Sunday, December 11, 2011

Deeply Gay

Deeply Gay


Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D.

Many gay men who do not find meaning in a “work & play” lifestyle are seeking connection to something more meaningful. Those of us who have gone through the emotional labor of tearing down the closet door and working through painful issues that were inflicted on us as a result of growing up gay in a homophobic world are now facing the question of life purpose. We ask ourselves, “What is the true purpose of my life?” In this short article I will explore this issue with the hope of inspiring others to live a more meaningful life.

Acknowledging your need for a deeper existence is not only an invitation to reflect on your life and question its meaning but also avoid a purposeless existence. Arriving at this place in life where you reflect and show curiosity about the meaning of your existence can be a profound experience. This arrival does not need to be an existential crisis. It can feel like a crisis if you examine your life with the judgmental attitude of regret and resentment. It is important to reflect on all aspects of your life with the attitude of empathy and compassion which can protect you from becoming self critical.

Gay men who are growing older but not deeper can face feelings of emptiness and boredom. The reality of aging and not having enough tools to cope with the physical and emotional changes that often accompany aging has left these men vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and acting out behaviors. Some have turned to unhealthy coping styles such as addictions, isolation, overspending, expensive plastic surgeries, and in the worst case scenario to suicide as a desperate attempt to escape the painful feeling of emptiness. Other gay men let life happen to them in a more disconnected way. They go through life as if asleep without participating in it. There are also vibrant gay men who live life to the fullest. These men have gone through the deep work of inner transformation to get to such a meaningful place in life.

Life purpose, like the ocean, has different depths. Parts of the ocean are deeper than others. It all depends how deep you are willing to descend into the ocean of your life. There are different approaches to this decent, and everyone needs to find his or her approach. It takes courage to immerse oneself in the ocean of life rather than just standing by the shore. As Persian poet, Hafiz stated, “How can they know of our state, those who go lightly along the shore?” Or as Rumi put it, “You have been walking on the ocean’s edge holding up your robes trying to stay dry, you must dive deeper, 1000 times deeper”.

There are purposeful and meaningful activities such as political activism, artistic expression, parenting, traveling, embracing hobbies, or attending school that can improve the quality of your life. Many people have found these activities enriching. You can immerse yourself deeper into the ocean of your life by aiming for a life purpose that not only embraces such productive activities but also goes beyond such personal development. You   can work on reaching a state of being that goes beyond your limited ego self and focuses on the love in your heart. A state of being that embraces personal development for the good of all people. Living life according to your loving state of being encourages you to take the welfare of people and the planet in consideration. You can experience not only inner personal changes and contentment as result of operating from this state of being but also meaningful changes in your external life. For example, slowing down and living in the moment versus worrying about future is one of the changes you might notice.

Experiencing a state of being that comes from connection with the sacred place in your heart can be facilitated through meditation.  Meditation is about concentration, and it requires consistency in order to be effective. On a daily basis spend time on meditating with love as your focus. Deep in everyone’s heart there is a place of love and tranquility. Gently close your eyes and silently embrace that sacred place in your heart. You might not be able to find connection to it right away. Having a guide or teacher in this process can be helpful. I have found many writings on Sufi meditation very helpful in this process. I have also found beauty as my guide to embrace love.

Generally, as gays and lesbians we have deep appreciation for beauty. Beauty as our guide can help us to embrace love. For example, looking deeply into eyes of a beautiful person that you desire for the sake of embracing love in your own heart can ignite a powerful flame of love. That energy of love can be directed toward the soul of the world and be shared for the good of all. Or the breathtaking view of beautiful sunset is another scene that you can’t help but to appreciate and love. Focusing on beautiful experiences for the sake of awakening the love feeling in your heart and meditating on it is a powerful practice. Such practice can help you to bring forward a loving state of being.

You might think meditation with love as focus is too simple to be considered a life purpose. That is understandable given we live in a consumerism society where people are conditioned to seek fulfillment through over achieving and materialism. In reality, meditating on love, on a regular basis, and for the sake of love itself, is not that simple. Slowing down for few minutes and embracing love in silence can be very difficult when you have to be on 24/7.

Living in a society dominated by corporate greed and extreme inequality where individuals are expected to work long hours with less time for personal time, meditation for the sake of love can be a challenge. Each time you make time for such practice you also saying “no” to all the situations that are trying to enslave you for their own profit and gain. As people we can turn to love as life purpose and pour that energy into our troubled world. Each love filled breath of your meditation can connect you more deeply to your loving Self. You have the potential to be a purifier by the quality of your meditation.  With every breath, you strengthen the love in your heart and you can send loving energy into everyone’s heart. From this zone, your loving state of being can impact the universe.  Just like an alchemist, you can transform your life to a more meaningful existence. What deep and lasting contentment you can find in your life as you enter nourishing meditation.

© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), in private practice in West Hollywood, California.

