The first time the words came out of my mouth, I was sitting in a parked car in downtown Portland with my best friend. Rain beat against the car, streaming against the windows and I sat there, paralyzed, staring straight ahead as tears fought their way down my cheeks.
“I think,” I said suddenly, and then, before I could stop myself, I finished, “Cassie, I think I’m gay.” The words felt strange and hung like a thick fog in the air in front of me. I wanted to immediately follow it up with, “But I’m not sure!” as I wished so badly I wasn’t.
“Oh Kim!” she said, with a compassion and kindness that surprised me, not because it was uncharacteristic but because I didn’t feel worthy of it. She threw her arms around me, recognizing how upset and vulnerable I looked but not yet realizing the depth of my shame. Saying those words was an acknowledgment of a part of me I couldn’t accept. The invisible word cloud I created so quickly stormed above me for the next ten years, frequently raining sheets of confusion, self-hatred, and hopelessness.
Secretly dating in high school was one-part exhilarating, ten-parts guilt-ridden. I was a devout Mormon, a consistent rule-follower, and a people pleaser. There was no question in my mind what the “right” things were (going to church, reading scriptures, paying tithing) and what the “wrong” things were (kissing girls). Suffering from same-gender attraction, as Mormons like to frame it, was a burden I had to bear and a test I had to overcome. I had to be stronger than the temptation, had to stay pure, had to keep myself clean.
But then there was Chelsey.
Chelsey had short brown hair, wore Converse shoes, and frequently wore a tucked-in button-up. She loved John Mayer, played guitar, and her lip moved down and to the side ever so slightly when she talked. We took a lot of the same classes – English, photography, French, statistics – and she loved discussing literature as much as I did. But, maybe most importantly, she knew how to make pizza. From scratch.
I discovered her pizza-making abilities when she invited me over to her house one evening for my birthday. The plan was to eat dinner and watch Ellen Degeneres stand-up (I had what I thought was a very healthy, very mild interest in Ellen). Up until that point, Chelsey and I had only hung out at school – during class, during lunch, studying. You know, public places. Places where I could never be gay.
We sat on the floor of her room, backs leaning up against her bed, plates of pizza balanced on our knees as we laughed at Ellen’s commentary on people who pretend they don’t trip when they’re walking. I was simultaneously very comfortable and also very aware of Chelsey sitting next to me. It was one of those classic scenes where we slowly moved closer and closer to each other until we were side-by-side, her arm touching mine. And as she put her arm around me, my insides flared with an excitement and a fear I’d never felt. I think these are butterflies, I thought, drawing only on the knowledge I’d gained from books or TV shows. It felt amazing and overwhelming but with an edge of guilt I couldn’t shake. I turned to look at her and she said quietly but confidently, “Will you just kiss me already?” I smiled as my heart raced and I leaned in, pressing my lips against hers.
Everything about Chelsey had to be a secret. Public displays of affection were obviously out of the question and I didn’t tell anybody except Cassie we were dating. But let’s be real, some things can’t be hidden. Our success at secrecy is probably best summed up by the time we were standing in the hallway and The Book Lady (a name we lovingly and so creatively bestowed upon the librarian who checked out our textbooks each term) stopped to say, “You two are such a cute couple.” What I’m sure was intended as nothing more than a mild compliment shook my core. How did she know?
My parents started putting restrictions on the time I could spend with Chelsey. They never directly said they knew we were dating but the rule was I couldn’t ever be alone with her. If Chelsey came over to our house, a parent had to be home and the door had to be open. If we hung out somewhere else, there had to be another person with us. Given the logistical hurdles, Chelsey and I started hanging out less and less; I think she saw the writing on the wall much sooner than I did.
I remained in the peak of denial for months and rode the pendulum of teenage angst from, “I love her and I don’t want to live without her,” to “This is the worst thing I’ve ever done and I have to stop now.” It was in the midst of this self-absorption that I got a call from a guy in my class. He was one of the few Mormon kids my age and he was asking me out on a date.
