other client. To be an effective therapist, I must refrain from making assumptions, and instead listen, learn, ask clarifying questions, and give the client the space and safety they need in order to fully reveal themselves, their wants, their needs, their problems.
Probably one of the most challenging aspects of counseling this quarter has been keeping tabs on my biases, assumptions, and privileges. While I am nearly always aware of my sexual orientation, my age, and do think a lot about race and how these parts of my identity might influence my interactions with a client, I’m not always thinking about ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or disability. We are, often and on the surface, a homogenous population at Antioch. I have not counseled a person of color or a person with a visible disability. I’m sure I’ve worked with clients who come from a different socioeconomic background, and though I am currently as broke as the next graduate student, I do have to remind myself that I come from a relatively privileged background and have robust support systems should I need them.
As this quarter wraps up, I feel as if I am finally getting my counselor feet under me, that I can work effectively and comfortably within a specific therapeutic framework. This quarter is the first time I have experienced authentic connection with a client, where I seem to have actually helped another person via a counseling session. I am excited to hear my clients’ stories, to listen to them as together we find meaning in and a way out of their suffering.
I’m currently working on a group project for my Counseling Sexual Minorities class. We are looking at Attachment Theory as it applies to LGBTQ people and the clinical implications for counseling this population. For my part, and to help the cause along, I decided to take a look at the relationship between attachment styles (secure, fearful/avoidant, dismissive, and preoccupied), identity integration and lesbian shame.
Attachment theory suggests that how well our primary caregivers met our needs as infants and children determines how we relate in relationships later in life. (For a more complete discussion, check out this site).
The Cass Identity Model is one of the primary ways of evaluating how well gays and lesbians have integrated their sexual orientation into their lives. It has six stages, beginning with Identity Confusion (am I a lesbian?) and ending with Identity Synthesis (I am a lesbian and I am out in all areas of my life). (For a more complete discussion on the Cass Model, click here).
The Internalized Shame Scale is an assessment tool used to rate individual’s levels of internalized shame.
Turns out there is a correlation between a lesbian’s attachment style and the amount of shame she experiences. The two studies I looked at gathered data on about 500 lesbians and discovered that those lesbians with a secure attachment style had lower levels of shame (as measured on the Internalized Shame Scale) than those lesbians with other attachment styles (fearful, dismissive, and preoccupied).
The first study (published in 2003) looked at 380 women who self-identified as lesbians and as a level 4, 5, or 6 on the Cass Identity Integration Model. The results aren’t really that surprising. What’s surprising is that overall, lesbians scored 49.8 on the shame scale where 50 is a clinically significant result (i.e. pathological). As a comparison, heterosexual women average a score of 33.
It’s important to note that most infants and children who escape childhood with a secure attachment style tend to remain securely attached in other relationships as their lives go on. Not so with LGBTQ children. Even those who begin life securely attached run a high risk of shifting attachment styles later in life due to particularly severe breaks in important relationships: rejection by their family when they come out, for example. Rejection by peers, teachers, clergy, friends.
One paper I read for my presentation reported that 43% of LGBTQ youth experience some form of physical violence. In addition, a significant number get kicked out of their homes when they come out to their families. LGBTQ people are barraged daily with messages that it’s not okay to be LGBTQ. I just have to open my laptop and scan the headlines on any given morning to read that politicians want to strip me of my rights, that “christians” want to round us up and put us in camps, that self-appointed guardians of morality want to outlaw me, and that people like me are threatened with death just for being who we are.
Sure, we’re gaining rights, but we also face a backlash from those who believe we are less than human, less than deserving of equal rights. The Kim Davis’s, Antonin Scailias, Michelle Bachmans, Ann Coulters, Ted Cruzs, Marco Rubios of this world. We have the right to marry, for now. But how long will that last? Will a change in our country’s administration threaten my rights again? Will I ever be able to relax or must I remain vigilant?
The second study, published a year later looked at 100 lesbians who scored a 6 on the Cass scale and who had also spent at least three years in therapy. What this study showed was that these lesbians scored 43 on the shame scale and 58% were securely attached, compared to 49% in the previous study.
What are the clinical implications of reduced lesbian shame, more secure attachment styles, and higher rates of identity integration? Therapy may work to repair attachment by providing a new secure base, resulting in reduced internalized shame. This is good news.
