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Man erased

Hello and welcome to Episode 29 of This Little Light Of Mine.  My name is James Powell and I’m glad that you’re able to join me for the final episode of season one! 

I can’t believe that it’s already been over a year since I first embarked on this soul-searching journey of healing, forgiveness, and recovery.

S01E29 man erased cover IGP

I could never have predicted the lessons that I’ve learned, the connections that I’ve made, and the love that I’ve received over the past year.

Extra thanks

I want to send out some extra love and encouragement to a few incredible people who have helped me on my journey over the past couple of weeks

Michael – thank you for reaching out, for your vulnerability, and for your desire to make our world a more loving place for you, your entire family, and for all you care for

Rudy – I blown away by your courage and growth.  You are so loved, and I’m inspired to see you reaching for what you need and deserve.

Nadia – I appreciate you and all that you do.  Despite all that you have going on right now thank you for all of your love, help, and encouragement.

Muqu – Thank you for your love and friendship.  I appreciate your little check-ins especially during some of my harder days.

Wellspring Worship Centre – Pastor James and to everyone at Wellspring.  Thank you for the opportunity to come and share conversation with your church.  I am encouraged by how you are giving space to being uncomfortable as you create the place for all of God’s children to be loved.

In today’s final story episode for season one I walk you through the final years of my life leading up to my eventual breakdown and surrender. 

Trigger Warning

In today’s episode I will be talking about suicidal ideation.  As always, I encourage all listeners to be gentle with themselves, listen to your own bodies and to proceed with loving intent, knowing that it’s okay to stop and/or take breaks.  For some, you may need to skip this episode and that’s okay.  It will be here when you are ready.

If you are a survivor of religious trauma, sexual abuse or assault or are a person facing mental health issues related to today’s conversation I strongly encourage you to be extremely gentle with yourself and to reach out to a mental health professional that specializes in trauma.  There is no shame in asking for the help that you deserve.

And with that trigger warning, here’s season one’s final story episode called ‘Man erased’.

From some perspectives my life peaked ten years ago and has been on a downward spiral ever since.  From the outside I was working overtime to provide the illusion that I had created the ideal gay Christian life that I had dreamed about as a young boy, but’s what it was, an illusion.

My big illusion

I was transitioning out of my career in advertising and was building a successful coaching and consulting practice.  My long-term partner Peter and I were helping to starting a queer home church at one of Toronto’s megachurches called ‘The Meeting House’.  (NOTE: we eventually left The Meeting House due to their segregation of LGBTQ people). We were in the production planning stage to buy and renovate our ‘dream home’ with the television series Property Brothers.  On top of all that we were also finishing up a city funded course at our local LGBTQ2S+ community centre called ‘Daddies & Papas 2 Be’ that helped gay men on the journey to building their own families.  I had created the life that I always wanted.

You know the old phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’?  Maybe the more appropriate phrase would be ‘don’t judge a life by ones Facebook/IG posts’.  That was me.

Sinking sand

I had everything that I was supposed to want and yet nothing felt right.  I couldn’t see it back then, but looking back, I was playing one of my greatest roles.  I had done it.  I could be gay, be in a committed relationship, go to church, have a career I loved, design a home with my partner, and start the journey to becoming parents.  I had proven to everyone that I could have it all.  What I couldn’t admit back then was that my life was a house of cards that I’d built on sinking sand.

Being seen

During my long-term relationship with Peter, I had fallen in love with my best friend Jason.  Jason was nothing like any of the guys I’d spent time with before.  He was younger, creative, funny, wild, driven, and he also had a boyfriend, who happened to be one of Peter’s best friends.  The four of us did everything together and over the years Jason and I become inseparable.  We’d work out together, go on hiking adventures, daytrips, bike rides, we even volunteered together at an HIV/AIDS hospice on the weekends.  There was something about Jason where, for the first time, I felt free to just be me.  With Jason I could finally let down my guard, talk about my fears, my insecurities, my hopes, and my dreams.  With Jason, I felt seen, safe, and protected.  Eventually after a couple of years we crossed the line and become more than just friends.

