My therapist once suggested I had a problem with intimacy. Sensing my awkwardness, and aware of my inability to meet his gaze, he said gently “I think you’re afraid to be seen”. Despite how uncomfortable that was to hear, it was the turning point which marked the start of my recovery, ten years ago, this month.
Being ‘in-recovery’ is a term often used to describe people recovering from their addictions. But when I use it here – and when I’m working with gay men, I refer to recovery in a much broader sense. In therapeutic terms, it can refer to engaging in a process of recovering parts of our selves that might be buried, trapped or hidden. Like digging up childhood treasures from your past, except rather than gold coins, we retrieve the aspects that need to be nurtured and cared for. Alongside recovery, comes self-discovery too. I never planned to become a therapist or run discussion groups for gay men. I just discovered that I loved doing it along the way. In finding out who I really was, I discovered what I was meant to be doing with my life.
At first I disagreed with my therapist. I loved to be seen. At work, I had a nickname, Showbiz. I craved attention and loved being centre stage. It made me feel better. When I told my therapist this, he smiled reassuringly and said, “Now we’re getting somewhere”. With him, I began to painfully unpick the many years I’d been bullied at school for being gay. I’d been hit, punched, kicked and tormented. I’d had eggs thrown at me. At ten years old, I was outed by my head-teacher to my parents. I’d been deeply traumatised from a very young age. I began to realise that Showbiz was a façade I’d created to deflect from what I really felt. Inside I felt worthless and had no value. I hated myself and was highly anxious. My therapist was right. I had a problem with intimacy. I had a problem with me. I felt alone and in the dark. I didn’t know how to connect with people – and certainly not other gay men. Through my own recovery, and subsequent training as a therapist myself, I’ve come to understand that intimacy and disconnection seem to be a huge issue for many gay and bisexual men. But why?
Firstly, we need to understand what intimacy actually is. We might just associate it with sex, but that’s not the whole story. I find it helpful to break down the word itself. IN-TO-ME-SEE. Simply put, intimacy is what we experience when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with another person, and risk being seen for who we truly are. We feel safe to let down our guard, and share something about our true nature. We can be honest about what we really think and feel, connecting with people we trust. It’s about being authentic. Some cultures believe the eyes are the windows to the soul. Try experimenting for yourself. Look into a friend’s eyes to see how long you can hold your gaze without looking away from them. What does it feel like? Embarrassing? Uncomfortable? Awkward? What kind of thoughts and feelings does it evoke? If you can’t think of anything more terrifying, then you’re not alone. When I try this exercise out in my workshops and Dramatherapy sessions, it’s often met with a sense of dread. But this doesn’t have to be bad news. It can be the motivator for change.
The reasons we struggle so much with intimacy, may lie in our experiences of growing up as gay, bisexual, trans or queer, in a society geared towards heterosexuals. In his book, Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay And Happy, Matthew Todd discusses these experiences in detail, and the devastating effects it can have on our lives. He explains that homophobia, dished out regularly in our families, religions, playgrounds, media and mainstream culture, leads us to developing a core sense of shame. While guilt is the feeling we have when we’ve done something wrong; shame is experienced when we think we are something wrong. Research now shows that LGBTQ+ people experience disproportionately higher levels of depression, anxiety, addictions and sometimes, early death, compared to our straight counterparts. It’s important to note that this is not every LGBTQ+ person’s experience. But many of us will relate to some, or all of these feelings.
Over time, shame becomes toxic, and compounds all the negative messages we’ve received about being different. We begin to believe the shame is ours – which it isn’t, and that we somehow must be worthless or unlovable. In order to cope, not only do we develop skills and personas to keep people away, but some might form a dependency on substance or behaviours, such as alcohol, drugs, sex and food, in order to either escape or attempt to connect. Sometimes these behaviours develop in to unmanageable addictions and compulsions that some might need support and further recovery for. Toxic shame splits and destroys the human psyche. Often, the feelings we experience can be so intolerable, we must condemn them deep down to our unconscious, where we won’t have to feel them at all. And here, in the darkness, hidden from view and not wanting to be seen, shame grows and manifests as an angry monster, telling us to believe we are nothing. I’m speaking metaphorically of course, but gay culture, for all it’s positives and celebratory milestones – of which there are many, and for which we should and must be proud of achieving – and of which I am myself hugely proud of being part of – can, if we are honest, sometimes support our monster’s growth. It’s much easier to project that monster on to others, rather than to own it ourselves. That’s why sometimes, we might not be very nice to each other. After all, hurt people, hurt people. Alone and skulking in the darkness, it is here that we might struggle to experience any kind of real intimacy and authentic connection to others.
It was on this basis, that A Change Of Scene, the popular gay and bisexual men’s discussion group was born. Co-founded by Matthew Todd and I in 2014, we wanted to offer a free safe space in the community, to give voice to gay and bisexual men, and some of the issues we face. Hosted by 56 Dean Street as part of their incredible Wellbeing Programme of community events, each month, we focus on a different theme. Some of our previous discussions have been on Body Image, Overcoming Anxiety, Dating, Compulsive Sex and Self Worth, to name just a few. In the group, we share our personal experiences and stories with each other, identifying or just listening. In doing so, we begin to connect to each other and have the chance to step out of our shadows, often experiencing intimacy for the very first time. As the group has grown in number, so has a sense of community amongst our members. It’s humbling to see unfold. This year, we were thrilled to receive funding from Wandsworth Oasis, which means we can keep the group free for all to attend.
A deeper exploration into intimacy and connection for gay men is offered through A Change Of Scene’s Dramatherapy groups. Dramatherapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses creative expression, story telling and play to recover and heal our wounded parts, from within the safe confines of group therapy. Participants have explored collective themes around self-esteem, internalised homophobia, intimacy, trust, social anxiety and shame. Some connected these themes to their own risk-taking behaviour in relation to alcohol, drugs, relationships and sex. Where desired, they were able to begin implementing changes in their lives. You can find out more about Dramatherapy here.
A Change Of Scene: Authentic Intimacy is on Thursday 7th September 2017, at 56 Dean Street. Please note – entry is by RSVP only. Places tend to fill very fast. To join our Mailing List or register your interest for this event, please email your name and contact number to firstname.lastname@example.org
A Change Of Scene: Dramatherapy offers group and individual sessions in Central London. The next group begins on Friday 22nd September 2017, for 12 weeks. For more information, cost and to arrange a free assessment, please contact me on the details below.