Dear Papa Bear,
I've "picked up my pen" several times to write to you, and each time I've stopped myself because I don't have a question - not really, I think. And yet I feel that if I don't reach out to someone, someone I don't know, someone who doesn't know me, I'm going to break down, or explode, or do something really quite stupid. I suppose, if I have to have a question, it's --- No. I was going to write, "What am I doing wrong?" but I'm not going to bully myself like that. Instead I'm going to say, "Does it really get better?"
As you can see, I'm an older male. (I'm a dragon, in case you're wondering about my fursona.) I'm older, I'm single, I've never been in the best of relationships, although I was with someone for a while whom I did care about very deeply but we still went our separate ways in the end. I'm also hurt, and lonely, and wanting nothing more right now than to have someone to curl up against and tell me, "It's going to be all right."
There's no easy way to say any of this, so I'm going to be honest. If this comes across as bluntness, then I apologize.
I grew up in a time and place where it was wrong to be gay. Homophobia was endemic, and it was underlined by government, by society and by religion. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher passed legislation which made it illegal for teachers to educate children about anything but normal, heteronormative relationships. People could be fired for being gay, or beaten up and the Police would look the other way. I was raised that being gay was a sin.
I also grew up experiencing a lot of abuse. (There's no other way to say it.) It wasn't deliberate abuse, most of the time, but it was still abuse. I walked on eggshells from age 8 to 18, and even after that to a degree. I was bullied at school, experienced emotional and psychological abuse at home, and yet had some of the most wonderful family members I could hope for --- at times. Because, as we all know, nobody is always abusive, only when that switch in their head kicks in.
The issue is this: my parents are both also survivors of abuse themselves. When I talk about this (which is rarely), I try to make it clear that the abuse was not deliberate: my parents and family did not set out intentionally to cause me harm. The fact is, however, that it happened, and the results are effectively the same. I can't find it in my heart any more to blame or be angry with my parents for their actions: they did their best, in extremely difficult situations, and they, too, are as much the products of their pasts as I am. In recent times, with the death of the primary abuser (whom we could never work out if they knew what they were doing or not), my family has become much happier and more relaxed, home has become a place which I look forward to visiting and my relationship with my parents is the best it has been for a long time.
I was expected to do well at school, to be the model pupil, to make everybody proud, to get top marks --- and I did, for a while. But it's difficult, Papa Bear, to try to please everyone, and I was 17 when I had my first "breakdown". (The big one was to come at the age of 19, when I fell in love with a guy for the first time.)
I learned early on to read people, and also to try to become what I thought they wanted me to be. And so I did. For my parents I was the good son, for the teachers the dutiful pupil, for the minister the diligent worshipper --- and so on, and so on, and so forth. I tried to please. I strove to please. Not least because the merest thing could set off a major explosion at home, but because by pleasing I had learned I could forestall such explosions. Or the cold, silent treatment, which was even worse. Or the sudden fury which would rise, and raise, and blow, and then be gone, and the person responsible would blink in apparently genuine innocence and claim they hadn't lost their temper at all.
Perhaps it's not surprising that I started eating. And eating. And eating. I always felt tired, too, and I found that consuming food smothered the feelings I had, and that was a good thing: it wasn't done to have feelings. Feelings could so easily get you in trouble.
I should also add that I grew up extremely isolated. My social circles revolved around home, school and the people I met at a church... I have no siblings, and for most of my life no friends. I find it very difficult to make and keep friends, and although I don't enjoy being alone, being in a relationship is equally scary because it's "unknown."
I went to university at 18 and by 19 had found the Internet and fallen in love with a guy. What little strength was left in my mind gave way and I broke into a million pieces. I ended up back at my parents' place for a year—arguably the worst thing that could have happened, in some ways—and finally went back to school. But in between I visited some friends in the US and... and realized something else was wrong. I like guys... so why can't I get hard? Why is it that someone in the shower with me is straining hard, and I'm not? (He later confessed he wasn't really terribly gay, which in retrospect makes it even worse.) And it wasn't only then, it was almost every time I was with a guy—Was? Is. I still can't "perform," as a rule, unless I'm so exhausted I can't think about it and then, for some reason, I manage. But the upshot was that the things I wanted to be able to do, the things that felt most right, simply don't work for me. But that's a whole other issue, I know.
So time moves forward. I fall into and out of relationships, jumping into them with almost anybody who shows me a crumb of kindness and then having my hopes dashed when things come crashing down. And I'm seeing people I know, people I love, moving on, finding relationships, finding joy and happiness, and here am I, still alone. It's difficult enough under such circumstances not to ask, "What am I doing wrong?" I know that it's probably not me that's at fault, though given my background it's hard to break away from that.
