Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Problem of Pain

In the fringes of my dreams I sense it. The tone of the characters becomes sharper as the pressure builds. Then, right before I open my eyes, it washes over my stiff body.

The Pain.

My alarm reverberates throughout the residual cacophony of ringing in my ears. I know that once I move to shut it off I’ll sense the tenacious soreness around my spine. Nothing compares to the stabbing pain in my temples and the searing light of the hallway.

That was a good night. Sometimes I’ll struggle with the nauseating pain throughout my dreams. On occasion, the pain in my head will become so severe that I jolt awake and scream into my pillow to avoid waking my roommates (in this particular situation it seriously feels like someone is ramming a screwdriver into the side of my head).

This pain started around the time that I was sexually abused as a child (some wonder if perhaps this is some sort of somatic disorder). The doctors could never figure out what was wrong – my case was rather unusual. We discovered that genetically I'm resistant to many pain killers, so after years of fruitless tests and various medications, I eventually gave up.

Pain, as I’m sure you’re aware, can easily affect every aspect of your life. It distanced me from the other kids. I suppose as a combination of physical, mental, and spiritual pain following my traumatic experiences, I started eating as a way to cope, which quickly expanded my waistline and brought on the teasing by my peers. Being a fat kid in pain doesn’t exactly make you an athlete, and so I found myself last-picked if I ever risked playing sports at recess.

Additionally, my pain was often misconstrued as laziness. Family members would criticize me for trying to get out of working outside when I was in pain. This stigma has contributed to my perfectionism and workaholism. It doesn’t help that in order to thrive (or even survive) in this world you can’t expect others to take care of you (not that I think they should, necessarily).

I still participated in after-school sports and such throughout my elementary and middle school years, although I wasn’t really good at any of them. Once I got to high school, I decided that I was going to play my favorite sport and I was going to be good at it.

Although it was absolutely terrifying, I started playing club, which then helped me make the high school team. On the junior varsity team I quickly became the best player, so I was invited to practice with the varsity team. Additionally, because I understood the sport very well, the head coach had me collect the statistics of each player. The seniors liked and accepted me, which was much-needed affirmation.

It wasn’t really a surprise, I suppose, that I made the varsity team in my second year of playing this sport. Unfortunately, team members who were once my friends started treating me as a competitor instead. As a side-bonus, I also started coming down with horrible pain during and after every practice and game, which affected not only my performance as an athlete but also as a student; my grades have never been worse than those years. The medication I was on helped me lose weight, but it didn’t help with the pain and it inhibited my ability to concentrate. My siblings didn't have a problem with reminding me that when they were in high school, our parent's didn't hire a tutor for them.

Eventually, my doctors told me I had to quit if I wanted to have relief from my pain (and graduate from high school, for that matter). It kind of tore me up inside, for I had finally found a sport that I was competent in and even my peers in my classes could recognize that. It had helped me feel that maybe I wasn’t so different after all. Maybe I could be accepted.

Then it was over.

I’d like to say that the pain stopped after I quit the team, but it only tapered a little. I had to avoid my coach for my entire senior year because he cussed me out and was very upset that I wasn’t going to play as a senior, which was also fun.

This was probably all for the best, because I then allowed music to become part of my life, and I excelled in that as well. Still, I miss the sense of masculinity of being a starter on a sports team and this sense of regret troubles my dreams.

On my mission, the pain drove me mad. Biking through a humid climate and being exposed to marijuana and tobacco fumes took their toll on my body. I rarely spoke to anyone about it because I was terrified that I would be sent home. I knew that if I was sent home I would be haunted for the rest of my life, so silence was my only option as the pain spread throughout my body.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve found some things that remotely help, but nothing particularly significant. For the past few years I’ve decided to give up any semblance of social life in order to survive academically.

The pain seems to be getting stronger as of late, and my grades are certainly reflecting that. Because it’s become so commonplace, I suppose, I didn’t realize that I had curled up into a ball and was crying into my hands at the school library until it was too late. I typically avoid studying in public places because I have to spend so much of my time in the fetal position.

