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There’s no doubt that with the California state legislature passing a bill to ban therapies aimed at trying to “change” the sexual orientation of minors, “reparative therapy” is once again going to make headlines. I was in a form of reparative therapy in British Columbia, Canada, for six years, after which I filed a medical malpractice suit against my former psychiatrist, “Dr. Alfonzo,” for treating my homosexuality as a disease. If this new law in California is to be criticized, it is because the use of “change” therapies on people older than 18 should be prohibited as well. I was 24 when I met Dr. Alfonzo, 31 when I left his therapy, and almost 40 when the lawsuit ended in an out-of-court settlement in 2003.

The other day at the gym I noticed a beefed-up bodybuilder wearing a white skintight spandex workout shirt with the black lettering “UNDER CONSTRUCTION” sprawled across his sculpted chest. With every pulse of his muscles, every bicep curl, I found myself wondering what, exactly, was being constructed, how was he constructing it, and when, if ever, would its construction be complete?

In three days I will join Lambda Literary Foundation’s 2010 “Writers’ Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices” in balmy California, a state that recently had the common sense to repeal the voter-approved decision to oppress a people. And while I’m on that topic, which is not really the topic of this post, I understand there’s now been some debate about the judge who overturned Prop 8. Why this judge’s sexuality would even be discussed, mentioned, debated at all, is beyond me. Whether he is or is not “gay” has, as far as I can see, absolutely nothing to do with his decision. Nada. Nix. Besides, what about all the so-called straight judges who have, since the beginning of the Constitution, been rendering decisions on behalf of a straight majority? And I say “so-called,” since it would not surprise me at all if more than a few decisions to oppress homosexuals have been made by closeted gays who wish to squash what they cannot face within themselves.

Anyway.

As I said, in three days I will join a class of 32 other writers at Lambda’s retreat in Los Angeles–at The American Jewish University in Bel-Air, to be exact. I’m deeply appreciative that I was even invited, and thoroughly pumped for the experience. I’ll be workshopping part of my memoir, CROSSING STYX, about my six years in a therapeutic cult trying to “cure” my sexual orientation, and the lawsuit against my former shrink for treating my homosexuality as a disease (all of which occurred between 1989-2002). That last part of the book, the lawsuit, has, in recent revisions, taken a less central focus of the book than the first part, my six years in the therapy, five of which while living in a “therapeutic house” the doctor had called “the Styx.” The irony of living in a house called “the Styx” was lost to me during my many years of prescription drug-induced stupor (near fatal doses of prescription medication was one of the doctor’s many ways of “reverting” me to my “innate heterosexuality,” but in retrospect seemed more like a prescription for death), but became a central theme as I wrote the book.

As I prepare to dive head first into a week of intensive workshopping, I’m pondering the years I’ve invested into the writing of this memoir, CROSSING STYX. I’m always amazed and not a little but dumbstruck when I hear writers say they did maybe “4 or 5 revisions” to their now-completed book. Huh? 60 or 70 revisions would not be overshooting the number of times I have “revised” my own. Not that I’m complaining. The book is, today, not the same book I started writing soon after my lawsuit against the doctor concluded in 2002. Maybe I needed all those revisions in order to find a voice. The right voice. Maybe I needed to rip the guts out of this book and build it back again, one word at a time, in order to find the story that needed to be told. Which, as it turned out, was not the same story that I thought needed to be told when I sat down at my laptop in 2004.

How long has it taken others to write their own books? I know it’s always difficult to count the number of times we revise on computers, but if you were to guesstimate, what number would you come up with?

I was watching The Joy Behar Show and Ted Haggard’s wife, Gayle, was on there promoting her book, Why I Stayed. For those of you who don’t know, Ted Haggard was at one time the hugely successful evangelical pastor of the New Life Church, which boasted thousands of members.  Then a homosexual feller named Mike Jones came out and said that he and Ted used to check into hotels, do railers of tweak, and bang each other.

It was news heaven for the media.

A blessing if you will.

