Episode 30 - The Secrets of B.T. Harman
Growing up gay, Christian, and the son of a church pastor in The South, author and podcast creator BT Harman knew how to suppress his own voice in order to fit in. Yet, at what costs? Anxiety, depression, and deep loneliness seemed to follow him at every turn.
We travel with BT as he mines the secret journals of his early life in order to share with the world the liberty of authenticity. His story is relevant to anyone from any background looking to declare freedom from shame and make this the year that they own their truth.
B.T. Harman: [00:00:00] It felt like I was losing friends one by one and I just had this thought in my late 20s like, "What do I do when they're all gone? What happens when they all get married and I'm left here alone by myself feeling like the odd man out."
Ellie Pike: Allow me to introduce you to B.T. Harman. [00:00:30]
B.T.: My name is B.T. Harman, we live in Atlanta Georgia. By we, I mean my husband, his name is Brett, we have a cat named Walnut. Really my passion is storytelling. Storytelling can look a lot of different ways, for me, it looks like typically blogging and podcasting so-
Ellie: Let me just say that B.T. is being humble. We consume a good amount of podcasts in the pike house, it comes with the professional territory and B.T. has got to be one of my top finds of 2019. [00:01:00] His debut show Blue Babies Pink is a 44 bite-sized episode journey about growing up gay and Christian in the South. As I listened, I felt overwhelmed by his courage and intrigued by his story each step of the way.
After getting hooked, I knew I wanted to interview him about the role of secrecy, shame and loneliness in his coming out process, and I especially wanted to share it with you. Consider this episode a New Year's gift. It's so much more than just [00:01:30] a coming out story, it's a story we can all relate to, one of bottled-up feelings and identity and how authenticity and community can help us be more free by living our truth. You're listening to Mental Note Podcast, I'm Ellie Pike.
I'm wondering if you can take me and our listeners back to the early days of your journey and tell us a little bit about your childhood and your upbringing.
B.T.: [00:02:00] I'm currently 38 years old, it means I was born in 1981 in a little town in Texas.
My dad at the time was a Southern Baptist pastor, my mom was a teacher, I was the youngest of three brothers, so just grew up in a very traditionally Southern and Christian family and had a great family, still do, but eventually our family moved to Alabama. My dad became the pastor of a larger [00:02:30] Southern Baptist Church there. Just began doing what lots of boys in Alabama do, playing sports growing up and Little League Baseball and basketball.
I went to a small Christian school and played football and was the proverbial preacher's kid because I know a lot of LGBT people have really bad, sometimes traumatic experiences in the church, but that's not part of my story. For the most part it was a positive thing. I look back on those days in a small Alabama town [00:03:00] quite fondly. I was there in that town all the way through high school and then into college, I went to University of North Alabama, which is a school with about 7,000 students in the same town of Florence.
One little wrinkle to that story was my sophomore year of high school my dad was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, which most of your listeners probably know but if not, it's a always fatal neurological disease for which there is no cure and no treatment. [00:03:30] Began to have to deal with that in high school, which was obviously extremely difficult, and then my dad eventually passed away, my freshman year of college.
Ellie: In the midst of grappling with the loss of his father, B.T. suddenly felt confronted by the fact that he could not change his sexuality, something that he'd thought could have eternal ramifications.
B.T.: For me, I guess, the lead emotion would be fear, certainly fear over what others would think. [00:04:00] I had a very tight-knit community at this time, most of whom were people who embedded in traditional evangelical church culture, I was scared of losing that, and then of course, there was always the looming fear of is God going to send me to hell? That was probably the biggest fear, was this thing that if I give in to this, if I accept this, I'm done for.
Ellie: For a while he fought back against himself. He wished and prayed to be straight for fear that if he lived out being gay, he would be denied [00:04:30] relationships and love.
B.T.: I was either going to figure out a way to marry a woman, or I would just stay single.
Ellie: What did that loneliness feel like when you were also surrounded by so many people around you who loved you?
