The Velvet Rage - Overcoming The Pain of Growing Up Gay In A Straight World by Alan Downs, PhD

What Therapy Has Shown Me So Far

As I’ve mentioned in edits to a couple of old posts, I started therapy several weeks ago. It’s placing a strain on the old budget (run buy some art folks!), but I hit the point of realizing it was a must. Specifically my reason was that I have battled social anxiety most of my life. Not simply being shy but finding ordinary minor interactions with people stress me out. Imagine something simple like calling city hall to get an extra garbage can removed after I was living here alone. It took weeks to work up the nerve to do something that took five minutes. Phone calls are stressful but so is basically everything. If you’ve never felt social anxiety, I can’t begin to explain how paralyzing it can be.

Earlier in the year when I finally found the long-needed determination to come out as queer, I thought that would ultimately fix my anxiety. I guess that was naive but I thought if I could overcome a hurdle that had stood in my path for so long then the rest would just fall into place. Basically I also assumed one was causing the other. To me it made sense that my inability to be authentic with people was what was creating the wall of social anxiety that stood between me and other people all the time.

Yet a couple of months passed and more old friends learned about my secret. And don’t get me wrong, being honest about who I am felt good. However, it didn’t translate to feeling less stressed when dealing with social situations. That fact combined with a conversation with a new friend about his experience with therapy convinced me that I needed professional help to understand the source of my anxiety and learn how to cope with it in a healthy way.

In a way, social anxiety was sort of the other secret in my life. I hinted at it from time to time, particularly when people would ask me to call them. At the same time, I never really told anyone how paralyzing it really had been throughout my life. I had worked through it off and on but it never went away. For the handful of friends over the years who might read this and remember us talking on the phone for hours, you were rare unicorns in my life is all I can say.

So the idea of talking with a stranger about my anxiety was anxiety inducing in itself. And it illustrates how tired I have become of being a bundle of anxieties. Talking with a stranger was the only path out that I could see. Trying to “fix it” myself has never led to more than minor temporary victories. Being out and comfortable in my skin is the unfinished business of my life. And I was determined enough to be purposefully uncomfortable for a change.

Tell Me How You Feel?

One of the things I’ve discovered in therapy is that I have a really hard time expressing or even understanding my feelings. I can tell when other people are sad, happy, excited, scared, etc. I can hear it in their voices, see it in their eyes. Yet trying to read my own feelings is much harder for me. I would discuss things that happened in my life and I could provide so many details but then get blocked when asked to say how it made me feel. It’s also becoming apparent that feelings I would label as anxiety are sometimes other emotions entirely. In other words, I sometimes mistake various and sundry feelings as anxiety.

Recognizing that my grasp of my own emotions was so tenuous was the last clue I needed that asexuality didn’t really fit my situation. And this goes back to my comment about failing to “fix things” on my own. Even before therapy I was beginning to see some holes in that label but realizing that I have real difficulty understanding my feelings and a reluctance to finding space for some feelings seems to have put that idea to rest. In fact I think when it came to other men, I labeled a lot of my feelings about them as fear and it made it difficult to even be friends with men never mind anything else. The bulk of my friends in adult life have been women.

What Caused This?

There’s not one single answer to be honest. Some of it was probably growing up with same-sex attraction in a world that was still very hostile to it. But plenty of other queer people my age had the same or worse experiences. Not saying it was great for them either but they didn’t all end up with crippling anxiety, etc. So it’s more than that.

I also had one particular school teacher who made one pre-teen year of my life very difficult. As much as I’d like to pin the blame entirely on her, I can’t. She absolutely did her damage mind you, but I truly think she made a bad situation worse without being solely responsible. And yet I still don’t want to diminish the pain she caused – the only teacher whose grave I have contemplated dancing on…

Another ingredient was my parents whose primary method of communication seemed to be arguing. I mean, they stayed married for 50 years and Dad’s death unraveled my mother… So there must have been more to their relationship than I saw. But I think what I saw, or didn’t see between them as well, made it difficult for me to sit with my own emotions. And it definitely causes me to want to avoid confrontations or conflict of any description.

On that last point, I want to stress my parents were always clear that they cared for me. I never felt unwanted or unloved. And they were never physically abusive to each other never mind me. But for whatever reason the dynamic between them was something I may never really understand. Even before therapy I remember being afraid that I would repeat their style of relationship. Haven’t you noticed how often someone picks a spouse like one of their parents? Since working with a therapist I’ve realized that their relationship has played a role in how I deal with emotions and my avoidance of anything that could possibly lead to conflict.

I’m also going to be honest that I wasn’t sure I would write about my parents’ part in this. I know a lot of people who knew them and thought highly of them. And if you knew them, let me say I don’t think anyone should change their opinions. Individually there are things I admire(d) about both of them, but the dynamic between them was not what I wish it had been.

I think those are the biggest factors but honestly some of it could have been how my nervous system is wired. Mom and her mother both suffered from depression and anxiety. I have my blue moods but nothing compared to what I’ve seen in others in my orbit over the years. It’s still possible I’m predisposed to anxiety though and that added another ingredient to the stew.

The Velvet Rage

This book by Alan Downs was not specifically recommended by my therapist but was mentioned by multiple different people recently. After several recommendations I decided to take a hint. I’m still working my way through the book but the key ideas are laid out at the beginning and that is that there tend to be three phases that are part of the experience of gay men. The first phase is marked by being overwhelmed with shame. This starts in childhood and can last forever for closeted gay men. The second phase, after coming out, is compensating (or more accurately overcompensating) for shame and is another phase that gay men can become stuck in. The third and final phase is finding authenticity – escaping the power of shame.