Everything came to a head and my relationship with Peter came to smashing end on the night before we started filming with Property Brothers.  The contracts were signed, the cameras were showing up the next morning, and we were forced to play our parts.  Several weeks after our big reveal house party I moved out of our ‘dream house’.  My relationship with Peter was over.

Loss

I take full responsibility for my deceit, betrayal, and the pain that I caused Peter. I know that I should have been devastated about losing the life and the relationship that I’d built with Peter, but the gut-wrenching loss I felt was losing my friendship with Jason.  Instead of feeling that pain I pulled out a very familiar script and start to play the role of confident James.  I couldn’t afford to let anyone see how broken I was inside.  It was time for a reinvention.  It was time to show everyone how strong I really am.

Reinvention?

Wearing the scarlet letter from my failed relationship with Peter I was very thankful for a kind and generous friend who allowed me to live with him until I could move back into my own place.  I was deeply hurting but instead of consciously being with that pain I unconsciously created a three-point plan to avoid all pain and all feeling all together.

  1. Get in the best shape of my life – lose the relationship weight, put on lots of muscle
  2. Get a new “boyfriend”
  3. Transition back into corporate marketing/advertising work

Over the next half year, I was able to accomplish all three.  There’s nothing like a breakup to encourage a full body transformation.  Bootcamp at 6AM three days a week introduced me to the ‘Real Housewives of West Toronto’ and gym a 6PM introduced me to a bevy of potential “boyfriends”.

I met Hunter and his Abercrombie abs at the gym and was pulled in hook, line, and sinker.  He was eleven years younger than me, pretended to be straight, and was a total flirt.  I was obsessed with him for months before realizing how much I had been played by him.  I guess karma is a Hunter.

Slave for you?

Around this time, I remember a phone call with my brother who was fairly new in his pastoring role at the church where we grew up.  I shared some of the pain of my breakup with Peter but didn’t dare share any of why we actually broke up.  I didn’t want to deal with any of the religious judgement that I assumed would have been shared my way.

My brother, in his kind and thoughtful way asked me one of those questions that just punches you in the gut.

‘Jim, do you ever wonder why these things keep happening to you?’

‘What things are you talking about?’

‘You’re always searching for something outside of you to make you happy and whole.  You’re trying to control your life.’

I didn’t like where this was going but I part of me knew that he was right.  I was desperately trying to control things.

‘Jim, I’m not sure if you’ve ever fully submitted yourself to Jesus.  You keep trying to define yourself by the world.  You’re more than your sexuality, your job, your friends and you don’t have to hold on so tightly.’

As I listened to my brothers words a deeply wounded part of me started to take over.  He was right.  Maybe I am broken.  Maybe I never did fully submit to Jesus.

‘Would you be willing to let me pray with you?’

 

On the phone in my bedroom, I was transported back to being a 14-year-old version of myself.  I knelt down at the end of the bed, closed my eyes and prayed along with my brother.

‘Heavenly Father, thank you for all that you’ve provided in my life.  I come to you right now tired from forcing my way forward.  Jesus, make me your slave.  I submit my entire life to you so that you may use it for your glory.  I give all of myself over to you now.’

The long tail of shame

I cringed hearing the word slave.  Part of me screamed ‘this isn’t God’s intention for you’ but those feelings were quickly pushed aside desperate to feel less broken. The toxic shame and twisted beliefs of my sexual brokenness that had been planted inside of me as a young child were still very much alive into my late 30s.  

But as I hung up from that call, I had renewed hope that the invisible noose that had been tightening around my neck might finally be removed.  In the years that followed that hope dwindled as the noose got even tighter.