Everything that Ted built up over the years went to hell in a handbasket at record speed. In short, Haggard was yanked from the Jesus podium and promptly let go by the church shot-callers. As we know, Christianity doesn’t like anything gay. No gay thoughts. No pro-gay dialogue. And definitely no gay poking. Ted is a homosexual—or, at the very least, engaged in homosexual activities. So, the church elders dragged him to the curb like a trash can and even kicked him out of the state until the Gay Devil burning inside of him simmered down or split all together.

So his wife wrote a book about what went down.  Then she went on television, doing the publicity rounds.  She seemed like a nice women and blamed Ted’s gay ways on a sexual encounter he had as a child with a male relative. She said that studies show that homosexuality is created by conditioning and experience. So in essence, if your folks, friends, or billboards tell you enough times that you’re gay, then you’re probably going to turn out gay at some point in your life. Or, if you happen to mingle with people of the same sex enough times, one fine day you’ll wake up, look into the proverbial mirror, and realize that you are a full-blown homosexual.

Poof.

Presto.

Gay magic.

I don’t know about this. Now, I don’t have any data to support my claim, but I’ve always felt people were either born gay or straight. Some may be born with a little bit of both stirring up inside of them. This may be a generic answer to a very complex puzzle. Sure. I can see that. Still, in my experience, homosexuality has nothing to do with conditioning or experience; it just is what it is: some folks are attracted sexually to the same sex and others are not.  Period.

I was raised in a very liberal household. My folks were in their teens when I showed up. They saw the Beatles, Hendrix, Supertramp, Alice Cooper, and countless other happening acts in concert. We burned incense, danced long into the night, went to Dodger games, and backpacked Yosemite. I was raised in thick Let-It-Be smoke. The “gay issue” that so many people get riled up over wasn’t an issue at all.

It should go without saying, but homosexuals are human beings and should be treated accordingly. This country—with its archaic laws in regards to same sex marriage—is cruel, boneheaded, and anti-human.

Peace and love, right?

But why be so harmonious?

We’ll have none of that.

Lord no.

Ironically, the very mindset that Ted fostered and peddled to thousands of people turned on him and turned his life upside down.

Anyhow, this got me thinking: when did I know I was straight? The 1st grade. Sure, I didn’t know what gay or straight meant at the time, but what I did know was that Miss Metheny was a stone cold fox and that I wanted to do things with her. What those things entailed, I hadn’t a clue. But it was something inside of me. A calling. A burning feeling in my gut. A feeling that would become very familiar to me and would follow me through the years and land me in some very, uh, curious positions.

I would find myself gazing at poor Miss Metheny. Her beautiful sea-blue eyes and pretty hands. Her nice clothes and silky blond hair. She smelled good and had a soft voice that said nice pleasant things. I wanted to marry her. Mrs. Metheny Romero. She’d marry a fantastic kickball player, a voracious reader, a builder of mud volcanoes, and a pretty darn good guitar player in the making who would not only grow up to learn how to play Beatles jams, but be able to switch musical gears, fire up the amp, and rip Iron Maiden and Sabbath cuts note for note. Oh, yes, Miss Metheny! How about that, toots! Yeah!

I didn’t feel this way about Mr. Lopez, who taught in the room next door. In fact, I thought his large head and hairy hands were downright ugly. The things he said were harsh-sounding and void of melody. He dressed horribly and smelled like a trash heap in comparison to the edible scent that whipped around Miss Metheny’s beautiful head. He did nothing for my eyes or my thoughts. That fire in my gut that Miss Metheny sparked was replaced by sour milk.

It was set in stone. I was straight. All day. All week. Forever. So, I guess, Gayle Haggard is right: that early experience with Miss Metheny sealed it for me. No dudes. In those early years, they were only good for football games, riding bikes, and stealing their father’s Playboy magazines.

“Oh, my god. That’s ugly.”

“It’s a girl weenie.”

“My brother calls it a cooter.”

“My cousin says it’s a pussy.”

“Oh! My mom calls our cat Pussy Willow! Sick!”

The next year Mrs. Jordan came my way. She wasn’t as pretty as Miss Metheny, but she also had a soft voice and pretty eyes. She smelled good, too. Not the spicy aroma that moved off of Miss Metheny, but like flowers. An acre full of fresh blooming flowers.