Why am I interested? Funny you should ask. One of the amazing (and awful) aspects of this graduate program I am in, is that I am constantly analyzing myself, challenging my assumptions about myself and monitoring the way I am in the world. I can’t think of a single class I’ve taken that didn’t shove me right up into the shit, from the initial Family of Origin Issues class, where we looked at intergenerational patterns and all the ways we have unfinished business with the people in our lives to Human Development: Gender in which my mind was blown regarding the social constructs of gender roles and the false dichotomy of binary genders (i.e. boy/girl, male/female).
Every class has taught me something about myself: Ethics, Psychopathology, Psychodiagnostics, Group Therapy, and so it has been with this class, Counseling Sexual Minorities. I signed up for the class with a level of excitement and anticipation I’d not had for other classes because we were finally in my wheelhouse. I thought I knew a thing or two about this topic, at least from the client side of the couch. I wasn’t prepared.
In general, the class has been less than stellar, but even still, I wasn’t prepared for how digging into all the ways in which LGBTQ folks are discriminated against would impact me. I figured that I’ve been out of the closet for the past 40 years and had dealt with my internalized homophobia and had come to terms with my sexual orientation, but what I have realized so far this quarter is just how exhausted I am, how much I shut out on a daily basis in order to protect myself, and that there’s a simmering rage just below the surface that is eating away at me.
The other day I ran across a story on some county clerk in Texas who likened her fight against same sex marriage to the fight against Nazi Germany. Really? And the rhetoric amongst the GOP candidates who want to roll back what few legal protections LGBTQ folks have terrifies me. One candidate whose name shall not grace this blog has stated he would nominate Supreme Court justices who would repeal same sex marriage.
And that’s the thing that just kills me a little inside all the time—other people think they have a right to determine what is best for me simply based on whom I love. Everyone has an opinion and sometimes even a vote about what rights I should have. Just this morning there’s a story on the front page of my local paper about a debate in Charlotte, NC on LGBT protections. A debate. About my rights as a human.
As I grew up, instinctively knowing that there was something different about me, I tried hard to keep that difference under wraps, to not let my true self out for fear of rejection. But eventually the need to be true to myself overruled cultural mandates to fit in. Being authentic, regardless of sexual orientation, can be challenging for many of us, but I would posit that most people don’t spend most of their time with this level of anxiety.
As I came out over the years (coming out happens over and over and over again, by the way, not just once), relationships fell away. Some repaired, others did not. I remember writing to a friend from my high school days when I adopted my oldest daughter. My friend wrote back that I was an abomination, that my daughter deserved better, that I was going to hell.
Eventually, I learned to be more discriminating, oftentimes pushing people away and shutting others out who may not have rejected me. Better to protect my heart than to have it shattered over and over again. Even now when I know better, when I am pretty certain that the folks around me are open and accepting, I still armor myself against betrayal, though occasionally I let down my guard and show up as completely out, completely me, defenseless, and vulnerable because I feel safe, because the environment seems to exude acceptance and warrant trust. Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I am very wrong.
I am tired. I want to lay down my shame. I want to live in a world where I am not afraid, where no one cares who I sleep with, where no one is threatened by my relationships, where no one wants to strip me of my dignity, humanity, my rights. I want to live in a world where no one gets to vote on my right to marry, work, buy a house, use a restroom, adopt children. I want to live in a world where who I am is not up for debate.
This quarter, as I continue working towards my Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, I am taking a course on counseling the LGBTQ population. Here is the course description as it appears in the syllabus: This course provides an overview of clinical issues, contemporary theories, interventions, and research relevant to the treatment of sexual minorities. This population includes Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender clients, as well as those clients who identify as other than heterosexual (e.g. Queer, Pansexual, Omnisexual, etc.), or are questioning their sexual orientation or gender in any way. Psychological, social, cultural, and developmental issues are explored within the contexts of theory and practice. Emphasis is on affirmative mental health services for sexual minorities, including the importance of developing an awareness of the cultural, historical, and social realities of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals. Readings, discussion, videos, presentations, experiential activities, and guest lectures/panels will serve to heighten awareness of problems such as homophobia and heterosexism as they affect the therapeutic setting, the counseling relationship, and the process of psychotherapy.
Students have to pair up to lead class discussion each week, so I signed up for week two (last week), which was to cover Lesbian Identity. I wanted to be done with the assignment early on in the quarter, AND who better to lead the discussion on Lesbian Identity than an actual lesbian?
Imagine my dismay when I realized the articles we’d been assigned to read were all sadly out of date. Two were at least ten years old, and the third, a study done on 15 lesbians who lived in the UK, looked at clothing and hairstyle choices and how they correlated to coming out, data that hardly seemed relevant for a counselor in training in the Pacific Northwest.
