Monday, November 30, 2015

Tiny rooms, low light...(or how I became a therapist)

I've always been interested in the stories that define us. For me, this template was set early on. Growing up, my father told bedtime stories about Viet Nam that were awe inspiring and terrifying. "Dad, tell me the one about getting shot at in the jungle or when the jeep you were driving overturned," I'd ask, putting down my Star Wars figures, burrowing into bed and listening with rapt attention.

My father didn't say much about Viet Nam in the daylight. In the darkness of my childhood bedroom, backlit by a comforting swath of golden light from the hall, he went to confession.

I learned he was a communications expert in the Army and wore a cumbersome radio on his back. This made him a large, easy target for snipers. He said it scared him and I believed it. I learned Jane Fonda was an odious troll. I learned that you dig a hole to poop in when there isn't a bathroom. I learned of the anger he felt when he returned and no one cared. This anger raged inside him in recoil, ready to strike, many years after his discharge. As a young boy, I learned of the intertwine of anger and hurt.

I became a skilled listener, careful to note a break in his voice, the shift in his body from strong to vulnerable. Emotions long suppressed had a moment of light in the dark of my room. These were honest, intense and pure moments of expressing the unexpressed. It needed to come out, even if it was to a child.

I consider these stories and how I heard and held them as training ground for what would become a career in therapy. I spend a lot of time in small, softly lit rooms exploring hushed experiences that resonate deeply but are seldom spoken aloud. I'm very aware of the parallel to those nights in Yonkers with my father.

Boiling it down, therapy is witnessed storytelling and narrative creation with the help of an empathetic, compassionate care giver there to facilitate growth, change and healing. Stories provide context for many things, including the ways anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns inform our lives and families down through generations. Suppressing stories and transforming them into secrets only serves to obfuscate the truth. It kills the spirit and twists in us, until it twists us.

From our very intimate stories of personal loss to the shared tragedies of war, events like my father's burrow in our mind, body and nervous systems, vibrating in us for a very long time if left unacknowledged. Even when given voice, these stories can take years to settle in our systems. I think of all that transpires in families; marriage, birth, miscarriages, graduations, divorces, disease, and death. I'm concerned about what we free from our mouths and what we swallow whole. Like the cat that has swallowed the canary, eventually we cough up a feather.

We talk about the highs with ease and comfort: the gorgeous and expensive wedding gown, the first birthday extravaganza, the promotion.  But the lows? Well that's where it gets tricky. Who in the hell wants to talk about the worst or most challenging of our lives? I do. I'm not sure if this makes me a lunatic or a masochist. I know I'm in good company. Many friends and colleagues sit in tiny rooms across the city encouraging people to tell their stories in a way that speaks to who they are, who've they've been and who they want to become. Anyone can and should do it. It's not about weakness. It's about being vulnerable and strong at the same time. As a therapist, I've learned how strength and vulnerability intertwine.

Artists acknowledge their personal narratives with pencil and paints, dancers do it with movement, musicians sing or play from their wounded and hopeful souls and writers shape fictions from truths that help them move through deep tragedy. What's a person to do if they've not tapped into these outlets? They do as my father did. The find those pockets in time where they feel safest and they tell. I'll never know how or if these "sessions" helped my father. I don't even know if he'd recall this story if he were alive today. I do know it did something for me. I learned early on the value of a story in small room with low light. And the power of the whispered story, the unlocking of the heart and the soaring of the soul that can occur when you feel heard and understood. I wish that for anyone.

Tell your story. Tell on yourself. Tell your story even if you've never told it before.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Grindr Update: I Think We Did Something Here

It's been months since I got my knickers in a twist about Grindr's lack of responsibility to HIV awareness. Last I left off with the folks at Grindr, my ban would be lifted only IF I complied with their request to refrain from using the HIV PEP/PrEP graphic on the left as my profile pic. I realized I wasn't going to win this battle and gave up disappointed and frustrated.

This morning I received an email from a friend telling me that upon log on of his Grindr account, the graphic at the right appeared. I'd like to think that collection of voices asking Grindr to step up their game about HIV prevention were listened to. And I'm glad I got to throw my voice into the ring. Here's to hoping Grindr continues its advocacy, not only today, National HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, but every day. It's an issue that has impacted too many people for far too long.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Grindr on HIV Advocacy: Ban Remains If You Continue Prevention Message

Last week, I wrote about being banned from Grindr because I posted HIV prevention info on my profile. Less than 24 hours after I posted my blog to Facebook, I received an email from Robert at Grindr notifying me my ban had been lifted. Yay, success! I thought, I can go back to doing what I was doing. Not so fast.

click for larger
Robert at Grindr was very clear that if I continued posting HIV prevention info, I'd be permanently banned, a violation of its goods and services guidelines. He didn't answer my other questions.

At the same time, Grindr posted on Facebook two pieces about HIV prevention. Check out the hashtags #grindrPoz and #grindrhealth to trace the history of Grindr's posts about HIV information prior to my blog post. (click below for larger)

For a second, I thought this was progress. For the most part, Grindr's FB page is photos of sweaty, shirtless guys playing football and crocheting. (Grindr FB Page Now, after my post, there were two posts about HIV prevention. Maybe something was happening. And then a day later? Sweaty, horny guys doing calculus. It's hard to say if my  blog about being banned and Grindr's FB post was a coincidence or damage control. (I'm leaning toward the latter.) I'm not sure I care. I was excited that Grindr was starting to look at the HIV prevention more seriously. It just didn't last very long.

