‘Finding My Way Back to Eden’
As a child I was painfully shy and always felt alone. Looking back on it now I see that part of this was my natural sensitivity and part the difficulty I already had in accepting myself. Not only was I unhappy about the way I looked but I was also already aware that I was different from other boys.
One of my earliest memories was when I was around 4 years old. I was in my parent’s living room dancing. I had a towel in my hand and was twirling it around expressing my true feelings through dancing to the music. To me dancing like this was a natural gift. I had this idea that I wanted to be a ballet dancer. However, although my parents knew of this aspiration, somehow I was certain even then that this particular dream was not going to come true – I already knew in my heart that real boys did not become dancers. Aged 4, the denial of my sexuality had already begun.
These physical and emotional differences left me feeling vulnerable, helpless and abandoned. Although I was loved by my parents, I felt that somehow I was incomplete, anxious, insecure and unable to receive the love of my family.
The years passed and I grew into a teenager. My elder brothers began to leave home and my isolation seemed to increase. As I grew older there came a dawning consciousness that something was seriously wrong. Why did I always seem to be on the outside of the group looking in? Why did I feel so alone? Why was I filled with negative feelings and sadness? Why did I long for the arms of a strong father to hold me? Why was I so fearful and anxious? Why was I not interested in girls like my older brothers and my peers? Of course I knew the reason – I was attracted to men. They turned me on. However I vowed to myself that no one would ever know my secret. The shame would be unbearable – I was sure I would die if the truth were ever known about me.
Much of my early life was spent creating an outer persona that would hide the anxiety, which gripped me. The effort involved in hiding was enormous. Every day I would debate with myself how I should be. How should I hold my hands? How should I hold my hold my schoolbooks so as not to look gay? How could I ensure that I was in with the ‘in-crowd’? In order to achieve this I copied what my straight friends did and said. Like them I ostracized anyone who might be or was suspected to be queer. I avoided wearing any clothes or colours, which might suggest I was gay. No pink shirts for me! Although I loved strawberry ice cream I would never order it in front of my friends … after all they might suspect … With great effort I built an outer image that was acceptable. Inside it was a different story. Chaos reigned.
As I created this outer image my self-consciousness increased. Unable to feel at peace with myself I became super critical of others. This alienation from my self and others increased my sense of loneliness. My soul longed for acceptance – unable to connect with myself and unable to connect with others I struggled desperately and alone through my teens. My life had become nothing but pain and pretence.
As a very young child I had intuitively believed in God. But by my teens I had rejected the whole idea of God. I did not love myself and I was certainly not going to love God. The only solution for me was to rely on my own talents and try to control the external and internal world as best I could. Deep inside of course I was filled with anger at the world and myself. Unaware and unable to express these feelings I projected them on to God and others. Denying God and denying myself I was critical of others, felt little sense of joy and was consequently limited in my ability to show love for others. The feelings and fears raged within me.
At the age of 16 I had my first sexual encounter with on older man. I was petrified but the explosive feelings inside me were stronger than the fear that I felt. In fact this experience was a revelation to me. I had discovered there were other people who had similar feelings to me and I was not alone! A few years later there followed a period of numerous anonymous encounters with men. My desire to be known was intense. The sexual hormones raged in me. But after each encounter I would walk away with an intense feeling of self-loathing and disgust. These encounters involved little or no emotional content and there was no prospect of any sort of meaningful friendship or of genuine love. I decided that the only answer to my problem was celibacy. However this approach did nothing to assuage the deep longing I had that my loneliness and feelings of isolation should come to an end.
By my late twenties I decided that the answer to my problems would be to take the plunge and risk the world of heterosexual relating. I tried to convince my self that sex was all in the mind and that with some effort and mental gymnastics I would be free of my fears. I went to a party and met Rosemary. I asked her out. To my surprise she accepted. At the age of 29 I had my first girlfriend! After two dates we ended up back at her flat for coffee. This was to prove what seemed like the longest coffee of my life – I was gripped with fear as we sat on the bed – I felt absolutely no desire for her. Eventually after what seemed like hours I made an excuse and left. This was not going to be as easy as I had thought. I did not take her out again!