The findings certainly didn’t match up at all with my own experience. Coming out for me had nothing to do with how I dressed—I started shopping in the boys’ department when I was a child. Ask my mom. My short haircut has nothing to do with being a lesbian and everything to do with being lazy. And the fact that I look hideous in long hair. Never mind that all the women in Bellingham—lesbian, straight, queer, bisexual—look and dress alike. There’s a uniform: fleece, jeans, hiking shoes, short hair. We all look the same, a confounding and complicating fact of life for the women (and men!) who reside here.
So, armed with my indignation and determined to find more useful data, I put out a call to my Facebook friends. Would any of them give me permission to use their pictures and their sexual identities for a Lesbian Identity Quiz? The responses overwhelmed and heartened me. Assent and identities flooded my inbox. My friends—lesbians, straight women, bisexual women, queer women, were all intrigued and excited about this project. I began creating a PowerPoint slide show, the most stunning one I have ever made, full of my friends’ bright, shining, and beautiful faces.
And it wasn’t just about the pictures. Women sent me stories too, about their sexual orientations, their choices, their gender identities. Intimate stories. I had been gifted with very personal revelations. My excitement for the project grew as I realized I had tapped into something elemental here. Don’t we all want to be seen? Don’t we all want to know how others see us?
The enthusiasm for this project caught me a bit off guard. I heard from some Facebook friends I hardly know, from others I hadn’t heard from in years, from some I have never even spoken to in person. A few I had been close to once upon a time. And a handful with whom I have just a nodding acquaintance. The eagerness surprised me, heartened me.
A couple of people sent me specific pictures, but the rest told me to use whatever I wanted from their Facebook photos. I set about culling just the right pictures from dozens of Facebook feeds. Some were easy to find, others not so much. Many pictures were taken with significant others: wives, husbands, lovers, kids. I needed clear, easy to see photos that wouldn’t reveal anyone’s identity in an obvious manner, i.e. no wedding or family pics.
I didn’t want to bias the results via the pictures I chose, but I faced a dilemma: what picture actually best represents someone? Given the opportunity to choose a picture of a straight woman in a dress or a cowboy hat, which would I opt for? Or, my friend who has a biracial baby—what message would it send if I included a photo of her holding her child? For my lesbian friends, would I choose photos of them that emphasized their more masculine traits or their more feminine sides? I have to say in retrospect that my choices probably skewed the results.
I set up the slideshow with six pictures per slide, and when I clicked the mouse, the pictures disappeared one at a time, revealing each woman’s sexual identity (lesbian, bisexual, queer femme, or straight). I printed slideshow handouts to give to each class member, so they could write their best guesses next to each picture. I looked at my work and was proud. This was going to be a kickass class discussion and presentation. I could hardly wait.
Imagine my surprise then, when I introduced the quiz in class and the instructor immediately objected. “Wait a minute,” she said. “Is everyone comfortable judging other people like this? I’m not sure this is okay.”
I stood there, stunned, and wondered for a moment if I had made a serious error in judgment. I explained that I had everyone’s permission, that each participant hadn’t just agreed but had enthusiastically and wholeheartedly opted in. My classmates rallied to my defense, shutting down the instructor’s objections in short order. I passed around the handouts and fired up the slide show.
When they had finished the quiz, I went through the slide show quickly so they could compare their answers. I didn’t linger over individual identities, nor did we discuss anyone’s picture or what made someone look like a lesbian or a straight woman. Instead we talked about what it was like to judge people based on appearance. One female student said she refused to make any judgments about the individuals, saying they all looked like beautiful women to her. The instructor refused to take the quiz, as well. But she also refuses to label herself. Honestly, I have to say I have some judgments about that.
We discussed the safety of being identifiable, the politics of passing for straight. I (being the only self-identified lesbian in the room) talked about the changes in the past ten or fifteen years. How I used to feel like no one would know I was a lesbian because gays and lesbians weren’t part of the social or political discourse. Now, I feel like I’m always identified, categorized, and labeled. The discussion meandered from there, eventually covering a variety of topics, but one that we kept bumping up against and then turning away from, how to meet this population in our counseling offices.
And there’s the lesson—or should have been. How will we counsel lesbians when they come to us? What will we know about Lesbian Identity? Is it important that we know how a dozen or so UK lesbians changed the way they dressed when they came out? Or better that we know it’s nearly impossible to identify someone by the way they look? That 50% of the time we can tell a straight woman from a lesbian? That hardly anyone will know a queer femme when they see one, and more often than not bisexuals are invisible?
