Monday, January 24, 2011

Rip Van Winkle Syndrome

I have commented before that, as a gay man coming out in mid-life, I sometimes feel like Rip Van Winkle.  Those familiar with the Washington Irving story know that Rip was a fictional character of Dutch descent who lived in a village at the foot of the Catskill Mountains in the Hudson River Valley around 1770.  One day, Rip goes up into the mountains to hunt and happens upon the ghosts of Hendrick Hudson and his crew bowling in a clearing.  Rip drinks some of the crew’s mysterious brew and promptly falls asleep, not waking until 20 years later.

By way of analogy, I sometimes feel like I partook of a similar brew some 20+ years ago when I decided to get married. I struggled with the decision to get married, knowing as I did of my attraction to men (as did my wife). I believed, however, in what the Church taught at that time, i.e., that if I got married and really worked at it, I could be happy and find fulfillment as a heterosexual.  I worked at it for over 20 years, as have many other men, and, like them, I eventually came to the conclusion that – for me, anyway – it was impossible to change.

On top of this abandonment of my gay nature, however, I also abandoned much of my identity when I got married. There was too much of my old self (or so I thought) that I needed to just leave behind when I made a firm commitment to heterosexual marriage. Why? First, because it was too closely connected to my gay self. Second, because I felt in committing myself to the marriage, I had to essentially buy into my wife and all her interests, losing myself in the process.

So, that is when I “fell asleep,” where I remained for over two decades. I did not pursue things in which I was naturally interested because my wife did not share an interest in those things. In fact, as I have commented before, we have very little in common. So, as a result, for the most part, most of my interests were simply frozen in time over 20 years ago, where they remained until I “woke up” this past fall.

I am grateful that I am finally taking these interests out of cold storage, but sometimes I feel intense frustration, anger and sadness that so much time has passed without having developed or pursued those interests.  Yesterday, for example, I wrote a post about the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhauser. I could easily write about how I felt while singing that piece in the Salt Lake Men’s Choir, but I knew next to nothing about the music. I felt I should have, because music is one of my interests. So I had to do some research; but even then, I felt like an ignoramus who was presuming to write about something he knew comparatively little about.

But beyond experiences like this, which have been occurring with annoying frequency lately, is the nagging feeling that I am stunted, that I have not achieved my potential in this life, that I have not delved into the depths of my persona, nor have I soared to the heights of which I am capable. I feel incredibly “juvenile” at times, even though I am a middle-aged man of considerable experience.

Now, before anyone feels the need to point out the obvious, i.e., that I’m whining a bit, or that I should not consider my life a waste but look at all the blessings I have – let me say the following. 

First, I’ll damn well whine if I want to; I’ll just try not to make a habit of it. 

Second, I don’t consider my life a waste. In the first place, I haven’t been sitting on my hands these past two decades; I’ve been going to graduate school, working in a professional arena, and raising a good-sized family (which is still very much on-going). (I have also engaged in some personal interests, but most of these were Church-related.) Beyond this, however, I do (try to) believe that everything in life happens for a reason, and that all that I have passed through (as well as everything I haven’t) these past 20+ years has led me to where I am today.

Third, I cherish my children and the love that we share. As they grow wings and fly away, I can and do feel proud that I played a small part in forming who they have become and are in the process of becoming.

BUT – all this being said, I stand by what I wrote earlier:  that, due to choices I made when I got married, I lost a large part of my Self for over 20 years and, now that I have woken up, I see the consequences of this. 

BUT – I think this is part and parcel of what coming out in mid-life is like for so many guys like me. It’s not just about sexuality. There is that, to be sure. But there is so much more that is bound up with sexuality that has been suppressed and hidden.  So much that I am awakening to! And the excitement and pleasure of that awakening almost makes up for the “lost years.”

For example, take my recent experience with Pilgrim’s Chorus. My ignorance forced me to learn, and with that learning, I gained a much deeper appreciation of the Pilgrim’s Chorus and also the opera of which it is a part.  Not only that, but the process of gaining this knowledge and appreciation was tremendously stimulating and made me feel ALIVE.

Once Rip van Winkle finally awoke, returned to his village and figured out what the hell had happened to him, he found happiness. His nagging wife was no more, and he lived out the rest of his days, happy as a clam, with his daughter. (And, please, I am by no means trying to imply anything about my own wife.)

In a similar vein, I believe I have a lifetime of happiness ahead of me, years of discovery, years of loving, years of living. I look forward to embracing all that life has to offer me in the second half of my life.


  1. I am curious to know how you perceive the church's participation in this syndrome. I applaud your ability to recognize and affirm your sexuality and be proud of it. At the same time, it appears from your posts that you also believed that the church would be able to cure you of your gay nature, not only marriage. Do you see the church as part of your going to sleep on yourself and life?

  2. And I fully expect that you will get it.

  3. Thanks, Joe. :)

    Libellule - I guess I'd say that the Church administered the potion. As I've written elsewhere, there is no question but that I lost a great deal of my identity when I joined the Church, and I am now in the process of trying to reclaim that identity.

  4. Invictus,

    Quite right: you do not need lectures on whining; nor do you need patronizing clichés about how much time you DO have left. In fact, you do not need any response at all to what may have just been a need to articulate genuine concerns and have them understood.

    However, I would like to acknowledge the emotional reality of what you wrote; I feel it too. And not that this is supposed to lessen the impact of your own concerns, but I was asleep 13 years longer than you. Yikes! (Perhaps I downed more of the sleep-inducing draught.)

    Anyway, I must of necessity leave you with the poetic words of my friend Dylan Thomas, apropos for those of us concerned with balancing time and space with agenda. Simply this:

    Do not go gentle into that good night . . .

    Trey Adams

  5. I am also certain that you will reclaim what is yours!

  6. Trey, I enjoyed your comment almost as much as Pilgrim's post. Thanks.

  7. @Trey - I always enjoy your comments. Thank you.

  8. Pilgrim - I waited until I was 35 to marry (wanting to "cool" my gay jets which took 11 years). Marriage for 12 years with kids. So, I, too was so overwhelmed by all the lost years to relationship with others, with self and with my creativity that I stifled because they are lodged so close to my sexual preferrence.

    But the good news, now that I've had a few years to put all this in perspective is that, like a bilingual person (where each language is a bit slower than those who are monolingual), I have eagerly accepted that for the privilege of living two lives in series in one lifetime, I'll be a little "off" in both.

    So, Ill race a little faster in finishing out my straight life, paying extra close attention to my kids as they head towards young adulthood. And I'll run a little harder in getting my new life up to speed, giving extra thought to the lessons I need to learn so that I don't look like a fool, or make foolish mistakes.

    The key is that we make it, because to be stillborn (my term for coming out but dying emotionally due to lack of support) was horrible. So, I had to find the courage and energy to come out (of the "womb") a second time and this time I made it. We gay mormon fathers have a most unusual calling in this life. And that's to do it all. And assist, empower and inspire others. You're already inspiring many. . .

  9. Thanks for your insights, Martin. You have presented some new thoughts for me to ponder, and I'm grateful to you for that. A gay Mormon father ... what a contradiction in terms in one sense, but yet somehow beautiful ...