About a year later, by chance I rang Jane, an old friend who told me she was in the process of leaving her husband and had been suicidal. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it and we agreed to meet. We talked about her attempted suicide and the pain of her unfulfilled marriage. Looking back I can see that Jane felt desperately unloved by her husband and was deeply unhappy with her self-image as a woman. We continued to meet and talk.
After a couple more dates we went away for a short break together and … we ended up in bed. At first, the sex was a disaster, but nevertheless Jane seemed to accept me. Gradually my performance improved. This was further enhanced by the use of gay fantasies, which I used when I was feeling particularly anxious or nervous about sex – which was mostly the case. Before long we were both completely in love. I asked Jane to marry me and she said yes.
I was on cloud nine – someone loved me and she wanted to spend the rest of her life with me. At last I could hold my head up, the shame of the past was dead and buried – no one would ever know or be able to say that I was gay!
All the same, I was worried about our relationship and I decided to tell Jane something about my past. If we were to be married I thought it only fair to be honest with her. Filled with trepidation, I told her about my previous experiences with men and that she was my first real girlfriend. (I did not expressly say that I was gay but just that I had put this behaviour behind me.) I thought that this would be the end of our relationship. Much to my surprise, Jane seemed to accept my past without question. This response only added to my new-found feelings of well-being and love for her. Looking back, I realize that my love was, in part, an attempt to capture that part of me that was missing. My love was a vain attempt to fill the void that I felt inside me – an emptiness that I had always known about, though I could not articulate, since it derived from ‘the love that dared not speak its name’. The subject of my gayness was never mentioned by either of us again, until around 12 or so years later when our marriage first began to founder. The pattern of denial continued.
Initially our relationship went well. I had a good job and we bought a nice house in a pleasant suburb of London. We had five children and Jane seemed to find the fulfilment she was seeking as a woman, through being a mother and housewife. Sadly one of our children died when very young. This quite naturally put some strain on our marriage but at the same time we seemed to grow closer. It also affected us both deeply in another way. Both of us were deeply touched by God through our son’s death and soon we became Christians.
His death was both devastating and very moving. It was as if time stopped and I felt both intense pain and, curiously, a sense off peace at the same time. I now know that the peace I felt was the presence of the Holy Spirit and that the pain of losing my baby son tapped into my own feelings of loss, which derived from my own self-rejection and in particular my sexuality. Nevertheless, it seems to me that God used this pain to speak to me and I began to realize that God understood and shared my suffering. It was through this experience that I discovered that the God that I had rejected for so long was there and was reaching out to me. However, it was to be a long time before I understood that God is a part of me and that the key to discovering myself was to embrace the unacceptable parts of myself.
I somehow knew (but could not accept at that time) that my destiny was to choose God despite my feelings. For some time after my son’s death I continued to reject the existence of God. However after a long battle between my heart and my head I finally accepted that God did exist and that he wanted me. Looking back now, it seems almost as if God was trying to break through the wall of denial to tell me that I was loved – that I was loveable. But despite my discovery of God, my conscience had other ideas. My feelings continued to tell me that I was unacceptable – for I knew, and more importantly God knew, that deep inside me, the real me was gay. Whilst my newfound faith was to increase my sense of shame – it was also to prove eventually to be a stepping stone to finding my true self. Secretly, I hoped that my faith would resolve all my inner conflicts effortlessly and painlessly. I was of course wrong in this assumption.
As the years went by Jane grew into a confident mother. In contrast my guilt, intense self-consciousness and a lack of self worth limited my scope for personal growth. I prayed daily for God to change my feelings but my prayers remained unanswered. Why, I wondered? Was it because my faith was weak? Was I being tested? Was there un-confessed sin in my life? Had I committed the unforgivable sin? All these thoughts went through my mind on a daily basis. I was loved by God and yet unlovable.
