I guess I grew up like any other kid in the suburbs, looking for ways to enjoy life. Bike rides, building forts, swinging on the backyard swing set, playing ball and swimming, anything to make me feel ‘alive.’ I was passionate, active and fully alive. As a youngster, though, my passion for life was suppressed. Very early I became acquainted with walls or boundaries that limited my ability to embrace life and experience it fully. An overly legalistic church and very restrictive parents kept me from venturing too far into life outside of our little world and instilled in me a timidity in my approach to life. Their motivation was good and loving; the world was changing rapidly in the ’60’s and ’70’s, and there were many unfamiliar and sinful behaviors being promoted as legitimate. The fences that were built for me – far from the actual lines of right and wrong – did keep me from wandering into many areas of sin, but the timidity that grew out of my fear of breaking the rules kept me from embracing life fully and contributed to the secrecy that nearly destroyed me.
At an early age, I responded to an invitation at church to receive Christ as my Savior for the forgiveness of my sin. My decision was fairly utilitarian. I needed my sin forgiven in order to get to heaven and I was afraid of going to hell. In spite of this, I did enjoy some times of spiritual life and growth as a child. I considered myself a Christian but really had no idea about a relationship with God. We went to church every Sunday and Wednesday night and something about the system of that small world felt safe. I knew I was a sinner, we were reminded of it every time we went to church, but I had no idea what to do with the tremendous amount of guilt and shame that this sin brought. When I was forced by others to cross lines into what I considered “horrible” sins, I did not know how to handle the feelings.
I was about ten years old when the name calling began. I was slight of build, intelligent, uncoordinated and musically inclined. The labels of “sissy,” “mamma’s boy,” and “fag” were quickly attached to me by the set of older boys in the neighborhood. It has always been natural for bigger, stronger boys to bully those they see as weaker. This derisive verbal ridicule quickly escalated into physical abuse. Causing me physical pain, watching me cry and reveling in my reactions to their torment became a favorite pastime of these boys. On one occasion they knocked the wind out of me and then stood around and laughed when I couldn’t catch my breath. On another, they led me to a bumble bee nest in the ground, threw a rock and then ran while I stood there, ignorantly, and was stung multiple times. I can still hear their laughter. It wasn’t long before some of the physical activity, fueled by their adolescent curiosity about sex, deteriorated into sexual abuse. I was held down and forced to perform sexual acts with them. I was younger and smaller than they were and the taunting about the size of my genitals and my smooth skin went deep into my mind. This was the final step in shutting me down spiritually and emotionally and the beginnings of my obsession with sex. I knew that these acts, outside of marriage and with the same sex, were wrong, perverted. Any mention of this kind of activity at church came with words like “Sodom and Gomorrah” and “abomination.” It would certainly not be safe to mention any of this at church! To add to my shame for participating in these acts was the shame of knowing that there was some pleasure involved. The pain of abuse would inevitably lead to the exhilaration of sexual release, something I had never experienced before. The combination of adrenalin from fear and hormones from sexual climax made an indelible mark on my young psyche. The enemy began to articulate a lie that ran through my mind; I MUST be at fault if I enjoyed any part of this! The fear instilled in me about these kinds of sin and what happened to “those” people who indulged in them kept me from sharing anything with anyone at home or at church. I suffered in silence, letting the message of the wound sink deep into my soul. I was a pervert! I could not see myself as a reflection of the Father who created me and redeemed me but saw myself as a reflection of my sin and wounds. The label was pervert and the lies built up a stronghold in me that would take years to tear down!
From that point on, I “knew” that there was something wrong with me. The deep sense of shame made me hate myself. Because of my timidity, I didn’t have the courage to face my abusers or my own sin and turn to God in repentance. Instead my shame became contempt, self-contempt in the form of self-hatred. I took every opportunity to put myself down, laugh at myself and I refused to engage in any activity in which I could not be the best. I shied away from anything athletic because my lack of coordination would be a clue to others revealing who I “really was.” The part of me that I hated the most was my masculinity. I hated the “macho” in others but at the same time was drawn to the strength that it represented. I equated the perception of strength with a false definition of masculinity that I knew I didn’t have. Gender confusion had set in. I was so weak, I had given in, I had been dominated, I was not a real man.
The gender confusion only increased my sense of shame. The shame of who I perceived myself to be is what motivated me to look for a way to hide. I was terrified that someone would figure out who I thought I was. Part of me, the true masculine part, simply withdrew. The other part decided that I would disguise my identity of “pervert” by being “perfect.” No one would be able to see past my perfect mask to the pervert within.
This mask of perfection evolved as I discovered ways that my flesh could compensate for the broken parts of my positive identity (virtue, community, power, gender). Having lost all sense of value (virtue) in the depths of my shame, I tried to perform in perfect ways that would generate affirmation. I had to have straight “A’s” in school, I had to be the best son, the first chair in orchestra, the teacher’s pet. When I performed well in these roles, I felt good about myself for awhile and was able to temporarily block out the shame. The problem with this mask, as with any mask, is that it had to be maintained. I could never rest. I must always become better and better in order to keep the affirmations coming. I graduated from high school at 16 with nearly a 4.0. Graduated from college at 20, married at 19, was ordained to the ministry at 20 and became a youth pastor at 21. I must be perfect… in school…at home… at church. I presented myself as self-assured, self-confident and superior but nothing could have been further from the truth.