My tiny experiment revealed that, in this instance at least, we are right about our assumptions approximately 50% of the time regarding sexual orientation. I’m sure there are many more ways I can exploit the data for better/more interesting information, and I have my more mathematically inclined friends working on that for me. I’ll publish those results when I get them. In the meantime, here is what I have.
Many years ago, flummoxed by the joys and perils of raising two non-white children in our predominantly white culture, I wrote an essay expressing my doubts and fears, and (surprising to me now) my certainties (you will recognize them when you see them). Some of what I wrote makes sense and some of it clearly needs rethinking. Yesterday on the day we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., my eldest daughter, now 23, texted me (this is how we communicate these days). She was wondering if I thought it odd that the company for which she now works didn’t celebrate the national holiday. I do find it odd, odd that only governments and banks shut down on this Monday when the world grinds to a halt, more or less, for other national holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, the 4th of July.
I originally published this piece on my blog in December 2012. I thought it was worth re-posting, given that it’s that time of year again and my holiday anxiety is ramping up.
Christmas Eve always provokes anxiety in me. For all of the 1960s and well into the 70s, I was the sole granddaughter amongst many grandsons and as such the only target for girly gifts from my well-meaning Mema: dolls, dresses, and purses. While my cousins and younger brother gleefully tore through the wrapping paper to discover footballs, cowboy hats, cap pistols, and baseball gloves, I opened my gifts cautiously, always hopeful that my true wishes would be granted, that my grandmother would see me for the tomboy I was, not as the girly girl she wanted me to be. As the Barbies, ballet slippers, tea sets, and girly frou-frou piled up over the years, I knew better than to be expressively disappointed. Growing up in a conservative Christian household, I learned early that it is better to give than to receive, to be thankful for what I had, and to put others ahead of myself, so I pasted on a smile and gave my thanks with as much authenticity as I could muster.
As the years wore on and the family expanded, my girl cousins finally came along, gleeful recipients of all things sugar and spice and everything nice, and I could ignore my gifts and slip away to play with my boy cousins and their superior toys. They would share their bounty with me, and for many happy hours I wore the cowboy hat and shot the cap guns, threw the footballs around the basement. Still, an uneasiness always settled over me as the holidays drew near, and as much as I looked forward to Christmas Eve at Mema’s, a genuinely fun and spirited occasion where the alcohol flowed freely and everyone sang and acted out a verse in The Twelve Days of Christmas, where we all wore colored paper hats from the Christmas crackers, I dreaded going because I didn’t feel like I belonged.
A sense of Other became my Christmas cloak: fundamentalist Christian amongst fun loving Catholics; country bumpkin cousin among my sophisticated Seattle cousins; and something deeper that I sensed about myself, something I knew set me apart in ways I wouldn’t understand for many years.
So, no surprise then that those familiar pangs rushed back as I navigated our red late-model Volvo into Mema’s driveway for Christmas Eve in 1994. Even though I was 31 and had a family, the anxiety dogged me. I let out the breath I’d been holding during our hour and a half drive south from where I lived with my partner and our two daughters. I pulled on my wide-brimmed purple felt hat that matched my paisley purple dress and smiled through the rear view mirror at the girls, Anna four and a half, and Taylor six months old. They were ready to be sprung from their car seats, their holiday dresses hidden beneath their matching Christmas coats from Nordstrom. I squeezed Sweetie’s hand, both for comfort and for strength, and admired her stylish red wool coat and her fine black leather gloves. I allowed a small satisfaction and confidence to creep upon me. We looked so normal that no one could possibly know from first glance that we were lesbians with two children. I drew comfort from our appearance as we wrested the girls out of the car and arranged ourselves into presentability—straightening rumpled tights, buckling Mary Janes, wiping the spit up from Taylor’s chin and removing her bib, making sure Anna had a firm grasp on Blankie. We each carried a child and marched to the front door to ring the bell.
We knew better than to wait for someone to answer before letting ourselves in. The bell served only to announce our presence before we walked into the sounds and smells of Christmas tradition: cracked crab, singed spaghetti sauce, bourbon, scotch, laughter and conversation, the burble of children’s voices and laughter. Aunts and uncles yelled out greetings or raised their glasses to us as we entered. My mother came to coo over her granddaughters. We collected hugs and kisses as we waded deeper into the gathering, and because we were women, we all finally came to a stop in the kitchen.
“Merry Christmas!” My aunt Betsy said, “You guys look great. I love your dress Pam.”
