Things I have learned

Twenty-five years ago, I was a different person. At the age of 21 you are just in the process of figuring out who you are. 21 year olds are stupid, green. They seem so sure of themselves, but they really aren’t. More times than we would like to admit, at that phase of our adulthood, we are still running on autopilot of what our parents, or usually our friends prepared us for. Our values come from our community, our peers, our places of worship, and the books and movies and television we like and relate to. All of it is our care package that runs out pretty quickly when we are first on our own.

We begin to experiment with things. Drugs. Sex. Religions. The things we read. Some of us might go through a phase where we only listen to indie rock or watch foreign films. Thank goodness for getting that our of our systems pretty quick. In the middle of this experimentation phase, we often think we’ve got the code cracked. We’ve done what no other adult in the history of ever has done. We have solved the problem that has affected generations stretching back to the beginning of time. We know better.

Or we think we do well enough to partner up and reproduce.

There’s a thing called emotional maturity. Some of us are stuck at a certain age. Most adults we know are walking around in ageing bodies with a ten year old or a fifteen year old at the controls. Many uphappy relationships stem from the fact that one partner finds themselves raising the other.

I went through that phase too, mutually raising the other partner. The only reason it was “mutual” is because I dumbed myself down enough to need to be raised from time to time myself. Mostly because of fears. Like I said, it was mutual participation, so it became a contest as to who could be the most helpless sometimes. I hope that was as much of a phase as watching movies where mimes play tennis or death plays chess with someone.

We, as humans, are awfully good at putting each other in boxes. We recognize patterns and categorize accordingly. My ex used to say I was just like her father. Only that couldn’t have been further from the truth. She wanted me to be just like her father, and dragged me into that kicking and screaming. In the end, I considered it. It would have been easier to just step into someone else’s box.

I went to the dentist one time while I was married. It wound up being for a full-mouth debridement. They scraped 20 years of crud off my teeth. That was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Underneath, I had beautiful teeth. No cavities. Just some gums that needed some TLC. I had a hard time taking care of myself or putting myself first. Though my wife at the time went to the dentist, got new cell phones, drove the new cars, etc., I made sure she and the kids were taken care of first. If I didn’t, I heard about it. That also became a competition. She would say she was nearly blind and needed new glasses, when I was the one working. I needed glasses to work, but I had the same prescription since college.

When I finally left, I started dating someone who gave me a taste of being selfish. She told me I needed to see an eye doctor because one night when I went to her apartment to go for a walk, I nearly walked right past her. I couldn’t see her face in the dark. I got glasses and I could see again. Work was easier. Writing was easier. Driving…was much safer.

Later, I went in for a teeth cleaning and they found a cavity. My first. I was 40. The strange jump my life had taken from being 21 and just starting off at figuring out my life brought me back to 21. I mean in the meantime, I had worked regularly, was in the process of raising three kids, but I had not done some things for myself that many adults take for granted. I was terrified of getting a tooth filled.

The woman I was seeing told me to close my eyes and think of her holding my hand if I got scared. Then that was comforting. That someone cared. Someone had that kind of compassion. Someone wanted to take care of me for a change. I felt better. Today, I’m not the same. I’ve been catching up.

Back then, I had never gone anywhere on my own, much less booked a hotel room, plane tickets, bought a car from a dealership, or done much for myself. By myself. Nearly every experience was raw, new, and scared the shit out of me. I had been captive. I would say my wife had done all of those things, but she hadn’t. She had her mother book rooms and car rentals and plane tickets. Her mother was always center stage, from buying our house to our cars, and so much more. We were dependent on her, which meant whenever we wanted to do something different, we had to clear it with her, since she was the one doing all the leg work. She was the only one who was allowed to watch the kids. My ex was just as much at her mercy as I was.

The things I was good at were taking kids to the ER in the middle of the night. Taking care of sick kids. Fighting with my wife and trying to hold a marriage together for a very long time. I became very good at shutting down. At blowing things out of proportion to suit the narrative. Everyone else was bad. We were poor and always going to be that way. Everyone was always out to screw us over.

