A metaphor to think about on Valentines Day

There have been moments in my life I have felt disposable. I have felt replaceable. One of my biggest fears is that of being forgotten. I have been abandoned. I have been taken for granted.

But I have come to understand that that says more about someone else than it does about me. You see, I have always tried my hardest when it comes to others. I have sacrificed my comfort and stability and sometimes sanity to make sure that things work smoothly with the other person. I have lost myself in that too many times to feel comfortable with. It is a sign of co-dependency. It becomes the currency of a toxic relationship, because you get to remind the other person of just what you have given up for the cost of their happiness.

I told myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t do that again. I was in a situation where I ignored red flags, I compromised my values, and I ignored that gut feeling that told me something was wrong. I second-guessed myself. Only when I was doing it, I wasn’t keeping a tally of the times I did to throw back at the woman I was dating. I attempted grace, tolerance, open-mindedness, which wasn’t right either. I should have been setting boundaries, with myself and with the person I was seeing. I wasn’t keeping a tally, but it was slowly eroding my soul.

I held onto hope for a very long time. Hope that this person would realize they were hurting me with being dismissive, treating me like an option, lying by omission, and telling me if I didn’t like something I could put up or shut up. At the end, I was finally able to get out of that trauma bonded rollercoaster.

At the time, I didn’t think I was lovable. I didn’t think anyone would want me. A friend of mine used to call me the poster-child for monogamy because I held onto that attachment so hard, even when everything was over. It didn’t help that for three years, on and off, when we were on the outs the woman I was in love with would knock on my door in the middle of the night, and I would take her back until walking on eggshells once again ended things with us. It was the definition of a trauma bond and probably narcissistic abuse.

My picker was broken.

When things finally ended, it took months to recover. I’m not proud of that. Most people would have just been able to move on, but when I heal, I need my healing to be thorough. You cannot heal when you are still in the same situation that is hurting you. We worked together, and I would see her around the office sometimes and every time it was a reminder of the loss. It was a rekindling of thinking I was going to hear that knock at the door at 11pm and sex and sweet words and all of that would fix things.

She went on sabbatical and I no longer had to see her around. Not her car. Not her. None of it. A couple months later, I was able to process that and move on. I met someone. Lately, I keep thinking of those times, and how that progressed. It was scary thinking I would be alone, but when I met someone actually good for me, it felt so much better. It wasn’t like getting out of my marriage, where anything after that would have felt better. No, this was someone who saw me, heard me, and treated me pretty well. It was better than I ever imagined with the woman from work. I didn’t have to fight for her attention. I didn’t have to wonder where she was on a Friday night and why I wasn’t with her. And it didn’t matter much at all when I found out she was engaged only five months after we had broken up.

It was actually a relief, because I knew she wasn’t going to be knocking on my door anymore.

I got to get on with my life. I got to breathe easy. I no longer had panic attacks. I was no longer in the situation that left me feeling confused, isolated, lonely, taken for granted, any of those icky feelings. I allowed myself to cut that bond.

I won’t say it felt good, but it was like taking a deep breath after being held under water for a long time. The door was shut. The bridge was washed away. You see, hope is a very dangerous thing. You hope for situations to change, not just with romantic relationships, but with friends, family, work, all of it. Sometimes, no matter what you do to try to change an unhealthy situation, the best thing you can do it to end it. You are the variable. YOU get to change.

Only recently, I found myself in a situation again where I was holding my breath. Just this time, it didn’t take three years to end it. At one point, it took a couple days, then I second guessed myself and tried to fix things, and after that, it took about a month to recognize my values and use my boundaries. And boy did it hurt to put them up. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.

I felt myself go under. Like taking a deep breath and swimming to the bottom of the ocean. It’s dark under there. There’s no light. It’s cold and lonely and…there are monsters. It wasn’t just that situation but others as well.

I’ve been making my way to the surface again for many reasons. Feeling myself break above the surface and breathing in…

Damn, it hurt, and it can be terrifying. Taking that first breath. Or feeling like a dragonfly who has just unfolded its wings and is letting them harden in the sunshine. Where will these new wings take you? What happens next?

The world is dangerous and awful, but it is also beautiful. It is worth taking your next breath, and your next. I’m going to let myself breathe again for a very long time.