Often I’ll be fighting a battle with a migraine and I’ll experience aphasia, which is always fun (it’s like I’m drunk and my words don’t come out). Another perk to having migraines are the auras; I’ll see stars and fuzzy outlines and black spots.

Living with chronic pain means that I turn people down more often than not when they invite me to things. Statistically speaking, they usually give up on me. If I’ve committed to go somewhere and get an attack, I usually clench my teeth and fight through the pain so my friendship isn’t called into question. I try to hide it because I know it makes people feel uncomfortable to know that I’m in agony in their presence.

Sometimes when I try to describe what same-sex attraction feels like, I find it helpful to compare it to my chronic CNS disease (and if you’re having a conniption because I’m drawing parallels between these two life experiences, I recommend you express your triggered emotions in a poem, or maybe just accept that I am not you).

One, these feelings never completely go away. Always in the back of my mind, like low throbbing pain, I’m struggling between pangs of guilt and shame and fear and lust and loneliness and insecurity.

Two, there is such a profound isolation associated with both of these experiences. No one can really understand what my pain is like, and the vast majority of those around me can’t wrap their heads around same-sex attraction. Most of those who can question my decision to remain celibate, so I don’t have much motivation to talk to anyone about my struggles.

Three, I have to deny myself many worldly and social pleasures to stay "healthy."

And four, these trials sometimes cloud my ability to believe that God loves me. Giving someone chronic pain, same-sex attraction, an ugly body, and the psychological crap that comes with these attributes makes a statistically dangerous suicide cocktail. I know that God loves me, and I rarely feel anger towards him, but I blame myself for my trials and it weighs me down with shame.

Frankly, it’s hard not to ponder suicide all the time simply for the physical pain itself. At least I know that same-sex attraction teaches me things every day. I guess there are still lessons that I need to learn in regards to my chronic illness.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis (as always) lays down some hard truths concerning our mortal experiences. Instead of paraphrasing, I've included his views on the purpose of pain in his own words:

As I've said before, nothing has brought me to my knees or to the temple more often than my same-sex attraction (I reckon my physical pain comes in second place). If my life were a cakewalk, I wouldn't have the testimony or waistline that I have today (get it? Cakewalks = fat! You know what a cakewalk is, right?) (...)

Ironically, it is more often our pain than our blessings that turns us to God. Everyone can relate to the common denominator of pain. Pain is universal. Pain is a requirement of mortality. Pain is what we signed up for when we chose the Plan of Salvation, believe it or not.

Everyone you meet is struggling with burdens that you’ll probably never know about. Whether that be a chronic illness, loss of a loved one, same-sex attraction, or whatever the case may be, there is a serious battle behind every smile and tear. 

It's easy to be embarrassed about our weaknesses, be they physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or grammatical (if you use the wrong "your" I WILL cut you). While it's crucial that we don't rely on solely one friend to function as our psychologist (this will poison friendships like Brussels sprouts poisoned that one lady on "Freaky Eaters") (don't even get me started, that's a WHOLE 'nother blog post), it's also important that we open up and allow others to help us bear our burdens. That's another part of the bargain of mortality. 

You may not be able to share your struggles with everyone (nor should you, in my opinion), but you need to open up to those you trust, be they friends, family, or priesthood leaders. Hiding struggles like same-sex attraction can burn you out, and the Lord has put people in your life to lift you up.

If you could read someone else's life story (as perfectly transcribed by angels), it would be difficult not to love them. God allows pain to come to your life through your sins and puts pain in your life when you're keeping the commandments (so you might as well party, right?) (scratch that). In both circumstances, He's trying to tell you something. 