As the children grew older Jane increasingly looked to me to affirm her as a woman – as a sexual being. Her need for sex was increasing. This scared me. Sex between us had never been frequent and I still found it very stressful. Also I used to feel guilty about my secret fantasy life. Increasingly I avoided sex with Jane. There were the inevitable failures in bed. Jane was only able to interpret these in one way – she was sure I did not love her. I was rejecting her as a woman. Whilst this was not true – I did love her – I could not give her what she desperately craved – the love of a heterosexual man. As our sexual relationship deteriorated Jane became increasingly angry and resentful. This only made the whole subject of sex with Jane increasingly difficult for me. Any desire for intimacy was frozen out by my fear of her adverse reaction to failure. We argued, often bitterly. I tried to make her understand but I felt unable to tell her the truth – I was still gay.
Jane became depressed and my inability to love her as a sexual being would frequently result in long periods when Jane would not speak to me. I tried desperately to be a loving husband and sought to please her in any way I could – but I as a gay man could not become the man she wanted – the man she needed me to be. Our relationship was at breaking point.
As Jane’s feelings of rejection and desperation mounted the inevitable happened – she had a brief affair with a friend of the family. I was devastated when she told me. I knew the marriage was over but we both agreed to patch things up for the sake of the children. We tried counselling. Both of us had issues and insecurities – we were in fact very different personalities – but I was also gay and she had a powerful need to be loved. Jane insisted that I do something about my lack of interest in sex. So I sought counselling from a Christian psychosexual therapist. For six months we discussed my homosexual feelings. Although the counselling helped me to express the pain and rejection I was feeling, my sexual orientation was unchanged. Jane then urged me to go to the doctor. He arranged for me to attend a series of sex-therapy sessions at a local hospital. After a few sessions my therapist asked Jane to attend too. Jane was reluctant but eventually agreed – however when the therapist told her of my gay feelings this only served to intensify Jane’s inner turmoil, anger and feelings of rejection.
I decided there was only one chance to save my marriage – God. In desperation I applied for and was accepted on a 9-month prayer/sexual re-orientation programme especially for struggling gay Christians. The aim was for God to re-orientate my sexuality.
I did receive a great deal of care, love and understanding from the leaders and other participants in the programme. I also learned a great deal about myself and the problems of relationships: manipulation, the pitfalls of people pleasing, sexual addiction, emotional dependency, narcissism, co-dependency, self-hatred, abuse and what happens when victims marry. (All these applied to me!) Whilst I did receive a great deal of healing from this course, for example I was now able to talk more openly with my close friends about who I really was, my sexual orientation remained fundamentally unchanged.
My marriage however continued to deteriorate, with love being replaced by fear and rejection. Jane was still depressed and desperately unhappy. We both struggled to maintain the marriage but the arguments continued and the tears flowed. We were destroying each other. Seventeen years after having first met, three years after Jane’s affair and after two years of intense therapy, I finally agreed at the age of 47 to leave the marital home – for the sake of the children, who were becoming increasingly disturbed by the poor atmosphere between us.
Solicitors were appointed and an agreement drawn up. The house, its contents and the car were made over to Jane. The children would continue to live with Jane but would stay with me every other weekend. Maintenance for the children was agreed. In return I would retain some investments I had recently inherited. The day I left my home and family was the worst of my life.
I was also afraid. My early fears of abandonment became intense. I felt completely alone, although I still had hope that God would rescue me from the abyss. I was to be now faced with the greatest challenge of my life – living on my own and facing up to the truth of who I really was – a gay Christian man. God and life seemed to be demanding the impossible – either I denied my sexuality or I accepted the truth of who I really was and rejected God – and the hope of true peace in my life. Most of my friends were Christians and could be expected to disapprove of any active pursuit of a gay lifestyle. How could I tell them who I was? How could I remain a Christian? How could I tell my children? How would they react? Could I ever risk relating to a woman again? How could I reconcile my sexual longings for union with the teaching that homosexuality was sinful? While I had not chosen to be gay, for many in the church being gay is simply a lifestyle choice – to be resolved by the application of mind over matter, plus a healthy dose of prayer.
