Sometimes an event pierces the membrane of our life: the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, an unexpected dismissal at work or falling in love. These are the moments that can lead us to think, feel and experience life differently.
Being diagnosed HIV+ was one such moment for me. Coming to terms with my sexuality and the unexpected death of my father also changed my life's path, while simultaneously equipping me with new levels of depth and awareness. Processing those catastrophic moments allowed me to see things that had been previously hidden.
Six years ago during a Gay men's workshop I co-led with a colleague I encountered a similar gut-wrenching moment that pierced my understanding of what lay beneath the surface of our lives. As we explored on a weekly basis our experiences of growing up gay in a heterosexual world, I witnessed something I had not expected: raw unprocessed pain. It occurred to me that we are hurting, often unconsciously, on a very deep psychological level.
As a consequence of this revelation, I began to more fully explore the how and why. Over time the workshop transformed into our new, more powerful seminar: The Quest for Gay Men. This program entails intensive work with groups and individuals through an array of exercises from weekend programs to retreats, themed workshops, storytelling performances, and discussion groups to 1-2-1 coaching, socials, research and publishing the book "Love me as I am."
The experience of listening to sorted, well-adjusted and reasonably successful gay men share openly, honestly and without restraint their experiences of childhood compelled me to change the understanding I had of myself and gay men generally. It marked the beginning of my own deeper exploration of the previously unknown effect that shame has on my life and, most significantly, I developed a new sense of purpose: healing.
What we found in that first workshop and what we've seen in The Quest ever since is repressed hurt, due to shame, that we don't even realise we're carrying. But it is destroying our lives. The hurt develops early in childhood when we are too young to understand what gay means, but we know intuitively that we're different. This is a devastation we faced daily. We maintain the distress caused by this growing awareness in silence. We do not have the words at that age to explain our distress, so we seek comfort and soothing through other means as children: cuteness, crying, appeasing, adapting, becoming inconspicuous or being defiant.
It is this silence that breeds the anger, which Alan Downs, author of "The Velvet Rage," describes as "rage." And this rage permeates and directs much of our adult lives.
We have worked with over 500 gay men on our Quest programs, and I have worked with nearly 1,000 gay men in my other counselling work. Time after time the story is the same: gay men are negatively impacted from the experience of being a gay child within a heterosexual family.
My hunch is that we are standing on a threshold of denial and understanding that is strikingly similar to the dialogue in the 70's when it was suggested war veterans were suffering from the experience of being exposed to intense conflict. You may recall, post-traumatic stress disorder among vets did not exist as a diagnosis and was strongly dismissed as an idea altogether.
There is a very specific trauma experienced by gay children that is the underlying cause for much of the distress, anxieties and behaviours we are witnessing in the gay community. It is simplistic to believe that lack of information is resulting in unsafe sexual behaviour, that externalised homophobia is affecting our moods, or the lack of media representation is sending us into success super drive. I believe the most powerful driver of our discontent is our own unprocessed pain and shame.
The good news is I have also witnessed the healing process. Providing a safe, nonjudgmental space where men can explore, share and begin to purge the pain is essential to achieving happiness.
As the acclaimed researcher Dr. Brene Brown states: "Shame needs three things to flourish and grow: secrecy, silence and judgement." Thanks to her, the issue of shame has started to become a globally accepted and understood concept
Men attending our program realise that once the pain and shame has been acknowledged it ceases to hold its power over us, it loosens its grip. Our rage subsides and our nature is calmed. We become more generous, empathic and loving. We cease to crave the validation fuelled by our unprocessed pain. We touch the possibility of becoming lighter, forgiving, adjusted.
Thankfully more and more individuals are beginning to explore how shame has created barriers to their happiness. The job at hand is to acknowledge the root cause of the distress, provide spaces for it to be shared and expressed without judgement or shaming and to support each other as we move forward unburdening ourselves of the effect of pain we experienced in the past.