I hope that my soul isn't too rebellious to listen. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Sometime We'll Understand

This past week the college a Capella group that I am a member of has started learning a new song for which I am the lead singer.  I was absolutely thrilled because it happens to be one of my favorite songs and as I am a baritone I usually don't get such big solos.  Our rendition is slightly based off of the t.v. show "Glee"s cover of the song, so we were encouraged to watch clips of it on YouTube.

As I was going through clips of the show, I observed how two young men's blossoming romance developed.  It was not depicted as a promiscuous encounter or a daring experiment.  Their interactions and dialogue seemed so real.

I wept.

Seeing such relationships really tears my heart apart.  Those who are familiar with same-sex attraction know that it can be a cold path of pain, loneliness, and desperation. Members of the Church who experience these attractions feel these emotions, particularly because of the position in which they are placed.

On one hand, they have a real, ingrained, uncontrollable draw to members of their own sex.  They do not choose these impulses; honestly, who would?!  (Perhaps there are some in the world that are so sex-driven that they will experiment with homosexual behavior and frolic in their immoral zealotry.  However, I seriously doubt that many people would want to be so deviant from thousands of years of sexual tradition and expectations. There is possibly no group on earth that has been stigmatized and persecuted for historically as consistently and internationally as those who experience same-sex attraction.)

With this reality in mind, consider the sociocultural perspective on homosexuality in modern times (in America and Western Europe, anyway).  There has never been a time when such attractions were so widely accepted and even encouraged.  Opportunities to act on these feelings without fear of societal rejection and persecution abound.  It would be very easy for me to find a boyfriend/husband, and I couldn't be denied employment or housing because of our relationship.  Those who do express hatred and disgust or even simple disapproval towards homosexuals are labeled as Hitleresque theocrats and judgmental perpetrators of hate crimes.

On the other hand, these members of the Church have real testimonies of the truthfulness and divinity of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.  In my case, there is no doubt in my mind that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true organization established and administered by the only begotten Son of God.  I know that the Book of Mormon is true.  The Spirit has crystallized the clarity of this realization.  I know the Gospel establishes the only way that we can be happy throughout eternity and that marriage is ordained of God when it is conducted between a man and a woman.

Members of the Church with these attractions seem to be humanized paradoxes.  The struggle of reconciling their faith with their feelings can occupy their minds every single day.  There are times (such as the night I viewed this clip) that my whole body screams for companionship (and usually not in a sexual way - I'm referring to an intimacy deeper than gratification).  I pray and beg God to help me understand why He could cause such real longings to be so infused with my being that lead me in the complete opposite direction of the path which the Plan of Salvation directs.

At the time, I tried to hide my tears from my roommates (none of whom know about my attractions).  I yearned for an escape from this dichotomy.  It was then that the voice of a friend entered my mind, a friend who earlier that week had advised me to listen to Rob Gardner's Lamb of God.  Skeptically, I exited YouTube and pulled up the suggested album.

These are the words which God allowed me to hear at this trying time:

Not now, but in coming years,
It may not be when we demand
We'll read the meaning of our tears,
And there, sometime, we'll understand

Why what we long for most of all

Eludes our open pleading hand
Why ever silence meets our call,
Somewhere, sometime, we'll understand

So trust in God through all thy days

Fear not, for He doth hold thy hand;
Though dark thy way, still sing and praise,
Sometime, sometime we'll understand.

Sometime, we'll fall on bended knee

And feel there, graven on His hand
Sometime with tear less eyes we'll see
What here, we could not understand

So trust in God through all the days;

Fear not, for He doth hold thy hand;
Though dark thy way, still sing and praise,
Sometime, sometime we'll understand

(Rob Gardner. "Sometime We'll Understand." Lamb of God)

There are so many words in this song which pertained exactly to the soul-rending emotions and desires which I was experiencing.  You may notice that I reference music often throughout this blog.  I believe that God uses music to speak to us; there are messages that can only be conveyed through this medium.  The Spirit flourishes in the ambiance of such lyrics and tonalities.

I heartily suggest that you look into Rob Gardner's music.  His works touch my soul more deeply than those of most other composers.