Paul Morales

I spent my childhood confused by the dichotomy of my experiences. On one hand, I knew outright that I was loved by my parents. They were present at my school events, gave me anything I wanted, and they expressed affection for me. On the other, the energy in our home was thick with volatility. I remember my father hitting me and throwing things at me, while my mother did her best to protect me from danger. I have two brothers, but we didn’t have a close bond because they were so much older than me. From an early age I displayed academic promise – at five years old I read encyclopedias for fun and I could tell you the capital cities of all 50 states. Each year of elementary school I was invited to advance a grade, but I always chose to stay with my peers.

Finding the place I belonged got much tougher for me as I entered middle school, starting with receiving my first failing grade and feeling like my identity as the smart one was jeopardized. I was one of the youngest in my grade and although I was casual friends with the “cool kids” I never felt like I fit in with them socially. I was fortunate to have a solid group of core friends throughout grade school, but many of them started to smoke cigarettes and pot and I refused to be around them. In an attempt to stay relevant among my peer group I started drinking at the tender age of 12, but I refrained from the harder things my friends were trying. At any point throughout my high school tenure you would find me surrounded by a sea of friends, but I still felt incredibly alone. I even had a handful of best friends with whom I was very close, but I just felt a giant void inside of me. When I looked in the mirror, all I could see was a fat and ugly reflection staring back at me and I was desperate to be loved. This was juxtaposed against other areas of my life where I genuinely felt strong and competent, just adding to my confusion about my authentic place in the world. In my early adult years I became so lonely that I was willing to try anything to connect with other people, and thus I weakened my resolve and engaged regularly in alcohol, drugs, and partying, which only temporarily dulled the pain in my heart.

Eventually I was able to pinpoint at least one area of my life that I was certain about, so I faced up to the truth and came out of the closet as gay at 19 years old. I felt free for the first time and my announcement carried no shame. I could finally pursue a life that felt right to me. Growing up, men had violated my trust. My father had abused me physically, my brother had stolen from me, my cousin had molested me, and then at 20 years old my childhood best friend beat me up for being gay. Consequently, even though I could stand in my truth about being gay, it was difficult to embrace my reality because I could not trust men. I confused sex with love and was hurt every single time. My world was rocked in 1987 when I was diagnosed with the HIV virus, an epidemic that was killing everyone in my community. While coming to grips with this discovery I was able to muster up inner strength, and I decided I was not going to become a statistic. Under the surface, however, I rehearsed a tape that said I was “toxic” and that no one would ever be able to love or accept me again.

I was introduced to my Pathways sponsor through a mutual acquaintance. We became friends very quickly and it wasn’t long before he discovered he had contracted the disease that was killing everyone around us. My identical diagnosis had come seven years earlier, but at that time I had only told four of my closest friends. Knowing instinctually that this was a time for courage, I told him not to be afraid and that I had credentials to say that because I knew exactly what he was going through. About three months later his sister asked him to attend Pathways, to which he agreed, and I witnessed such an amazing transformation in him. I required two months of constant persuasion from him in order to acquiesce, but I finally accepted his invitation and I am forever grateful that he didn’t take no for an answer. I lost Michael Harrison in 1995, but I feel him in the rooms with me every month.

I entered Pathways in 1992 with Class 85, not knowing what to expect. I thought I had it all together and didn’t really need healing or help. I was not defined by my sexual orientation or my disease, and I was leading a life that was fun and full of good things. I just saw joy and happiness in the people I knew who had participated and figured, “why not?” It never occurred to me that the negative events I’d experienced in my life had really affected me or shaped my self-perception in any way. My Core Training journey was powerful to say the least. Having Dr. Phil McGraw as my Weekend/Walk facilitator is something that I will always remember and cherish. I could not believe the love and acceptance that was waiting for me in that room. For most of the people in my class I was the first gay person they had ever met. I was the third person to stand up and share in the Weekend, and before I could talk myself out of it I told 79 total strangers about my HIV status. I was half expecting reactions of dismay or fear, but instead I was met with genuine compassion and support. I realized that I didn’t have to wear a mask to be loved – I could be myself and still be valued and cherished by others. I short-changed myself in my Walk, but it was still powerful. Most of my training came through Shadows and Refreshers, which were stand-alone graduate classes.

