Terrible, Thanks for Asking

Name It - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Name It.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.


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Ryan: But I live in a world of name it, to tame it, to claim it. So I'm now naming it and I can tame it. And I think when things are unknown, they're very scary for us.


I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”

And that was Ryan. There’s a lot to name and tame and claim in this episode. There’s a lot of exploration into what it means to define and redefine your sense of self. And so, to get right to it, we are going to take you to Winona, Minnesota.

Winona is one of the cutest little college towns. It’s right on the Mississippi River, a few hours south of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Its population is under 30,000 people. And if you’re familiar with it at all, it’s probably because of the Squarespace commercials featuring Winona Ryder, who was allegedly named for this little town.

This is where we start our story with Ryan, because Ryan, who grew up in southern Minnesota farm country, went to college here in Winona. And this little town was a big deal to him.


Ryan: I mean, it's got a McDonalds and a Subway and a Target, Walmart, right in the town two miles away from college. So for me, yeah, that's you know, it's got amenities basically.

Nora: Yeah. There are places to go, baby.

Ryan: Yeah, exactly! Well, I don't have to drive 15 miles to the country to go fishing. Whoa. I don't have to drive a half hour to go to the store. What? You know, I'm in a little bit bigger, little bit more open. So for me, my mind is just rocked right now.


Ryan went to school for religious studies — he grew up Catholic, and faith was a big part of his life.


Ryan: Growing up, I'm very much into the focused missionary, the rosary devotions, the going to Eucharistic adoration down the line. I think, as I'm trying to find my identity at 16, 17 years old, I'm into that stuff. And then so right out of high school, seminary makes sense. 


For a lot of people, going to college is a chance to find yourself. But it can just as easily be a place to lose yourself, and that’s what starts to happen to Ryan.


Ryan: I am a 19-year-old college student and seminarian and metal head, and I decide to take off on fall break to Toronto to see Iron Maiden, and I have my first beer and fall in love — in Toronto, at the Air Canada Center. I don't know what it's called now. And it's a Molson Dark. And I'm watching Iron Maiden. And it's this magical, amazing experience. As I close my eyes, I'm right back there, and I'm drunk as sin off of one beer, because I've never drank before, and in heaven. I think some people call it the beer jacket. I'm very warm, and my head is kind of up in outer space and floating, and my body feels, you know, warm and relaxed and it's a freeing feeling almost. 


Ryan loves alcohol. It’s an escape hatch, a warm blanket. But he doesn’t have a problem with alcohol. No, no no. He drinks as excessively as any other college student. Which, in the U.S., is a lot.


Ryan: And my relationship with alcohol becomes: I can get through my day. So 8, 9, 10, whatever time the alarm clock goes off, I can make it to class. I can make it through my part-time job. And then by the time 4, 5 o'clock hits, it's immediately: backpack goes off and I've got the bottle open.

Nora: So the people in your life, do they mention that the problem might be alcohol? 

Ryan: Very few mentioned it. One friend comes to me one night in the midst of junior year, and he's very scared in this moment, very nervous, I can tell, to even bring it up. But he notices the pattern every single night. So alcohol and I have ramped up from three or four nights a week to seven nights a week of not just one or two drinks, but until blind drunk. So we've created a really codependent romance. And he comes to me and shares his concern that my drinking is out of control and that I maybe should think about getting help. And very few were willing to do that. Most just decided that I can't handle this and have fallen away now. 

Nora: Like... what should it feel like to hear, “You have a problem, you should probably get help.”

Ryan: It felt like I just put brand new tires on my car and somebody’s telling me, “You really need new tires.” So I'm thinking, what are you talking about? You're not even making sense. I'm in this place of, “This doesn't make any sense. There's no problem here.”

My human relationships become more complex and difficult. I mean, I am in a place where I think, “Why is everyone falling away?” or, “Why am I arguing with everyone and why can't I get along with anyone?” So they become more complex, more difficult to sustain. And I get to a point where now, everyone is hard to deal with. No one understands me. I'm different. But there's not a problem, here.