Workplace mental health

My transition back to working full-time client-side came with some very unexpected learning. I decided to search for not-for-profit marketing roles which I hoped would give me a little more work/life balance than I had experienced working in advertising agencies.  I was surprised that actually having balance created more anxiety for me.  I was used to working in competitive performance-based cultures where colleagues hustled and took pride in collaborating to build and launch new initiatives.  Instead of being challenged to raise the bar I felt pressured to throttle back performance from long tenured employees clinging to ‘the way we work around here’.  Feeling handcuffed from performing became a new trigger and the pride in my work that I’d grown accustom to started to turn towards shame. 

The more I tried to fit in, the more I swallowed my voice.  The more I swallowed my voice, the more of myself I erased.  Eventually my addiction to workplace validation transformed into overwhelming workplace anxiety.  Outwardly I would attempt to portray an image of casual ease, confidence, and control, but inside I was crumbling.  I was a nervous wreck.   I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stop thinking about how to ‘fix things’ at work, and I would dry heave each morning. 

Freeze frame

One meeting things took a turn for the worse.  I was alone and being screamed at by a leader known for their bullying.  They were irate that someone dare ask a question instead of blindly following orders.  As I sat there taking their venom something different happened.  My heart started to race, my body temperature went through the roof, and I just froze.  I tried to respond but my mouth wouldn’t cooperate.  I felt like I was going completely out of my mind but all I could do was sit there, try to maintain my composure by writing down their words, and wait for the meeting to end.

These events started to happen with increased frequency, and I was embarrassed and ashamed.  I shared these incidents with my senior leaders at work but always felt brushed off, unheard, and got the distinct impression that male issues of workplace mental health, bullying, and abuse of power aren’t things that we’re willing to address in our society.  I asked for help.  I received none.  Men are supposed to be the strong ones, the ones with all the privilege and power, there are way more important issues that need to be solved first.  The lesson that was forced on me was that it’s wasn’t my time to speak, it’s my time to listen.  I swallowed more of my voice and even more of me was erased.

Body & boys

To offset the workplace anxiety, my feelings of brokenness and loneliness I shifted my focus to body and boys.  At least at the end of the day I always had something to look forward to.  These became my outlets to numb and escape.  Neither of these outlets were pursued in healthy or relational ways. Both were my last-ditch effort to bring some semblance of control and validation into my life.  If I couldn’t win at work, maybe I could win here.  I pursued both with a vengeance. 

What started off as a playful way to escape spiralled into a dangerous and painful hypersexualized trap.  Part of me knew that I needed to pull back and yet another part of me wanted more.  The deeper I went, the more I got hurt, yet the more I needed. 

Homeless

Feelings of loneliness and brokenness became all consuming.  I didn’t fit or belong in the dogmatic world of my family or manmade doctrinal views of my evangelical Christianity.  I also didn’t fit in or belong to the hypersexualized world that defined the stereotypes of my sexual orientation.  I could put on a mask and act like I fit into both of those worlds.  But I never felt like I belonged, neither were right for me.  I had travelled to both ends of the spectrum and didn’t find a space for me at either.  I had no home.  I started to visualize my life folding into itself and there were times when I thought it would be easier to simply disappear.  One afternoon while walking home, I crossed a bridge over a freeway, and a voice deep inside me urged towards the edge,

‘Just take a look’, it said. 

A few nights later that same voice came back while at home and whispered,

‘Go out and touch the ledge of your balcony’. 

Those thoughts rocked me to my core.

As I lay in bed, I pulled out my iphone, opened the notes app and started to type out some of the most honest and unfiltered thoughts I’d ever put into writing.

Man erased

“I’m living on the outside, drifting through a life that is not mine. Inside I’m dying, slow asphyxiation, a folding into myself until I am finally erased.” 

This was followed up by a listed of thirty brutally honest things I was feeling, experiencing, and doing to keep the pain at bay.

At the end of that list, I wrote,

“I can see how my entire life has been about acting and pleasing and I’m exhausted but terrified to ask for help.  I’m more terrified of what will happen if I don’t learn how to love and accept myself.”

Rock bottom

After a lifetime of acting and pretending like everything was okay, I collapsed and cried myself to sleep. 

