Gay Men and Coping with ‘Bad Luck’

Gay Men and Coping with ‘Bad Luck’

This year, 2022, marks my thirtieth year as a gay men’s specialist psychotherapist.  I’m also an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, and life/career/relationship coach, for gay men in Los Angeles/West Hollywood, California, all over the United States, and the world.  And one of the things I’ve noticed in working with so many guys on various issues and challenges in their lives is that occasionally people just run into bad luck.  It’s not their mistake, it’s not their own failures in judgment, it’s not their neuroses or diagnosable psychiatric conditions; it’s just plain bad luck.  Some incident sets them back, causes them stress, frustrates them, and degrades their quality of life – for a short time, a long time, or even permanently.

What do we do about these?

My clients in Alcoholics Anonymous like to recite the phrase about the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference (my article on that is here).

When it comes to things that happen to you that are just bad luck, that are really no fault of your own, it takes serenity to accept those.  But as Jack Canfield, author of a great and inspirational book called The Success Principles, says, “Event + Response = Outcome.”  You might not be able to change the event that has happened to you, but you certainly can influence your response to it, and that can affect the ultimate outcome.

Donald Meichenbaum, PhD, is a psychotherapist whom I’ve seen lecture at various conferences for psychotherapists.  He’s an expert on the concept of resilience, which is often seen as the ability to endure, withstand, and overcome challenges in your life.  Resilience is one of the most important character traits that a person can cultivate in themselves (my article on that is here).

Clinical social workers like me believe that for every stressor in life, there is an equal and opposite resource, or coping strategy (often more than one).  When we are hit with whatever incident that is just plain bad luck, it’s up to us to identify, evaluate, and implement our adaptive coping strategies to make it better.  We can do things.  We change the way we think.  We can identify specific behaviors to take on our own behalf.  We can fight back with the tools that comprise our ability to overcome, and restore equilibrium, before the “bad luck incident” took it away.

Let’s take some examples, and I’ll give you a possible coping strategy for each one.  Then, from these examples, see if you can apply the “what is my adaptive coping strategy for this?” model to your own situation(s):

  1. Covid-19 Pandemic – OK, this is a stroke of bad luck for all of global humanity! The deaths, acute/chronic illness, and overall loss from this disease (and its many variants), and the resulting disaster of misinformation, politicization, and disruption have been overwhelming. It’s just bad luck that we have had to endure this in 2020, 2021, 2022, and counting.

Coping Strategy:

Coping with the global pandemic reminds me of the old adage, “think globally, act locally.”  This means that world leaders, from politicians to medical professionals/scientists/public health leaders, will need to guide everyone on how to best cope with widespread disease.  But when it comes down to ourselves, we need to identify what works for each of us as individuals, couples, and families.  Local public health restrictions dictate things like mask-wearing, social distancing, etc., but our own individual coping means that we try, as hard as we can, to live our lives just as we would without the pandemic, but just “with exceptions.”  We might need to learn to work from home, or, if we can’t, learn to wear protective gear as long as public health officials require this.  We might need to balance when we work, versus when we need to rest (if we’re sick), or if we need to take care of a loved one who is sick, and balance the time we devote to each demand.  We can identify where the nearest vaccine distributors are, which could be a medical professional’s office, a pharmacy, a government facility, a school, an employer, or even a commercial drug store.  We also can cope in the hope that we believe the acute restrictions and disruptions are time-limited, using another old adage about coping, “the only way out of this, is to go through this.”

Gay men were particularly prepared for COVID coping if we’re old enough to have lived through the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and getting a vaccine is no more complicated (even less!) than getting a monthly PrEP refill.  Back then, we were aware of the global implications of the disease, but it came down to individual communities and even ourselves to develop safety and self-care plans, even if we were (just like now), swirling in misinformation, conflicting information, and the politicization of public health messages.  Those who can remember when Public Health gave “warnings” about “Super-infection” (more than one strain of HIV combining into a super-strain that would bring sudden death), or remember that moron (who shall remain nameless most of the time, but not here, Michael Weinstein of AIDS Healthcare Foundation) who dismissed PrEP upon its arrival as merely a “party drug.”

Just like today, back then, with HIV/AIDS, we had Republicans in America who did their very best to make the situation worse, not better, through arrogant posturing, misinformation, self-serving politics, moralism, shrill paranoia, and judgmentalism that did nothing to help the situation of those vulnerable or in need.  I promised the friends I lost then to keep the memory of the injustice they went through alive, and that’s part of my commitment to activism today.  That’s part of my coping with HIV/AIDS, and it’s part of my coping with COVID; to remind people of what’s sound, and what’s non-science malarkey.

Coping means taking care of ourselves, but also taking care of others by being critical consumers of sometimes conflicting information, and relying on the science, and time, to sort it all out.