B.T.: I think like a lot of people, my strategy was just to create a lot of noise and a lot of shiny distractions. Really, that wasn't the way that I kept up the denial because I think by my mid-20s I had accepted that this [00:05:00] was a reality, but there was still maybe a tiny hope that it would change, that I could pray the gay away, that God would magically zap me if I did the right things or please Him enough and make me straight. These were all things that I believed in.
Probably around my mid to maybe 25, 26, that was when I began to lose that hope. When it really became evident that I am attracted to guys, it's not going away and to make matters worse, I'm not attracted to girls because I thought, "God, if I was attracted to guys and I was [00:05:30] attracted to girls, I think I can make this work." I could just ignore this one part of me and I could marry a woman and I would be 'normal' and have the normal family and children and all those things.
I think for me when that reality set in it was a terrifying, terrifying reality. The older you get, a lot of your listeners have probably experienced this, you start progressing into your 20s and your 30s, a lot of your friends start getting married. For me, that was really hard. Do you know when people get married-- I'm married now, but when I was single I would notice [00:06:00] when people would get married, you don't hear from them as much, they disappear.
I know that's a generalization, but for me it was true. I just felt like I was losing friends one by one and I just had this thought in my late 20s like, "What do I do when they're all gone? What happens when they all get married and I'm left here alone by myself feeling like the odd man out." That was when I think my anxiety ratcheted up a notch. It was a really sad place. [00:06:30]
Ellie: I think that's something that so many of us can relate to, is that feeling of I know something's going on within me and I feel a lot of feelings, but I don't really want to feel them so I'm just going to shut this door and distract myself. Pushing down this reality that you're gay and then pushing down just all of the anxiety and the despair and loneliness that was happening and in your effort to pull away from your anxiety, it sounds like [00:07:00] you just compounded it and created more anxiety along the way.
Obviously you're in a different place now, you had to get there somehow. Would you mind sharing with our listeners just how you have gotten to the point where you are? When and how did you learn to tell your truth and step out of this cycle?
B.T.: I think I failed to mention, Ellie, in my mid-20s was when I decided that I was going to live a single celibate life forever.
Ellie: That is important.
B.T.: A lot of people who are gay they just begin dating [00:07:30] people the same sex, and that's part of their life, for me I thought, "Oh I can't do that because, again, God will send me to hell, this is not okay, people will think I'm weird." I just made this private vow to myself of lifelong singleness and celibacy, "Brett, just suck it up, you'll get through it. It's fine, you don't need love, you don't need family, you don't need kids, that's all just fluff. You just need to put your head down, work a lot and make a lot of money, take great vacations. That's the life God has for you." [00:08:00]
Again, that was the thing but it worked for a while because again, I had a great job, I had great friends, I did make money at the time. You can keep that up for a while but eventually, really, it was my late 20s was when that whole thing began to break.
I really began to have some sort of classic symptoms of anxiety and for me when my anxiety finally reached that tipping point, it began [00:08:30] to manifest in my body. I began to have really bad stomach problems, I had two episodes where I went to the hospital. One time I felt like I was having a heart, my heart is racing. Another time I had numbness in my arms, I forgot the names of people that I worked with, people that I'd known for 5 or 10 years. To answer your question of what began to change, that was it. It was being 20-- I guess I was 28, 29 years old and feeling like, "B.T., [00:09:00] you're losing it, you're cracking up."
That was when I thought, "You can't keep this up. You can't do this for 50 more years." I was barely 30. I was like, "I can't do this." That was really the moment where I decided, "Okay, B.T., pause. You've got to reevaluate everything. You've got to reevaluate God and theology and your approach to life and dating because you're not going survive in this really, really wounded state." [00:09:30]
Ellie: To talk with us about the unique maladaptive behaviors associated with staying in the closet as well as the long-term effects [00:10:00] effects of loneliness, we've invited Zack Rawlings back on the show. He's a Licensed Professional Counselor and PsyD candidate in New York City. Zack, thank you so much for being on this show and you're expertise really relates back to B.T.'s story about being in the closet, living in shame, and not feeling connected with others. I'm curious what research there is out there that talks about the effects of being in the closet on a gay person's mental health?