He is the author of Fruit Basket: A Gay Man’s Journey. In his book, Dr. Payam Ghassemlou writes about the psycho-spiritual journey of a gay man named Javid, in which he struggles with homophobia and having a life purpose. Available on Amazon

Friday, February 25, 2011

Homophobia Enemy of Curiosity

Homophobia Enemy of Curiosity
The landscape of our life is as vast as the degree of our curiosity. This is an emotion that can be put in motion by a wondrous dance with creation. Curiosity motivates us to show interest in ourselves and the world around us. With curiosity, we can passionately explore the mystery of life. It also engages us with the content of our universe and helps us to come to life in a new way. When life comes to us through our curiosity, we become an active player in our life. We no longer sit passively and let life just happen.
Lack of curiosity keeps us prisoner in the small pond that we call our life. Without curiosity, we can never leave this small pond and merge with the ocean or never ride the inquisitive waves. When we don’t explore, notice, ask questions or embrace the wonder of life we are not living a full life. Without curiosity our life lacks meaning and vitality. This is why curiosity is so important in order to live a meaningful life.
Curiosity requires support and tolerance to leave our comfort zone and venture into the unknown. Curiosity starts early in life, and requires support from care givers in order to fully blossom. All small children need to learn about their emotions including curiosity and healthy parenting includes this task.
One of the barriers toward developing a strong sense of curiosity for gay and lesbian youth has to do with a homophobic upbringing. Homophobia prevents gay and lesbian kids from fully embracing their sense of curiosity. Many of my gay and lesbian patients, including a number of bisexual and transgender individuals, have shared with me that as young as age four they felt different. They were unable to articulate why they felt different, and, at the same time, they were too afraid to talk about it. Many reported that they knew this feeling of being different was related to something forbidden. Many found it too threatening to show curiosity toward their feeling of differentness hence their sense of curiosity got discouraged from early age. Growing up in a homophobic atmosphere caused their sense of curiosity to be replaced with fear and shame.
When an adolescent’s curiosity about his or her same sex attraction gets fed with homophobic messages of disgust, he or she can develop self hate and be forced into a closet of shame. Homophobic messages and violent attacks can discourage his or her sense of curiosity, which can have negative consequences including lack of relationship to one’s inner life. It can prevent the youngster from learning to know himself or herself and develop a deeper emotional insight.
Depression is common among those gays and lesbians who suffered homophobic mistreatment growing up. Many of them who felt different and did not flow with mainstream reported suffering in silence without any support in understanding their feelings. Curiosity toward complex matters like feeling of differentness and same sex attraction requires support from caring adults. Many reported they did not have support to follow their natural sense of curiosity and explore their feeling of differentness. As a result their ability to be curious was hindered which caused a sense of deadness inside them and resulted in long term depression.
Thrill seeking behaviors such as drug abuse and risky sex are another example of consequences for underdeveloped curiosity. Some gay individuals use thrill seeking behaviors as compensation for their insufficient relationship to their sense of curiosity. Thrill seeking behaviors are ways they might try to cope with the void and emptiness that results from lack of access to their curiosity. Life can feel meaningless without freedom to be curious.
The journey toward healing from the impact of homophobia on one’s sense of curiosity requires support from caring counselors or psychotherapists who have experience treating such matters. Curiosity, like a muscle, needs plenty of exercise to stay fit. Your gym is the present moment where you can exercise your sense of curiosity. I have found mindfulness practices such as consciously choosing to adapt an attitude of curiosity toward our present moment is a simple and yet powerful step toward redeeming one’s sense of curiosity. For example, a simple walk from your car to the store can become an opportunity to awaken you feeling of curiosity. By curiously noticing the ground under your feet as you walk toward your destination or paying attention to the noise in your immediate area, you can be present and engaged with life. This form of active engagement with your present moment can enhance and improve your ability to be curious.
It is never too late to heal from the impact of homophobia on our ability to feel our curiosity. With curiosity, our life no longer lacks purpose, and we can passionately explore the mystery of our inner life and embrace our gayness.

© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), in private practice in West Hollywood, California.

He is the author of Fruit Basket: A Gay Man’s Journey. In his book, Dr. Payam Ghassemlou writes about the psycho-spiritual journey of a gay man named Javid, in which he struggles with homophobia and having a life purpose. Available on Amazon

Sunday, January 9, 2011

LGBT Suicide and the Trauma of Growing Up Gay


Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D.

        As a mental health counselor for the past twenty years, I have listened to many painful stories from some of my lesbian and gay patients regarding their upbringing in a homophobic and heterosexist world. Many of my gay and lesbian patients, including a number of bisexual and transgender individuals, have shared with me that as young as age five, they felt different. They were unable to articulate why they felt different, and, at the same time, they were too afraid to talk about it. Many reported that they knew this feeling of being different was related to something forbidden. “It felt like keeping a tormenting secret that I could not even understand,” described one of my gay patients. Others shared with me that this feeling of difference revealed itself in the form of gender nonconformity, which could not be kept secret. Therefore, it made them more vulnerable to homophobic and transphobic mistreatment at school and often at home. They had to cope with a daily assault of shame and humiliation without any support.