  1. Illness – In addition to COVID-19, we might have “bad luck” in getting sudden (but hopefully short-lived) food poisoning, an allergic reaction, a head cold, a temporary injury like a sprain or a broken bone, (I’ve heard about various skiing injuries this week for my clients who attended Gay Ski Week in Aspen), or even an STI that forces us to take a brief break from sexual contact until successful treatment takes effect. Illness is Nature’s way of “pressing pause” on our lives, or like a “time out” in a ball game.

Coping Strategy:  Some illnesses just need us to “wait it out” with rest and good food/fluids, while other situations require intervention from a medical professional to get a specific prescription, put a broken limb in a cast, wear some kind of support device, or use some kind of aid (like a cane, leg scooter, or walker).  It might even require a sling (but not the fun kind of sling gay men know about!).  While illness is an inconvenient incident of bad luck that’s unpredictable, it can also be a signal that we need to take better care of ourselves, and to shift our focus from being “productive” in the world to retreating for a bit and just practicing self-care. Try to think of brief illness, despite the unpleasant symptoms, as a “gift in dirty wrapping paper” from Nature to take a pause, re-dedicate ourselves to appreciating health, and keeping our values and priorities in perspective. And also making us more compassionate to those for whom illness and symptoms are not transient, and we must commit to doing what we can – including voting for politicians who support government disability benefits, disabled access to public buildings, and job or education programs that support persons with all kinds of conditions or disabilities.  These affect all of us, even if we’re not the ones with the condition, our fellow men are.

  1. Crime – While hopefully rare, many gay men I work with have at least at some point in their lives been the victims of crime, either a theft or burglary, or a violent crime like experiencing “gay bashing,” sexual assault, physical attacks in public, or domestic violence. These aren’t as much “bad luck” as they are traumatizing life experiences, but we could consider petty theft (such as a “smash and grab” theft from our car, or being pick-pocketed, which can be common at gay male sex clubs or bars) as bad luck incidents that are annoying and distressing, but not dangerous to our person.

Coping Strategy: While gay men historically are very frequently met with sarcasm or even open hostility from police officers, some can be valiant “public servants” and sincerely want to help us by investigating and apprehending a perpetrator.  But for petty crimes, most police agencies worldwide “just don’t have the time” to pursue petty theft crimes.  We cope by acknowledging the loss, securing ourselves and our belongings (such as reporting credit cards as stolen to their respective banks), and maybe developing new self-protective measures for the future (such as guarding our wallets better or not keeping valuables on a car seat).  While even petty crimes can cause trauma, especially if there is violence, or even threats of violence, involved, we cope with trauma by “reclaiming” our lives in the name of healing and restoring confidence.  We can cognitively reframe by replacing thoughts that our perpetrator was a self-indulgent, greedy, Narcisisitic or Sociopathic clod, to perhaps understanding that a homeless person was resorting to stealing from others merely to survive.  This might be “too generous” a thought, because perpetrators never have the right to steal from us, but I find this cognitive reframe a “cold comfort” when these things have happened to me.

  1. Lost Opportunity at Work – We all have probably had the bad luck to be severely disappointed by something that happened at work. We didn’t get a promotion that by rights we should have had, but it went to some straight guy who was in good with the homophobic boss.  Maybe we were the victims of other discrimination, such as about race, ethnicity, religion, appearance privilege (my article on that is here), or even gender (for example, I was severely discriminated against as the only male in all-female office at a non-profit organization once).  While these actions are illegal, they still happen, and they are not “really” enforced, despite politically-expedient governmental promises that they are. We can also see office politics at play, where someone else gets a work opportunity that they got for any reason other than their own skill set and qualifications.

Coping Strategy:  If we continually miss out on work opportunities, it could mean that we need to improve our overall candidacy, such as building our skill set, networking socially more effectively, eliminating any work “deficits,” or even improving our appearance and presentation “image.”  I coach guys all over the world on this, and I really believe in executive and professional coaching in every field, and at every level.  But if we are just in a bad work environment where “bad luck” turns into a pattern of being overlooked, and constant FOMO (“fear of missing out”), we might need to “change our luck” by moving to a different work environment with a better “goodness of fit,” which sometimes can mean an environment that’s more friendly to people who are both gay and male.  There is a saying that “Luck is when Preparation meets Opportunity.”  We can be imminently “prepared” through our education, skill set, and experience, but we also need to be given opportunities by others who are in a position to support us trying new things to grow.  We have to be committed to our own personal version of what’s called in organizations “Continuous Quality Improvement.”  I used to do this when I was a non-profit organization executive.  You try new things, evaluate them, make changes based on those evaluations, then you try new things again.  It might feel frustrating because you’re “never done,” but it’s also fun because you’re always striving.  Even seen an Olympic medal-winning athlete?  What’s the one thing they’re gonna do tomorrow?  Practice and get even better!

  1. Losses in Love – Since romantic relationships are, indeed, an interpersonal experience, “bad luck” in relationships is not something passive; we all can influence every interpersonal relationship we have, because we are always fifty percent of it. But losses in love can feel like “bad luck” when our timing is off, such as when we want to try to reconcile with a previous partner (my article on that is here), but they’ve already moved on to be with someone else.  Or we want to move and relocate (my article on that is here), but we don’t get the job we wanted to be with our partner in a new city.  Or, sometimes we do our best in relationships, and we get unceremoniously dumped, even ghosted (my article on that is here), and sometimes we never get to know why they left in the first place.