So far as I was concerned the situation was hopeless. The pain of leaving my family and home was unbearable – I cried a lot and still prayed daily for healing and for an answer to my problems. The healing did not come and my faith was crumbling despite my certainty that God existed.
I bought every sort of self-help book I could find and read them all. However, I was still very unhappy and lonely. Then about four years ago I bought a book on meditation. I began to meditate – unexpectedly this was to prove a turning point for me. Each day I meditated and each day a new sense of peace enveloped me. I ceased to concentrate on what the Bible said was right or wrong about sexuality and began simply to concentrate on accepting rather than judging myself. The feelings of despair lifted and my thoughts cleared. I saw for the first time with a crystal clear clarity that I had to accept my gay sexuality – for this was at the core of my identity and who I was as a person. I realized that any further resistance would just bring more pain. I had to choose to go through my fears and accept myself as the gay man that I am. Soon after my 49th birthday, I made the choice to accept my sexuality – at whatever the cost. The coming out process had begun. I joined a number of gay groups and began to make new friends, some of whom had similar experiences to mine.
When I look back over the past few years I see that I have made incredible progress. I now have many gay friends and I am able to enjoy the sense of being me when I am with them, which is great. I am able to feel joy and have replaced my feelings of despair with optimism. Most (but not all) of my immediate family know that I am gay and their reaction has been mostly been supportive. My older two children know of my sexuality, although I am unsure about how they really feel about it. I have not yet told my youngest children I am gay. My relationship with Jane has improved and the anger and bitterness at our break-up has gone. I am beginning to discover my lost teenage years. I am much more rebellious! I am able to set boundaries in relationships more clearly. I still believe in God but I no longer blindly accept the Christian Church’s teaching on homosexuality. I see now that it is the spirit rather than the letter of the law which is important. I am much more accepting of myself. I am less judgmental of others. I also dance a lot (though I have not yet taken up ballet lessons!). Above all I am much more at ease with myself and no longer need to prove anything. I have learned that the key to peace is being and not doing.
I do not know what the future holds for me but I do know that any future relationship will offer me, for the first time, the chance to love another human as a whole person, with my body and soul. Being much more secure in my identity I have also found that I am much more able to both give and receive love – more completely. I now know in my heart the truth that I am accepted as I am – no more, no less.
I know that I have much to offer the right person. As yet I have not found Mr. Right and I am aware that ultimately such a relationship will be a gift of grace. Deep in my being I know that I am now on the right path. I no longer hate myself and I have hope. My heart is free and I am at last able to look forward with optimism. I am also able to look back at my marriage without regret. I learned a great deal about how to sustain a relationship and I treasure the good memories and value the painful ones as necessary learning experiences. I realize that all the pain in my life has made me a much stronger person and that my resistance was the cause. I see now that the truth of my life is that God has always been with me, in me and loving me as I am.
I also continue to be aware that I am not an island and that as a gay man I need to develop strong and affirming relationships with both straight and gay people. However, I have learned the importance of being real and to avoid trying to be what others want (or you think they want) you to be. I see now that you cannot make someone love you, but that love must come first from an inner harmony and security rather than neediness or a sense of lack. As a result, I now seek to build my relationships on honesty, integrity, trust and self acceptance. I am grateful for what I have learned and I would like to be able to offer something back to the world. So I hope very much that my experience can offer hope to others struggling with similar issues.
I know that there will be new challenges and experiences for me but I also know that the journey will be easier. So far I have found this to be true and can say, since I accepted my sexuality, that I have experienced the joy of life in a way that I never believed to be possible. I have at last replaced the fear in my life with love.
In the end, the finding my way to Eden was so simple – the answer was Love …
And love is a free gift – if only we can accept it.
© Chris Armstrong