The rain pitter-pattered on the sidewalk awning and mixed with the sounds of active airplanes, taxis and buses. Palm trees swayed to the wind as I waited with two bags at my feet. Taxi drivers inquired where my final destination would be and I affirmed to them that my ride would arrive shortly. The more determined drivers questioned me several more times as I waited. And again, I stated my friends would come shortly.
My heart and mind wrestled with the question of starting my Intercultural Studies internship was the wisest idea. British Columbia became my home after coming out to my family over Memorial Day weekend. Their inquiry about any sexual abuse, youthful deviance or if I prayed about it was painful. Yet, I understood their questions due to not having a framework on sexual minorities or merely wrapping their minds on what I shared. I recognized it could have been worse. I did not get disowned or kicked out. One night, a discussion on sexuality happened, but with the rise of the morning sun it was like the conversation had never happened.
A fifty hour plus work week kept me busy with occasional overnights at Jeremy’s place. But, overall, the mundane pace of my work allowed my mind to wander to deeper suicidal places. I cried in a roommate’s arms at the side of a city lake, breaking down as a result of coming out to my parents. I had somehow composed myself enough to get the green light to go to Costa Rica for the next twelve months.
Why did God let me come to this place?
A white van with the black lettering of a mission organization’s name stopped in front of me. I pulled open the sliding door and jumped in while a brief name exchange occurred: Jared, Hope, Cowboy and Chico. Jared and Hope were the directors with Cowboy and Chico as acting interns with self-given names. Darker clouds rolled in from the nearby mountains bringing a heavier rain. Water overflowed the street gutters and caused a wave-like motion onto the sidewalk, sweeping away stranded pieces of trash down the hill. In shock, I sat in a vehicle with a group of missionaries spewing homophobic jokes and rhetoric within the first minutes of getting acquainted. Images of self-destruction replayed in my mind as the hollow laughter bounced inside the van. Why did God let me come to this place?
The fifteen-passenger van pulled into the parking lot of an old mushroom farm transformed into a makeshift missionary base. Cowboy showed me the living quarters. Three bedrooms down a small hallway with a shared bathroom. At the end of the hall a large room held basic kitchen appliances - a toaster, coffee pot and cutlery, a large wooden table and living room with a television. It felt cozy and met our needs. A large kitchen sat in another area of the base where a local would come and cook for us five days a week. Cowboy showed me our bedroom with the door facing the large common space. Two set of bunk beds and a skylight to sleep to the night rain. Cowboy and I made small talk about my hopes. Cowboy plainly stated most of my expectations would not be met and got on his laptop. I really could not grasp what I signed up for.
Four days later, all of the guys gathered into a van to go on a six-hour adventure to purchase a new vehicle. Chico, Cowboy, Jared and I made the first three-hour leg drive together. Within moments, the gay jokes started like second nature to each of them. I could not understand their rhetoric and I quietly stared out of the window trying not to throw up from both road sickness and their ignorance; neither of which I would ever become accustomed to.
Three slow and painful hours later, Jared pulled into a nondescript parking lot and purchased a lime green minivan. The other men named the vehicle, “General Lee” due to it being push-started by Cowboy, while Chico steered the vehicle down the hill. Chico and Cowboy rode off in the newly purchased vehicle, while Jared and I followed behind them.
Jared started with the most horrifying question, “What’s your testimony?”
I felt nauseated as to why it seemed like every Christian wanted to know your full history in order to make a deeper connection. Conflicted on what to share I reminded myself of the uncomfortable pushback I gave my first week in college at the ice skating rink. I remembered the on again and off again deep depression Nouwen drudged through. I did not want to stay in that space.
“What’s your testimony?”
I kept my gaze ahead at the winding roads as I vocalized different parts of my life including my homosexual orientation while omitting the recent mental health issues. Jared apologized profusely as he mentioned a close relative who dealt with sexual identity. I sat in confusion as Jared attempted to relate despite the gross homophobic language spewing out of his mouth just an hour before. I only hoped this could redirect future conversations from this topic.
Any hope depleted within the first month during a weekly staff meeting. Jared pressed me for my opinion about schedules and other organizational issues in front of everyone. Numerous times I stated I did not have much to share due to being new. Jared’s continuous push to share made me vocalize my thoughts, which somehow turned into an argument stemming from me having father issues, everyone crying, a group hug and Jared stating, “It’s only growing pains.” But from Cowboy’s first comments when I arrived, the missions dysfunctional leadership seemed to be the organization’s normalcy.