Coping Strategy: Coping with losses in love requires what we call in Dialectical Behavior Therapy “radical acceptance.”  That’s often captured in the phrase, “it is what it is.”  We don’t have control over others’ thinking and behavior, but we do have to accept it, unless (see above) we are fighting back against a crime.  Other people have the right to leave us, for any reason, including no stated reason at all.  It’s the same with employment in “at will” employment states.  To cope, we fall back, regroup, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again (as the old show tune says).  And, I think trusting in fate.  If it wasn’t “meant to be” it’s because Life has something – or someone – better in store for us.  I’ve experienced this myself, and while it can be tough in the short time, when you meet the right person, you understand why all the others never worked out.  That’s how you know you met the right person.

  1. Technical Problems – Man, I hate these! In our highly technological age, we rely a lot on our machines, electronics, and other sophisticated automated systems.  And all of these systems, for various reasons, can occasionally break.  You’re working on an important work project, and the power goes out.  You’re working on something else, and your computer freezes and you lose data.  You’re in an important online meeting, and the WiFi goes out, or you lose connection, maybe for a few minutes, and maybe for the rest of the day.  The worst thing about relying on anything electronic or mechanical is that these things do not work 100 percent of the time, and when they decide to break, it’s never at a convenient time, because when is?

Coping Strategy: Coping with technical errors on equipment that we rely on, or delays due to mechanical problems on the plane we were going to fly in, or our car breaking down on our way to an important destination, all involve accepting (that word again) that sometimes life doesn’t go the way we planned.  And we have to make that OK.  We might use things like backing up an important work presentation on a flash drive, or carrying an extra (charged) laptop battery or cell phone charger, but everyone, everywhere has to make a collective decision that if we’re going to rely (so much!) on machines, we have to give each other some slack for the times those machines don’t work.  People in past ages got by with remarkably little technology, and managed to live.  Every once in a while, we can, too.

  1. Multiple Losses in a Row – One client I’m thinking of in particular described many losses, right in a row. These can be especially hard times in life.  I was feeling the stress of the virulently anti-gay Trump administration, feeling the stress of the COVID pandemic, and dealing with an anti-gay stalker making gruesome threats to me, and that paled in comparison to this other guy’s experiences.  I knew him well from knowing him a long time.  And his losses were no fault of his own, and out of his control.  They involved family, friends, work, and health.  It can feel like various entities are somehow conspiring and saying, “Hey, how can we really fuck with so-and-so this month?” but that doesn’t really exist, at least not often.  These were all losses caused by independent variables, but the common denominator was this one guy.

Coping Strategy:  These kinds of “cluster-fucks” were not made overnight, despite their quick succession, and they aren’t solved or mitigated overnight, either.  We need to take each accumulated stressor on its own, and mobilize our coping strategies both for each loss, or stressor, and for the fact that we get weary from having to deal with so many at once.  Hopefully a time of many stressful events could be followed by a period of relative calm.  If not, we might have to really examine if we actually do have a role in that, such as taking too many risks in life and need to settle down a bit to a more predictable, lower-stakes life.  That’s not always a bad thing; that can bring peace of mind.  Life is not a contest; we don’t need to be knocking ourselves out all the time. The new global re-examination of the role of work, and standing up to the exploitation of labor worldwide by confronting the oligarchy, is an idea whose time has come.  Let’s see where that goes.  Maybe COVID has taught us that we all need to chill a bit, and life is not all about profits, and we’re going to band together, rise up, and challenge those who think it is, especially at the expense of others.  This is the lesson of the Labor Movement.  We all need balance.  Shakespeare said, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”  But we can use our efforts, individually and collectively, to tip the balance in our favor.

For centuries, people have tried to influence their own luck.  What they recite, what they do, what they don’t do, what they carry around with them, all are superstitions that supposedly influence luck.  But a Secular Humanist approach would say these are perhaps noble but ultimately illegitimate attempts.  We can prepare as much as we can for what life throws at us, and we can try to jockey for opportunity, and hopefully that creates our luck.  Fortune favors the bold.  But sometimes we just have to get up say, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and take what comes with a smile.”  Wouldn’t Dolly Parton do that?  If it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me.  And to quote the show tune (cuz I can’t go long without quoting a show tune), may your Luck be a Lady (or maybe just a good Power Top) tonight.

Ken Howard, LCSW, CST

If you want some help with making your preparations so that you’re ready for opportunity, consider therapy (if you’re in California, where I’m licensed to practice therapy), or personal coaching, which is a different animal but with some areas of personal growth overlap, and I can explain more of those important differences when we talk.  Feel free to email me for more information on my services at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or text me at 310-339-5778.  I’d be happy to help.

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