A few years ago I moved to the US to start school again—my fourth degree, a graduate degree this time. And I started to work on myself. I've been in therapy for four years now, and even now it doesn't seem like it's enough. I've had hypnotherapy sessions (from a licensed and qualified hypnotherapist) and even so it never feels as though it's enough. I've been diagnosed with several linked endocrine dysfunction issues, and being on medication has helped: my testosterone level is normal, now, instead of being half of what a geriatric man would have (which was leading me to question my gender, on top of everything else), and taking thyroid medication helps my mood and also my energy level, the constant falling of which was at least partly responsible for my overeating.
And yet, all this year, I've been in and out of a funk which I can't escape. I can shake it for a few days at a time, maybe even two weeks, but right now the black shuck feels as though he's tied to my heels. I'm tired, Papa Bear, I'm tired of being alone, I'm tired of having to care for myself, I'm tired of chasing after pennies... I'm tired of not being who I know I can be and who I want to be. Dammit, Papa Bear, I'm just *tired*. I'm tired all the way through to my soul and I don't know how to stop being tired. Maybe it's because I want too much, too much. I'm told that if you stop wanting things then you find it, but that doesn't seem to work, either.
I'm sorry for the tone of this letter, Papa Bear. I know it's a jumbled and disorganized mess but I've got a child's wail trying to get out through an adult's throat and I don't know where to begin. Please tell me it will get better, Papa Bear, because right now I just want to curl up in a corner and cry until the pain goes away, and tonight I don't know if it ever will.
Merrys (age 40, upstate NY)
* * *
I hear you. Listen, before I write something you've already heard before, please tell me more about what your therapist has said (surely, something more after 4 years than just endocrine issues?) Did you go to a psychologist? Psychiatrist? Or just a counselor? Did you address the obvious issue that sex is in the brain (explaining your problem with tumescence with guys)?
Like I said, I don't want to reiterate what a therapist has said--since that obviously hasn't worked. You can help me target a solution better if you tell me what already hasn't worked in the therapist's office.
Write back soon.
Everyone needs hugs. I'm not near New York, but here's a virtual one.
* * *
Hullo Papa Bear,
Thank you for your email, and thank you for your hug: I really appreciate it. Hugs are good.
I've been seeing the same therapist for the past two-and-a-half years, and it was the sexual side of things which took me to him. Before that, I spent time with a couple of other therapists, one of whom was absolutely lovely and helped a lot and the next was a little passive and I didn't feel helpful. They all work for my school's Student Health Centre as counsellors, though all of them are highly qualified: my current therapist has a PhD in psychology and 30 years' experience.
To be honest, though, Papa Bear, it's not just about the sexual side of things. I can understand that you picked up on that most strongly: I mean, a gay male dragon who can't mate must be in a bad place, right? (And yes, it sucks.) But equally I think that there's nothing more honest than a person's genitals: they're either into someone or they're not, and I have had times, even when I had the lowest testosterone level ever, when simply smelling the breath of a young male sitting next to me while we ate lunch together was enough to make me fully hard in moments; equally, making love to my ex-boyfriend (who is female-to-male transgendered) I could be fully and achingly hard for him—but usually only when we were both utterly exhausted.
Sex is in the brain, but so are an awful lot of other things, accrued from down the years and which can be terribly hard to get rid of. I don't like to be one of those people who points at others and blames everyone else for their own misfortune, but regrettably I cannot escape that I have been badly damaged by my past.
Right at this moment, I don't even want sex. Right now, inside, there's a scared child who wants to be nurtured and cared for, and it's so painful to admit it: in this world of apparently well-turned-out young people, in this fandom where sex is made to seem easy and everyone is virile and the young are well-balanced, this old dragon feels very much out of place. How can I say, to whom can I say it, that I just want to be held and comforted and tended and cared for, because at the moment I just don't have the strength to be strong? At the moment so many ghosts from my past are coming to the surface, and all I can see, over and over again, is my eight-year-old self—the age I was when everything began to change—and he's hurt, he's confused, he's afraid, he doesn't understand why things are changing, and yet he has to grow up in the space of a few weeks and become a caregiver to someone who should be caring for him. Eight years old and almost an adult. Eleven years old and he has his plushies taken away from him: "Don't you want to be a big boy now you're starting senior school?" How could he answer, "No," and not feel he'd disappointed everyone. Twelve years old and the joy has gone from birthdays and Christmases, and it's another 28 years before he can feel comfortable telling people that it's his birthday, because it's gone from being a day of delight to something he learns is another reason for people to mock him for his naïveté.
