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I came out to my friends and family at the age of 25.  Three years prior, one of my university professors had come out as a gay Christian. Before hearing her story, I had never heard the two terms used in cohesion with one another.

Growing up in a Pentecostal church, being gay was so far removed from my experience of ‘normal’ that it did not once cross my mind in a conscious way that I might be gay. It was only after hearing my professor’s story that I began to examine my own life, attractions and relationships.

That journey was painful. Coupled with my vulnerability to depression and having Borderline Personality Disorder (undiagnosed at that point in my life), trying to process that I was not who I always thought I was – and not who my family, church and friends expected I was – was like trying to swallow fistfuls of cement. Coming out to oneself is always the first and hardest step of accepting who you are. And that’s just the beginning. The idea of having to share this dark shame with another person paralyzed me. I was physically and emotionally sick for a long time before I started talking to people who were able to help me see the beauty in who I am as a gay Christian.

One of those people was Wendy Gritter, executive director of New Direction, an organization that actively seeks to “eliminate fear, division, and hostility at the intersection of faith, gender, and sexuality.” She had counselled a few other gay people I had spoken with, and on their recommendation I connected with her. I still remember her expression the first time we met, when she told me “there is no shame in being who you are.” The sincerity and determination in her voice pierced through my walls of internalized homophobia. This was the first time a straight person with a religious background was affirming my sexuality.

From there, my world of acceptance grew. As I found more safe people (and realized just how many of my friends and family were accepting and affirming), it became easier to overcome this internal shame and wrestle through the difficult theological questions that I faced as a Christian who had grown up believing homosexuality was sinful.

The result has been an incredibly loving relationship cultivated with Kathryn, sharing who I am more authentically with my friends and family, and the dismantling of a spirituality built on fear of punishment. In its place, I have found room to grow as a Christian that believes God is drawing all life toward Love, and that my role is to practice this love and learn to cultivate trust when fear is tempting.

I still sometimes revert to that internal homophobic fear that worries if gay is synonymous with broken, sick or sinful. What I return to again and again in these moments is this – I have to believe that a life modelled after Jesus must be motivated by love, and so as St. Teresa of Avila said, “the important thing is not to think much, but to love much, and so to do what ever best awakens you to love.” A life lived with love as the motivator, and in conscious opposition to fear, is the one I am after.

There’s a reason I am sharing this with you. Imagine having to wrestle through all this shame and fear without the support and acceptance of the people closest to you. Imagine if I had never met another queer Christian. Imagine being a child or a teenager who is a sexual or gender minority, fully aware of how different you are, and fully aware of the rejection you would face if anyone ever found out. I was incredibly lucky that most of my fear of rejection was unsubstantiated. I weep for those that do come out and are abandoned by family, barred from their churches, pushed toward damaging “reparative” therapies or simply ridiculed for being different.

Despite growing cultural acceptance of LGBTQ* identities, there are still kids in Canada growing up in churches and families that are not affirming, and at worse are abusive toward those that don’t fit expectations of ‘normal.’ All the fear and shame I wrestled through nearly killed me (literally). I can’t imagine the deep pain of those who have to experience this as adolescents in isolation.

This is why the work of New Direction is essential. The gay/queer community is not always fond of Christians, and vice versa, and you can imagine funding for an organization that exists in such a tense place can be scarce. This fall, New Direction made the heart-wrenching decision to lay off their Youth Coordinator due to funding. This is devastating. We must be doing MORE to reach kids and teens who fear the only way out of the closet is by death.

If you think the work of New Direction is essential, please consider making a donation (choose General Fund and indicate in the comment if you would like it to be specifically for youth outreach). To really make a difference, become a monthly sponsor. This is a tangible way you can stand up to the homophobia in our churches and society, and make a real difference in someone’s life. I’ve seen it happen in my own, and there are so many more hurting hearts to reach.