My saving grace came from spending the majority of the week in a shantytown near a local city in an attempt to learn Spanish. It also marked me gaining leadership roles with leading short term mission trips. Cowboy and I grew close over this time; unfortunately arguments persisted between the staff and interns leading to Cowboy shortening his internship and returning to Pennsylvania before the New Year.
In the New Year, I began to spend the majority of my time on the mushroom farm preparing for the future short-term mission groups. Our mission agency hosted youth groups on a ten day trip. Our staff would orient the youth and their leaders, followed by a number of outreach days and ending with a vacation day. Any self-loathing of being stuck in Costa Rica seemed to disappear when a former college classmate, Jacob, and a Costa Rican, Simon, joined the team. Simon came before Jacob and took Cowboy’s old bunk. I welcomed Jacob by forcing him to sleep on the top bunk despite being twice my size and over six feet tall. An annoyance for him, yet a running joke between us.
In April, Jacob and I took a youth group to a small rural town for their missions trip. Luis was an overzealous, colorful extroverted pastor excited to use his English with us and note all of his church’s accomplishments to us, Americans. It felt uncomfortable to congratulate him, we wanted him to know that he didn’t have to impress us. Yet, he seemed to enjoy the praise and the attention… a bit too much.
On our ministry trips, everyone stayed in different local households to gain a better cultural experience. I shared a room with the pastor’s “adopted” son and a short-term staff member staying for a month. From the church parking lot, the adopted son walked us down an open-air concrete hallway between the church’s sanctuary and parsonage. Directly behind the sanctuary was a small bedroom with a couple of mattresses on the floor for us.
Luis and I built a peculiar relationship
As I attempted to lead the youth group, Luis and I built a peculiar relationship. I hoped to spend a lot of time with the youth, but instead Luis had me driving from site to site supervising the youth rather than staying at one site. Jared warned me this could happen before heading on this trip, still I felt uncomfortable wasting my time driving, especially since the conversations started to become highly personal. Luis continued to state how grateful he was for my listening ear due to not feeling safe around most people.
The topics changed from his family to his personal life and to the sexuality talk Luis lead for the youth. Luis smirked as he noted the youth group topics ranged from penis size to what sex was like. A part of me applauded his efforts in normalizing sexuality. I never heard of a pastor attempting to do this in a church setting. But, somehow Luis shifted conversation to talk about his own penis size and sleeping in the nude.
In the midst of running a couple of errands, Luis asked if we could stop by the church. Luis and I ended up in his son’s bedroom. The conversation changed again to manhood as he described grooming his privates. Wide-eyed, I occasionally nodded my head as a silent response to this straying conversation. Luis questioned if I shaved mine and I shook my head no. He jumped at the opportunity to ask to see my penis and my uncomfortable non-verbals made him keep the conversation going.
He also held a position of power and I listened to what he wanted.
I wondered if this was common conversation between two men. But Luis and I only knew each other for a few days. He also held a position of power and I listened to what he wanted. I stood on his turf.
Luis began to talk about being uncircumcised and questioned if I was. I avoided the question, so he answered the question for himself and pulled out his large, uncut penis to show me.
“Oh okay,” I nervously stated, unsure of what to do.
“Are you?” inquired Luis once more.
I started to think of the youth, who ministered alongside the local people. They were working hard on their projects as I stood here with a pastor asking to see my dick. Was Luis coming onto me? Did I lead him on somehow? I started to think of the gay vibes I must have been giving off. Luis waited in front of me for an answer.
I nervously stated, “Yes,” quickly showed Luis my penis and pulled my shorts back up again. I saw an odd disappointment on his face followed by an additional question and he inquired to see my privates again.
“We should probably head back.” I ended the conversation and walked out of the bedroom.
A few days later, Luis held a final church service for the host families and our missions team. Rain could be heard on the horizon as a warm breeze swept along the hall as I walked towards the bedroom. The days between the pastor’s exposure and the final service felt both confusing and conflicting. I listened to the pastor’s adopted son openly share how he and the pastor slept nude in the same bed on more than one occasion. The adopted son elaborated it was not a sexual issue, but only a need for physical closeness. Should I be filled with rage that a pastor would take advantage of a young man? Or jealous because I hadn’t gotten the same treatment. Yet, I knew even with my closest friends this was not the norm.