“Yes!” I said, almost immediately. This was perfect. Going on a date with a guy would totally divert people’s attention away from the idea of me being gay. And he was Mormon, which, as a practicing member was basically a make-or-break situation in the dating world. Saying no never even crossed my mind.
Maybe the worst part is, it didn’t sink in how messed up and twisted, self-centered and wrong my thinking was until I called Chelsey and heard her reaction.
“You said yes?!” she said, throwing me back to the reality where I had put my internal agenda ahead of literally everyone else. Where I had simultaneously hurt her and thoughtlessly played with the emotions of a guy who was vulnerable and put himself out there. I later called him back, apologized, and muttered through not being able to go after all. I felt bad for rejecting him and worse for accepting the invitation in the first place.
I was becoming someone I didn’t recognize.
I sat in my high school English class as we discussed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We’d reached the moral climax of the book where Huck is trying to reconcile his friendship with Jim and the rampant prejudice entrenched in society. Mrs. Dignan broke down the moment until we could feel the weight of the agonizing decision this teenager was making – a choice he couldn’t take back, that was seemingly determining his fate for eternity. Huck recognizes the moment and ultimately, courageously, claims his side: “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”
It struck a little too close to home.
But unlike Huck, I couldn’t say it. At least not yet. I did what my parents had hoped all along. I broke up with Chelsey. I said I had made terrible choices, but I knew what I was supposed to do now. I was going to Brigham Young University, a church-sponsored school. I was going to marry a man. I wasn’t going to hell.
The dating scene at BYU is a culture in and of itself. Church leadership counsels young single adults to get married and start a family as soon as possible. It’s the focus of all church meetings, discussions, and activities. But there’s this interesting cycle if you aren’t married right away. By age 21, people silently question your worthiness but still exude an earnest positivity on your behalf. By 22 and 23, you begin to field questions laced with feigned encouragement like, “How come you’re still single?” Until finally, this strange thing happens around 24. People just kind of stop. They stop asking you questions about dating and instead revert to “safe” questions like, “So, how’s school going?” Counsel from church leaders still desperately emphasizes marriage, with a promise that your eternal companion is out there if you continue to abide by the teachings of the church. Except, they also start to use phrases like, “If not in this life, then the next.”
I did my best to date men in college and pushed my introverted nature to the limits by participating in all church activities, hosting game nights, making baked goods to take to guys’ apartments, and even asked men out myself. I sent texts and casually Facebook-stalked people like a pro. I made Pinterest boards of wedding ideas, wrote lists of all the qualities I was looking for in a husband, and read everything I could find that was written by the church on marriage. I. Would. Be. Ready.
But, plot twist, I never had a boyfriend. My diligence yielded a handful of awkward dates in the seven years I went to BYU and my lack of traction in the dating world made it harder and harder to convince myself I wasn’t somehow different. It wasn’t until my graduate program at BYU when the feelings I’d worked so hard to bury inevitably resurfaced and the worst possible thing happened. I fell in love with a girl in my apartment complex.
I fought furiously to rationalize the feelings away. I just really like spending time with her. I thought. We’re best friends. It’s totally normal to feel this way. But as the intensity of my feelings grew, I stopped being able to justify why I was so hurt whenever she wanted to spend time with someone else or why I was jealous whenever she went out on a date with a guy.
I started saying the words again. First to my roommate, sobbing on the floor. Then to one of my progressively-minded professors from whom I would frequently seek advice. It was just as tentative, if not more so – “I think, I’m maybe, a little bit, gay” – but the words were there. And I started to realize this is just part of me. Even still, I made a last-ditch effort in what I thought was bargaining for my salvation. I fasted, prayed, and flat-out begged that church policy on same-sex relationships would miraculously change.