I thought I was on the road to confidently living life on my own terms when the next train wreck hit just a month after graduating from my training. I had a serious life partner at the time and although we never compromised in practicing safety, I hadn’t told him about my diagnosis. He was not a safe place for me, and even without knowledge of my status he made me feel like the worst person in the world. I couldn’t bring myself to introduce that dynamic into our dysfunction, knowing I’d basically be choosing abuse. Upon learning that he was cheating on me, I felt like I had no choice to be honest about it and he used the information to hurt me. He insisted that I tell all my friends and family, and he made me go get re-tested. He called me a murderer. Then one Sunday his sister called from Sweden to label me a murderer. I sat on the bathroom floor with the phone in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, ready to end it all. My plans were interrupted by the phone ringing – it was a friend from Pathways. As I started to explain my situation, this friend told me that it was a Walk weekend and I should get myself to the training hotel immediately. When I arrived I received intense medicine from some of my TAs and from friends. Their support made me want to fight for me. In Refreshers, we would re-visit our contracts, sometimes being re-contracted, and I decided to attend that class the following month. It was during that Refresher that I gave it all I had and was re-contracted. I was able to forgive myself for painful choices I had made, let go of offenses committed against me, and I was able to make peace with and develop a plan for getting out of my toxic relationship. During that Refresher I realized that I needed to take a hard look at the Man in the Mirror. I asked leadership if I could change my stretch to that song, and the training team agreed that it was a suitable fit. Taking accountability for my role in defining moments in my life was the first real step toward empowerment and confidence in my future. The most impactful result of my training was the ability to forgive myself and let go of the guilt I was carrying. I came out a different person and when I changed, my parents changed and became the mom and dad I always needed them to be.

After my sponsor died, I stepped away from Pathways for about five years. My life remained mostly stable during that time and then I once again suffered the heartbreak of another disrespectful partner. The pain of that betrayal initially had the power to put me back in a dark place. I came back in 2001 to refresh because I sponsored someone into the Weekend. WOW – what an amazing experience. When Dr. Phil was conducting the training, the Weekend/Walk syllabus was basically the same as it is now. We worked on commitments in Partners I, and we got our numbers (“balls”) in Partners II, which was only a 2-day training. Experiencing Partners as they are currently structured was brand-new and powerful for me. The turning point was getting the exact same position statement that I had received during my Walk, this time from a complete stranger. In that moment, I realized that I had regressed in my progress. I was going backwards. My next step in trying to get back what I’d given away was attending Step Beyond for the very first time, which ended up being my most meaningful training in terms of impact and transforming power. Before that training I had never taken the opportunity to fully absorb how much it had affected my hopes and dreams to hear from a doctor at 23 years old that I would die before I was 30. Upon my diagnosis, I had decided I was going to live, but I didn’t know how I was going to control that outcome. What I discovered at Step Beyond was that I could drop the narrative of “why me?” that was poisoning my future. I was able to acknowledge and believe that God had a plan for me and I just needed to align myself with His design.

Completing the circle of my Pathways training journey brought me into a fresh, hopeful chapter of my life. I found a fantastic sense of freedom and revealed an authentic core of true strength and grit inside my heart. I recall one specific Sunday night after spending the weekend volunteering as a TA. I was relaxing on my porch and the summer air was stagnant, but out of nowhere a rush of cool air swept across me and a butterfly appeared. I knew in that moment what real peace felt like and I realized that I wanted to cultivate that feeling in my life in a sustaining way. I decided to step back from romantic involvement to devote my focus and my energy into myself for once, and I spent the next two years entirely committed to developing into the man I wanted to be. At the end of that personal walkabout I was open to finding and trusting someone again. I asked a guy out who I’d known for a while through a mutual friend, and that leap of faith turned into a lasting connection. Corey and I have been together for nine years now and we are crafting a life together based on honesty, trust and vulnerability, complete with our adorable dog Whirley. We endure tough times just like any couple does, but we remain intentional about embracing our tools and do our best to keep love at the center of our bond. I’m truly happy and so grateful for our life together.

