Sober Gay Man Seeks…What, Exactly, He’s No Longer Sure

A survivor of childhood sexual abuse now in recovery, Larry Ruhl finds himself adrift in the age of hookup apps.

Larry Ruhl | TMI Project | April 2018 | 8 minutes (2,005 words)

This essay is published in collaboration with TMI Project, a non-profit organization offering transformative memoir workshops and performances that invite storytellers and audience members to explore new perspectives. By sharing their personal stories, storytellers become agents of change. Larry told an abbreviated version of this story in the spring of 2017.

I feel my face flush as I consider what I’m about to do. I’m in my kitchen, at the table. This is the sixth or seventh time I’ve done this, in the span of a few years. I pull up the App Store on my phone and type in the word that makes me cringe, and feel oddly exhilarated all at once. The familiar yellow-orange logo appears. I hit the icon to reinstall Grindr on my phone.

I tell myself, This time will be different.

With my new Grindr profile almost complete, I look forward to what I hope will be the fun part — chatting with men. But first I have to fill in the field that describes my body type. The choices in the menu include Toned (I do like the way that sounds), Average (this one just depresses me), Slim (a possibility), and Muscular (despite repeated efforts, I am not). Or I can choose to leave it blank, but when it comes to dealing with anonymous gay men this is not an option. We want to know. I sweat it out for a solid two minutes, then go with Slim.

I ignore, at least for now, the fields of “I’m Looking For” and “My Tribes” which includes a list of descriptive terms such as Bear, Daddy, Leather, Otter, Poz, Rugged, Trans, and Twink. They make my head spin. For my profile picture, I choose a photo of a thin, semi-hairy shirtless man from a Google search, and crop it accordingly. I‘m too embarrassed to show my own chest, with its flaws and lack of definition, and showing my face is simply out of the question.

I pause when I get to the relationship status field. My husband and I have been together for almost 20 years. At the 10-year mark, after much consideration and help from a couple’s therapist, we negotiated the terms of what is now our open relationship. I know I’ll limit my options by selecting Married, but I don’t want to lie and mark Single either. Picking Open Relationship feels like I’m revealing something too personal, so I choose Partnered, and prepare for the influx of inquiries about threesomes — something I don’t do.

I hit “Save” and return to the home screen to start the process of scrolling through men’s profiles to block anyone I know. A neighbor, former customers of mine, cashiers, I block them all with the hope of avoiding any embarrassing exchanges.

I’m barely through my first round of blocking anyone familiar, when I see the red dot indicating I’ve got a new message. It doesn’t take long before I’m tripped up by a young guy who says he’s 22. I’m 45.

***

“What are you into?”

I hate this question.

To be honest, I’m not sure myself.

Plus he’s just too young. I type back a simple response.

“Sorry. Not into younger guys.”

He responds immediately. “Awww come on. I like older men. I’m looking for a daddy.”

I stare at my phone, and my face heats up again. I pace. At times, I’ve been able to laugh off this kind of scenario. But today I feel vulnerable. My nerves are raw; I dissociate.

I imagine what might happen if I answer him with brutal honesty.

“You’ve just reminded me that I probably don’t belong on Grindr. Wanna know why? No? I’ll tell you anyway. I was sexually abused as a young boy, for many years. But here’s the tricky part. The man who did this to me was my father. Or as I called him when I was four, ‘Daddy’.”

My mind floods with shoulds.

I should have this figured out by now.

I should know exactly what I find erotic and not be pulled back into what happened with my father.

I pull up the App Store on my phone and type in the word that makes me cringe, and feel oddly exhilarated all at once. The familiar yellow-orange logo appears. I hit the icon to reinstall Grindr on my phone.

I should be able to see my own husband now as I did 18 years ago, when my panic and anxiety and addiction kept me from acknowledging the truth of my past.

I should feel normal.

I should feel comfortable in the gay community.

The reality of my everyday life hits me in moments like these. I struggled for years to come to terms with what my father had done to me and how those memories affected my relationships.

After being with my husband for many years, I suddenly feared seeing him without his shirt on in our own home. I had to ask him to switch his brand of deodorant as the scent of it reminded me of my father. And after years of being physically close in bed, I needed for him not to touch me. I felt unsafe.

This is the truth about the price I’ve paid for gaining clarity and finding acceptance for what happened to me. And the truth is what I am left with.

The truth is I‘m triggered; the truth is I struggle to understand myself sexually. I struggle to understand what feels safe, and I mostly want to disregard intimacy, as it seems impossible to navigate.

***

My father’s visits to my bedroom started before I began kindergarten. The sexual abuse I endured was painful, confusing, and life-altering. Throughout my life he continued to embrace me, kiss me on my mouth, my neck, and whisper in my ear just how much he loved me, leaving me in the chaos of my own senses and body responses, even decades later.

The other part of the truth is that despite all this, I am still alive.

I did not succumb to the suicide I fantasized about for years. I did not abandon life with my husband. I did not die of alcoholism.

In fact, I am in love with my now-husband, and I am loved in return. I even feel joy.

I truly believed life was easier when I numbed myself with endless quantities of gin. I could send inappropriate texts. Pretending to be secure and self-assured, I could even chat on Grindr or make overtures like a man who knew exactly what he wanted.