At the same time, I started to see the cracks in my logic, and my feelings of self-loathing began to dissipate. I’d fallen in love with a woman and that love didn’t feel wrong. In fact, it felt more natural and right than anything. And I realized if I can have compassion, love, and acceptance of someone who's gay, why couldn't an all-loving God? Why would God make me this way, say life is for relationships and families, and then say, “Oh, but not for you, Kim.” I started to find the flaw in the words “if not in this life, then in the next.” For me to be married to a man in the next life, I would have to be straight. And I really didn’t want to be. The words in my mind gradually started to shift. Tentative, as always, I started to think, maybe, I might, kind of, like being gay.
It was still a while before I could strip the sentence of all the qualifiers but I got there. I slowly rewrote my internal narrative to one that is far healthier, happier, and affirming. Eventually, the storm cleared and the clouds parted, giving way to the sunlight hidden for far too long. And y’all know what happens after it rains.
I was standing in the kitchen with my mom and my recent coursework was seeping into our conversation. We were discussing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (like you do) and the characteristics of various behavioral concerns. It wasn’t long before the conversation took an unexpected turn to the personal when my mom turned to me and intently asked, “If you had to diagnose me with a disorder, what would it be?” Visions of post-it notes, color-coding and cleaning supplies flashed through my mind and I paused for a moment, wondering if I was going to perpetuate the misconception of every person everywhere that this is what people with any background in psychology do in casual conversation.
“Maybe just, like, a little. . .OCD?” She nodded deliberately: “I accept.”
My mom’s love for organization and cleanliness fueled, in no small part, her absolute and all-encompassing disdain for pets. The hair, the smell, the dirt. Nothing about animals fit into my mom’s life plan and a rich culture of animal-avoidance was fostered in our home. I grew up not understanding why anyone could possibly want a pet.
My exposure to animals hadn’t changed much by age 29 when I was lying in bed in my apartment, on my computer, taking the plunge into online dating again. After scrolling through the many profiles, I was drawn to a girl with kind eyes and a warm smile. I liked her profile, or winked, or whatever thing is built in for introverts to feel like they’re making a move. Kaitlyn messaged me and we started chatting. Talking to her was instantly natural and I checked my phone ten times an hour to see her responses. And, as any self-respecting online dater would do, I mildly Facebook stalked her.
In Kaitlyn’s profile she said something about being a farm girl at heart. I naively took this to mean, “I really love the way Joanna Gaines decorates,” or “I’m drawn to open landscape and being outside.” I was two pictures in before I realized how wrong I was.
As my thumb swiped through her pictures I saw chickens and ducks and goats and dogs and dogs and dogs. I later came to learn that Kaitlyn had emotional support rats in college and managed to sneak 15 rabbits into her dorm room. When I ask her how she knows people, her answer is often to shrug and say something like, “through poultry,” as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. As if anyone even uses the word “poultry” in casual conversation.
When I told my siblings I'd been talking with Kaitlyn, I also told them, “She has a dog.” To which one of them responded, “Is that a deal-breaker?” My answer was a hesitant no.
I met Emmy on my first date with Kaitlyn. She’s a very well-behaved Corgi and she goes where Kaitlyn goes. Kaitlyn and I met for coffee and then went on a walk because I just didn’t want to stop spending time with her. We went to her car to get Emmy and I was so awkward but pretended to be comfortable and in what felt like a really noble act, I even pet her. She happily came on our walk with us. I honestly didn’t think very much about Emmy, though, because I was too distracted with that feeling I thought only existed in movies.
I asked her out on a second date. She rejected me, saying she had a dog sport competition the next day that she wanted to get ready for. This seemed like nothing short of a fake excuse to me and feelings of self-doubt started to circulate. Had I come off too strong? Did I misread her interest? I started to write her off in my mind. If I couldn’t even make the cut on the night before a dog thing, I figured she just wasn’t into me.
With a significant nudge from her coworker, Kaitlyn proved my over-analysis wrong by asking me out the next weekend. It wasn’t long before dates were just assumed and we wanted to spend all our time together.