Then Anna came along. She had long hair, soft Chicana-brown eyes, and full red lips.

Then Rhonda. She was funny and sprinkled with freckles.

Then Julie.

Then Janna.

Later on, Soft Damn Kisses showed at my door.

Then Too Much Drama stopped by to terrorize me.

Then I Fuckin’ Love You Baby snatched my hand and showed me her feathered bed that overlooked the ocean.

So on and so forth.

As the years went by, men would assume a different role and would become very beneficial to the cause. We ditched football for pool. Ditched the bikes for cars. Ditched the magazines for the real thing. Brothers in arms. Bar dogs. They’re names changed from Eric to Dickhead, James to Jerk-off. We gathered in insatiable packs. We coiled and whispered like tree vipers. Played in rock bands. We got drunk, said lame shit, and woke up in strange, perfumed beds.

Sorry, Pastor Ted.

Sorry, Larry Craig.

I don’t snort lines and my stance isn’t wide.

These days I find myself single again. It’s a trip. I’ve been out of the hustle for over ten years and don’t know quite what to do. Do I pull the same contrived crap I did when I was twenty-five? Hang out with some of the old gang that have found themselves wearing the same shoes as me? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think I’ll sit this one out for a bit. Relax and run in the early desert morning. Meditate and munch on my Fiber One bars. Maybe, this time around I’ll lower the amp a tad and play some soft blues in a dark bar that serves colorful martinis. Pick up my trusty acoustic guitar and strum Carly Simon tunes. Perhaps I’ll hop in my truck, take a long drive up the coast, and keep some notes on what comes my way, see what the day brings.

Yeah, that sounds good.

Real good.

Thank you, Miss Metheny.

You stone cold fox.

One day in grade six, Teacher asked us all to say aloud what we wanted to be when we grew up. “I’m going to be a doctor,” one boy announced as we all sat cross-legged in a circle. “I’m going to be a teacher!” a ponytailed girl called out with a raised hand. Another boy with red hair and freckles said he wanted to be a fire engine: a big, loud, red, fire engine. Teacher, a kind, grey-haired woman who always wore a blue, pleated skirt and held a piece of new, white chalk, corrected him by saying, “Don’t you mean you want to be a fireman?” “No,” the boy said, shaking his head. “I want to be a fire engine. A big, loud, red, fire engine.” Everyone laughed, but secretly I was scared that Teacher would ask me what I wanted to be. I was scared because I didn’t know what I wanted to be. There was no profession I could imagine myself becoming when I grew up. Would I even grow up? That was like imagining myself outside a forest when all around me it was dark and I was alone and really, if I’d been honest, although I already knew well enough not to be, all I wanted was to be at peace. Not a doctor or a priest or a football player—at peace.

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The impact of growing up “different,” more stereotypically feminine than masculine but unmistakably male, was dissonant, and divisive. I was, throughout my childhood, “at war” within: wanting to be like the other little boys, but knowing, or at least thinking, I was not. In what way I was different, I could never have articulated, but my “otherness” was isolating. While the “real boys” played sports, talked about guns, cars, and were generally aggressive, I was more interested in singing, drawing, painting, writing poetry, playing with dolls and baking with my mother in the kitchen. Crying came easy, I never understood cruelty, and was teased, both by my schoolmates and my two older brothers, for being “too sensitive.” Once, in grade six, I pretended to like guns so that the schoolboys would like me. It worked: For a week I was included in their fold. The sense of belonging, of finally being “normal,” filled me with joy. But it was only a matter of time before my true self shone through; and shone through it did: Like pentimento beneath the painting of myself, my “femininity” eventually surfaced, as did my dislike of sports, and I was once again excluded, banished, from all their activities.

There were other signs of my “differentness.” My older sister, once while we were watching television in the living room, noticed me sitting with my legs crossed at the knees and, in a frenzy, told me never to sit “like that.” Her look of horror made me panic. “You need to sit like a real boy,” she said. My body had deceived me; in a moment of forgetfulness, my inner self had again revealed itself in ways I didn’t like, or seem to be able to control. Long before I’d heard of words like “gay” or “homosexual,” all I knew was my internal compass of desire was directing itself toward boys, and not, as I’d been taught was normal, girls.

