Memories of Shame and Fear, and their Power: Father Bob

My name is Father Bob and I am a 41-year-old Catholic priest who is in residence in a diocese.

It was about a month after the passing of my dad when I decided to contact Dr. Joe.   

A few years previous, I had found myself viewing gay porn that I had discovered on the internet, and acting out  the feelings from the images every two to three months. That was pretty typical.  The interval became every two to three months, and finally, every two months.... then once a month. That just told me to pick up the phone and give Dr. Joe a call.  

It was an embarrassment, the shame of knowing that a priest shouldn’t be living this way, and that I did not live up to my moral and Catholic values.  

A priest-friend of mine who is a professor, had introduced me to Dr. Joe in the 1990’s and so I always knew in the back of my mind that he was out there.  I had a lot of pain around my relationship with my Dad. I knew that pain was much the cause of my SSA.  So when Dad died, that was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” and that’s why I gave Dr. Joe a call. 

During the last few years of his life, I had tried to bond with my father.  I remember once pouring out my heart and soul, crying on the phone, wanting and begging and pleading with him to please go and do something with me or have a relationship with me.  But of course nothing came of it.  His idea of bonding was us going to Wal-Mart together when I would visit home.  I guess when he died, I had nowhere else to turn.    

When I began therapy, Dr. Joe stunned me the first therapy session when he told me that my problem is not homosexuality per se, but shame. I have to admit I didn’t understand what that meant, but I was at the end of my rope.  I had nowhere else to go.  I had hit rock-bottom.  I believed him, and that message became clear, and then he said I could benefit from “Body Work.”  I didn’t know what that meant but we did it anyway.   

It took me at least a year to really grasp shame and the grieving process, so that was what first happened. Because my problem came up around homoerotic pictures, we agreed to have me face the issue, and so I pulled up a homoerotic image. It was a picture I pulled up on my computer, of a muscular guy with exaggerated genitalia. After the first sexual charge left, I was stunned when I felt a flashback from my childhood,  being beat up by a bully.  I remember feeling very scared. That took me to grief, which was so intense that it surprised me. 

This all took me back to when I was a kid, walking home from school. Every once in a while I would get picked on, and I’ve always remembered that sense of dread and fear; I felt like a caged animal with nowhere else to go, and I basically had to sit there and let them beat me up and be totally terrified.  It was that same feeling--the exact same feeling I was getting-- when I looked at that picture I pulled up on my computer of that naked guy. When the truth of that connection hit me, the sexual feeling quickly left.  In that moment, I had another accepting male role model there with me, which made the arousal vanish.  But then, the awareness of the real grief came, full-force. Boy, it was powerful and unexpected.  

Then-- it was just like a camera flash-- another memory popped up and the fear became even more intense. I was walking home from school on a sunny afternoon, and I remember getting beat up by another kid.  He said: “Go ahead, take your best shot.” I couldn’t do it; I just stood there in front of him and thought “Oh shit, now what?”  And he kicked me again-- he gave me a roundhouse kick to the stomach, and then my little sister came to my defense.  How many sisters do that for their big brothers?  But that’s what happened, and that’s what I went back to. I suddenly saw the connection between these sexy guys and these bullies. Something about the fear of them made the experience feel sexual to me. Sounds weird, but true. 

What made a difference for me in the therapy was learning to stay in my assertion, practicing what Dr. Joe taught me.  I remember once, when I was whining, he “kicked my butt” verbally:  “Bob, you know these things – you know the steps, you know the shame and fear and tightness and the Gray Zone and the resolution... so get with it.” I needed that. 

What also helped me was finding other safe, salient males that I could turn to and tell them of my inner struggles with SSA.  Relating to other men who were heterosexual really was the key.  You know, you can’t just try to “get it out of your head.” You have to do the work,  you have to connect with straight men.  

When I first came to the therapy I didn’t realize that my relationship with my mother was a part of the problem.  I had no idea.  She was my confidante, and my world revolved around her.  I would call her every single week without fail.   She was my best friend, but when we got into an argument, she was always right and I was always wrong.  I can’t remember a time when she ever admitted she was wrong.  I confronted her about how she made me feel, and she kept saying: “  “I would never want to hurt you,” which I believe is true, but now it’s abundantly clear that she will never understand me. She is very kind and very nice and gracious, but she doesn’t understand how she comes across, how she affects other people, and how she disempowers me and shuts me down. 

