Op-ed: The Counselor Who Sought Help From a Dying Friend

By Mike Deninger Ph.D.

Originally published on Advocate.com August 31 2012 4:00 AM ET

It was in the summer of 1997 when I slept beside Jon Eikenberg at his condo in Baltimore. He was a handsome hulk of a man, a talented artist and AIDS activist known for his satirical comic strip, “The Endearing End of Emmett,” about the ironies of being infected with HIV. I know — sounds funky, but it was darkly clever and won first place in the Vice Versa Awards for Excellence in the Gay and Lesbian Press in 1998.

Jon and I had been casual friends for two years, and although we were definitely attracted to each other, we never had sex. I think we knew a tryst would complicate the relaxed connection we enjoyed. In the middle of the night I pulled a perspiration-soaked white T-shirt over his head, tossed it on the carpet, and dabbed sweat from his forehead and upper torso with a dry towel, a lasting reminder for me of the worst of the plague. It was that same night that he convinced me to get serious about reclaiming my life and writing the painful story I was reluctant to share.

He was intrigued by my history, probably because he delighted in the bizarre. He was an aficionado of the macabre, the convoluted, and the thorny aspects of life. You could see that in his paintings.

Prior to meeting Jon, I had been a prominent educator of deaf children with a stellar 20-year career as an administrator at Gallaudet University. But throughout that period no one knew about the desperation smoldering beneath my surface. I hid my demons well until one Saturday in my late 30s when I was so depressed and anxious I couldn’t move, frozen supine in my family room recliner like a mummy on ice. Until that day I’d been a meticulously closeted alcoholic, depressed, and consumed with anxiety for reasons that were unknown to me. With the help of a good therapist I left the closet, stopped drinking, and pushed off in a new direction. I began studying for a graduate degree in mental health counseling with the intention of embarking on a career as a private practice therapist. Unfortunately, my tumble was not over. One year after I got sober I began to remember events from my childhood that I had not recalled for 40 years.

My overnight with Jon was four years after the turbulence of those recollections. I was stuck in limbo. I finished my counseling degree and took early retirement from Gallaudet, but I had lost interest in becoming a counselor. Worst of all, work on the autobiography I had been drafting for years was at a standstill, all because it was time to write about those unpleasant memories. I told Jon about my fears that night. He equated his need to continue his fight against AIDS with mine to face the past. His advice was firm but sanguine. “That shit has you by the balls anyway,” he chided. “You might as well just turn off the phone, put on some music, sit down and start writing.” And so I did.

Snakes in My Dreams: A Mental Health Therapist’s Odyssey From Hardship to Healer was finally launched this summer, 15 years after that conversation and coming up on 20 years after the memories began returning. The memoir is an account of my enigmatic dreams, forgotten events, self-examination, coming out, strife, and perseverance, all pieced together in a manner that illuminates the interplay between conscious and unconscious thought. As the title implies, it’s a portrayal of my journey from chaos to balance, including a lot of craziness in between.   

In addition to completing the book, I did become a licensed counselor and established Phoenix Counseling and Hypnotherapy in Alexandria, Va., where I  specialized in the treatment of LGBT individuals and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I took advanced training in alternative therapies and became a certified trainer and leading proponent of the use of eye movement integration (EMI), a dynamic therapy for resolving symptoms associated with trauma. I have worked with clients as diverse as combat veterans; victims of rape, sexual abuse, and physical assault; 911 first responders; police and fire officials; and others suffering from PTSD.   

Now, as a board member at Male Survivor: The National Organization Against Male Sexual Victimization, I’ve joined another fight. It seemed only right that I should. That’s what you do when you learn something that can help others — you pass it on. When I travel the country, whether I’m doing book promotions, sharing my personal story of abuse and recovery, speaking out against all forms of sexual victimization, or teaching the healing qualities of EMI, I think of the Samaritans I met along the way. They’re woven into the stories I tell. Jon was one of them.

Saying that he was the cause of my renewal would be overstating his involvement, although something tells me he would gladly take credit for the lot of it. Jon passed away in 2001 from the disease he so fiercely railed against. I miss him, but I’m ever so thankful that I was there to ease his discomfort that night in 1997, and he was there to tell me to put on some music and sit down and start writing.

 

For more on Snakes in My Dreams or to read more about Deninger’s work, visit Deninger.com