You see, today, a friend of mine gave me some closure. And though it stung a little bit to hear the news, my heart felt lighter. I still can’t help but have mixed emotions and hope for the best, but it is no longer my concern. I am free. I felt myself let out a spiritual breath. I’ve done that a few times in the last few months. And each time, I expect to drown, like letting in that breath will just let in more water and it will fill my lungs, but it hasn’t. Each time, I’ve felt the cool sting of fresh air.

If you hold your breath too long, you can hurt yourself.

Goddamn does it hurt to take that first breath. And it is so scary. It’s terrifying because you wonder where your next breath will come from. You wonder if you will be holding it again. Or if you were wrong to take that chance to breathe. But with every breath after, it becomes less so. Then it just becomes natural and we don’t even realize we were breathing.

There’s no more reason to hold your breath. There’s no reason to keep looking at things that will hurt you. That time in your life has passed. Today, you can wake up and take a new breath. You can let it fill your lungs. Scream if you must.

What are you going to do with this freedom? Do you even want to be free?

That pain you feel though, sometimes you miss it, because it reminds you of a time when things were just ending, and the ending is closer to the beginning than you are now. You are beyond it. It’s gone. You aren’t getting it back. And rather than clutch at something that is beyond your reach, turn around and move towards the rest of your life, which you are now headed for. Far from the bottom of the ocean. Up past the surface. And into the light.

Breathe. Just give yourself permission to breathe. And once you are done learning how to breathe again, it’s time to fly.

Last Looks

There’s a quote that is attributed to Buddha, but I guess its veracity is such that it might as well be something from Mark Twain. “The problem is we think we have time.” It resonnates with Solomon in Eccelsiastes. And even if the Buddha didn’t say it, it rings true. We always think we have more time. Even now with the world behind held hostage in this pandemic. Our life expectancies have gotten higher than any other time in history. And yet…it isn’t just death, but the ends of things we take for granted.

I have several moments in my life which were last looks I had with someone, though I didn’t realize it until later. I’m tired of those moments, though I’m sure my life will be riddled with them until that ultimate Last Look.

In just a couple days, it will be the seven year anniversary of the beginning of my journey through divorce. Or lately as I’ve called it a house fire that has been burning for the better part of the decade. I talk about it plenty of times because when I was heavily considering making that change in my life, there wasn’t much out there to support me. The first page of a Google search was a lot of links to “Work harder to preserve your marriage.” They advocated counseling, all sorts of things that had been tried and were only perpetuating an unhealthy situation. That fire had already been burning and it was time to get out.

The last look I remember on the morning of Halloween, 2014 was that of my then-wife frantically clicking on the computer to buy Christmas presents on Amazon because “The kids should at least get Christmas.” She had found out that the papers were about to be served and wasn’t happy. She didn’t even look up from the computer when I walked out of the house. The kids were another story. The older kids were dressed as Walter and the Dude from the Big Lebowski for their Halloween parties at their middle school. As I dropped them off in front of their school, I called out, “Hey! I love you!” My son didn’t even look back. Just the unidirectional purposefulness of his mind telling him to get to class. My daughter turned and looked back, but didn’t say anything back. She just ran to class. They were never the same after that.

About a month ago, I was walking to get the mail. A former classmate of mine who I never really got along that great with was turning the corner as I was crossing the street. He raised his hand in a rare greeting, and for once, I waved back. A few days later, I learned that he had been found dead in his tiny apartment later that day. I might have been one of the last people to see him alive. What a strange moment to reflect on.

In August of 2009, I stood beside my grandpa’s hospital bed. My aunt was there and she called to him “Grandpa! Clint’s here!” His eyes fluttered open for a moment and his head lolled over to look towards us, but they closed again. His leg was black with gangrene. His kidneys had stopped functioning. I signed off on the papers that said “no heroic efforts” and they stopped treatment to clean his blood. They kept him comfortable, as they say. By the afternoon, he was gone. It was a last look I could have skipped. But it gave me closure, knowing that he was no longer suffering. That he had reached the end.

In March 2020, we were at the beginning of this pandemic. It was a Sunday night and my girlfriend at the time was about to spend Spring Break on a road trip with her family. I was originally going to go with them, but my youngest was coming back to me from Spring Break before their trip was going to end. So I bowed out. We spent the day together and ended the evening watching TV together on the couch. Her head in my lap as I brushed her hair to spoil the hell out of her. She nearly fell asleep like that. When it was time for her to go, it was beginning to snow. A chilly, wet evening with big heavy spring flakes falling almost like slush on shiny black streets. We knew quarantines were coming. Two weeks to flatten the curve. We kissed and because I was standing in the cold in my sock feet, she told me to go back inside before I got cold. She rolled up the window and waved as she drove off into the night.

