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.

Doing the Damn Work

For anyone who hasn’t been visiting my site, I have been going to counseling regularly for years. It’s funny that whenever people tell you they are working out or trying to eat better, nobody thinks much of that. The Perfect Body is one of those things that we are all supposed to strive for after all. Whether it is sex appeal and trying to attract a mate or being in peak physical condition and overcoming potential health problems which could shorten our lives, hitting the gym has almost no stigma in this country.

Nobody hardly says anything to someone who is going to church or practicing some sort of spiritual health regimen. People go door to door to convince you that their particular brand of spirituality will get you into shape so you don’t roast in the eternal fires or hell or something.

I have noticed that if you bring up your mental health, people get quiet. They walk wide of you. In my experience, it’s best to not talk openly about going to counseling or group therapy or because it makes people uncomfortable. As though you are some sort of fragile ticking time bomb from the Island of Broken Toys. Admiting you are medicated (or self-medicating) is more accepted. But jeez, what kind of person goes to a therapist and talks about the shit that is bothering them? That’s downright…creepy!

It’s just unnerving to think that someone who is obviously unhappy with their life gets a pass of drinking a couple big ass glasses of wine every night, or popping pills to help them sleep, or being on some kind of prescription. But mention you are talking through your problems and addressing your mental health concerns and all of a sudden they look at you like Riggs in Lethal Weapon. Or Renfeld in Dracula.

Because I have been doing the work, I will argue that if I come across something traumatic, I’m probably going to be more capable of handling it than a lot of folks. Why? Well, I’m building up coping strategies. I’m not weak. I’m someone who has been through some shit, and rather than let it beat me into the dust, I want to know how to deal with it when–yes WHEN–it happens again. Or hopefully how to recognize patterns in the behavior of others and shut that shit down before it becomes my problem.

So, today, one of my musings out loud was how even though I’ve been doing the work, and though I have had plenty of awful things to deal with in my past, my experience is only middle of the road awful compared to some. And those who have been through hell…they haven’t gotten help. They’ve gotten really good at masking their traumas, and unfortunately they just keep repeating old patterns, or stay in their comfort zones and never challenge themselves any further to upset that equilibrium–because change is hard. Challenging yourself is terrifying if you’ve lived your whole life in a foxhole, and if you pop your head up…BOOM.

I have moments where pushing that envelope is very hard and dealing with my shit makes me want to just…not. I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone who has done none of the work to go about their day. I mean, I’ve got tools in my toolbox. It just seems like if I didn’t, it would be like trying to loosen bolts on your car with your teeth instead of using a wrench.

Mental health is stigmatized in this country. It’s more acceptable for someone to have the fat sucked out of their ass and stuck in their lips than it is for someone to see a therapist every couple of weeks. It’s more acceptable to drink a gallon of whiskey every week than it is for someone to admit to a relative stranger that sometimes they are scared.

We wonder why suicide is a problem. Why drug addiction, alcoholism, mental/physical abuse, domestic violence, and all of it happen. Why it’s harder for someone to sit in a waiting room to tell a therapist what is bothering them than it is for someone to walk into a job everyday and answer that ubiquitous question of “How was your weekend?” and answer “Just great!” when they thought of ending their life the entire time.

Does shit rattle me sometimes? Absolutely. But I recover. I eventually find my Zen state of peace. I don’t run from the shadows anymore. I take them on. I’m still here, when a lot of people aren’t for much less than what I’ve been through. It’s no Red Badge of Courage. I wish none of us had to go through crap, but we do. It’s part of life.

I’m doing the damn work. One of my big fears, however, is wondering about the likelihood of meeting someone else who has been doing the work. Logistically speaking, people my age are single for a few reasons: either they were focused on a career and relationships weren’t a priority, or they had someone, they lost them, and either did the work to come to terms with that…or more than likely, they didn’t.

I guess that’s why God created Yellow Labs.

The crazy thing is though I do miss companionship, I don’t miss the games and bullshit people think comes with company. If the price of Peace is not getting a good morning text, it’s one I’m willing to pay. If that sounds bitter, I’m sorry. I’d rather have a deep connection than have my value quantified by whether or not somebody takes four seconds out of their day to text me.