It's not just about the sex. I think the sex is a symptom. Perhaps as much from being most of my time alone, and having no confidence when I have been with someone, to also being with the wrong people, quite likely—as I said, there's nothing as honest as a set of genitals.
I just needed to reach out to someone, Papa Bear. I need a Papa to hold me right now—someone to hold me, who won't mock me or laugh at my weakness, or make fun of the "little dragon" who is trying not to cry (and failing). I know I must sound pathetic, and yet right now I don't care. I feel so damned tired, and lonely, and there doesn't seem to be the slightest chance of that changing any time soon. Each time I think I've learned to love myself even a little bit, some voice in the back of my head pops up and I feel as though I'm back in square one, all over again.
Abuse is horrible, Papa Bear. Even when it's not intentional. It's like kudzu, or the ground elder we get back home, or Japanese knotweed. And you can never be sure it's entirely gone, because the worst of it is that you learn to do it to yourself: you learn to believe that you deserve all the things that happen to you, you learn to believe it IS your fault, you learn to believe that there's no other way it can be.
* * *
Hi, Little Dragon,
I understand better now, thanks for taking the time to write out your feelings. Yours is one of those letters that Papabear gets that goes to the front of the line, so I will write to you later today after work.
In the meantime, I am attaching an audio file [inserted a recording from Don Miguel Ruiz]--one of several. If you like the first one, let me know and I'll send more. I think it might help.
* * *
Hi Papa Bear,
I don't really know what to say. I feel honored that you'd take the time, and yet embarrassed and awkward at the same time: "why should I get special treatment?" is what the voice in my head says. That, and being called "Little Dragon", when I try so hard to be the big, strong, fierce dragon everyone expects a big, long dragon to be... I'm not sure if to be embarrassed by that, too. Expectations, again.
Thank you for the audio file. It was very beautiful. It reminds me of things I've heard before, in particular St Paul's letter to the Corinthians in which he says, "For now we see but through a glass darkly..." I'm not a Christian, or at all religious, but I do remember that.
*leans into your hugs*
Thank you, Papabear.
* * *
You're welcome. Here's another recording to listen to while I work.
* * *
Thank you. *snugs up against your side and puts his head on your chest while he listens*
* * *
I won’t pretend to be able to solve all your problems in one letter, but I will try to make a good start here, and I hope you will correspond with me more in the future if you need to talk.
You don’t go into what your therapists covered (other than endocrine issues, which, in turn, could cause problems with testosterone levels, and, indeed, the original cause of this can be stress), and you don’t explain well what the abuse was as a child, except that you were made to grow up too soon and, evidently, not allowed to be yourself. Your parents, having been abused themselves, did what usually happens in such cases: perpetuated the cycle of abuse on to you (good news being that you have risen above this and now have a good relationship with them). This, it seems, wasn’t because of family being deliberately abusive, but they probably didn’t understand you and just weren’t very good at raising their one child. They may have been good people, but just not competent people.
Because you weren’t allowed to be a child, and because you became a people pleaser—always working to make parents, clergy, teachers happy—you didn’t get to discover yourself. And because you didn’t get to discover yourself, people with whom you were attempting to have relationships with became frustrated because they couldn’t figure you out because you didn’t know who you were. The first step in finding out who you are is to stop trying to be the person you think others want you to be. This doesn’t mean that you should disregard or be mean or indifferent to others, but you shouldn’t hide who you are to please others. Once you have stripped away that false mask and let yourself be you, you being a process that, while it might take some time, will eventually lead you to you.
While, as you say, not laying the blame on anyone, it’s clear that your problems stem from the abuse you had as a child, the fact that you weren’t allowed to be a child (what I call Michael Jackson Syndrome), and that this has all caused you severe stress that has led to endocrine issues and sexual dysfunction. One might also say you wish to return to childhood (or, anyway, divest yourself of the burden of being an adult) because you didn’t get the emotional support you craved as a child. Furthermore, you were not allowed to be gay because of family and society, further suppressing your true identity. Is this what your psychologist told you?
The problem is easy to identify. You could, actually, blame your upbringing, but that won’t solve the problem. So how do you solve the problem?