In a blacked-out state of mind, I could be what I imagined a real man to be.


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But in spite of this liquid freedom, my days of numbing myself with alcohol had to end.

I discovered early on that drinking not only gave me this bold sexual self but that it was also the best way to combat the flashbacks to childhood that interrupted my thoughts at unpredictable times.

What started off as a single shot to “take the edge off” more often than not resulted in copious amounts of booze until I reached a place of blacked-out mindlessness. While I had bouts of cruelty that I directed at my husband, I was not a violent drunk like my mother.

My husband and I have been together for almost 20 years. At the 10-year mark, after much consideration and help from a couple’s therapist, we negotiated the terms of what is now our open relationship.

I operated under the clouded belief system of, “If what happened to me, happened to you, you’d drink too.” My alcoholic coping mechanism took its toll on my mind and body. I had to stop.

Sobriety forced me to feel everything and by doing that, I felt the remote possibility of healing — if I stopped running away from the truth of my past.

But sobriety did not come easily.

***

The months leading up to my surrender to acknowledging my alcoholism found me sneaking gulps of gin from a juice glass I kept with my secret stash of extra booze in our basement. I ignored the daily nausea and pounding headaches, and I avoided looking at my bloated face and body.

On a two-night business trip to New York City, my first stop was the liquor store, where I bought bottles of gin and vodka for the “downtime” I’d have in my room in between hitting local bars and restaurants. On my second morning, I awoke feeling drugged, barely able to get out of bed.

For some reason, that particular morning, I accepted defeat. I turned to a friend for help, and his guidance provided me with a way forward. It was not easy, but I knew I had reached the end of a long and debilitating drinking career.

Stopping to catch my breath for any reason has never been easy for me. I believed if I was at rest, I was a target, more easily available for harm. When, in an effort to heal, I first sat down to write out what happened to me at the hands of my father I became so unnerved that I feared relapsing. With just a year of sobriety under my belt, remaining still long enough to tell my story felt dangerous.

***

My life at home as a child was filled with violence and abuse. My mother beat my father in rage-fueled outbursts regularly, and my father sought his own idea of nurturing, by coming into my bedroom after everyone else was asleep, leaving me with a burden of shame that has lasted a lifetime.

I learned to turn against myself, to see myself as weak and pathetic. I caved in from the pressure of my parents even when I finally had the opportunity to escape by attending college far away. Instead, I stayed home for two years to attend community college, fulfilling the wishes of my parents to not leave them alone.

When I did find the courage to leave, I landed in New York City and believed at the time that I was free, that I knew then what I had to do. But anxiety and panic ran through my bloodstream. I struggled to accept my sexuality and found myself sexually active with both men and women. Each sexual encounter felt like a great mystery, as I attempted to find what felt good, natural, and normal.

In the earliest days with my husband, I enjoyed feeling free and not pressured, ignoring the nagging dark thoughts that I kept away with booze.

But eventually the memories of my childhood and my father emerged, and they threatened to take me down. I could not fathom finding the strength or clarity to navigate life, let alone understand who I was as a sexual being. I craved normality and desperately tried various means to find it.

Apps like Grindr felt like harmless research tools.

They were not.

I discovered solace in the care of an understanding and willing therapist. I often resented the process, but over the course of many years I made progress. I remained committed to answering the tough questions about how my past influenced my present, and I slowly figured out ways to separate the two.

My stubbornness remained, even when other less desirable traits finally left me. I remained convinced that the way to understand my sexuality was through trial and error, leading me to countless disappointments and harsh self-judgments.

I discovered early on that drinking not only gave me this bold sexual self but that it was also the best way to combat the flashbacks to childhood that interrupted my thoughts at unpredictable times.

Getting sober was my tipping point.

I made the decision to live, to remain dedicated to moving forward regardless of setbacks.

***

Staring at Grindr today, I finally understand that I’m not who I used to be when I looked at it on my phone before.

I am aware that my addictive mind leads me to moments of compulsion. I feel fortunate not to have succumbed to a sexual addiction that often befalls survivors of sexual abuse. The entrapments of reenactments and the seemingly endless cycle of self-loathing that can ensue are too high a price to pay.

I realize I’m thrown off my hard-won game by delving into an outlet meant for casual sexual hookups with men. I don’t belong there.

Owning this truth grounds me. I know what I need to do.

***

As I hold my finger on the X near the app, it asks, Are you sure? By deleting this, you will also delete all the data.

Yes, I’m sure.

This one small act, like so many these days, feels like a big victory.

I still navigate feelings of weakness, when my mind tells me I should be “over it all” by now. I no longer have to listen to that voice.

I understand, better than ever, some things will never go away.

How I face them is my choice.

* * *

Larry Ruhl is an artist and writer living in New York’s Hudson Valley. He’s the author of Breaking the Ruhls, a memoir about recovering from childhood sexual abuse and complex trauma. He will be in conversation with TMI Project Executive Director Eva Tenuto on Saturday, April 14th from 3-5pm at the Hudson Valley LBGTQ Center in Kingston, NY.

Editor: Sari Botton