No issue, just strained relationships and hangovers! Things are FINE! Ryan finishes undergrad and moves on to a graduate program in education. And even though it’s a lot more work than undergrad, he still makes plenty of time for drinking.


Ryan: So I'm in graduate school, which ... I have decided to continue graduate school at my alma mater. And I'm having two 40s, which seems totally fine, because that's warm up in my world, and doing some homework with a classmate. And we end doing homework. That's fine. We spend three or four hours finishing that. And I decide that I am not ready to go to bed. And I'm now with another friend who enables me actively ... driving around in the middle of the country at night blind drunk, not quite blacked out, but I remember only hazy details, and find myself being pulled over and eventually in a jail cell in the county jail. And it is the most disgusting hostel I've ever been in in my life. And so I use the word “hostel” because it's just this, you know, disgusting little room. And there's this light in the ceiling that's really dim yellow. And there is human waste smeared on the wall and it's 55 degrees in there. And I'm on a metal slat. And I've called every person in my phone to get me out, maybe except my parents, because I'm not in a place where that's even a reality to tell them about this. And nobody answers for probably two hours.


Every person in Ryan’s phone lets the call go to voicemail. When he’s finally released, he’s in bad shape, so a friend tells their professor Ryan has the flu, so Ryan can sleep it off.


Ryan: And then I wake up from this haze in this absolute moment of shame. I mean, it's so much deeper than that. And I walk over to the school building and speak to a professor and just say what happens and share that I've been arrested. I missed school because I was hungover and sleeping it off. And now I'm not sure where my life's going, and I'm not sure how to talk to my family about this. And she tells me, “Well first, maybe we need to address the bigger problem before addressing the DWI. Maybe we need to address that it's possible you have a problem with alcohol.” And what three or four years previously feels like, “What are you talking about in terms of a conversation around alcohol problems?” now feels like being hit by a train.Whoa. How come no one ever told me that?” is going through my mind, even though I well know someone has told me that. It's very humbling, and it's very powerful, and it's very sad and equally freeing, because now I have some sort of dart board to throw my darts at. I have some sort of target to say, “Damn. That really is probably what's going on,” and so I'm terrified as well as free of this unknown demon in my life.

Nora: Does identifying the demon help?

Ryan: I live in a world of name it, to tame it, to claim it. So I'm now naming it, and I can tame it. And I think when things are unknown, they're very scary for us. And when I'm in the midst of my addiction right now, and the sickest time I've ever been in my life, I'm looking for anything to grasp on to. So I am able to grab on to, “This is my problem. All right. I can do something about it.” 


Name it, tame it, claim it. There’s the name: addiction. But the taming and the claiming take time. And a part of that is Ryan meeting people outside of his drinking circle, including an eccentric older guy who is a part of the art scene in Winona. Ryan is invited to his house, which is covered in rainbow flags...


Ryan: He's got things that say, “The queen is out; not accepting visitors today.” And I'm like, is this guy gay? And I'm asking myself. So I ended up deciding to get the guts to ask him after seeing a book in the bathroom that had rainbow flags all over it. And so this is totally rocking my world, because I'm coming from a world of still very ... as much as college can be eye-opening in a small town, it can still be very sheltered. And so I'm coming out of this sheltered sort of mentality of gay as morally disordered and intrinsically evil. And just my mind is blown. So I get the guts to ask him, “Larry, are you gay?” “What gave it away? My Brooklyn Queens shirt, the rainbow flags in the bathroom, or my earring in my right ear?” And everyone just erupts in laughter, like, “You don't know this?” [laughs]


This older man, Larry, is sober. Larry has lived many lives before he landed here in rural Minnesota. And he helps guide Ryan into this new version of his life. A life beyond alcohol and towards … who knows what. And because Larry becomes so important to Ryan, Ryan wants to share Larry with his family. He invites Larry to dinner at the family farm … knowing that his family believes that being gay is wrong. It’s a sin.