I’m learning now that your 40s get to be a new time in your life where you decide what your values are. It’s sad that for so many of us it takes this long. We finally give ourselves permission. The last several years has been trying to unlearn a lot of what I was taught wrong in my youth. Mostly by two young people who had a child together and were faking it themsleves. Living in a small town. Under the disapproval of family who had their minds made up about the world and our place in it. Like I said, this stuff goes back generations.

Some things still make me anxious, but not as much anymore. I figure it out. I like to problem solve. In my forties, I’m learning to worry less about what others think of you. Chances are if they’ve made that call already, it’s not your problem. It’s theirs. I’ve been held back from doing so many of the things I have wanted because I’ve been afraid of what other people might think. Every single one of us has done something new for the first time, and most of us have failed spectacularly at it. If we keep getting up and trying again, we usually get better at it. There’s no other way to master something. And if we were instantly perfect at doing it, maybe we didn’t aim very high?

Very few of us are born into a position that is guaranteed success. I’ve met people who were and they are a mess. When you are born into your life, you’re no different than that 21 year old who is just going by everything they were taught. You aren’t learning it for yourself. Those are the kind of people who aren’t happy. They aren’t sad either. They have a weird feeling they cannot describe because they’ve never wanted for anything. They don’t know what it’s like to want more and not just be able to have it. And they can’t understand that not everything we have is even something we want. That wisdom comes from loss. Or looking beyond what is familiar, and maybe wondering if it’s a cage or not.

Anyway, I’m getting better at getting out of my comfort zone. Over the years, I have been paying attention to the lessons I have been given. I no longer need someone to hold my hand at the dentist. If I need new glasses, I make an appointment. I am prepared to make mistakes and once I weigh all the options and think things through. I jump anyway.

21 year old me would have told me that was what I should have been doing all along.

I’m going to talk about mental health

I’ve been going to therapy for years. Most recently since about a year before I filed divorce and then steadily after that for the last going on eight years. There’s a lot to talk about here, so if you are an old salt at mental health or if you have questions about getting started with it, I hope I can tick some of the boxes to help. I’m not a professional, but I might be an expert at the process from a patient’s perspective. The last couple years have been rough on everyone. Mental health is very real.

It’s not just about childhood trauma

The old trope of “Tell me about your childhood” exists, but therapy isn’t limited to just this. A lot of the time they want to know how you feel about something right now. You can bring childhood trauma into it, which often plays a part, but it’s not the whole picture. Sometimes it’s your current situation. Stress about money. An abusive partner. Your own anxieties or stress. A sense of meaning or purpose you seem to be lacking. It’s not always going to be about your past, though that will come up if you think it’s important and want to talk about it.

They aren’t your friends

The crazy thing (sorry, pun not intended) about getting therapy is it is a relationship of sorts. It’s not a friendship, though you will be sharing some very personal things with someone who will listen and offer feedback. They aren’t your friend, but I don’t mean that in a menacing way, like I would say about co-workers or the police. Friends tend to…indulge us sometimes. Enable us. Therapists don’t. At least they shouldn’t, but they will often listen and empathize with us to get the full story. Let them. This is good. Our friends like to see us Happy. Sometimes that means if we are lying to ourselves about stuff. I had a therapist tell me it was her job to hold up a mirror. Sometimes we don’t like what we see in that mirror. And no, life isn’t always about being Happy. Whoever told us that probably made their fortune off selling billions of hamburgers. Or oxycontin.

It’s a relationship

Just like any relationship, you have to find the right fit. I’ve been to therapists who just didn’t listen. Or others who thought they had me figured out. Others were such a soft touch with my feelings we got nothing done, because they were afraid to ask the tough questions. Others became more like friends and too familiar, and let me get away with bullshitting them for too long. Others just weren’t very good. I’ve probably seen a dozen different therapists. This happens. People come and go. It’s weird spilling your guts to someone only to hear later that they have taken another job someplace else or are retiring. But the important thing is finding someone that you click with…and not in a way that you click with friends. Someone you trust to share with, but also trust that they will call you out and you will feel safe with that. Even if being called out is uncomfortable.