Well, you’ve found one way to cope, I feel, by being a furry, which is a way to try to relate to one’s child side. Interesting that you picked a dragon as your fursona, the dragon being a strong, tough, loner figure, representing what you are trying to be. In that sense, I suggest that you actually have picked the opposite fursona of the one you need. I don’t see you as a dragon; I see you as a bunny—soft and cute and snuggable ... and vulnerable. Perhaps you might adopt a second fursona. Many do.
You would also do well to try and recapture your childhood. Not the way Michael Jackson did (bordering on insanity, poor man), but to regain the joy of Christmas, birthdays, going to amusement parks, etc. You sound like you need friends. What’s your involvement in the furry community? (And, by the way, your impression of furries that they are all “virile” and sexually confident and well-balanced.... poppycock. Just read through the letters on this site, which is a receptacle of insecurities and sexual and relationship problems. We all need help.) Hanging out with furries is a super way to regain that feeling of childlike playfulness.
So, we now have: find out who you are, rediscover your childhood, and start making friends (btw, this is from one of my favorite sites, Tiny Buddha, on being a friend: http://tinybuddha.com/blog/25-ways-to-be-a-true-friend/). When you are good friend material, you will attract friends to you like moths to a flame.
And what happens when you get lots of friends? Well, chances are that one of those friends will become more than a friend. It starts with cuddles, and you need cuddles more than just about anyone I’ve ever talked to.
“Working on yourself” doesn’t mean working on your appearance, or getting an impressive education, or making lots of money, or, in a relationship, doing whatever the other person wants from you, or working on your conversation skills and trying to be the life of the party. There is nothing really wrong with you, except that you weren’t given a fair chance to ground yourself because you didn’t get the childhood everyone needs. Remember, people don’t transform from children into adults, they are, rather, adult shells encasing the children still inside them. That child, that vulnerability, that need to be cuddled and protected, remains in all of us. It’s the brave ones who admit that they need a big hug or cuddle, and no, it’s not about sex.
One last word of advice. Don’t stand around waiting for that hug. Be proactive and hug someone first. You might be surprised that this can break down walls and one of those people will give you a big hug back. Maybe it will lead to a new relationship; and, yes, relationships can be scary, but it’s better than no relationship at all, if that’s what you’re looking for.
As to your original question, “Does it get better?” It certainly can, although I can’t guarantee it. But it helps to get to a goal when you have a clear, well-paved path to walk on. I hope I laid a few stones on that path for you tonight.
* * *
Dear Papa Bear,
Thank you for your considered and considerate reply. To address all your points in any depth is going to take a while, so I hope you'll forgive me if my reply takes a while to complete. I wanted to say "thank you" now, though: reading your words, as I have several times already, I have found both comforting and reassuring, and I feel better already.
One thing I'd like to mention now, though, and I'll address it more fully in later, is that I'm Otherkin, and that's my connection to being a dragon. I didn't choose to be a dragon, I simply am one. And I'd argue that even dragons can be vulnerable and weak and need cuddles, too. I know I did, when I was an eggling, first time around. :-)
Thank you again for your patience, your kindness and your support. I have very much enjoyed writing to you, and also listening to those two audio tracks you sent me.
With very best wishes, and much thanks,
* * *
Hi, again, Little Dragon,
That is, indeed, a vital piece of information you left out, your being Otherkin. And you’re correct that even a tough-looking dragon can need a cuddle now and then. If I had known this, I would never have suggested you change your fursona (though you still might have the heart of a bunny *grin*). That would be like someone suggesting I be something other than a bear. I am a bear, and you are a dragon, and that’s that. You remind me of Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon--a fierce beast with a heart of gold.
This whole conversation is an excellent reminder to readers of this column that appearances can be deceiving. The guy who looks really tough and confident on the outside might be just the guy who needs a good squeeze and a sympathetic ear.
It’s also a reminder of how many—really, most—people in the world go about their lives wearing masks to please others or as a protective measure against ridicule and prejudice. Some might say that furries are all wearing masks, pretending to be animals or anthros, but I feel it is quite the contrary: we are stripping away our false selves and revealing who we really are on the inside, says this bear.
I don’t think this is the end of this particular conversation, but it is enough for now. Perhaps I’ve worn out the patience of the readers of this column with such a long post, but they, as always, are free to wander off elsewhere into cyberspace. I hope that those who have stayed have gained something here.
Bear Hugs to All,
A note on comments: Comments on letters to Papabear are welcome, especially those that offer extra helpful advice and add something to the conversation that is of use to the letter writer and those reading this column. Also welcome are constructive criticisms and opposing views. What is NOT welcome are hateful, hurtful comments, flaming, and trolling. Such comments will be deleted from this site. Thank you.