Straight Life Cycle/Queer Life

A psychotherapy vignette about navigating traditional milestones as a gay man.

Posted May 26, 2017

Mark O'Connell
Source: Mark O'Connell

“It’s time,” my husband emailed me, along with details for an adoption orientation. We were thirty-seven. We both had careers we loved—he a lawyer, me a therapist. We had achieved some creative goals–writing, acting, cake decorating–and let go of many more. We had each lost parents way too soon. And we were not getting any younger. This was obviously the right time to have a kid, I said to myself, right?

And then I met Miles, a client whose life would collide with mine, rousing us both to rethink the concept of time.

He contacted me just as I reached the finish line of promoting a book—a period of time I have heard others describe as “the calm after the calm,” i.e., when the book release is less life-changing than the author anticipates. My book was about modern weddings, including reflections on my own wedding, and so I found myself talking a great deal in interviews about my very “normal”-sounding stages of development, along the lines of those created by psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson—e.g., First comes love, Then comes marriage…. As my husband and I had begun the adoption process, people wondered if my next book would naturally be about modern adoption. And while my exterior may have shone with a normative veneer, on the inside I felt entirely queer: off the track of social expectations.

For one thing, I missed my parental figures. I missed my father and mother-in-law, who died when I was twenty-two and thirty-one. I missed my mother who had just moved to a senior facility, halfway across the country (Erikson didn’t warn me about any of that). And while I was passionate about raising a child, gone were the illusions of moving through time as a normal-looking family with a normal set of parents (now grandparents) sagely guiding my spouse and me to the next normal milestone.

In fact, my parenting fantasies went well beyond taking home a delicious little baby to make us three. My mind flashed forward eighteen years to having a happy healthy young adult we could visit, share a meal with, hear stories about college, or simply sit on the couch and watch a good movie with. I could think of nothing more rewarding between parent and child than that. What I wouldn’t give to have such a moment with my dad today! I longed for the past and for the future.

Miles knew none of this, and only perceived what was available to him about me in the present. He had read about my book and thought I could offer guidance on his impending nuptials with his male fiancé. He was excited about his wedding but could not envision the next step, repeatedly thinking to himself, “Then comes….what?”

Miles came from an educated and accomplished family: his mother was a respected trial attorney and his father a fancy judge. Miles himself went to an Ivy League college and law school, and then he clerked for—you guessed it—a fancy judge. Meritocracy had served him well, shuttling him smoothly from one life milestone to the next. He did hit one detour along the way, though, when he came out as gay. This was challenging for him, as his parents accepted but rarely acknowledged his sexual orientation. For Miles, righting the course after this detour demanded ever higher levels of personal achievement. In addition to his robust CV as a lawyer-to-be, Miles spoke three languages, played the saxophone at jazz clubs, and showed his artwork in galleries. All of this, unbelievably, before he turned thirty.

And then Miles’ mother died unexpectedly. She had always said she couldn’t wait to sit and talk with him before his first big trial. “This was a when, not an if,” Miles said, mournfully describing this expectation.

Insult compounded injury when Miles learned that the civil rights law job of his dreams, which he had landed soon after his mother’s death and which he had worked toward for years, did not pay enough to cover his law school loans. And despite his impressive education, law firms were not interested in hiring a lawyer several years out with no private-sector experience. In order to pay the bills he had to take a non-legal job doing work that to him (and his father) seemed mediocre. Miles had lost his identity. He had been knocked to the sidelines of social expectations where for the first time in his life he was forced to watch other people, including his fiancé—a successful photographer—pass him by.

He did have one crucial milestone left, marriage, but by then even this felt uncertain. Though he was in love with his partner and eagerly looked forward to their wedding day, he simply couldn’t picture the day after. Though he was in love with his partner and eagerly looked forward to their wedding day, he simply couldn’t picture the day after. The day the milestone had passed. “Then comes what?” His experiences with law school, and coming out, and losing his mother—a littering of unmet expectations—had at this point left him with little hope for the future.

Then Miles got married. The wedding was gorgeous and meaningful. I know this because he showed me pictures during one of our sessions, kneeling next to my chair and swiping his phone with a child’s glee. I absorbed each image like a proud parent. In that moment we were two peers, two married gay men in our thirties, and at the same time we were father (or mother) and son.

And therapeutically I wondered, just as Miles often asked himself, “then comes…what?”

The dark after the dawn came. Week after week Miles seemed more and more lost, stuck, and depressed in our sessions. “I just don’t know what to do,” he would say, repeating a pattern of always seeming to have the answers until he didn’t. In this state of dread he desperately hoped I would have an answer. I didn’t but desperately wished that I did.

For example, I could have taken a page from my own life and asked him if he thought about raising kids. But to bring up family planning would disguise me in the mask of Erik Erikson, the confident, arbiter of “normal”—albeit the gay version—while I squirmed in my own queer ambivalence about “stages of life” underneath.

Given Miles’ experiences of achievement and loss (as well as my own), I felt strongly that if I suggested any tangible solution existed for him at all, I would only conjure false hope. I did not want to set him up for disappointment yet again: to cross yet another finish line only to be denied another trophy.

But it was hard for me to sit with his despair. 

I felt like a fraud, like I had failed to be the accomplished, gay married therapist who had it all figured out—in other words, the therapist I imagined he wanted me to be. Were we both failures? Both lost outside of time, aimlessly floating in space?

At the beginning of one session, both of us hopeless and forlorn, I was sure he would tell me that he was done. That therapy was a waste of time.

Miles’s father had been staying with him for the previous week, and this made him feel worse than usual. “Why?” he wondered aloud. Was it because his father polished off all the leftover booze from the wedding? That he failed to show much interest in Miles or his husband during the visit? That the only question he asked was if Miles had checked in with any of the law firms that had rejected him in case they might reconsider? Was it all of the above?

As usual, I felt like I was coming up short. Miles wanted me to tell him what he should do, and I didn’t know, so I did what therapists do at such times and reflected his feelings back to him. This only made him feel worse and ask again, “What should I do?”

The feelings of failure and loss in the room were suffocating. I found my mind casting about desperately for air. I thought of the next ream of adoption papers my husband and I still had to fill out—ugh—and then I thought of something more fun. My fantasy of the future, the simple weekend visit with my grownup kid, and how nice that would be.

“What are you thinking about?” Miles asked.

Oops. He caught me. Daydreaming is not on the list of expectations for a therapist. I felt a rush of embarrassment. But I also realized there was nothing I could do but be in the moment.

As I inhaled (deeply and pensively), I began to realize how on topic my daydream actually was—which is often the case for therapists in moments like this, as it turns out. I remembered how lovely it was to sit and look at pictures with Miles, and thought how sad it was that his father had overlooked that opportunity during his visit.

“I was thinking that your father could have told you how lucky he is to be alive and to have you. How happy he is that you’ve made an interesting and loving life for yourself, and how rewarding it is just to sit and visit with you, right now.”

“Yes,” Miles said. He began to tear up. “He could have said that.”

We shared a momentary smile and sat in silence. The past and the future, the lost and the longed for, were all commingling, awake and alive in the present.

This post first appeared on Psychotherapy.net.