Zack Rawlings: There's a [00:10:30] few different things that are seen and the research of what we're seeing is that for some folks the mental health distress doesn't get better after they even come out of the closet. There's a few things that we're seeing as a result of that. When someone is in the closet, they often develop patterns and they develop ways of coping to keep their secret. When they come out of the closet, oftentimes, those maladaptive ways of [00:11:00] coping even persist outside of the closet.
Now, because it happens during a period of adolescence where the brain is coming online, our personality is forming and it's going to continue to be forming until early-mid 20s, before the brain does its final period of neural pruning. These things that get formed during this time kind of have some long-lasting effects during this period of formative personality development, and so when someone [00:11:30] comes out, these maladaptive ways of coping don't just go away.
It's not going to be all rainbows and gay pride flags and complete total acceptance and love for yourself, many LGBTQ people go through a period of learning how to undo some of those maladaptive ways of coping that they felt like they had to do for survival when they were living in such secrecy. We see that play out into mental health outcomes where we see more depression, more anxiety.
Ellie: I think one thing that [00:12:00] is unique about B.T.'s podcast is, yes, it's his story of being in the closet and how he was so isolated and in shame, but it's also so relatable to anyone whether or not you're in the closet. If you're cutting yourself off from social relationships, just the effects of loneliness can be so detrimental and so for B.T., he started to feel so anxious and then his body even started to feel it too. He was starting to feel all the tension being built up inside, and so I'm wondering [00:12:30] if you can even speak to some of the general loneliness research that you have?
Zack: Well, in recent years we realized that loneliness is actually quite deadly. There was one study that I just read the other day that I found interesting where they literally exposed people that they identified as highly socially connected and people that they identified as highly disconnected. Where these participants willingly exposed themselves to the cold virus and those that were less connected, developed the cold virus and became sicker at a much [00:13:00] higher rate than those who are socially connected.
It just makes us vulnerable and that makes sense when you think about this from an evolutionary perspective, that our ancestors had to band together and they had to be connected and work as a group in order to survive in earlier times. As we progressed into a society that hasn't been as necessary for our actual survival, but we are seeing that our less connected are becoming more vulnerable. They're becoming sicker and they [00:13:30] ultimately are dying at an earlier age than those who aren't.
Ellie: B.T. had adapted to being in the closet by accepting celibacy and a future without family during a crucial time in his development. Both as a 20-something learning what adulthood was all about and also as a grieving son who had recently lost his father, relearning that behavior was difficult.
B.T.: [00:14:00] The main lie that I believed was, "B.T., people don't really know you because you're hiding this thing and if they did know you, they wouldn't like you." If they knew the real me. That was the core lie that I believed, was that if I ever showed this part of my life to these people, I would be cast into the wilderness and I would die a lonely and pathetic person. That was something I really believed.
Ellie: I appreciate how you say that because it-- I think we can get in this world of trying to understand people's [00:14:30] stories and what's going on but for most of us it's actually pretty simple. At the core of our shame is some sort of belief that something is wrong with me and if people actually saw me the way that I really am, they wouldn't love me. I think that that's something that many of us can relate to, and I appreciate that you're story talks so much about opening up to other people and what that did to your shame.
B.T.: That's what changed for me. I began to reach out to other people. [00:15:00] I finally invited some friends into my story. My late 20s was when I began to have really just God, dozens of one-on-one conversations with close friends, and eventually family. When I came out to them with this thing that I thought would disgust them, instead I was met with so much love and hugs and tears and all of those things.
Just thinking back to that season, it was such a healing season because again, I just believed so many lies, and that was why these discussions were so healing [00:15:30] because it exposed that lie. I wasn't met with ridicule. I wasn't met with rejection. I was met with love and that changed everything.
Ellie: I remember I did a training early on in my counseling career when someone said to me, "Shame exposed loses all power," and that has always stuck with me. It's not this overnight you feel totally better, because there can even be this shame hangover where you're like, "Oh crap, should I regret what I just did? I just was vulnerable. [00:16:00] That was really scary." If anyone is familiar with Brené Brown, she talks a lot about that and does the actual research on it.