My impulse to start online dating again hadn’t exactly happened during an ideal time, though. I was living in Portland but had accepted a new job in Utah a week before I met Kaitlyn. It was an important move for my career and I had to follow through with it, despite my heart desperately wanting to stay near her. We dated for two months before venturing into the scary world of a long-distance relationship.
We communicated a lot while I was away - through video calls, texts, letters, packages, phone calls, and long-anticipated monthly visits. My day started and ended with talking to Kaitlyn and I anxiously looked forward to the day when that would always be in person. I more than secretly hoped she would end up moving to Utah, but I promised I would come back after I had been at my job for a year.
We frequently discussed the future, including many conversations about what it would be like for me to suddenly live with a dog when we moved in together. “It’ll be fine. I love Emmy!” I would simultaneously reassure both of us. And it was true. I did love Emmy. She has soft fur and is generally not very needy and didn’t seem to mind me joining the family. She’s an easy-going dog, small and cute, and she makes Kaitlyn infinitely happy. I figured loving Emmy would be just like loving Kaitlyn; it had to be easy.
A year of airport goodbyes, unexpectedly dropped calls, and worn-out electronics later, I packed up my stuff and began the trek to our new home in SE Portland. Though I had been applying to jobs for months, I made the uncharacteristically risky leap of moving without one. Being unemployed, though, meant I spent all day, every day, at home. Which also meant I spent all day, every day, with Emmy.
I wish I could say there’s this great movie montage of us bonding and becoming best friends. Maybe a moment when I’m crying and Emmy comes to put her head on my lap. Or a scene of us playing catch in the sunset when she suddenly does a trick that she’ll only do for me. Play the soundtrack and the script just writes itself.
In reality, the first day I was home alone with Emmy, she whined for most of the morning. We were in a new house, her favorite parent was gone, and she needed to make her feelings known. I tried taking her outside to play (usually a fool-proof method for making her happy) or giving her a toy to occupy her mind but nothing I did seemed to make the situation better. And I was just as miserable. Already exhausted, I looked at her in a moment of desperation and said, “We’re not off to a great start.”
As the days progressed, she settled in and whined much less. And I made my way through many firsts of dog ownership: first time playing catch, first time picking up her poop, first walk of shame when I forgot a bag to pick up her poop, first time feeding her. There was a lot of growth going on here.
I knew when I started dating Kaitlyn that animals were going to be part of my life. I’m just not sure I fully processed how soon that would happen. Just when I was feeling like I’d adjusted to living with a dog, Kaitlyn came home from work and announced she wanted a tortoise. “I’ve always wanted one,” she said. I tried to ignore the fact that not once in the time I’d known her had she mentioned this and listened to the facts of what I’d be signing up for. She ultimately won me over after she told me she wanted to name him Franklin (I couldn't wait for him to count by twos and tie his shoes).
When he arrived, he was no bigger than a silver dollar but lest you think he was unimposing, his enclosure took up no less than the entire top of our double-wide dresser. There are some key characteristics that made him the perfect next pet, though: he didn’t make a lot of noise, he didn’t smell, his upkeep was inexpensive, and he liked to be left alone (now we're talking).
But tragically, despite Kaitlyn’s attentive care and a couple trips to the vet (who knew?!), Franklin passed away after only a few months. He was sick, failed to grow, and ultimately his little lungs gave up on him. We buried him under a tree in the backyard and my heart was (I’ll admit, unexpectedly) heavy after the loss of his little life.