The years’ of internalizing the lies I had learned as a child, holding onto an unbearable load of shame, guilt and fear and having an inner war with who I knew I was created to be and who I was told and I had to be.  I couldn’t keep up the act any longer. 

I wanted an out.  I needed an out.  This was my bottom.

Exhausted, terrified, and powerless I prayed a simple prayer alone in my bed.

‘Lord, Help me, now.’

This time I knew that I had nothing left in myself to give.  I couldn’t run any longer.  I had to surrender.

A few days later I read my list to my best friend and with tears in his eyes he admitted how much the list scared him. 

Having him mirror back and acknowledge my own pain helped give me the strength to share the same unfiltered list with my doctor.

Asking for help

Sitting in my doctor’s office I started to shake and cry as I let everything out.  My doctor listened patiently.  When I was finished, he looked and responded in a way that blew my mind. 

‘Do you think you’re the first man who’s come into this office to share these feelings?  In fact, you’re not even the first gay man today.  You’re not broken.  What can I do to help you feel safe and supported?’

I wasn’t broken but I did need help.  By finding the courage to ask for help I desperately needed, I found my voice. In that examination room I was seen and saved as I took a new step forward remembering who I was created to be.

This is where my recovery began.  That downward spiral led me to this moment.  By hitting bottom and breaking open I created a crack.  That crack created a space from which my little light could shine.

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Thank you for sticking with me during this episode.  Sharing some of these more recent memories has been quite difficult for me.  The procrastination around finishing this episode was big time for me. 

At first, I didn’t think that I had the right to share some of what I shared in today’s episode.  Part of me shouted back,

‘Come on James, cry me a river of your privileged tears. Suck it up, things could be way worse.  Look around, you need to be thankful instead of bringing up the past.’

Permission to speak your truth

Many survivors of all kinds of trauma don’t speak up because they feel their abuse isn’t important or doesn’t count.  Here’s the thing, trauma is weird and impacts every single person individually.  Also, trauma isn’t an apple pie.  You speaking up and sharing your truth doesn’t steel a piece of ‘the trauma pie’ from someone else.  Your journey towards recovery, self-worth and self-love is not a competition.

I’m allowed to use my voice and to share what is true for me.  So are you.    

Another reason survivors hold back is because they are afraid to use their voice if sharing their truth might make someone else angry or uncomfortable.  I definitely fall into that category.  Anyone else have an addiction to pleasing?

Uncomfortable being me

What I know can see as true is that I pleased or swallowed my voice because I didn’t think I would be able to live with my OWN feelings of discomfort if someone else was angry or uncomfortable with my truth.  For the most part it had nothing to do with another person’s feelings, my fear was in my ability to be with my own emotions.

This disEASE in being able to remain present with my own feelings was what drove me to find any number of ways to numb, escape, or avoid myself.

And my inability to remain present with my own feelings stems back to the belief that WHO I am is sinful, unworthy, and unlovable.

Remember who you really are

As I sat in my doctor’s examination room, I took a powerful first step towards releasing those toxic beliefs.

I am loved unconditionally by God who made me exactly as I am.

Me, my heart, my mind, my body, my spirit, my gender expression, my sexuality and the way I love, are created perfectly in God’s image.

I am created on purpose and my purpose is to fully love myself, connect deeply with others and share love with the rest of the world.

I am worthy.  I am loved.  So are you.

Season two coming soon

Thank you again for being part of This Little Light Of Mine and for helping me to bring more love into our world.  This Little Light Of Mine will return in late summer 2021 with new episodes that stand up for love and prioritize mental health, emotional health, and spiritual health in your life and the lives of all people.

If you’ve enjoyed season one of This Little Light Of Mine or think some of the episodes may help bring more hope, understanding, or love to someone in your life I’d love your help sharing these episodes.  Would you go to Apple Podcasts to rate, review, and subscribe yourself so you don’t miss season two?  I’d also love to keep in touch over the summer.  You can follow me on IG @the_jamespowell.

Thanks you so much listening and remember, you are wanted, you are worth fighting for, you are needed and you are loved.

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