I am a survivor of gay conversion therapy and the mental abuse that's often associated with religious fundamentalism.
Many have often asked me how I can possibly have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The condition is often associated with people who've served on the front lines in the military, survivors of sexual assault and other forms of violence or those who have suffered from other kinds of extreme physical trauma. I am none of those people. I am fortunate enough to have never been subjected to violence of any kind. Sure, I've been in a few minor car accidents here and there, but none of them were in any way life threatening. I walked away from all of them without a scratch.
How then, could I have PTSD? I always tell people: If you could see the storms that have gone on in my head because of what I was subjected to, if you could read my mind, you wouldn't ask that question.
In 1964, when I was eight years old, my parents had me committed to the psych ward at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. I was subjected to electro-shock therapy and put on medications like Thorazine. My doctor, Dr. Herbert J. Levowitz, wore a yarmulke at all times and quoted the Torah to me, in Hebrew no less, during our sessions. According to his 2006 obituary, Dr. Levowitz was "a devoted and innovative child psychiatrist.” I often wonder how many other kids were harmed by his backward and barbaric techniques.
If I ever acted "out of line" at Mt. Sinai, i.e. behaved like a normal eight-year-old, I was wrestled to the ground and injected with a variety of powerful anti-anxieties (I don't even know what I was given during those incidents).
When I went into the hospital, I was a happy and imaginative eight-year-old. When I was released three months later, I was a nervous wreck. I remained so for decades.
Years later I asked my mother why they had put me in that hospital. "We were advised to do so by the Rabbi" was the reply. In Orthodox Judaism, the Rabbi's word is law. I often wondered what might have happened if the Rabbi had told them to walk down the street naked with carrots sticking out of their asses. Hey, if the Rabbi tells you to do it…
For years after that nightmarish hospitalization, I was forced (against my will) to take powerful medications which were actually causing the mental health issues I was told I suffered from. Today it is illegal to give many of those drugs to children, yet throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, my system was bombarded with them. I remember having an allergic reaction to one of the drugs and temporarily losing part of my eyesight. For weeks the world was an out-of-focus blur as I struggled to do ordinary tasks like read a book or write a note. My full sight returned after I was taken off of that drug, but I still lived with the memory of the terrifying and traumatic situation I experienced as a 12-year-old.
Then, there were the lectures. I endured endless speeches about how sick I was, how offended God was by my behavior and how I was ruining everyone's lives. The tirades could go on for up to an hour and happened almost daily for years. I was often in tears, sobbing and begging my parents to stop; they would respond by hovering over me, raising their voices and upping the rhetoric. I recall periods when I endured several of these lectures every single day. I can recall times when the talks began as early as 7 a.m. and continued well into the night. I remember leaving the house and taking long walks by myself, the only peace I ever enjoyed. Long, solitary walks have remained my solace to this very day. This was my childhood.
By the time I was twenty years old, I was barely functional. For many years I couldn't make friends, couldn't hold a job, couldn't think clearly.
And yet, I was still gay.
When I came out as gay in 1976, there weren't TV shows like Glee or politicians like Harvey Milk who supported LGBT equality. Same-sex couples couldn't hold hands on the street. There were no equality laws of any kind; people were free to discriminate against us as they saw fit. I came out into such a world surrounded by gay men and lesbians who, like me, had grown up in similar backgrounds of intolerance and hate. In around five years, the AIDS epidemic would begin and people around the world would tell us that AIDS was our punishment from God for being who we are.
The gay community I knew from 1976 onward was a sad collection of lost souls who took their hate for themselves out on each other—many people from my generation live that way to this very day. We all have PTSD. PTSD, according to Web MD and other sources, is caused by extreme trauma. Symptoms include reliving the trauma repeatedly, which can lead to severe depression, psychotic breakdowns and suicide.
This column will serve as a memoir of my forty-year journey of living with, fighting against and largely overcoming PTSD. I still have my moments, but the symptoms are, for the most part, behind me. The column will also offer my thoughts and observations about an entire generation of LGBT people who were as traumatized as I was, covering how living gay affected us and what we did to each other as a result.
There will also be commentary on how the world views and judges us. I am not a mental health care provider; I'm just me.
Welcome to my world.