It was a few months later when we decided to get a second dog. I was simultaneously terrified of having another wet nose in the house and curious about what it’d be like to have a puppy. Enter Cedar, a sable Cardigan Welsh Corgi who looks like a little fox dog with a big ol’ Beagle nose. She’s a goofy, happy-go-lucky dog whose love language is casually licking your feet as she walks by. We taught her to put her paw on top of your outstretched hand whenever you say, “pound it,” and my grinchy pet heart grew three sizes that day. While Emmy and I lovingly co-exist, there’s something about the bond she has with Kaitlyn that’s impenetrable – I’m just the third-wheel over here. Since Kaitlyn and I both met Cedar at the same time, I had a fighting chance to win a place in her heart (mostly through copious amounts of treats; we might be related). Make no mistake, Kaitlyn is the favorite and the dogs are known to wait outside the bathroom door, un-phased by my presence in the room, anxiously anticipating her re-entry. But, I think I’ve also managed to make a place in their lives and, in a shocking twist of events, they’ve made a place in mine.
We bought a house a year later and let me tell you, our animal trajectory has taken off. After we’d painted and moved in, the first major house project was building a chicken coop. By now I’d learned that Kaitlyn knows how to treat her animals right and I was starting to readily recognize her high standards for any animal habitat. A year ago, I would’ve thought an appropriately sized chicken coop was approximately the same size as Snoopy’s house. Now, I just take what my first instinct is, multiply it by ten, and sometimes I’m in the ballpark. The plans we went with are aptly named The Garden Loft and, after a month and a half of work, yielded a coop the size of a tiny house. We became the proud owners of ten chickens – including Harper, Raven, Hedwig, and Poe, because I can’t help myself – and I haven’t bought eggs since.
Our quick pace of animal acquisition only continues and we now have two new tortoises - Olive and Thistle; two ducks - Fern and Willow; and four rats – Gus, Darwin, Barley, and Rye. Despite the increasing number, some things will never change. Kaitlyn’s love for animals remains too pure for this world and I’m . . . along for the ride. My habits of cleanliness, like unto my mom’s, spark flurries of housework to keep up with the ever-present dog hair. I remain painfully uneducated about how to actually take care of any of these animals (Kaitlyn obvs does it all), and I have yet to touch any of them but the dogs.
To say we’re a case of opposites attracting seems like a gross understatement. I can hear the universe musing, “how did this happen?!” and feel the disbelief when people meet us. And I’ll admit, I still have to quiet my Deepest Fears that I’m a terrible spouse or I make Kaitlyn unhappy by internally repeating the reality that we balance each other out, we make each other laugh, and we love each other unconditionally.
You can’t make this stuff up.
I started my graduate program in school psychology after I graduated with a useless degree - Family Life with an emphasis in Human Development. More often than not, I revise the major to just Human Development because it sounds a little more legitimate. At Brigham Young University where I got my degree, people joke that it’s the MRS degree - the degree women get to learn how to be a mom. Hilarious.
And the stigma around the MRS degree kind of fit me at the time. I had gone to BYU with every intention of getting married and absolutely no intention of having a career. I was a product of my culture. My place was to be in the home and graduating with any degree in and of itself was all I needed to accomplish.
Human Development wasn’t what I intended to study when I went to college, though. English was my first major and it felt like an obvious choice. But away from the comfort of my high school peers, many of whom I had known since elementary school, I struggled to focus on anything but worry about what other people thought of me. Am I measuring up? Do I sound smart enough? Am I supposed to be here? It was moments like the time when I was called on in class to use the word “supplant” in a sentence and I did it incorrectly that seemed to answer all these questions: No.
I moved into education where I thought I could teach. This lasted until I read through the syllabus for one of my courses at the beginning of the term, finding in horror an assignment outlining the requirement to create a video of me actually teaching. My heart raced to the unhealthy rate of a sedentary person in the middle of a marathon and I knew with absolute certainty – there was no way I was making a video of myself. Which left only one option. I had to quit the program.
Since I was three years into college with absolutely no idea what I wanted to do, I deferred to efficiency. With my transcript in one browser window and a list of programs with course requirements in another, I combed through the lists to see which program aligned with the courses I’d taken. I just needed to graduate. I settled on the degree that most closely matched the courses I had already taken and the one I could consequently graduate the soonest with.