Nora: Did your parents know beforehand?

Ryan: They did, because I told them, and I said, “I need you guys to not be judgmental. And I know what you believe in, but I need you to understand this man is important to me. He's important to my sobriety, and he's like an older uncle for me. And I need you all to meet each other.My grandparents end up chatting his ear off, and he them, because they're around the same age, and they just have a ball speaking about what it was like, you know, like, “Oh, in the ‘70s it was like ... in the ‘60s it was like …” and they just have a ball chatting it up. And Larry is in his glory, speaking about what it used to be like being a Brother. And he's just having a ball. And my parents are so happy to have such an interesting man to dinner that has had such an impact on my life. And it really is a moment of … maybe now the deadbolt on the area of sexuality ...  maybe the door's not open and maybe the door’s not unlocked, but the deadbolts may be unlocked.


The deadbolt unlocking is the one that tells Ryan, “You’re straight. Straight is the only way to be. End of story.” This man, Larry, is gay. He also used to be a Christian Brother. 

And if you don’t know what that means … we had Ryan explain it for you.


Ryan: St. John Baptist De La Salle, the founder of the Christian Brothers, invented the idea of how we teach today. So the Brothers are a group of lay, Catholic, religious, vowed men who live in community together, run, operate and work in schools and try to spread the gospel in a way that gives children and even young adults the college a human and Christian education. 

Nora: What was your first encounter with a Christian Brother?

Ryan: Oh, my God. This is my favorite story of all of my stories of Christian Brothers: So I am growing up in a small town in Minnesota and went to college at St. Mary's University in Winona, Minnesota. So I have no concept until college of the Brothers. And my first class in college, you know, rest in peace Brother Stephen Russen, he was my first college professor of any. And so Monday morning at 8 a.m., I'm sitting in class and I'm with my freshman classmates, and Brother Stephen walks in in the robe of the Christian Brothers. So it's a long, black, flowing robe with a white collar. English barristers wear these to this day in court. And he comes in and sets the books on the desk and verbatim, "Sit the hell down and shut the fuck up." Everyone is terrified, sits down, silence, and proceeds with, “And let us remember we're in the holy presence of God.” (Both: Laughing) So my mind is absolutely blown. That's my first experience with the Brothers.


We’ll be right back.





And we’re back. Ryan is finishing his graduate program. He’s sober. He’s been spending a lot of time thinking about what’s next.


Ryan: One of the major pillars of a 12-step program is service to others. And I start to realize I don't feel fulfilled simply just serving through chairing meetings, or simply through doing call drives, or answering the phone. I feel this deeper call, this deeper hunger to serve in a more radical way, and I'm reflecting back on meeting so many of the Brothers that I met in my time at college, that these are just the most — this is the most unbelievable, unbelievable group of men. This can't be real. This is some sort of fantasy land. But they're real. And I'm getting to know them. And I'm doing that and realize I need — it’s not even a want — it’s a need to serve in a bigger way. And the Brothers seems like the way that I can definitely do this. I can turn my life into service. So now I'm literally daily living my sobriety in a direct way. And so they're interconnected in that service piece.


For Ryan, that means … joining the Christian Brothers. The organization that Larry had belonged to, that the professor who told them to sit down, shut up, and realize they were in the holy presence of God belonged to. It’s a natural choice for a guy who has been through several years of religious education … and it’s also more than that. 


