Dr. Frank Anderson, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist and psychotherapist. Inset: Anderson’s book, To Be Loved, a story of truth, trauma, and transformation. / Courtesy photos

To Be Loved: A Conversation with Dr. Frank Anderson

For every queer person, coming out is a process. There is no one-and-done conversation that renders a queer person fully formed or comfortable, no singular reveal that instantly erases the internalized trauma that follows coming to terms with their identity.

For Dr. Frank Anderson, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist and psychotherapist, processing his queerness, coming out, and reconciling his relationships with those around him and with himself has also been a years-long process, one that he’s captured in his recent memoir, To Be Loved: A Story of Truth, Trauma, and Transformation.

Dr. Anderson specializes in trauma, treating clients — many of whom are queer — grappling with the emotional hardships of their youth and analyzing the way that trauma manifests itself into long-term patterns of behavior. One of his primary focuses is the field of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a framework for tackling deep-rooted psychological wounds wrought by the pressures of society and the experiences of his patients’ upbringings. The IFS model — a form of talk therapy especially useful for those inherently traumatized because they belong to marginalized communities — identifies and aims to understand the subpersonalities within people. The model uses the “eight Cs” — confidence, calm, compassion courage, creativity, clarity, curiosity, and connectedness — to balance the conflicts within these personalities brought about by different forms of trauma. As the vice chair for the Foundation of Self Leadership and with a plethora of on-demand resources and workshops accessible to nonpatients, Dr. Anderson aims to help people come to terms with their identities the same way he has his own.

I sat down with Dr. Anderson to discuss “To Be Loved,” his inclination toward psychiatry, and how his own experiences growing up in an unaccepting household and being forced into six years of conversion therapy have shaped him, his career, and his goal of using his memoir to show that the trauma cycle can be broken.

First things first: could you introduce yourself and what you do?

I’m Frank Anderson, and honestly, I’m a kind of weird combination of psychiatrist and psychotherapist. Not many of those exist in the world. I specialize in the treatment of trauma, relational or complex trauma, and PTSD, and I’ve worked in the field since 1992. After I published my second book, which was “Transcending Trauma,” I really got this calling to bring trauma healing outside of psychotherapy and to the general public.

What brought you to the field of psychiatry and practices like IFS therapy?

Interestingly, what brought me to the field of psychiatry was a family member who had an acute psychotic episode when they were a teenager. It was somebody who I was very close with, and it rocked my world. I saw pain, and it affected me so deeply. I didn’t realize at the time it was actually tapping into my own trauma history. I was going to be a pharmacist, and it pushed me to switch to pre-med to become a doctor. I was like, “I have to save somebody like that.” Then, I got into medical school, and I was going to be a pediatrician because I love kids. But this person had another psychotic episode and went missing. For a couple days, I arranged a search party to find them. And it was after that second episode I was like, “Oh my God, there’s something going on inside of me.” And that’s when I realized I had to be a psychiatrist. I soon realized “Oh, crap, this isn’t really about my close family member. This is about me.” I’d suppressed so much of myself growing up. So, I started really getting connected to my history of physical and verbal abuse. I didn’t realize it for a long time, but I really wanted to become a trauma specialist not only to help other people but to help myself.

When I was six years old, my parents caught me playing with the Barbie doll in the back of my cousin’s basement. And they thought that was bad and wrong. They yelled at me, and they sent me to a form of conversion therapy for six years. It brainwashed me to suppress my thoughts, suppress my impulses, suppress my desires, and be a “normal boy.” Play baseball, do sports. I wasn’t supposed to do arts and crafts because that’s what girls do. It wasn’t until my residency that I was able to start getting connected with who I was, and I didn’t come out until I was 32 years of age and after I’d married a woman. So, it was a complicated journey, but one that I was kind of really forced into.

Reflecting on those childhood experiences, what inspired you to sit down and write your memoir?

I never thought of myself as a memoir writer, I can tell you that. After two academic books, my publisher said, “Hey, let’s work on the next project.” I was like, “I need to read, I need a break.” And they brought up how I always talk about my trauma history in my work and how I should write a memoir. And I was a little bit shocked by that, but then I realized I could help people by telling my story. If I tell my story, maybe people will see that healing is possible, maybe people will see that everybody has trauma. After my experiences as a kid, I’ve been in therapy for most of my life, and I’ve been healing a lot of my trauma. I’ve really come a long way around forgiveness and love, and I don’t hold the stuff that I used to hold anymore.

Writing it was an incredible process. I would get up at three or four o’clock in the morning and be compelled to write for months at a time. The material just flowed through me. And so much healing happened through the process of writing. I actually just started a course with a colleague and friend of mine just to teach people how therapeutic the writing process can be, because it certainly was for me.

What would you say is your favorite part of your memoir, or something that just really struck you while writing it?

I get emotional just from that question, honestly. It was fascinating for me writing the beginning, becoming a little kid again, because I really wanted people to know what it was like to be chased through the house, run into my bedroom, and lock the door to hide in the crawlspace. But what struck me most was the last three or four chapters that are connected to the death of my father, who was my primary perpetrator. I wrote it in real-time. I’d go visit him, and then I’d write a chapter. It was such an incredibly cathartic and healing experience for our relationship, and to write about them was a huge gift for me. It’s the reason the title of the book is “To Be Loved.” I didn’t know this at the time, but I was searching my whole life to be loved by him. And I had the gift of having that experience happen towards the end of his life.

And for your readers, you mentioned wanting them to see that everyone has trauma, and everyone has things that they need to process. For your queer readers specifically, what do you want them to get out of your memoir?

I don’t think people are aware that anybody who grows up queer in this culture — even today’s culture — has shame and trauma attached to being in this world. There are so many negative messages in culture and society, even if you grew up in a supportive family. You’re wrong, you’re bad, you’re no good. I really believe that trauma is inherent in every queer person. When I was a kid, being queer was thought of as a mental disorder. That’s no longer the case. But today, being queer is hard in a very different way. Suicide rates are off the charts, mental health issues are huge. So even in a more accepting environment, it’s important to acknowledge the inherent, internalized homophobia that we grow up with. I want people to know we all have trauma, and maybe your form isn’t the exact same as mine, but you have it, too. And I want people to know that you can heal from it.

Is there anything else you’d like to note?

One other thing I’ll say is the coming out process is really long and complicated. I work with a lot of people who are trans and it’s not like, “Oh, I came out and it’s all over.” It takes years to fully immerse yourself and heal all that you need to heal. There’s a pre-contemplative phase, there’s the coming out phase, there’s a gay immersion phase, there’s integrating into culture and society. It’s normal for that process to take years to feel truly comfortable and safe with who you are inside and out. And so don’t try to rush it. It takes the time it needs to take.

“To Be Loved: A Story of Truth, Trauma, and Transformation” is available for preorder here