I want the kind of person who I could sit with in silence as we drive and listen to the radio, and just from a squeeze of their hand, I know everything is good. The kind of person who it is a pleasure to go grocery shopping with. The sort of person I don’t feel like I have to hide from to keep the peace.

Where I need to be

Today isn’t an anniversary of such, but being the beginning of Spring maybe it’s worth mentioning. For the first time since I was 17 years old, I am not in a relationship, chasing someone, talking to someone, or dating someone–and it has been like this for about three months now. It has been the longest time I haven’t been involved in these kinds of shenanigans, and it feels pretty…nice.

People are hardwired for connection, but I don’t understand this Fear of Missing Out mentality that we get when we feel we have to be in a relationship with someone. As though a connection, even an unhappy one, justifies our existence. When my first romantic relationship ended, I had been seeing her for three and a half years. Our relationship started off as it often does with teenagers, intense, hormonal, pushing the envelope, and then it became a long-distance relationship. Back in the 90s, we wrote letters back and forth because nobody could afford to pay that phone bill. I still have many letters from her from that first year or so and they have brought me comfort in rough times. Times when I felt unloved and unvalued. Then we had a few years together where we lived an hour apart. The letters stopped once we saw each other every weekend.

But when the relationship ran its course–she never wanted to get married or have kids, and I did–I jumped into dating several young women over the course of the next year. I had a period of about a month when I wasn’t talking to someone or going out. I was 22. I thought my years were running out. I started dating someone from one of my classes. I wasn’t that into her, but back then I couldn’t be alone. We wound up moving in together (rent was cheaper) and getting married. It was not a good marriage.

At 39, I made up for lost time when we separated and divorced. I don’t think I went more than a few weeks without talking to someone or going out. I had picked up exactly where I had left off at 22. Everyone tried to warn me to take a while to get my shit together before I jumped into anything new. What 22 year old ever listened to reason?

I went through a four year on and off situationship with someone from work. I flirted seriously with a few almost as soon as that finally ended (and a few times in the off-again weeks). I wasn’t even over that damage when I met my last girlfriend. She listened to a lot of crap about that one, she validated me, reminded me of my value. Like that box of letters I have from 25 years ago. I hope I did the same for her. But I had only been in that mode of “Fuck it, I’m going to work on me,” for about two weeks before we met and started dating.

After things ended with us, it was a whole week before I was already talking to someone. A woman who had been my friend for a while, and in my orbit through much of that previous brain damage. Again, I was chasing, and I was relying on someone else to boost my ego, tell me nice things, and “heal”. I had a fucked up belief that if you aren’t alone you are fine. We are always just the other half of that piece of the puzzle until we can be whole with someone else, right? We build up our walls, and paint them to look how we hope others will like them.

It has been three months since I decided to let go and consider my worth. That I deserved more than the bare minimum of a situationship, or fighting for the bare minimum. Throwing everything I could into it. Watering dead plants.

At 46, Today, I no longer have that panic that being alone means I am broken. I’ve been alone with the wrong person occupying my time more often than I would like to admit. I wish I would have had the emotional maturity at 22 to say I needed to take some time to get my shit together. The last few months has left me with too many questions. Why wasn’t I good enough for more than the bare minimum? Why was I already on my way out just when I thought things were getting good? Is my love not good enough for other people?

After three months, I am finding peace. Some days are harder than others. Especially up here where options are limited. But maybe that’s what I’ve needed all along. A place to just find quiet solitude and feel comfortable in my own skin. That mountainside where you look out and realize either you start burning the books you brought along with you, or freeze to death surrounded by something that could have been keeping you warm, but were afraid to let go of.

In my case, it has been that bad habit of always thinking I’m lonely, when I’m just alone and pretty good company. Plus I have a yellow lab, and she makes me laugh every day. Sometimes that is all you need.

Today, I am 46. I have written three books over the last two years. I have had something in my chest woken up a few times, which I thought were cold and dead ashes. And I have realized how stuck I have been in my life. Always waiting to get it moving after I meet the right person to share it with. Sometimes you have to do it yourself, and by waiting, you are holding yourself back. It’s a hard cycle to break, but taking the time to do the work is worth it.

Where I am might not be the most exciting place to live, and it is so far away from a lot of things (such as good coffee), but it is exactly where I need to be.