My sense of my power to choose had been completely destroyed by the acts of abuse. Repeatedly, I was overpowered by the strength of others who were bigger and stronger than I. Regaining that sense of power required that I be in control of every situation in which I found myself. I manipulated the teacher into making me the teacher’s pet, became the president of my youth group, planned family events and bossed my friends around. Closely associated with this need to control was the need to belong to a community. Because of who I thought I was, I never felt like I fit in. My ticket into community was my ability to be in charge. Any group that I controlled became my community. They had to include me because I was in charge. That control was my way of showing strength, it was my masculinity. I had community but it was forced and shallow. Deep inside I believed that if they knew who I really was, they would not include me at all. My career choice was motivated by this desire to be in control. Besides my family, the only other community that I had been involved in was church. The Pastor was in charge at the church, so I was going to become a Pastor.
The greatest part of my wounding was the damage done to my sexuality. I believed the lies and labels that others had placed on me and secretly harbored those thoughts as my identity for years. My secret fear was that I was gay. I hid my true masculinity and used my control to ‘feel’ masculine and ‘look’ masculine to others. As far as leadership was concerned, I was the man. Inside, though, I was confused about my sexuality. This confusion continued to fuel my shame in spite of the mask. This cycle of shame and performance was an emotional roller coaster that was both exhausting and painful.
So, now shame had moved me into bondage. I was now living in bondage to my mask of religious performance and control. I worked hard to prove that I was okay and to distance myself from the labels and lies that plagued my thinking. While it appeared to others that I really was that “masked” person, the thought of who I believed I really was never left me. I was a pervert, trying to come off as perfect.
In my pain, I sought relief. Self-medication is a natural coping mechanism for anyone in pain. What do we do when we have a headache? We look for the pain reliever! Emotionally and spiritually we are no different. We look for something that will bring us pleasure, something that is available and that works to reduce the pain. My medication was closely associated with my journey. Pornography, masturbation and sexual fantasy provided an escape from the pain and pressure of the constant performance required in my role as Pastor but increased the sense of shame. Religious performance eased the pain of feeling like a pervert but led to exhaustion and further acting out. I entered a period of my life where I lived in the destructive cycle of striving and indulging. I worked hard to be the best and most caring Pastor I could be, but then when exhausted or criticized, I indulged my flesh in pornography, masturbation and sexual fantasy. The repetition of this cycle led to a deep depression.
The enemy used depression to create a fog that would lead me down a path of despair. The truth became even harder to discern through the fog and the lies increased in strength. The stronghold of lies and labels was so strong that the truth couldn’t even penetrate it. I began to feel more and more that the wounded identity was the true me and that I would never overcome it. I begged God to take it away but I never addressed what was driving it. I went forward at church invitations and retreat campfires and promised God over and over that I would never act out again, that I would be faithful. The repeated unanswered prayers and the repeated broken promises worked together to create a great disillusionment about God. Maybe it was all made up. Maybe God wasn’t real. Maybe I was meant to be this way. Maybe He just didn’t care. Maybe …
The suicidal thoughts started very subtly, and in the fog, I didn’t even recognize them for what they were. I was tired, exhausted from the endless cycle of striving and indulging. I just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. As this thought grew in my mind, I began to formulate a plan to make it happen. My double life had already taken its toll on me physically. I was experiencing high blood pressure, passing out spells and migraine headaches. No real medical cause was ever found for my symptoms but the doctors were more than happy to medicate them. I started taking more and more of my medication to help me sleep and help me to forget my struggles.
Finally, the day came when I didn’t care if I woke up or not. The thought that I kept repeating in my mind was that I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. I had preached morning and evening messages at church the day before and felt emptier than I could ever remember. I went into my bedroom and began swallowing pills.
I don’t even remember how far I had gotten in the process when my wife came in and I fell apart in front of her. By the end of that day, just 24 hours after another religious performance, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and labeled suicidal. It was a humiliating experience. I was stripped of my belt, razor, shoe strings and anything else that I might use to harm myself. I was put in a room where I could be watched so that I would not attempt suicide. I was heavily medicated. I lost my church, nearly lost my family, lost my perfect mask and lost my capacity to maintain the facade of my past.
The psychiatric hospital was not the answer to all of my problems, but the Lord did use it to provide me with a safe place to let down my guard and share with my wife and others what was really going on inside of me (wouldn’t it have been awesome if the church had been that safe place!). HONESTY. This was my first choice toward life. Maybe it will help you make this choice as well!
When my journey was held inside in secrecy, it had great power over me. I felt like I was the only one who experienced these things or felt this way. Since sharing my journey with others, I have come to understand that we all have a story. Some involve much more pain than mine and some less but we all have a story and we all need to choose life.