The experience of carrying a sense of differentness, because it related to some of the most taboo and despised images in our culture, can leave traumatic scars on one’s psyche. Most school-age children organize their school experience around the notion of not coming across as queer. Any school-age child’s worst nightmare is being called faggot or dyke, which is commonly experienced by many children who do not flow with the mainstream. One gay high school student disclosed to me that, on average, he hears more than twenty homophobic remarks a day. Schools can feel like a scary place for LGBT children, or any child who gets scapegoated as queer. For the most part, LGBT kids do not get any protection from school officials. This is a form of child abuse on a collective level. Mistreatment of LGBT youth and a lack of protection are contributing factors to the issue of LGBT teen suicide.

 The feeling of differentness as it relates to being gay or lesbian is too complex for any child to process and make sense of, especially when coupled with external attacks in the form of homophobic, derogatory name calling. Unlike a black child whose parents are typically also black, or a Jewish child with Jewish parents and relatives, the LGBT youth typically does not have gay or lesbian parents or anyone who could mirror his or her experience. In fact, many families tend to blame the mistreated LGBT youngster for not being like everyone else, making the child feel like he or she deserves this mistreatment.

When parents are either unable or unwilling to “feel and see” the world through the eyes of their child and do not provide a reflection that makes the child feel valued, that child can not develop a strong sense of self. Faced with isolation, confusion, humiliation, physical violence, not being valued in the eyes of their parents, and carrying a secret that the youngster connects with something terrible and unthinkable is too stressful for any child to endure – especially when there is no empathic other to help him or her to sort it out. The youngster suffers in silence and might use dissociation to cope. In a worst-case scenario, he or she could commit suicide.

Many LGBT youth who found the courage to open up about their identity issues have experienced rejection from their families and peers. Some families treat such disclosures as bringing shame on the family. They may throw their kid out of the house, which forces the youngster to join the growing population of homeless kids on the street.

The stress of trying to come to terms with a complex matter such as same sex attraction, one’s family’s rejection as a result of finding out about same sex attraction, and becoming victimized through verbal and physical abuse by peers due to being different are contributing factors to the trauma of growing up gay or lesbian. Such traumatic experiences can explain why lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Suicide attempts by LGBT youth are their desperate attempts to escape the traumatic process of growing up queer.

Those of us who survived the trauma of growing up queer without adequate support and managed to reach adulthood can benefit by becoming conscious of our internalized homophobia. When a gay or lesbian youngster experiences humiliation every school day for being different and has no one to protect them, that child can develop internalized homophobia. Internalized homophobia is internalization of shame and hatred that gay and lesbian people were forced to experience. The seed of internalized homophobia is planted at an early age. Having one’s psyche contaminated by the shadow of internalized homophobia can result in low self-esteem and other problems later in life. Bisexual and transgender youngsters can also internalize the hatred they had to endure growing up, and may develop self-hatred.

To not deal with internalized homophobia is to ignore the wreckage of the past. Psychological injuries that were inflicted on LGBT people as result of growing up in a homophobic and heterosexist world need to be addressed. Each time a LGBT youngster was insulted or attacked for being different, such attacks left scars on his or her soul. Such violent mistreatment caused many to develop feelings of inferiority.

Life after the closet needs to include coming out of toxic shame, which means becoming aware of repressed or disassociated memories and feelings around homophobic mistreatment that was experienced growing up. All the rejection and derogatory name-calling one suffered growing up queer can be stored in the psyche in the form of implicit memory: a type of memory that impacts one’s life without one noticing it or consciously knowing its origin. Coming out of toxic shame involves recalling and sharing what it felt like growing up in a world that did not respect one’s identity, fully feeling the injustice of it. Providing empathy and unconditional positive regard for the fact that one has endured many years of confusion, shame, fear, and homophobic mistreatment can give birth to new feelings of pride and honor about one’s LGBT identity. This is an alchemical process that involves transforming painful emotions through love and empathy.

 As a community, learning to know ourselves can add vitality to our struggle for freedom. The LGBT liberation movement should not only include fighting for our equal rights, but also working through the injuries that were inflicted on us while growing up queer in a heterosexist world. External changes such as marriage equality or the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy alone cannot heal us from homophobic mistreatment and rejection we received growing up gay or lesbian. We need to open a new psychological frontier and take our struggle for freedom to a new level. The gay civil rights movement is like a bird that needs two wings to fly, not just one. So far, the political wing has been the main carrier of this movement. By adding psychological healing work as the other wing, the bird of gay liberty can reach even greater heights.

 © Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), in private practice in West Hollywood, California. 

He is the author of Fruit Basket.  Available on Amazon