That's true in your story, as you came out and as you shared your vulnerable parts of yourself and who you were and really exposed the truth of who you are, you started to see that the truth was people actually did love you. How did that go as you would start to talk to people in your life that were closer including your family?
B.T.: You know those conversations early on they were very hard. I was terrified of every [00:16:30] one of them. Again, I would have, this is probably more than you want to know, but I would have diarrhea. My stomach was so upset just at the thought of having these conversations, but I will say everyone got like 1% easier because I think it was just like the courage muscle. You know they say you get more courageous when you work out that, it's true.
Every single time I got a little less scared, a little more courageous and I got a little more free. Just bringing [00:17:00] people into the light of this massive terrifying secret that I'd hung onto for so long. To be honest, the hardest conversation by far was the one with my mom.
My dad had passed away when I was in college, but I was still close to my mom. My mom's a wonderful person. Lovely woman, but she's very conservative in her theology, so I think when you have someone like that in your life and you're gay, there is definitely a fear [00:17:30] of what are they going to think? Are they going to reject me? Are they going to say certain things? I think deep down I didn't think my mom would reject me, but I definitely thought she was going to be very disappointed, distraught, et cetera, et cetera.
One day it was 2011, I drove seven hours to Louisville, Kentucky where she lives unannounced, because I knew that if I had tried to do it over Christmas I would have either not had the courage to do it or I would have ruined Christmas. I think it was like the middle of the summer or August maybe, and I just drove up there. I knocked on [00:18:00] her door and she opened it. I probably had this terrified look on my face. She reciprocated with her own look of like, "Why are you here? What's wrong?"
We literally marched right into the living room. I put a chair in the middle of the living room surrounded by couches. It was my mom, my step-dad, my brother and his wife and I just said-- at that time I said, "Guys, I've got to be honest, I'm same-sex attracted. This is something I've always dealt with. At the same time, it's not something I'm acting on. I'm not dating," but at that time, that was true, but if you'll notice even back then I wouldn't not even say the word gay.
[00:18:30] The word gay to me it was abominable, so I would just say, "I'm same-sex attracted," that was the language that I used because to me, gay meant so much more. That you're part of this whole big lifestyle and I was at that point I was like, " That's not me. I'm not gay, I'm just same-sex attracted," whatever.
Ellie: Right, so it's like your way of softening the blow even for yourself, not just your family?
B.T.: Yes, you're exactly right. It made it more I guess, palatable to me and to my mom which as you probably know that was religious internalized homophobia, but that's for another episode. Anyways, [00:19:00] my mom just really reacted pretty well in that moment. She was bewildered and confused because she did not expect that, which my brother did. He always thought that, but mom did not.
She didn't say anything hateful or mean, but then over the next few weeks that's when it really set in with her. That sent her down this really tough journey of where she had her own sadness to deal with and the loss of these dreams of me having children and having a beautiful wife, and then we began emailing back and forth. Oh, goodness, [00:19:30] I'm just ashamed of some of those emails because we both just said really nasty things to each other.
I was trying to convince her that this wasn't a big deal. She was trying to convince me that I just needed to pray more or go to therapy whatever it was and it was a really really tough season. Honestly, that lasted for several years. It really wasn't until maybe five, six years after that where our relationship finally began to heal in a really interesting way. For a lot of gay kids, their parents kind of come around. They will affirm them and celebrate them and go to [00:20:00] pride parade.
My mom is not that way. She's not that way and she never will be. She has come to respect the decision that I've made to eventually to date and get married and she is a huge fan of my husband, which is also very meaningful.
Ellie: While conversations with his mom continued to be difficult, B.T. hit upon one of the keys to walking away from loneliness, investing in relationships where he felt supported and loved. For him, it was [00:20:30] his friend, Kelly.
B.T.: One of the most special conversations, and I wrote about this as well, was with my friend Kelly. I've known Kelly for high school days and just such a good friend. She was friends with me at Nashville and been there when my dad had passed away. She was awesome. We went out to this place one morning. I'd come back to Alabama, it was maybe December, freezing cold and we'd gone to this place called the Rocking Chair Restaurant out on this highway in Alabama and we're sitting at this booth.