But if the relationship is working, and your treatment isn’t, you can pick a different therapist.

Don’t self diagnose

I have a friend who is a psychologist. She gets so mad about TikTok and how people are using the app to self-diagnose ADHD, BPD, Narcissism, etc. Though I get the validity of her statement, that an app designed for teenagers to show off their dance moves is NOT a therapist…the problem with this country is we don’t have a lot of resources for mental health. It’s either prohibitively expensive or like I mentioned above, our choices are limited in who will be effective in our treatment.

As much as I have been going to therapy, my personal therapist has never run a DSM-IV or DSM-V on me. I have taken the DSM twice, however. Once due to a Parental Rights Evaluation due to my divorce, and another which was done because of a CPS investigation I got sucked into. That’s a whole other story, which I’ve talked about a few times. Here’s the thing. Both evaluations said pretty much the same thing. The things I was struggling with were due to the trauma I had endured during my marriage, and were likely treatable. But I wouldn’t have ever learned this just by going to therapy once a week. And a DSM isn’t just some online test you can take, like finding your Enneagram or your horoscope. It asks over 300 questions and the answers are interpreted by the psychologist to come up with a diagnosis.

Start somewhere

So, no. You can’t tell if you have ADHD or Borderline Personality Disorder based on TikTok, but it’s a good place to start asking the right questions. Anyone who says “Only 1% of the population is a clinical narcissist! Stop saying your ex has narcissism!” The only reason the stats are that low is because you have to be diagnosed, which in and of itself is rare. So your sample size (especially for a disorder where the person thinks nothing is wrong with them) is going to be skewed.

There’s a good chance your ex is a narcissist. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck… And if that is what helps you deal with their bullshit, that’s not a bad place to start either. Unless you are using it to excuse your own bullshit of course.

If a diagnosis is what they need to show they are a narcissist, well, good luck with that, because in order to get diagnosed, you have to be evaluated. Anyone who is a narcissist is likely going to think they are the only one in the world without a problem. So good luck getting them in for a diagnosis. Unless a court orders it.

Don’t self-diagnose, but go into it with some good questions. Ask them to test you. I was involved with a narcissist who made me feel like I was the narcissist. I have two tests showing it wasn’t me. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.

It’s not just about meds

People are worried that if they go to therapy they will be medicated. Some stuff needs medication, such as bi-polar disorder or things that your tendancy to self-harm has to be regulated with controlling your bio-chemistry. Some forms of depression, insomnia, and schizophrenia are like this too. But if your life sucks and you are depressed, there’s a good chance they can’t throw a pill at that.

In all my years of going to counseling, I’ve only been offered meds once and that was because my depression was so acute they were worried that something had to be done right now. The problem is it takes weeks to regulate with meds like that, and even then your body chemistry adapts. One day it all could stop working. And if you don’t have good insurance…well, you’re up shit creek.

But they will respect your wishes to be medicated or not. I know what my problems are, and CPT and other types of therapy have worked better than pills could. Same goes for self-medication. All the booze, weed, and hard drugs you throw at a problem won’t fix it. You have to do the work.

Do the work

It’s hard work sometimes. But it is worth it. It’s like coming out of a fog, even if it’s just for short bursts sometimes. But that fog gets less frequent until you start to forget the familiarity of the fog. It can be scary at times living without that fog. It’s a whole other way to perceive the world around you. You tend to act more instead of react. And sometimes that feels like you aren’t doing anything. You’ve lived so long the other way that you might backslide into dysfunction, or gravitate towards people with problems because you know what that is all about. You just have to keep doing the work. Chaos can be cozy, but you know what is better? Not having to deal with chaos. Trust me.

What comes next?