Ryan: I mean, I think it is a calling in the sense of it's in your heart. And it always, for me, is this “maybe that's what I should do.” There's always a maybe in there. It's rarely a very certain thing. Once I decide, it's very certain. But in the midst of the discerning, it's very “maybe this is the thing.” So I think there is a calling. And then there's also a long period of intentional discerning with a vocation director. And then there's an application to fill out, which I'm not kidding is 500 pages long, and a psychological evaluation, and health evaluation. And there's a lot of hoops, but it's legalistic and understandable. And then you join, and you start out with what's called postulancy — based on that word “postulate,” which ... thinking about. You do one to two years of that. Then you go into your novitiate, which every religious order has in the Catholic Church. It's required. So it's this time period of deep contemplation and study — as deep as I can go with it. And then after that, you take vows, and that is one year at a time for a period of up to seven or eight years. And then eventually, if you decide to go with it, as you're discerning all this, you could take final vows, and then that's for life.

Nora: For life.

Ryan: For life.


Part of those lifetime vows are celibacy, foregoing any and all romantic relationships.

But in the process of becoming a Brother … Ryan meets someone. 


Ryan: So I meet him because he's also a Brother at the time, and we're living in community in our novitiate together. So we have lived in postulancy together but created a friendship, and then one night in the middle of novitiate, we find both of ourselves in my room and listening to records and hanging out, and pretty soon we're in the bed together. And this is a major no no in a lot of ways. But in another way it's, in talking about it and going through the turmoil, finding out no, this is part of novitiate, discovering who you are. And I work where I previously would have said I'm not gay, or I'm not bi, or I'm not a member of the LGBT community, I now am finding myself enjoying this and feeling very conflicted, because now I'm enjoying something that I've been wired to believe is intrinsically morally disordered. I'm doing something that I'm told I shouldn't be doing. And so there's a rush from this. But there's also a deeper sense of “something has been awakened in me that probably was there the whole time that I just didn't realize or wasn't privy to.


He doesn’t name or claim this part of himself. He tames it, I guess, by just ignoring it.


Ryan: And this is where the Venn diagram separates into two circles in my life. So now, where I previously was able to sort of have “right, here are these things that are just for Ryan.” Like, I like reading Punisher comic books at night. Nobody really needs to know that, because it doesn't affect anything. There's these little personal quirks of mine that aren't part of Brother Ryan. But there's a Venn diagram where they intersect. Now is the time when, in a lot of ways, Brother Ryan is an actor on the world stage, and Ryan is the real person.


Ryan the person is … queer, bisexual. And loves listening to metal and The Grateful Dead. He likes sneakers. Brother Ryan is a person who has taken religious vows. And the two of them have to find a way to exist together.

I met Ryan when he was a theology teacher and student mentor at the high school that I attended. But Ryan is younger than me, so by the time he was a Brother, he was our oldest kid’s academic mentor. Ian was a sophomore when he transferred to the same Catholic high school where I had been a student, and Ryan was his theology teacher. Ian had no religious education previously. He came home from his first day absolutely freaking, panicking. “NOBODY TOLD ME THAT JESUS IS GOD’S SON! I AM GOING TO FAIL THIS CLASS!” Absolutely losing it. 

And the next day, Brother Ryan had brought Ian an illustrated children’s Bible and told him, “This will help you get the gist of what we’re talking about in class.” It was such a gracious and unexpected gesture. He was known around school as Bro Ryan — in fact, that was his email address — and I was struck by how young he was. When I’d gone to this school, all the Brothers were much, much older … like grandfathers who seemed otherworldly. They lived in an adjacent building that no students were allowed into, and then they popped into our world to teach us geometry, or biology, or world religions. 

So knowing Ryan — learning about this world — is fascinating to me.