My own body could not be trusted; it was the enemy, and I questioned it repeatedly. Sometimes, during puberty, while lying naked in the bathtub after dinner, I prayed for God to make my penis into a vagina, and my flat chest into breasts. I’d stand and look at myself in the mirror, pushing my penis between my legs so that my body looked more like a body that was supposed to like boy-bodies. My prayers, however, went unanswered, and I remained out of synch, discordant to what was normal. I remained, to my bewilderment, a boy-body.

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A team of researchers, headed by Selcuk R. Sirin of Montclair State University (2004), have helped explain people’s negative reactions to male gender role transgressions. They found that “. . . men are punished more harshly than women for deviating from traditional gender role norms. This phenomenon, called male gender role rigidity, leads many boys and men to avoid developing or engaging in what society has prescribed to be feminine-typed gender role characteristics and stereotypically feminine behaviors . . . Other researchers have suggested that, for men, gender role rigidity might be a defense mechanism against experiencing anxiety associated with gender role violations” (“Differential Reaction to Men and Women’s Gender Role Transgression: Perceptions of Social Status, Sexual Orientation, and Value Dissimilarity,” The Journal of Men’s Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, Winter 2004, pp.129). This was certainly true for me. The anxiety that my own gender role violations might reveal the fact of my “differentness” is what, for years, kept me acting the part of a heterosexual—a “real man.”

Finally, at the age of 24, I came out to my parents as gay. “I am a homosexual,” I wrote in a letter that I left on their bed. The next day my mother, while we were alone at their house, told me that I wasn’t born gay, that I’d been “made into a pervert from some old man”—a reference to when I’d been sexually abused as a child, an event that we had never, in 15 years, discussed. In an instant I felt buried beneath the shame, and the heteronormativity, of her words.

In 1989, following a year of familial conflict, I left my hometown “to start over.” Soon alone, confused and depressed in an unfamiliar city, I sought treatment with Dr. Alfonzo, a psychiatrist referred to me by my then-general practitioner. “I feel like a crippled heterosexual,” I told him during my initial consultation. “How do I come to terms with who I am when who I am seems to cause so much pain and suffering to everyone I know?” Alfonzo explained the process of his treatment—a form of primal therapy—and I began therapy several weeks later.

During one of my early sessions, however, Alfonzo began presenting me with various causation theories, and said that he was sure I wasn’t gay because I didn’t have “any of the characteristics of a homosexual.” I asked him what he meant.

“Effeminacy, passivity, desperation to get a man, a drug addict, an alcoholic. You aren’t any of these things. The fact is, Peter, most gays learn their behavior. Therefore, it can be unlearned, though with great difficulty.” My greatest fear had always been that the sexual abuse had “created” my sexual orientation. Like my mother before him, I could not object.

Therapy intended to help me “feel better,” quickly morphed into treatment geared at changing my sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. Not only did the practice, a form of reparative therapy, not work, it also resulted, three years into treatment, in my near fatal breakdown precipitated by prolonged, excessive overmedication—one of the many ways Alfonzo’s tried to “flip me over to the other side.” The medications, some used specifically to deaden my sex drive, made me feel numb, lifeless and passive. Any light that had remained alive in me was switched off: erections were eliminated, fantasy and arousal eradicated.

If Alfonzo, or psychiatry, became my oppressor, then I was like the written word and the eraser erasing itself. Yet despite both our efforts, and over five years of several concurrent psychotropics, I still clocked in at a six on Alfonzo’s revised “Kinsey scale” of one to seven: men, not women, remained the object of my affection. Finally, when it was clear my same-sex attraction could not be changed, Alfonzo attacked my gender: the ways in which I’d been masculinised or feminized. Hiking, construction work, ditch-digging: all were encouraged, as if in doing them I’d become a “real man.” His methods weren’t that uncommon. Clinical counselor Alice Christianson (2005) noted that in some reparative therapies, “. . . the solution is to more strongly identify with one’s gender. Men therefore should learn to change oil as part of their therapy, while women should get makeovers” (“A Re-emergence of Reparative Therapy,” Contemporary Sexuality, Vol. 39, No. 10, October 2005, pp.14).