Even today, six years after beginning to understand how Borderline Personality Disorder effects the way I feel, think and behave, I still have moments of overwhelming shame. Some of this is internalized stigma. But no one is born believing being ill is equivalent to being bad. We learn it from our culture.

And so to cope, I find myself sometimes splitting – a term used often for people with BPD, but one that I have mixed feelings about. I honestly didn’t believe I did this when it was first introduced to me. Splitting happens when how you currently feel contradicts what you believe to be true. As much as it causes problems, it helps to cope with the dissonance that this type of contradiction brings. Instead of having to face the contradiction, you write it off as an impossibility and deny the existence of one aspect of the split. Referring to splitting as “black and white thinking” has helped me understand how this coping mechanism (however distorted and harmful it may be) plays out in my life. And I can see it happening in small and large ways almost every day.

Here’s an example: this past week I spent time with five other people at a cottage in Muskoka. The honest truth is that these five people happen to be among my favourite in the world – Kathryn (obviously high on my list of great people), her sisters and their husbands. One evening, in the heat of a very competitive board game (and after a long day in the sun which had worn everyone out) my sister-in-law accused me of cheating. I was initially surprised and confused – was she teasing or being serious? I could not tell. As she continued to question my honesty, I was hurt and then quickly very angry, and then even more quickly incredibly embarrassed at what I felt like was an overly intense emotional reaction. I had to leave the table – but thankfully, was able to do so with a commitment to return in five minutes and we were able to carry on with our game.

When I spoke to her about the accusation later, she admitted that she was just very disappointed that her team was losing. She confessed that the intensity of competition which the six of us constantly feed makes her feel tired and sometimes not as smart or skilled or quick as the rest of us. She exposed her own vulnerability in that moment of accusation. After learning this, I felt so much grace toward her, and she accepted my apology for having a very quick angry response.

As I later reflected on this incident with my therapist, I realized that the shame that followed the anger was closely related to this concept of splitting. I love my sister-in-law very deeply, and to feel so much hurt and anger toward her contradicted how I usually feel. I felt I could not tolerate loving her and being angry. And so, I compartmentalized – either I had to deny my own emotion (which led to shame and self-criticism) or reject my love for her.  And of course, in any relationship, this is not healthy.

It’s not just with other people that I do this. I find myself splitting circumstances (I struggle to work every scheduled shift due to anxiety, and so I should just quit); splitting my current emotions from the past or future (I feel sad and even though I remember that I’ve felt happy before, I don’t believe I will ever feel happy again); even splitting aspects of my own identity (“I have hurt others because of my struggle with mental illness” gets split away from “I am a strong mental health advocate”).

The most damage comes when I split aspects of my own self into black and white. At times I feel like I am this creative, caring, intelligent and insightful human, ever searching to live well and love well. But in just a small moment later, I might feel completely useless, unworthy of being loved, a failure in every attempt to learn or grow as a person. Not only am I rotten to the core, I have no hope of being able to change anything about myself. I’m sure you understand where this kind of thinking leads.

I know others experience this too. It might not feel as intense, or be as conscious a process, but we all have these moments where we feel like rejecting the conflicting aspects of our own self. As is often the case, a friend recently shared a quote from author Elizabeth O’Connor on this very subject at just the perfect time.

I share it with you here, in the hope that reflecting on it will help me make peace with and even embrace my whole self while challenging you to do the same.

“If I respect the plurality in myself, and no longer see my jealous self as the whole of me, then I have gained the distance I need to observe it, listen to it, and let it acquaint me with a piece of my own lost history. In this way I come into possession of more of myself and extend my own inner kingdom. Suppose we come to know that every recognition of anger and jealousy and greed and sloth is an opportunity to lift out of the waters of unconsciousness a tiny piece of submerged land. Then, would we not pity the man who is so identified with the good that he denies any intimations from below that this good may not be the whole of him? Unaware that he is cut off from a large part of himself, he does not understand what it means to be on the journey of becoming whole.”