My hand grabbed the cold door handle. I pushed the wooden door forward, opening to a dark room. My eyes adjusted to see a thick, knotted rope hanging from the roof’s banister. My eyes followed the swaying rope to see a limp grey body decaying. The body slowly spun clockwise turning to reveal the face of a lifeless man. The man’s eyes opened and locked with mine with a cold, empty stare. A cold sweat poured down my face as my heart doubled its speed. A gentle breeze swung the body like a pendulum. Our eyes stayed locked as I could see years of deep depression in his face. My eyes widened as I recognized the man staring back at me was me.
“It’s only a dream…. it’s only a dream,” I kept repeating to myself. My hands covered my face to escape the hangman’s glare. It’s only a dream. It’s only a dream. I grabbed random blankets and a pillow lying on a bed and ran out of the room. The wind slammed the door behind me as I escaped to the other side of the building. The sounds of Spanish worship circled with death’s air as I hid myself in the nursery trying to find refuge from myself.
Luis had already prepared a small mattress on the floor knowing I had been getting sick. The animals from Noah’s ark painted on the wall stared at me to welcome me in. I tried to gain strength by taking deep breaths between my coughing, sneezing and the corpse’s image in my mind’s eye. I laid in the mattress with blankets over me praying my other self would disappear.
The door creaked open and Luis walked in to check on me. I gave Luis a verbal report of my health symptoms. I kept taking deep breaths until Luis returned with medication.
“This should help,” stated Luis as he showed me the Vapo Rub in his hands. I pushed myself into the upright position to have his hand quickly rest on my shoulder in an authoritative motion to lay down again.
In mere exhaustion, I accepted his healing hands without strength to tell him to go.
“I’ll do it for you,” commanded Luis. I had no fight left within me. Flashbacks of our private viewings occurred as he motioned me to take off my shirt. Between coughs and sneezes, I pulled off my shirt and laid back down. He opened the blue canister and a menthol aroma immediately filled the air. I closed my eyes to my grey hanging body and Luis’ body rotating in my mind. The gentle feminine hands slowly rubbed ointment on my chest as my heart beat faster. He rubbed up and down my torso with his fingertips running next to my board shorts. In mere exhaustion, I accepted his healing hands without strength to tell him to go. The smell of menthol released my congestion and Luis got up to leave. I watched him put the green cover back on the blue canister, he said good night and exited the room. The wall animals disappeared as the corpse appeared through the classroom walls and hung before me. The corpse’s sway put me to sleep.
The following week, I stood in Jared’s makeshift office on the old mushroom farm recanting the storyline. Jared rubbed his face in disappointment as I stuttered and quickly ended the story. Jared could not understand why we’d had that type of exchange nor could I. My face became warm and turned red with embarrassment.
“Do you have feelings towards him?” sternly questioned Jared.
In shock, I quickly denied any feelings toward Luis. Jared felt like he needed to check because of my gay tendencies. So in confusion, I left his office. Did I welcome Luis’ gestures towards me? I confessed in hopes to process what happened. Instead, I became consumed with shame and guilt for what occurred.
I confessed in hopes to process what happened.
As spring turned into summer, my physical health quickly declined. Hives appeared across my chest and lower back with spurts of hyperventilation signaling a possible health issue. Every few weeks, the base van transformed into my ambulance as I struggled to breath. Every inch of my body felt like it was disappearing. I shook my head back and forth in frustration as I barely verbalized, “I cannot feel my limbs anymore.”
My eyes rolled to the back of my head. Dashes of light swept across the black skyline as Jared sped through the narrow Costa Rican streets dodging potholes and zooming past cars and buses.
“What do you mean?” Jared asked from the driver’s seat as Hope hovered over me to pray.
“I cannot feel my arms and legs anymore,” I replied hoping to fall asleep. Jared sped into the clinic’s parking lot, then proceeded to help me walk into the small concrete building. The physician checked my vital signs and gave me medication to reduce my heart rate. Twenty minutes later, the physician had no diagnosis and stated, “There is nothing wrong.”
In embarrassment, I questioned my own sanity and could see their concern like I had a need for attention.
Still, the hives came and went as quick as the springtime tropical rain. Numerous doctor appointments solved nothing until one day I realized a sitting posture became extremely painful. The clinic doctor told us a cyst needed to be removed. Apparently, a common medical issue needing a quick surgery for adults in their early twenties. A simple procedure to remove an ingrown hair and infection along the waistline.