At some point, you might feel fine. It’s not a time-share, you aren’t stuck in it forever. It’s treatment. Just like how you wouldn’t keep going back to the doctor for that leg you broke in the third grade, at some point your visits will become less frequent. You’ll start to realize that something that would have gutted you a couple years ago just ruined your day and you were able to get on with your life. You no longer spiral. You cope. You overcome. You might even thrive. Your relationships are healthier. You cut out the toxicity voluntarily.

Every day isn’t going to be sunshine and lollipops, but you no longer feel that darkness consume you over little things. You are striving for balance. Not bliss. We all have good days and bad days. Therapy helps you avoid turning those good days into shitstorms because that’s all you know. You trust that life has an ebb and flow. Today might be good. Great even. Tomorrow might be bad. Knowing that one extreme or the other isn’t going to last forever has helped me immensely. At some point, you might decide you don’t need to go anymore, because you’ve got this.

Like really actually got this this time. And if you don’t, you can always go back.

What mental health isn’t

Mental health, unlike going to church or temple, isn’t about judgement. Unless you are hurting yourself and other people. There’s a stigma attached to seeking mental health. Like you’re “crazy”. We equate sanity with morality in this world. Being crazy isn’t about good or evil. It’s more like what you do with that crazy that matters. Someone who is psychotic or sociopathic has the capability to do bad things to other people without remorse. But treating that tends to curb the damage they can do to others.

There’s nothing that bugs me more about mental health than when people use their religion as a substitute. Why? Because a pastor or whatever the hell runs the place will just tell you to pray more, and it’s your own weakness and lack of faith that has caused this. Just pray. And tithe. Don’t forget to tithe. Bring your friends. Tithe.

Some personality disorders–like the ones I have experienced by proxy–are things that if they were treated would have meant the lives of their loved ones would have been better. But when you don’t treat it, it’s the same as letting someone have access to firearms who doesn’t possess the empathy or mental maturity to not walk into a school and start shooting.

There’s a guy I follow on TikTok who is a diagnosed, self-aware narcissist. He knows what he has done, and he understands how he has hurt people. Guess what? He’s doing something about it. That’s pretty badass right there. You are not your diagnosis anyway. You get to choose how you want to live.

Simplicity and Meaning

I’ve thought a lot about what I would want in a relationship. When we start out in life, we have no idea what to look for, and then as we get older, we begin to get a good idea. We set up expectations. Sometimes we get crazy expectations which would make it nearly impossible for anyone to fit the bill.

Young men often say they want someone who is a size four or under, they have to have a certain hair color, eye color, blah blah blah. Like any good plan, everyone has one until they get punched in the mouth. To quote Iron Mike Tyson.

I’ve boiled my list down to a few mandatory things, which I’ll share here.

  • Must be a good kisser
  • Must enjoy kitchen dancing (music optional)
  • Must be kind to animals
  • Not rude to servers and waitstaff
  • Must love to laugh (especially at themselves)
  • Must have their shit together

That last one is the kicker isn’t it?

Lately I’ve been trying to get my shit together even more. Some days I’m good at it, and others not so much. I recently started reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I got halfway through it in one sitting. If you are unfamiliar with the book, it tells the story of Viktor Frankl, who was a psychotherapist in Austria during the 1930s until he was rounded up with millions of other Jews and sent to death camps during WWII.

During his time in Auschwitz and Dachau (and other camps), Frankl made observations that sometimes the healthier people who were brought into the camps–bigger, stronger, better fed, etc.–were dying, whereas he, a doctor doing hard labor, was still alive. He attributes much of it to simply having a reason to live. The attrocities he saw on a daily basis became commonplace and after awhile all empathy was robbed of them. They fell to nearly animalistic impulses. But he held onto the belief that as long as he found meaning in his life, he could continue. Sometimes he held conversations in his head with his wife, whom he had no knowledge of being alive or dead. Some found meaning in art, which some still did as they continued the slog towards starvation and disease. A big one Frankl attributed to his survival was love. Whether it was love for the outdoors and a beautiful sunset, or the thoughts of his wife, or the love of his work. The man actually wrote notes for his books on scraps of paper while he was in the camps.