“Where did you get that hat?” Mema sipped her vodka, the ice tinkling. “I love it!”
“Sweetie!” Uncle David stepped towards us, a glass of red wine in his hand. “Merry Christmas!” He gave her a sideways hug and a peck on the cheek. “How are the girls?”
“Hey David,” Sweetie matched his enthusiasm. “They are great. Thanks for asking! Your girls must be getting big, too!”
I began unbundling the girls, removing their coats, checking Taylor’s diapers for any obvious odors. They both looked amazing, their brown skin glowing against the red velvet dresses, their white tights gleaming, their Mary Janes shiny. Anna’s eyes took on the pensiveness of being in a strange situation, and Taylor’s eyes grew wide, her Surprise Baby look we called it. Since we’d only just adopted her in May, many of my relatives had yet to meet her.
“She’s so tiny! How old is she, again?”
“She’s so dark!”
“Well, yes, she’s African American,” I explained. “She’s just a bit over seven months old.”
“Anna, you’ve gotten so big!”
“Anna! How do you like being a big sister?”
Anna buries her face in the pleats of Sweetie’s red skirt.
“She’s still adjusting,” I say.
“Hey, Pamalamala!” My uncle Mike approaches, the funny guy in the family. “What can I get you to drink? You’re still drinking, right?” He nods at Taylor in my arms. “You’re not nursing are you?”
“Scotch on the rocks sounds fabulous,” I say, happy at that moment to be an adoptive parent, no breastfeeding required.
Anna peaks inquisitively from Sweetie’s skirt. “Pamalamala?” She laughs. “That’s funny Mommy!”
“That’s what I called myself when I was your age,” I explain. “I couldn’t say Pamela, so I said Pamalamala whenever someone wanted to know my name.”
Anna’s brown eyes light up, and some of the anxiety disappears. I want nothing more than for her to be free of the anxiety. Mike hands me my scotch and I relax, happy to be among family on this holiday, grateful for the acceptance from nearly everyone, and even thankful for the forbearance of those who might still disapprove. I am aware they might be masking their disdain with holiday cheer and copious amounts of alcohol. I don’t mind.
Before long, the girls and their cousins hear the prancing of reindeer feet on the roof and the ringing of sleigh bells. The little ones who are old enough to walk, rush to the window hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa. I hold Taylor as she wiggles and babbles excitedly and points to her big sister, eyes wide with anticipation.
“HO! HO! HO!” Santa opens the front door, a pillowcase bursting with presents slung over his shoulder. “I hear there are children here who have been very good this year!
“Sit over here, Santa,” one of my younger cousins points to a wing-backed chair between the fireplace and the lavishly decorated tree. Over the course of the next hour, each child under 18 sits on Santa’s lap and assures him they’ve been nice and not at all naughty during the year. Santa digs in his bag and presents each child with a present, and as they unwrap their gifts, they hold them up as cameras snap and flash. The adults grin conspiratorially at one another, remembering Christmases not that long ago when they did the same. I’ve chosen Anna and Taylor’s gifts carefully, the sting of disappointment still fresh on me.
Once the spaghetti and crab have been devoured, once the platters of cookies have been depleted, once the children have succumbed to the rush of sugar and the excitement of Santa and fallen asleep about the living room, once the adults have exchanged gifts, and had a final glass of holiday cheer, we begin to gather our newly acquired belongings, our coats, the diaper bag, Anna’s Blankie. We whisper our good-byes and carry our sleeping babies to the car and tuck them in to their car seats. After several more forays between house and car, more hugs and kisses, I put the Volvo in reverse and head north, letting out the breath I’d been holding the past several hours.
We had navigated through a family Christmas Eve, our little family of four breaking new ground, the four of us presenting as just another family in spite of our differences. No one else in my extended family had ventured quite this far outside of the norm: being a “married” lesbian mother of adopted multi-ethnic children broke some new family ground and gained not just tolerance, but acceptance. Still, my anxiety and self doubt colored my experience and I believed that the love and welcomes came because we worked so hard to be a normal family, we wore dresses and feminine shoes; we bought thoughtful and not inexpensive gifts; we were fortunate to have beautiful children and dressed them in dresses and lace. We drove a Volvo. I believed that acceptance required stringent adherence to heterosexual norms. I thought that if we were going to be a successful lesbian family, we were going to have to be as non-threatening and as normal as possible.
I was so busy hiding who I was, I didn’t even try to be myself. It didn’t occur to me that my family would love me anyway.