Ryan: So I get up, have coffee, pray, do yoga — running sometimes. And then it looks like starting to make my way over to school by 7, 7:30. I'm teaching. I'm involved with sports teams. I'm involved with kids’ lives after school in the hallway. I'm just immersing myself into the culture of the school and immersing myself in as a Brother. And the excitement around me being there is so high, I've decided I'm just going to roll with it. People are so excited to have a young Brother here. I can fight this, and just try to put my head down, or I can just roll with it. And I've decided this can be as miserable or as fun as I want it to be. So let's have fun. And I just kind of let the adult stuff slide and got involved with the kids and hanging with them and journeying with them. And classroom teaching is, on one hand, the easiest thing I've ever done in my life. I can do it in my sleep. So school day ends, and I go back to my house. So it's not a convent. It's not a monastery. It's a building on campus. And the admission office is on the first floor. But the second and third floor is literally a house. But we have a dining room. We have a kitchen. We have bathrooms with toilets that flush, and sinks, and electricity, a living room with a TV and cable, a computer room with Internet. So we have amenities that everyone that's pretty much living in the 21st century has. And we're living with other brothers — a couple of which are retired, couple of which are in the classroom or in the school — and then two volunteers who have decided to live for a year in community and experience what that and the ministry is like.

Nora: That building did have some mystique to it. (Ryan: Oh, yeah). There was one brother who I think had the biggest impact on me academically, who would sit outside and smoke cigarettes. (Ryan: laughing) And I thought like, are you supposed to be doing that? Like I just was like, aren't you supposed to be not a person? Are you supposed to be just sort of an object of religious something or other? And no, he was just out there just chain smoking every single day. And talking immense amounts of shit to us, and I love that man forever.

Ryan: Oh, yeah. Once I lived with him for a brief period. You always knew what he was home because you would smell pipe tobacco burning from inside his bedroom. 

Nora: God, good for him.

Ryan: Smelling up the whole stairwell. 

Nora: Good for him. So to live in community isn't just like, sort of like, the day to day stuff. It's also like communal property. It's also communal money, which is, I think actually in a lot of ways, really beautiful. Like I think people are becoming more aware of sort of the problems of individualistic living, and capitalism, and community living in this way is really meant to make sure that you're taking care of one another for the long haul. So what does that mean for your biweekly paycheck? 

Ryan: There is no biweekly paycheck. You get once-a-month stipend, and it's a small amount. But the converse flipside of that is there's no bills to pay. Those are all paid by the community. So I'm not worrying about utilities. I'm not worrying about the rent. I'm not worrying about student loan payments. I'm not worrying about car insurance. I'm not worrying about filling up the car. And on and on and on and on and on, down the line of bills we have to pay. Financially, you are just free to be focused on the community you're with and the students you're serving. It’s very beautiful in that way.

Nora: That is really beautiful. How much money is not a lot of money?

Ryan: Like, 350 dollars a month.

Nora: Of purely discretionary income, because you and everything else is literally paid for.

Ryan: Everything else is literally paid for. So that sounds, “Wow, $350 to spend however I want.” However, you know, one of my hobbies, just like seeing the Rolling Stones. Well, I got to save for like three months to be able to do that. Or, I want to take a trip and see family that live somewhere else. All right. That's maybe six months of savings. So it's a double-edged sword. You have to think about, very consciously, how am I using this money in a proper way? And how am I using it to either give life to myself or help others?

You have a lot of people who are living in the same building together. Sometimes it feels very freeing. Other times it feels like you're right on top of each other. It's different in that, we are all intentionally there. I didn't just get thrown into the scum dorm with a roommate and said deal with it. I intentionally chose to say yes and intentionally entering into a community that lives, prays, eats, spends time together. 

Nora: But even people who are called religiously don't always unload the dishwasher. 

Ryan: People who are called to religious life don't always even flush the toilet. So, listener, you can use your imagination. (Nora: Oh, ew.) Imperfect humans coming together, intentionally. [laughing]


We’ll be right back.





And we’re back. The vow Ryan takes as a Brother is a vow for life, like a marriage vow. Nobody takes it thinking that it’s only for a while. But the unnamed part of himself — the part that felt connection and lust and release with that man so many years ago — it can’t go unnamed forever. 


Nora: When you shed alcohol from your life, you have a clearer sense of who you are. And now, you're sort of like, suppressing it for a completely different reason and in different ways.