I graduated with absolutely no plan for the future and no real understanding of myself or what I wanted. After a few feeble attempts to get a job at places I would’ve hated working, I started exploring the realm I felt most comfortable in: education. I looked for another degree (I was very familiar with the course catalog by this point) so I could stay safe in the familiarity of assignments and away from the unknown of work life and the reality of independence.
And that's how I stumbled upon school psychology. I hadn't ever heard of school psychologists before but after a few weeks of googling, I felt like I had a solid (read: glaringly naïve) understanding. I read through vague descriptions of what they do, researched salary expectations (a step in the right direction), and brought my preconceived assumptions about what anyone with the word “psychologist” in their title might do. Counseling! Helping people! Kids! These were all things I could get behind. The more I read, the more noble it sounded and the idea of one-on-one work seemed like a place where I could really thrive.
My struggles, though, began during the application process to the program. The day of the all-day interviews for the program I almost didn’t go because, you know, interviews. It took everything in me but I resisted the urge to email the program coordinator to please disregard my application. I was determined to conquer my insecurities and, in what felt like pure heroism, I showed up. And I got in.
Turns out, it wasn't just interview-anxiety but (surprise!) general-everyday-anxiety-that's-never-going-away. Every semester I hit a point where I felt like it was the wrong fit for me. I talked to one of my professors and shared my thoughts of quitting more times than I can count. I couldn’t tell if I was just being hard on myself or it truly wasn’t a good fit. I began to realize that my sure-fire system for making decisions was failing me. How could I rely on feelings when my feelings could convince me of two different things at once?
I kept going in the program. I almost quit, I cried, had panic attacks, and sat in my car during my practicum, willing myself to go inside but pushing against a wall of anxiety just to get in the door. I finished my thesis and presented at regional, national, and international conferences. I got awards for my work as an intern. “You’re so good at what you do,” people would tell me. “You’re barely making it,” I’d tell myself.
It’s not until now that I can look back and see so clearly the irony in my college experience. My educational choices culminated in becoming a school psychologist, an advocate for students with disabilities. It wasn’t a conscious decision at the time, but it was my own disabilities that led me there. With each fork in the road, I chose the path that seemed most manageable with my (then-partially-diagnosed) mental illness. I was just trying to not dread every day of my life. I wish I could say I learned to mute these voices or self-assuredly push them aside. You know, the anxiety that told me, “If you do that, the worst possible thing will happen and you’ll regret it forever.” And the depression that said, “You’re just not good enough and you shouldn’t even try.” They were the voices spoken confidently, consistently, predictably. And ultimately, I can’t deny that my mental illness played a starring role in leaving the profession altogether.
Decisions are rarely made for a single reason and my choice to stop being a school psychologist was multi-faceted. We were trained in my program to try to prevent burn-out, to practice self-care, leave work at work, and do things to actively decompress. I did my best to follow these recommendations but I ended up still internalizing a lot. I hated the weight of being considered an “expert” in something as complicated as behavior and I constantly felt I wasn’t able to help enough. I was dissatisfied with the system – the lack of progression in public education despite dramatically changing student demographics – and struggled to provide resources to fellow educators trying desperately to meet student needs despite the nation’s blatant neglect to invest in education. Work was taking over my life and yet it didn’t feel like I was making a difference. It wasn’t the kids – it was never the kids – it was everything else. I struggled to maintain my own mental health while trying to encourage positive mental health in others.
I was in the middle of my fourth year when I got an email from a community college about a job I applied to previously. They had another opening for an instructional designer and wondered if I wanted to apply. It was exactly the type of pivot I needed. I was excited about educational technology. I loved collaborating on the design of instruction, curating effective instructional materials and engineering opportunities for student engagement. It was a job I had to take.
True to my nature, leaving my job as a school psychologist brought with it a whole host of feelings of inadequacy, doubt, and failure (maybe if I had just tried a little harder. . .). These thoughts reverberate even now but in the end, I choose to frame it as advocating for myself in the same way I did so naturally for students. It felt like the best form of self-care I could give.