– Elizabeth O’Connor, Our Many Selves

A recent conversation with a friend led me to describe a technique Kathryn and I use regularly when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It is especially helpful when I experience the kind of panic that leads to racing thoughts and quick shallow breathing.

Often this feeling will race out of my body in frantic movements. I might rush from room to room with no purpose, fling pillows and blankets around on the bed, squeeze my eyes and fists and chest as tight as I can, hold my breath until I am desperate for air and start hyperventilating, or flail about in other unpredictable ways. Sometimes I’ve even acted in destructive or intimidating ways because of the rushing surge of panic that flows through me, and of course, this leads to greater problems in the long run.

This is, quite logically, distressing for Kathryn to witness. One time when feeling this way, I stood out on the balcony of our old apartment during a massive storm and let the wind and rain and thunder swirl and panic with me. The image of the wind blowing through the open door behind me and swirling around Kathryn too helped me understand just how this chaos spreads from me to her.

The chaos flows through us both.

She gets overwhelmed by a rushing desire to help me calm down, to ‘fix’ what I’m feeling.  And so she offers solutions – try ice, cold water, let’s go for a drive, just sit for a second, put lotion on your skin, play piano – on and on. She lists mindfulness skills that often help but seem useless to me in these moments. All she wants is to help us both settle, to prevent further escalation, and to begin the process of problem solving the source of the emotion. The real trouble, though, is that in these most frantic moments I seem to lack the ability to grab hold of a coping skill and stay focused. And her hurried attempts to help me calm only heighten my sense of anxiety. As I watch her begin to feel the chaos, guilt only increases my panic further.

And then about six months ago, she came up with a new idea seemingly out of nowhere. “Blow up a balloon.” That’s all she said and then she started doing it herself, imitating the kind of inhale and exhale one would use to inflate a large balloon. She has told me to take deep breaths many times before with little improvement to the sense of panic or my breathing, but somehow this clicked.

Just blow up balloons.

I don’t have to solve the current problem that is leading to the panic. I don’t have to convince myself to feel differently. I don’t have to focus on relaxing muscles or consciously slowing my breath. I just have to blow up balloons. I just have to imagine a balloon in my hand, and try to blow it up. My initial attempts are usually meagre at best, hurried little puffs that would do little to inflate a balloon. But then I take a deeper breath in, and blow again… and then again… and again.

And if I start to turn back to the panic, we just say it again. “Blow up a balloon.” I tell Kathryn the colour. I imagine the shape and how it would feel against my fingers, my lips. I get to the point that my inhaled breath is massive, deep into my belly, and my exhale is long, slow and forced through pursed lips. I feel my chest rising and falling with my breath, and as if by magic, my body and mind begin to calm too.

Calm.

As these balloons get bigger, I relax my breath – the sense of hurry leaves, and I find I am now casually blowing up balloons, no longer as if in a race. The tension in my muscles reduces, my movements slow down, the storm in my mind begins to clear and usually at this point I become much more able to focus on those coping skills and problem solving skills that will actually help whatever situation is causing the sense of panic.

As I told my friend Rob all of this, I realized why the skill works so well. Blowing up balloons is such a simple concept – it’s so easy to connect to it, regardless of a person’s emotional state of mind. And it’s a visual activity, our minds can picture it even when we are just pretending. It doesn’t take patience or a great deal of focus (which is lacking in these moments of panic), and anyone who is being triggered by someone else’s panic can model it, helping themselves stay calm in the process.

Anyone can use it as a skill.

About a week later, Rob, who is a nurse, told me that he pulled over at the scene of a car accident and one of the drivers was in a state of shock and panic. He took charge of the scene, pointed at her and said “Blow up balloons with me!” and demonstrated what he meant. They did this together for several minutes as he assessed her injuries and they waited for the ambulance to arrive on the scene. And somehow, incredibly, it helped.

There is magic in our breath. Grab ahold of yours in a moment of panic. Just blow up balloons.

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