Ryan: Yeah, big time. Whereas in the past, I'm suppressing it because it's about getting my high and getting my fix and getting drunk, and dealing with those things, now it's about, suppressing it to make sure that I stay employed, and to make sure that I keep my status within the life and organization that I've built for myself. So now it's not just about get my rocks off. Now it's about, “Do you value not being homeless? And do you value being able to really make an impact on the lives of these kids? Then you need to keep your mouth shut.” And no one ever tells me this. And I would be curious to hear other people who have similar coming out stories — not necessarily religious life — but feeling that this sense of pressure that, “I need to preserve the status quo in order to maintain the positives I have going on in my life. I can't out myself, because it would mean I'll lose everything.”

Nora: And I mean, it's not just your work environment. Your entire life is wrapped up in one identity, if that makes sense. You know, you named yourself as a Brother. You cannot also name yourself as gay in a community where somebody told you that yoga was the devil's movement. 

Ryan: Yeah. [laughing] You can't, because you find yourself in a place where anything that is different is a threat. Anyone that is different is a threat. So I am in a place where I'm struggling so deeply, because I resonate with so many members of that community that are struggling to just be heard — just look at me in the eye, hear me, give me a voice — that are stifled daily. And I can't do a thing about it, because I'm also a member of the stifled. And this is when the cracks in the foundation start appearing. And I feel like I'm barely able to hold it together, like Atlas with the world on his shoulders.

Nora: You represent an oppressor while you are the oppressed.

Ryan: Correct.


It’s very hard to talk about Catholicism without acknowledging the abuse that has happened within the church. And while abuse isn’t limited to the Catholic church — it happens all over, everywhere — it feels very complicated, knowing Ryan, talking to Ryan, that he exists to serve kids in a structure that has harmed a lot of children and in a structure that still insists on naming being gay as a sin, even though we’re all created by God.


Ryan: I mean, there have been multiple times when laying in bed literally the entire night crying because of the abuse. Spending sleepless nights nearly giving myself an ulcer, trying to reconcile, “How do I get up and put this collar on — whether figuratively or literally — every day and continue to do this, and reassure my students that they're safe here, rather than a predator in front of them?” I can't tell you the countless amount of nights I spent just in the turmoil of trying to be in a place that provided shelter, safety and peace and not one that provided anxiety and evil and abuse. 

And so I think it's challenging. It's challenging. It can really consume you. But I found myself having to remind myself, “All right, I may represent the abuser. And my collar that I wear may represent that. But I am not that. And I need to continue to reflect on this. I need to continue to do the right thing, and continue to talk about it, and let my actions speak for themselves and be a place that is a safe harbor and one of peace, not one of abuse.”


But being a safe harbor when you yourself don’t feel fully safe … that is hard. And Ryan knows that his queerness is not safe within his religious community.


Ryan: I get the attitude that, “If you are different than me, you are not worthy of my respect.” That's the attitude that I'm interpreting and hearing. And then my response is, “If you go there, in a place where you are belittling another person because they're different from you, my respect for you is gone, and you never will get it back.” Once my respect is gone, it's over. So because I have spent so much time and so much of my life trying to stand with, not stand up for, not be the savior, but stand with and help to give the tools to the marginalized, that I don't have time for those who are unwilling to unwire their biases.


That first man that Ryan hooked up with when they were both what is called novices in novitiate — they’ve started to form a relationship by this time. It’s hidden and it’s closeted, but it’s romantic, and it’s real. And there is only so long Ryan will be able to live as two separate people.


Ryan: I went to a Brother that I trusted, because I came out while I was still vowed in the Brothers. And so there was levels of coming out, because publicly, Brother Ryan was not out. Brother Ryan was a Catholic, rule-following Brother. He liked to have fun, and he was off the wall, and he was kind of goofy and liked the Grateful Dead and the course of who Ryan is came through. But when it came down to it, Brother Ryan, the mask that I put on, was not able to advocate and articulate for Ryan.