When people are exposed to stress and trauma over a long period of time, they become desensitized to awful things. They become cold. I have thought about that in my own struggles recently with my children, with court. I haven’t spoken about it much here, but the papers have all been signed. The loss of common sense in the whole thing. The disregard for logic or fairness…it’s enough to drive you crazy. It’s certainly enough to make you lose hope. My children are all gone now. Lost to parental alienation, and the courts facilitated this. It isn’t right. Remember what Mike Tyson said? I’ve lived that. I can see nothing but a hard life for all of my kids.

It was Father’s Day and not a single phone call or text. That was also done to hurt me (did it? Not really. I tend to agree with the Stoics on this one). They cannot go outside of their mother’s authoritarian control. Her only purpose is to cause pain in others, because they have to pay for her own demons, which she never dealt with. Showing love or compassion for me is forbidden. Believe me when I say I’ve been there and lived through it. Sometimes it’s just easier to do what she says unless you want to get hurt.

I started reading Frankl because of that situation. Because of the guilt associated with losing all meaning in your life. As a father–really any parent–our identity is tied to being able to provide for and protect our children. When our lawmakers take that fundamental right away from us, it is dehumanizing. We run the risk of losing hope. June is Men’s Mental Health month. A huge number of divorced dads commit suicide every year because of this system. A lot of dads turn to the bottle or drugs to cope. Really to numb that feeling inside that says they are unworthy of being on this planet. I’ve seen it. Hell, I’ve dabbled in it.

I keep hearing that “One day your kids will come around.” No. They won’t. There is no rule out there saying they ever will. No crystal ball predicting this. Sometimes, people are just lost to you. That is a harsh reality. Ask any parent of a drug addict or any parent whose child walked to school and never came home. Or any parent who sat in front of a doctor and heard the words “It’s too soon to tell, but we are going to run some more tests…” Telling someone otherwise gives them false hope, and over time, according to Frankl, that “reprieve” will cut you just as deep as the trauma. So, please, don’t tell me they will come around. You don’t know that. Nobody knows that.

You come to a point where you have to admit to yourself you did everything you could.

So, I’ve decided to look for meaning in other ways. I have my Work. I have my writing. I have my memories of good people who walked with me for a while. Many of them are gone, but I still carry that piece of them with me. That piece that I loved. Like Frankl, I have conversations with these old ghosts sometimes. At least the part of them who held my hand and told me I was worthy of love. I have dreams and goals. I have the rest of my life to live and I refuse to let myself die on my feet doing meaningless, unfulfilling toil, just because I am not allowed to live for anything other than children who have been indoctrinated to hate me. But, whether their mother likes it or not, I will always be their dad.

I have the work of getting my shit together too, because the door swings both ways. I have a lot of trauma to work through. I don’t expect a partner to fix me, anymore than I would want to fix her. Getting your shit together means addressing the damage of the past and finding meaning in your life. Allowing yourself to love yourself and others. And seeking purpose. Meaning.

Today, I spent time with my dad on Father’s Day. We had good conversations. He made lunch and dinner. We aren’t very much alike, but time shared with him had meaning because these opportunities won’t last forever.

Having your shit together is a thin line on the horizon. It implies having done the work to no longer hurt yourself or others. It speaks to self-worth and boundaries. It probably means you are forgiving of yourself when you mess up and own your mistakes. And sometimes it means you can even harden your heart and walk away if you have to. It means you choose Peace over Drama. And you stop bleeding on others who didn’t cut you. It means honesty. It means allowing yourself to feel safe and asking good questions. It means tearing down walls and having better boundaries instead.

It’s also a pretty big red or green flag for those who work hard to get their shit together.

I hope I can find someone who fits this bill one day. Like many things in life, there are no guarantees. But I really do miss some great kissing and kitchen dancing. Until then, I will continue to find meaning. Fulfillment. Joy. Life goes on.