I remember how I saw the correlation between conversations or visits with my mom and my acting out sexually.  One particular case in point; I had been in therapy for only a few months and I tried to discuss with her how I felt about Dad and how he abandoned me, and that was a mistake. She did not want to hear that. She protested how much he really loved me. Then I tried to tell her how she makes me feel, how I feel this or that, or how I get shut down or fearful when she talks about herself. Instead she kept on protesting how much she loved me and wouldn’t want to hurt me and then, rather than her trying to hear and understand me, it just became about her.  

That following week I had an episode. I acted-out seven times in one night, over a 24-hour period, with the gay porn. I have to take ownership of my own actions and as a priest, I feel guilty about this. But I see how I get triggered when I’m around my mother.  It took me a few years to see the connection but it is abundantly clear today. So, sadly, I must keep her at a distance. 

My life right now is nothing like it used to be before. I no longer live in fear.  Most importantly, when I feel any sort of shame moment, 90% of the time I catch the shame moment right in the moment.  Sometimes it takes me a day to pick up on it.  I know how to “check in” with myself. I can even do the EMDR if necessary, but I don’t live in fear.  I now feel much more comfortable around men.  I really feel more like a man amongst men.  It wasn’t always like that. Today I could rattle off many names of guys who I am buddies with.   

Now, I don’t allow myself to be enmeshed with women.  There is a boundary which was not there before, which is there now. Especially as a priest, there are these women who want to make you their son or something. This is especially true for the older women, the matronly type. They are sweet but controlling, like my mother. I would let myself be “the good little priest” for them and feel responsible to talk to them after Mass. I’d stand there for a half hour as they went on and on about God knows what. Then I wondered why I felt like acting out. 

There was one particular parishioner who is a matriarchal type of woman who fussed over me and drove me crazy. Now I always keep her at arm’s length and she gets the message. I feel so much better about myself.    

I have always tended to be drawn toward larger, muscular men, football player types or certain body builders.  I may feel an attraction still, but nowhere near as intense as it used to be.   And most importantly, It does not cause me to act out.  I know immediately to go to my body and feel the pain, and often times, I do feel the pain.  The pain is not as intense as it used to be, like a year ago, but the pain is still like... yuk.  I feel it in my chest and I stay with it for a minute, but I realize and remember an example Dr. Joe gave me in therapy; seeing a bigger man is like looking at a bigger horse,  a big horse as opposed to a small horse...he’s just bigger, not better, and I see it more in that light today.  

I realize now that big men can “set me off” because they remind me of bullies, and particularly of my father. From a boy’s perspective, his father is a hero, and in my case my father was this very large, overpowering and intimidating man.  These large men represent my father, which represents overall masculinity in the world of men-- unapproachable, untouchable, exotic, foreign, very different from me. So when I see a big man, I still get a whiff of that same feeling but I know it comes from the feeling of inadequacy, the shame-based self-statement that I am smaller and in a gender sense, inferior.   I can accept the fact that I may be physically smaller-- it is a truthful statement-- that I can be physically smaller overall and in body parts too, but I’m OK with that.  I know it doesn’t make me less of a man. 

I was often intimidated around stronger men; my bishop, for example, used to intimidate me. He is an aggressive, alpha-male kind of guy. He is a very strong personality, interested in outdoor kinds of activities.  Today, I am not intimidated by him. That doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t still feel the old feeling of fear when he’s in that dominant mode.  But now I know I can sit with those feelings of fear and that they will take me to the sadness and grief.  I now know that they are about the bullies of my past including my father, and I can process those emotions that I could never process before. 

I have never really felt attracted to women as far as I remember. As a little boy, maybe before the trauma, I would notice certain women. But as I grew older my attractions definitely vanished to no attraction at all. Now I definitely catch myself looking -not gazing- but drawn to and noticing attractive women.  I definitely am more keenly aware of that. The more I’m in my assertion, the stronger my feelings are toward women.  But if I am going through a shame moment or trying to deal with something difficult in my life, I notice that my attractions to women will diminish. I see the connection. 

The urge to look at porn is nowhere as strong as it used to be. I’ve learned to avoid the shame that I imposed on myself..  I did it to myself!  If I see a guy, I’m also seeing myself. This is what I learned: “He’s a man, I’m a man.” He may be more muscular or more good looking but I’m of the same gender.  I remind myself that I’m like him in my essence, so that attraction is nowhere near as strong. I am living proof that this program works.