Part of that advocacy and articulation means telling his family. That he’s no longer a Christian Brother … and that he’s gay.


Ryan: Hours and dollars of therapy. So many dollars of therapy went into this moment that I'm at right now, of being able to dial the phone. And I finally do it. “Mom, I need to talk to you. And you and Dad aren't going to understand.” And then the conversation goes, and I ripped the entire Band-Aid off of, “I'm leaving the Brothers. I'm moving out onto my own. I'm gay and I have a boyfriend,” is the conversation. And the angst and animosity and anxiety and stress and depression and … name the feeling that doesn't feel good is happening inside of me at this moment. At this moment in my life, it feels like the hardest conversation I've ever had. And it feels harder than the one that I say, “I'm an alcoholic.”

Nora: So when you tell your parents you're an alcoholic, how do they respond? And when you tell them you are gay, have a boyfriend, you're leaving the Brotherhood, how do they respond?

Ryan: I could walk down the street in every in any town, USA and say, “Do you know someone that's an alcoholic?” One hundred percent of people would say, “I know someone.” It's accepted. It's a part of our fabric, of our culture in a lot of ways. And that AA, NA, 12-step programs, abuse of substances is just part of it. Culturally and societally, we're still waking up to this idea that “someone that I know is a member of the LGBTQ community.” So there's a social acceptance in alcoholism, there's not in a small town Catholic family in Minnesota and be gay. So the first one is anger and the second conversation of, “Mom and Dad, I'm gay. I'm leaving the Brothers, I have a boyfriend,” is met with crying, sadness, silence for over two weeks, an unwillingness to even speak to me. 

Nora: When they're not when they're not speaking to you, like, how does that feel? And are you trying to send them text messages? Like, I don't know if there's something worse than like than someone you love blocking you out.

Ryan: Oh, it's the worst feeling. Loss is what I've been living in. Again, it seems like it's a continual losing of something. So it's this deep loss, and it's this deep sadness and depression that I call them and they … one-word answers. They answer: “We're fine. Things are good. Yeah. We went to work today.” And eventually they soften up, but in the moment, it just is such a deep wound that … all I'm trying to do is share my life with you. And all I'm looking for is love and acceptance unconditionally. And what you're able to give me right now — because the wound is so deep for you as well — is one-word answers and not really responding to my text messages.

Nora: This kind of confirms, like, a lot of fears, too.

Ryan: It does, because I think: What if they block me out for good? I've heard horror stories of people coming out, and their parents abandoning them for life. One man told me his dad didn't speak to him for over two years. Not even like on the phone or in person. He'd go home and Dad would just walk out of the room and not speak to him. So it's almost like it's confirming my worst fears that I've now lost everything and everyone. 


He hopes he can eventually be queer AND be a part of his family. But he KNOWS he cannot be queer and still be a brother. And that identity and relationship was more than just a job. Leaving it means leaving all of his material comforts. 

When you leave a regular job, you leave with your personal savings, your 401k, your stapler. When you leave a religious order based on communal living and finances, you leave with nothing. 


Ryan: So I know it's going to mean it's going to be a struggle, and I know it's going to mean I'm going to need to get out of the way of my pride and ask people for help that I know are able to. And I know that it's even though financially, I'm going to feel broken and uncertain and probably anxious for a while, I also I'm going to be provided freedom to really fully explore: Who is Ryan? Who am I? That existential question that in some ways I was able to explore while still a Brother. The things that I maybe fear are being broke, losing my job or being homeless. Bringing shame and guilt to my family and name, losing my identity. Not having the support of the people around me that I thought I did. Not being successful, or not making it. So those are kind of some of the fears. And I think some of it is the unknown. I don't know how this is going to go. So I'm afraid of not knowing.

Nora: And I mean, you're losing your housing. You know, there's no 401k, right? Like, when you leave, what do you leave with, and what do you leave behind?