The following week, I undressed, put on a hospital gown and laid in a stretcher. The surgery would take roughly an hour at the private, English-speaking hospital. A nursing assistant pushed my hospital stretcher to the operating room. Doctors and nurses stood around me as I breathed in the anesthesia, mumbled a few words to the doctor and soon whispered, “I think I am going to go to sleep now.”
The doctor giggled with the other medical staff and verbalized, “Okay” as I laid my head face down to fall asleep.
What should have been an hour took multiple as I woke up to the city lights gleaming in the night sky. The drug-induced hangover made me sick as I shook my head attempting to shake out any uneasy feelings. I attempted to get off the stretcher to use the restroom until I felt resistance from behind me. I turned around to see a clear cord attached to my buttocks with flowing bloody fluids into a strange machine.
A nursing technician came to my bedside and explained due to the depth of the infection a VAC pump was needed to help the incision to properly heal. She handed me the VAC pump for me to carry to use the restroom and change.
One of the missionaries and I waited until the medical doctor came to discharge us and commented, “That was the worst case I have seen in all of my years of doing this particular surgery.”
His statement was unwelcome and he went on to explain that a home health nurse would go to the missionary base to clean the wound and reapply new sponges. My bed would be my temporary residence as I had to wait for the wound to fully heal. I left the hospital defeated knowing my internship would end a lot differently than I had hoped.
I secretly enjoyed the high.
From my bedroom, I listened to the hustle of preparations being made by the new summer staff. I attempted to work, but it only amplified the pain medications’ side effects. I had vivid visual hallucinations and chose to tell no one. The doctor prescribed pain medication for when the pain felt overwhelming. The pain was minimal, but I regularly took the medication anyways. I secretly enjoyed the high. The medication also eased the emotional pain of listening to the summer staff set up activities I was supposed to help run.
On a random afternoon, I sat on the bunk’s edge listening to the summertime rain as Tyler, a summer staff member popped his head in to greet me. I enthusiastically waved him into my room and motioned him to sit next to me. I whispered, “Do you hear that?”
“What?” His head moved closer to mine as I sat perched at the bed’s edge.
“It’s the rain. You’re supposed to ‘Moo’ when it rains.” And with wide-eyes and raised eyebrows I mooed as loud as I could. Tyler smirked as I made cow noises and pleaded with him to Moo with me. Together, we mooed before Jacob came into our room and told Tyler to leave.
“Nate, get some rest,” Jacob sternly commanded. I laid on my bed as my short-lived high became an immediate suicide invitation. I closed my eyes to watch multiple knives plunge into my skin to stop my heartbeat. Despite the suicidal images, I loved the highs enough to keep taking pain killers.
The missionary base could not provide the rest I needed. Staff members kept asking when the VAC pump was going to be removed. With a small amount of hope, I told them hopefully not too long, but no date is set. I packed my belongings to move into Jared and Hope’s three-bedroom home with hopes to gain a more peaceful rest. I spent the majority of each day alone reading, resting and watching random movies. Hives continued to manifest on my body, which resulted in the doctors changing my diet to only white rice, white bread, plain chicken and vegetables. I quickly lost weight and dropped to 145 pounds. With an unhealthy mindset, I became excited to see my high school weight on the bathroom scale. I now had two goals. One is to keep that weight and other to keep a steady high with my precious pain pills.
The tropical sun blazed through the window on my slumped body on the tiled floor.
With every dose, a new visual hallucination occurred. I grabbed a metal knife from the kitchen and sat next to the electrical outlet in the living room. I inhaled deeply and made a swift move to jam the knife into the outlet sending an electrical current throughout my body. The tropical sun blazed through the window on my slumped body on the tiled floor. Sparks flew into the air as the lethal shock caused electrical burns on my exposed skin. Only a hallucination. I blinked my eyes to make the image go away without prevail. I quickly consumed the plain rice on the living room table, then shoved my head into a pillow in an attempt to escape the suicidal image and accompanying voices announcing “It is time to die.”
No, it’s only a dream. It’s time. It’s only a dream. Spanish worship music gently played from the laptop speakers as I somehow dozed off, falling asleep only inches away from the limp corpse near me.
Fourteen days later, I stayed at the missionary base again due to the first round of youth groups arriving for the summer season. The summer staff and teens worshiped in the makeshift chapel. I sat on the floor alone in my bedroom as Simon snored in the corner bottom bunk. I took a pain pill in hopes of drowning out their worship and falling asleep. I wanted to sleep away this disappointing internship.
“Take one more.”
A direct order from a faceless commander. And with its simplicity, I obeyed.