[00:21:00] I come out to her. I have this conversation, and I'm crying. She begins to cry and she pauses and then first words mouth were, "I'm so sorry." I just completely lost it and she was the first one to say that to me. I don't know why that was so meaningful. The only thing I know to say about that is she was the first person to acknowledge [00:21:30] this 15-year desperate, quiet, lonely journey I had been on all by myself, scared to death and worried and fearful and thousand different ways.
For her in that moment to step into my story and to empathize with me and to say, "I'm sorry for what you've been through and I'm sorry that you've had to do with this," was just the most beautiful and most healing thing I had ever heard at that time. Since then I've had [00:22:00] lots of other friends who've expressed similar sentiments, but at that time, that was exactly what I needed. I remember tears falling into my chocolate gravy as she said that because it was just a stunning moment and really a pivotal moment in my own journey.
Ellie: Thank you so much for saying that. I felt chill bumps as you said it because I can only imagine how freeing that felt for you. This validation that this has been a really [00:22:30] long, hard, lonely journey. It takes me back to one of our first conversations that we had, and I remember you saying something along the lines of the psychic weight that I carried for so long it left in waves.
I picture that as one of those big rushing waves of harsh-- That's like lifting some of that psychic weight you've been carrying through your fear and anxiety and denial for so long, and just how important that relationship and connection is [00:23:00] that can come from vulnerability and sharing. I think that's something that many of us can relate to, but you model it. I'm so glad to have that example. In 2016, B.T. made his secret journey public by releasing his story series based on the years of his journals. With his publication, he began to close the door on lifelong alienation and fear.
B.T.: For me, it was a really central piece to my healing because [00:23:30] I had always really deplored the hiding aspect. In particular, you're 30 and people are trying to set you up with a girl or their niece or their cousin or whatever, and you have to lie. I'm not a liar. I hate lying. It's violation of my values. I needed to blast this from the rooftops just one good time so everybody knew we could remove all doubt, and that was again, for me, it was great because, though there was some negativity and that is a risk of going public [00:24:00] is you're going to get some hate, you're trying to get some trolling kind of things, but for me it was in the minority.
I was met with, again, mostly love and people emailed and, "Oh my God, B.T., here's my story. Let me tell you about how I've experienced the same thing and I'm closeted," or whatever it is. That was even healing being invited into so many beautiful and painful stories of other people. I have I guess you call it a mission statement that it's that I exist to tell stories that see thoughts of a healthy [00:24:30] culture.
Your story is like a release-specific healing tonic for the right person. What I mean by that is for some people, my story, the story of B.T. Harman it's their healing thing. They email me, "Oh, my God, this changed my life. Thank you so much." For other people, they don't have that response at all to my story. They need someone else's story. They need your story, or maybe their story is nuanced in some other way.
I am just such an advocate of, God, do the work. [00:25:00] Get healthy. Go to therapy. Have amazing community, surround yourself with people who love you and champion you and are honest with you, and then once you begin to get your head above the clouds and you begin to breathe more clearly and you get more healthy, then start speaking up because we need it.
Ellie: B.T., thank you so much for the authenticity that you're sharing on this podcast, but also how you empower others to share their stories. They're really excited to see how our listeners decide to share [00:25:30] their stories, but I want to echo what you said just do it one step at a time.
Ellie: Thanks for listening to Mental Note podcast. Our show is brought to you by Eating Recovery Center and Insight Behavioral Health Centers. You could reach [00:26:30] to trained therapist to see if treatment is right for you by calling 877-411-9578. Learn more about the people we interview at mentalnotepodcast.com. We'd also love it if you left us a review on iTunes. It helps others find and connect with our podcast.
You can discover more about B.T., his two podcasts, Blue Babies Pink and Catlick as well as other things he's up to over at btharman.com. [00:27:00] That's B-T-H-A-R-M-A-N.com. Mental Note is produced and hosted by me, Ellie Pike, directed by Sam Pike, and edited by Josh Wright. Till next time. [00:27:30]
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