The Velvet Rage - Overcoming The Pain of Growing Up Gay In A Straight World by Alan Downs, PhD

Note: Book Link is an Amazon Affiliate link.

From what I’ve heard some people who read this book see themselves very clearly and others don’t resonate with it as well if at all. So far I’m in the first camp. It’s dredged up some memories of childhood that I had all but forgotten. And that was actually another conversation with the therapist. Over the course of the past few months I’ve had memories that I found painful enough that I had, for lack of a better word, disconnected from. After writing that post in early June about the death of Matthew Shephard, I realized I was again pushing it to the back of my mind. Long unrelated story of what dredged it back up again so soon but it was a good opportunity this week to discuss it with my therapist who asked me to tell him the story as if I was telling it to someone who didn’t know who he was. And as much trouble as I usually have crying in front of other people, I cried while trying to tell his story and how it connected to me as someone who never laid eyes on him. But as we discussed it I also realized being queer/gay was something that frightened me before that. And regardless of whether I would or wouldn’t have worked things out sooner it was still another piece of trauma that added to my unwillingness to confront that aspect of my self.

I also inadvertently dredged up another young memory recently. In therapy part of the process has been keeping a private journal that only my therapist sees. Mentioning it to a friend they asked if I would continue keeping a journal beyond therapy as they themselves found it helpful. That conversation reminded me that I did once keep a journal or diary. I don’t remember exactly when I started it or when it ended but I know I was writing in it during Junior High (6th – 8th grades). I have not seen it in years and after multiple moves I don’t know if it exists anymore. However I do know when I was writing in it, that journal wasn’t something I considered deeply personal.

So much so that I let a friend look at it once and it turned out to be a mortifying experience. I can’t remember precisely what I had written but I said something about finding the attractive guys in school were cliquish and unwilling to be friends or something along those lines. Looking back now it’s like, oh, well that makes sense. I may not have entirely understood what was happening then but I was noticing guys and feeling alienated from them.

It was not a friend who shared what he read with anyone but I remember him expressing surprise that I could identify guys as attractive or good looking or whatever words I used to describe them at the time. To his credit, he didn’t express disgust or anything just surprise but the sudden realization that it wasn’t “normal” was all I needed. Who knows if it was something he thought about at all later but looking back I remember feeling embarrassed and more guarded about what I shared with others after that.

Although that’s all I recall right now about that event, it was a surprise to suddenly have that small lost window on myself at around 13 years old. It’s also interesting to see the innocence I had. Just like racism is learned, I didn’t realize seeing members of the same sex as attractive was out of the ordinary until it was regarded as a curiosity by someone else. What a difference positive representation in the media or the world around me might have made at that point. I don’t remember the last time I thought of this but it becomes apparent I may have started quelling uncomfortable memories from a relatively young age.

The essence of all these experiences was the same. No matter how we expressed it, we needed love and we feared that there was something about us that made us unlovable. It was an experience that became an integral part of our psychology that has stayed with us most of our lives. We became utterly convinced that there was something about us that is essentially unlovable

The Velvet Rage – Chapter 1 – The Little Boy With The Big Secret

That passage is one of quite a few so far that stood out for me. I remember having outsider feelings going all the way back to kindergarten. I couldn’t have told you why. And I think as I grew up and became more aware why on some level I clearly became more adept at burying memories that didn’t fit my personal narrative. If your anxieties make you fear even minor confrontations, avoidance gradually becomes so second nature it’s like breathing. Add to that I had difficulty reading my own feelings and sometimes misreading what I felt. It became easier to just keep kicking the can down the road. There was always something that was “more important” than finding inner peace.

When we were denying that we were gay, we acted as if we were straight. “Acting as if” meant that we had to split our lives into two parts: one part that was the acceptable, public self. The other part was the secretive, darker self.

The Velvet Rage – Chapter 4 – Drowning

The primary thing that Alan Downs discusses in this section is “straight” men, oftentimes married to women, who have somewhat anonymous encounters with men on the side. That was not my life but I did split or compartmentalize my life. There were things I kept to myself and shared with literally no one. Even my social media life on Facebook, which was my mainstay for years, has been highly stratified with multiple friends lists that controls who sees what I share. For instance want to know what I think politically, you need to be on the correct list. I know I’m not alone in using lists but I think the degree to which I do utilize them is overboard and was learned from decades of carefully editing what people knew about me.

Closing Thoughts

As I often mention in these posts, I know that I have miles to go but I’m so glad I started therapy. I don’t believe I’d have realized how I have been processing my feelings without someone else asking me the right questions. And I’m finding value in the book I’m reading that I don’t think I would have without that insight.

I expect I’ll comment further on The Velvet Rage in a future post. Although honestly I’ve just about covered the part that’s relevant to me at this stage of the game. The “after” coming out part almost feels more like a cautionary tale to me right now. I mean authenticity is certainly a goal but right now I experience frequent imposter syndrome as if I haven’t paid the dues. People much younger than me have more skin in the game than I’ve had.

It’s ironic that I said in my last post that I was done wallowing in the past and here I am. It’s not completely wrong though. On the main subject I discussed there, who I find attractive, I’m still good and not spending more time thinking about it. So a little progress is good, right?

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