Ryan: You leave behind your entire life and now take on an entirely new life. So I lost literally every piece of security I had. And as much as the ministry is wonderful, and as much as the lifestyle is amazing, and as much as, being a Brother, you don't have to worry about finances, when you're not in a religious order where, you know, Brother Sugar Daddy is paying the bills, finances mean everything. And I'm finding that out. As much as it's not my number one priority in life, at the same time, the lights need to stay on, and food needs to stay on the table. And the only way that's happening is to work for it. Help as well, obviously. But in the long-term, as far as daily living and moving forward, that needs to happen. And so you lose all of that security. And I'm left with: the ability to purchase a car, not given one. I'm left with the ability to keep my job. I'm left with the ability to earn an income. And I'm left with the ability to rent a place from the school I'm working at. So I'm left with the ability to spend money that I currently don't have but that I have a promise of making. And I'm left with this uncertainty and this sort of fear that what if this doesn't work out? 


What if it doesn’t work out? That relationship that started as novices and was enough to propel Ryan out of the closet and out of the Brotherhood is over. Ryan’s family has softened and warmed to him, even if they don’t really talk about him being queer. And Ryan has moved on to a new career mentoring young men in the criminal justice system — advocating for them, believing in them and helping create opportunities for them.

At the beginning of this episode, Ryan said that if he can name it, he can claim it and he can tame it. All of those Ryans — the one in active addiction, the one pursuing religious life, the one who first kissed another man as they were both entering a religious community that forbade any kind of romantic relationship, and the one who stepped away from everything safe and stable — they all exist as one Ryan now.

To paraphrase Whitman, we contradict ourselves. Yes! We contain multitudes. Most lives have these kaleidoscopic shifts in identity as we try to get closer and closer to who we actually are. It can be so scary and so disorienting and — to me,  at least — it is so soothing, knowing that this is part of the process, that we are not meant to live within a singular definition of what it means to be ourselves, but to refine that definition or resist it altogether.

So, who is Ryan now? It depends.


Ryan: When I step out of my own body and look at who Ryan is, it's: Ryan is an artist. Ryan is a mentor to young men in the criminal justice system. Ryan is a runner. Ryan is an aspiring yogi. Ryan is someone doing his best, just trying to hold it together every day and not get high on his horse. And Ryan is someone that's just trying to stay sober. 

Nora: What parts of the Brotherhood do you still carry with you?

Ryan: I still carry with me — and I think I will — my way of being with other people. For me, just building relationship is the greatest gift that I have to give to others. And being a Brother too is the greatest gift. I just have this uncanny gift, and people are amazed by. That’s not me being arrogant. I could walk into any room anywhere, whether it's urban, rural, in between, just build trust and build relationship and build some bond with people, no matter where they're at. And so I carry that with me and that's my experience with Brothers, is they just are these men that are able to just be with other people and walk along the path with them. And so I take that with me, I think.


This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. Our production team is me, Marcel Malekebu, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Hannah Meacock Ross and Jordan Turgeon. We got help for this episode ... who helped ... I think it was Beth? I think Beth helped on this episode. Pretty sure Beth helped on this episode. Thank you, Beth! You are our editor! You are new here. We appreciate you! 

What else? What else? Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson. We are a production of American Public Media. This episode was recorded in my closet. I hope you are all doing well. I don’t know why I treat this … I always treat the credits like I'm leaving a voicemail. God help you if you ever get a voicemail from me. It'll be nine minutes long. 

If you haven’t yet, check out TTFA Premium. It is a way to get ad-free episodes and some bonus content that we’ve been creating. It’s a great way to support this show. Also listening is supporting our show. It’s all supporting the show. But new stuff! New stuff coming out! Go to TTFA.org/Premium to get TTFA Premium. 

We are going to be taking a publishing break soon to work on the next season, work on more episodes. Gotta get back to the podcast mines, keep digging up stories, shining them up and shipping them out. So thank you so much for everything. It’s pretty cool to have this job, and I am grateful for it. So thank you. Bye!