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In 1974, The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders II; twenty years later, Jordan and Deluty (1995) found that 12.9% of therapists surveyed still believed that “. . . such a lifestyle [of the homosexual] is a ‘psychosexual disorder,’ and 5% claimed that it is a ‘personality disorder’” (“Clinical Interventions by Psychologists with Lesbians and Gay Men,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51, pp.451). Christianson (2005) found that “Some reparative therapists have diagnosed homosexuals as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and then attempted treatment of the homosexuality as a symptom of one of these disorders” (ibid, pp.13). More recently, Eubanks-Carter and Goldfried (2006) noted that “. . . individuals who are having difficulty coming out as gay or bisexual may be misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder. . . [because the] problems that resembled borderline symptoms . . . were also consistent with a sexual identity crisis” (“The Impact of Client Sexual Orientation and Gender on Clinical Judgments and Diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 62(6), pp.751).

In 1997, two years after leaving the therapy, I filed a five-page letter of complaint with British Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, detailing Alfonzo’s treatment of my homosexuality as a disease. His 500-page rejoinder, received by the College two years later, discredited my complaint by qualifying me as suffering from “borderline personality disorder.” In 2001 I sued him for medication malpractice, once again citing his treatment of my homosexuality. Prior to our Examination for Discovery, in late 2002, defence counsel’s “expert witness”—another psychiatrist—interviewed me in order to write an “expert opinion” about my psychiatric history. Once again I was diagnosed with “borderline personality disorder, in which disillusionment with caregivers could be a feature.” That I had also, throughout my therapy with Alfonzo, expressed “intense anger and negative views” about both my parents—that I had experienced distress at their lack of acceptance of my homosexuality—seemed to further reinforce his diagnosis. I couldn’t help but surmise, after reading his “expert opinion,” that virtually all men and women whose families had rejected them for being gay—or, for that matter, any other reason—and who’d then expressed “intense anger” towards and “negative views” about their parents, would also be labelled as suffering from some sort of personality disorder. Psychiatry, it seemed to me, had become the science of drawing maps, and not the exploration of the territories they signified.

Coincidentally, following in the footsteps of the removal of homosexuality from the DSM II, Gender Identity Disorder (GID) reared its disordered head in the American Psychiatric Association’s third edition of the DSM (1980). According to the current DSM IV (1994),

There are two components of Gender Identity Disorder . . . There must be evidence of a strong and persistent cross-gender identification . . . manifested [in boys] by a marked preoccupation with traditionally feminine activities. They may have a preference for dressing in girls’ or women’s clothes . . . Towels, aprons, and scarves are often used to represent long hair or skirts . . . They particularly enjoy playing house, drawing pictures of beautiful girls and princesses, and watching television or videos of their favorite female-type dolls, such as Barbie, are often their favorite toys, and girls are their preferred playmates. When playing “house,” these boys role-play female figures . . . They avoid rough-and-tumble play and competitive sports and have little interest in cars and trucks or other non-aggressive but stereotypical boy’s toys. They may express a wish to be a girl and assert that they will grow up to be a woman. They may insist on sitting to urinate and pretend not to have a penis by pushing it in between their legs. More rarely, boys with Gender Identity Disorder may state that they find their penis or testes disgusting, that they want to remove them, or that they have, or wish to have, a vagina (532-533).

The DSM IV goes on to describe GID in adults, which, it explains, most commonly manifests as a preoccupation “to live as a member of the other sex.” Considering my own cross-gender behavior as a child, and the fact that I developed into a gay man who’s accepting of the body he was assigned at birth—I have no desire “to live as a member of the other sex”—I can’t help but wonder if GID is the new euphemism for homosexual. Maybe the best way for psychiatry to diagnose and then treat the homosexual today is to diagnose and then treat the Gender Identity Disorder in children.