Not soon after,  the following article appeared on The Huffington Post: Gay Politicians Use Grindr to Get Votes

Two politicians using their Grindr profile to advertise an election campaign doesn't violate Grindr's good and services guidelines, but HIV prevention info does? I wonder if they got banned?

So, Joel Simkhai, and the rest of the folks at Grindr, I ask the question again. What are you going to do about HIV prevention? Grindr could be an important and integral part of getting new HIV prevention message to millions of people. It could help change the course of a disease and cement Grindr's reputation as an innovator in mobile apps and also in HIV advocacy, awareness and prevention. It could change the face of HIV forever. Grindr has to do more. It needs to recognize its influence and responsibility and create meaningful ways to help the people who use Grindr to do more than just get on and get off.  There's no waiting. The time is now.

Contact Grindr here and ask for HIV Prevention info on its mobile app: Tell Grindr You Want HIV/PrEP/PEP Info On Your Phone

Post the graphics below to you Grindr,  Instagram, or most other social media outlets.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Well, This Isn't Good: How A HIV Prevention Message Got Me Banned From Grindr

I got banned from Grindr. Again. The first time I was banned, I wrote a profile saying I was into footing, which is a made up sexual practice, I think. I'm sure if I scoured the Internet, there would be a specific site devoted to inserting a foot in an anal cavity, #analshoetree. (Yup there is, gross.) Anyway, the monitor at Grindr headquarters didn't find footing funny and so, I was banned.

First footing ban
I can't recall how I got unbanned that first time  -- maybe I sent a ticket explaining why I should have my ban revoked, or maybe I created a new account. But it wasn't long before I was back on Grindr again.The second time I was banned? Well, that's an unfolding story.

It begins last summer, when I was on a lonely hunt for companionship and looking in all the wrong places. The year had been full of a flurry of unsuccessful dating and while I wasn't in the full throws of a hand jobs for the homeless spiral, as I was when I first moved to Queens several years ago, I was in need   of connection, camaraderie and some nakedness. 

I briefly dated a guy who I liked very much, who disappeared not soon after our second date. A few weeks after I'd given up on him, I received a late night text -- he was walking his dog on my side of Queens Boulevard and he asked if I'd meet him at the dog park. He wanted to talk.

He told me he'd contracted HIV from a guy he met on Grindr. His diagnosis came between our first and second date. He was devastated. He said he was better now, with a shrug that belied his palpable distress. I was glad he was feeling better, but I also knew the journey to acceptance, when hit with a major life change (like an HIV diagnosis), can take more time than a hot minute or two.

While my friend was dealing in all gradations of devastation, I noticed anger brewing in me. It was the same white hot anger I'd felt when I was 27 and my first boyfriend was diagnosed with HIV. Back in my 20's, I took action by becoming a safe sex counselor at GMHC and eventually going to social work school and working directly with the HIV/AIDS community. 

Now, I wanted to do something again. My new friend was in his early 30's, but I'd met other men that same summer in their early 20's who also contracted HIV because they trusted a Grindr hookup claiming to be negative. I know that sounds naive, and I know it might stir deep pangs of judgment for older men who remember the terrifying 80's and 90's when we imagined that HIV infection was lurking in every kiss and blow job, but I always remind myself there will always be young men coming into their sexuality with no guide book about how to navigate sex, relationships and emotional and physical self-care all at once.

So here's what I did. I posted a graphic on Grindr about  PrEP and PEP, two HIV medication protocols that, in addition to condoms, can help prevent HIV infection.

PEP and PrEP infographics posted on Grindr
Since late August 2013, I've answered roughly 50-60 questions from different guys on Grindr. Response has been favorable, barring the guys accusing me of promoting irresponsible behavior. Some guys ask if I'm trying to make a profit or if I represent a pharmaceutical company. I explain that I just want to get info about safer sex options out there. 

For the most part, people want to know more so they can protect themselves. They ask where to get PEP or PrEP; try your local HIV organization or doctor; how much it costs (out of pocket can be expensive); and if it's covered by insurance (in most cases, yes, making it affordable if you have good health insurance). 

I continued answering questions until early February when I tried logging on from my iPad, but couldn't. I thought I had bad service and brought the tablet to work in Manhattan. Still nothing. Later that week, I downloaded the app to my phone in Jersey City and when I logged on, I saw the message below:
Not good at all

I'll send a letter of inquiry to Grindr and see if they will consider lifting my ban. When did this graphic become an issue? When did HIV prevention stop being valued by members of our community? (That means you, Joel Simkhai, the founder of Grindr.) Why did it take five months for my profile to get banned in the first place? Who at Grindr decided it was okay? And then that it wasn't? I guess safer sex doesn't matter as long as we continue to line Grindr's sticky pockets. If we can't discuss what we do with our dicks on an app designed to help us do things with our dicks, well then I smell a fowl stench of hypocrisy. 

So here's to you Grindr. I'm sending a message. Please don't block me.