Six weeks later, the quarantine had changed the world. We talked almost every night until the end, but I never saw her again. I was blocked. Erased. Forgotten. So easily too. No second chances. No regrets.

In July, I didn’t know I would have another moment like that. But, you never really see those moments until it seeps into your consciousness that they have happened. Kissing someone goodbye on their porch. Too many times. Maybe you knew it. Maybe you could have stopped with one kiss “until next time” but it became half a dozen until you were both laughing and they were telling you “Go!” and laughing with every kiss. Maybe you knew there would be no next time. Maybe you always know at those defining moments. If you realized it at the time it would break your heart. You’d never have been able to leave.

When I was a kid I wasn’t much of a reader. I could hardly get through a Dr. Seuss book. In Jr. High I started reading the Guardians of the Flame series by Joel Rosenberg, in which a bunch of college kids get sent into a Dungeons and Dragons type universere and are stuck there for the rest of their (usually short) lives. After that I read a LOT. One character in particular, a thief/frat guy by the name of Walter Slovatsky became one of my favorite characters. He had a series of quotes known as Slovatsky’s Laws. The one that seems resonant with all of this is this one:

When you say goodbye to a friend, assume that one of you is going to die before you ever get to see one another again. If you want to leave something unsaid, fine…but be prepared to leave it unsaid forever.

Walter Slovatsky

Things like this hit differently when you are older. It fucks with your abandonment issues. Your lack of closure. It’s not always a death, but certainly the end of something. You have to grieve the good and the bad. Grief is what allows them to become memories. Pile on enough of those memories and I guess that’s what gives us baggage. It’s hard out there. It’s hard to stay “good” when you just see patterns repeating. When you begin to suspect that every look back could be the last.

If you live long enough, I’d imagine it becomes more and more likely that those last looks back could be your last.

Stress and the inconvenience of being a writer

In the last few days, things have become increasingly stressful. Sometimes life throws a curve ball–or fifteen–at you. As a long-time overthinker I have put that character trait to work by allowing myself to get the overthinking down as writing. The big problem with that, however, is writing is no longer optional. In order to wrap my brain around things, I have to put these thoughts down onto the page.

There are times when talking to someone else about things would be wonderful. This is what you get out of therapy, when someone else can see things through a different lens and offer their thoughts that aren’t boxed in by your own perceptions. Sometimes talking to friends helps, but friends don’t (and shouldn’t) want to spend all the time an overthinker needs to spend on a problem. They have their own problems, or after a while they just become exhausted by what is going on in your life. Sometimes I think of how great it would be to have a cooler older brother or sister to chat with. Someone who has their life together and can just floor you with a simple solution that works to fix everything.

But life isn’t like it is in the movies. You don’t go through two acts and have Robin Williams show up and say “It’s not your fault, chief,” and everything is suddenly better. This is another reason to get the words down. You can be your own Robin Williams. And you don’t have to put the heavy burden of being your Robin Williams onto those you care about.

Writing things down can help you make things linear which are difficult to make sense of, given a general mosaic of chaos. You can go through everything one step at a time and fight your battles in succession, rather than facing an entire angry mob of emotions. You can even come back to them after the storms have passed and remind yourself that even though it felt like the world was coming apart at the seams, you survived and those challenges which seemed so insurmountable then would not be so hard now.

├ůs for the good things, I enjoy writing about those too. Putting those thoughts and feelings down on paper allow you to step back in time and always have that memory with you. The scents, the way the light was falling on a hillside, the wind, the rain, the roar of a crowd, or the hum of tires on the road. Whatever you decide to put in that stew of memories will bring about all sorts of levels of flavor later on in ways you never imagined.

Anyway, even writing these thoughts down has helped and now maybe they will let me do something else with my talents, which until now I have been too rattled to focus on for very long. It’s always something, so they say. Right now I have a lot of challenges ahead of me and it’s hard to see what lies over the next hill or turn of the road. All I can do now is to continue driving ahead, moving forward.

Let’s see how this all works out.