I am also grateful for the opportunity to serve the Pathways community as a volunteer in many different capacities. I led my first Partners small group as a TA in 1993 or 1994 and it was so fulfilling. The program that they called Refreshers back then also had TAs and I had the chance to serve in those rooms quite often, and loved every encounter. When I came back in 2001 I sent the Chairman of Pathways letter after letter, asking to be a part of a team, and after two months of displaying that commitment to the process I was invited back in as a volunteer. I haven’t stopped serving since. My maiden voyage as a Team Captain was with class 258 in 2009, and I started facilitating in P1 and P2 a couple of years ago. You can tell how much my heart is impacted through serving just by watching my face on any given Pathways Sunday. My heart is so full that I am overwhelmed with tears of joy for the trainees. You see, I know how deeply Pathways impacted my life, and I get to relive that each time that I see the trainees state their contract and go into the world a new person. The gift I take away from serving is watching the trainees live their lives with joy, peace, confidence, and love. It is so rewarding when graduates start joining training teams and I get to see where their journeys have brought them. There’s no better gift than watching a person’s A to B experience unfold in front of your eyes and knowing that you played a small part in helping them get there.

It’s been quite the adventure to be a part of this organization for 26 years now. Somethings are exactly as I remember from the Dr. Phil era. The heart-level sharing is the same. The unconditional love is the same. Most of the Weekend and Walk is identical, with the only changes really being cultural references and such, and I am glad for that. About 90% of the post-Walk training that we now call Partners was designed after my initial attendance and I wish I would have learned the tools that Pathways now presents when I went through. I got to experience them for the first time when I served as a TA in 2002 and it floored me! I’ve witnessed many changes of the guard in terms of leadership and at times it has been a roller coaster, but the training itself has always emerged from the transitions stronger and better. Like a diamond, the training seems to be purified by pressure and heat. That is a testament to the power of the processes themselves. I have always maintained that my guiding concern will always be the trainees and making sure that they receive a quality training no matter what, and I’m proud that the organization has always prioritized the mission first as well. Today, I see such a healthy nurturing of volunteers and community, a practice that was not navigated as thoughtfully in my early years of volunteering. I am happy to be a part of that growth. I also love that we have added the Another Level training to our roster. Your training NEVER ends, and Another Level extends a lifeline to those who are still growing and learning soon after they graduate. The development of the leadership and TAs is exciting as well – I love mentoring others so that they can pass on the legacy of standing in the gap.

After decades of embracing Pathways in my life I have developed an overwhelming amount of grace for myself and compassion for others. I’m now able to not get upset if people don’t like me, because I love myself enough that it does not matter what people think of me. Ownership to me means that I acknowledge my faults, but do not allow them to own me. I have the ability to extend compassion to myself and know that I get a second chance with every breath. Stepping into facilitating has taken my growth and my fulfillment to a new level, as helping others was part of my vision statement and now I’m blessed to have that opportunity every month. I seek to elevate my life by being open to new thought processes. I try different churches, but my favorite is listening to Michael Beckwith at Agape Spiritual Center in Los Angeles since I find that my beliefs align with his church. I also follow Mastin Kipp, Iyanla Vanzant, Brene Brown, and so many other powerful speakers and writers.

I regularly take inventory of my goals and decide if they align with my genuine priorities. I am currently working on a new vision board because my life plan has been interrupted over the last year and a half after the passing of my mother. It’s been a very challenging season for me and I have had to put some things on hold as I choose to spend time with my aging father. Once he becomes more accustomed to life without Mom I will have time to pursue more of my interests again. I am okay with devoting this time to Dad because, quite honestly, no matter what happened in the past with my father he has been available and accepting of me over the last 20 years. I do see some travel in my future. I want to go to Italy with my partner Corey Johnson (class 258). I envision a stay in a small village, free from the concerns and worry of the world, even if only for two weeks.

The part of the H.O.P.E. acronym that resonates most with me during this season of life is Passion. I don’t recall ever being passionate about life in my youth, but now I find it at work, I find it in Pathways and I’m finding it in my everyday life. I think back and wonder what kind of pioneer I could have been in the LGBT community, but I sat back and let others trailblaze in my stead. And in today’s world, we need leaders and thinkers. I want to be more involved and I plan to use my passion, compassion and love to help change our world.