Kenneth J. Zucker, M.D., of Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health, and Robert L. Spitzer, M.D., of New York’s State Psychiatric Institute (2005), have argued against any type of “‘backdoor maneuver’ in replacing homosexuality” with GID, and yet they readily admit that some therapists continue to treat children with GID “in part, to prevent homosexuality” (“Was the Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood Diagnoses Introduced into DSM III as a Backdoor Maneuver to Replace Homosexuality? A Historical Note,” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Brunner-Routledge, 31, pp.36). The American Psychiatric Association, meanwhile, is set to release its fifth edition of the DSM in 2012, with Zucker and Ray Blanchard, M.D., a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto, leading the committee for Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which was instrumental in having homosexuality removed from the DSM, has opposed their involvement with the committee, citing both as advocates for reparative therapies in gender-variant children.

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If I am a house with many rooms, all doors to each of those rooms open up into me, my gender and I: one person. In other words, were I, as the 10-year-old boy I once was, to walk into a psychiatrist’s office today, without a doubt I’d be diagnosed with GID. Almost all of its symptoms I displayed as a pre-pubescent child, and yet I’m convinced my “preoccupation with traditionally feminine activities” was nothing more than an early indicator of my homosexuality.

But maybe that’s the point.

As long as we live in a heteronormative culture that by its very nature, its “thought reform,” teaches children to see themselves as heterosexual and “gender-appropriate,” those children who are not—and there will always be children who are not—will continue to experience their bodies as discordant to who they’re told they should be. I could not, as a child, imagine myself a grown up because I could not envisage a life beyond the normative boundaries imposed on me as an atypical boy. In the binary world of gender-appropriate children, I didn’t exist.

I was the shy, chubby kid who was poked and taunted by his elementary school classmates–the Rudolph, who wasn’t allowed in any Reindeer games. The difference with me was the name the kids all chanted, spat back at me with vengeance, was my own–pronounced, “Gay-dicks.” The story goes that when my father emigrated from Hungary in the 1950’s, in order to Anglicize his surname, and make it easier for North Americans, he changed its pronunciation from “Guy-ditch” to “Gay-dicks.” He was still learning English at the time and, evidently, must not have realized the implications of such an alteration.

With the onset of puberty, like a lens shifting slowly, forebodingly, into focus, came the realization that I was, or was at least becoming, as my name implied. If my name had been like flesh I would have peeled or burnt it from my bones, exposed, from within, my true essence and said to everyone, to all my Tormentors, Look, see, I am not the name you call me. But I was. I was everything they named me, and more. My name was marrow; there was nowhere, not anywhere, I could go to escape my insides.

I changed my name, or at least its pronunciation, back to “Guy-ditch” the year I met my former psychiatrist. “How do you say your last name?” he asked, during my initial consultation. “Guy-ditch,” I said. “As in a ‘guy-in-a-ditch.’” Earlier that same year, in 1989, my family had rejected me for being gay, and so I’d moved away from my hometown to “start over.” The doctor said I could, with his assistance, “unlearn” my homosexuality, and revert to my innate heterosexuality. I was twenty-four years old, had been raised Catholic, and believed what he, and the culture at the time, told me.

Medication, used initially to combat insomnia, became the doctor’s weapon against my sex drive. Any light that remained alive in me was switched off: erections were eliminated, fantasy and arousal, eradicated. The canvass to my mind’s imagination was being whitewashed. “Dry mouth, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, involuntary twitching, constipation, urinary retention, weight gain of over forty pounds: my body became an earthquake that I was trapped inside.

Six years of aversive therapy would elapse before I’d stand naked before my bedroom mirror, staring at a sad and pale reflection of my former self–at my body, bloated from years of over-medication, and into my thirty year old eyes–dark, sunken and unhappy. There would never be a heterosexual in me waiting to emerge; instead, I’d become more like a shell that had had its innards scooped out.

My mother, who escaped a concentration camp during World War II, once told me that she survived thirty-four months in various labor and death camps because her captors never touched the core of who she is. “They might have killed my body, God knows they tried, but they never touched my spirit.” Likewise, six years of therapy to change my sexuality taught me that the only thing that lasts, after losing everything else, is what is real: what can’t be changed.

By the way: after suffering through withdraw of all medication, and recovering from the therapy, I sued my former psychiatrist for treating my homosexuality as a disease.

The case settled out of court in 2002.

The doctor continues, to this day, treating patients.

I wrote a book.