Monthly Archives: April 2015

a list of things that didn’t kill me

I work in a library now, and one of the great things about it is that I am surrounded by books. I am a bookworm like some people are foodies.  My boyfriend James can spend literally hours perusing a grocery store, handling the meat, sniffing the spices, eyeing the seafood.  I am the same about books.  So, sometimes, when I am muddling through a creative block or need a walk to clear my head, I will wander the shelves and lose myself in the books.

I have already developed favorites — book covers or titles or authors’ names that intrigue me for one reason or another.  Books that serve as a time machine, transporting me back to my childhood, or some poignant period of my adolescence, or, occasionally, the period immediately after my divorce during which I read rapidly as an escape.

But the book that is my current favorite, the one that I revisit frequently in my mind, although I have not yet even opened it, the one that intrigues me so much that I do not dare read it because I already know that it could not possibly live up to my expectations is one titled “A List of Things that Didn’t Kill Me.”

I suppose it’s not profound, but the idea of a list of things that didn’t kill us is fascinating to me.  I wonder at how easily that list would capture our individual trials and triumphs, moments of bravery, incredible losses, and bottomless grief.  The first day I walked past that book, I couldn’t help but wonder at what might be on my own list.  A few particularly painful episodes immediately sprang to mind, and in the short walk back to my desk, I contemplated how amazing it was that I had, indeed, endured and survived such things. Me. Just me.  A normal, unremarkable person with a pretty normal, unremarkable life.

And now, it has become my own little ritual.  Every time I pass the book on the shelf, I mentally add another thing to my list.  At some point, obviously, I will have exhausted my list, and that is okay, but right now I am enjoying my little validation game.

So what about you?  If you had to create an actual list of things that didn’t kill you, what would be on it? What parts of yourself would it reveal that maybe you have stopped appreciating?  What hardships have you overcome and internalized to the point of almost forgetting about them and how dramatically they changed you?  What horrible moments have helped define and mold you into the stronger, more capable person you are now?  How many of these moments fortified your character, solidified your integrity, and taught you some immeasurable lesson?  What would be missing from your life if these experiences had never crossed your path?  Who would you be without them?  How are you better for them?

So, humor me and take a minute.  Think about it.

What changed you forever? What did you think you couldn’t survive but did? What didn’t kill you?

A list of things that didn't kill me

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Filed under healing, personal growth

friends and lovers

Earlier this year, as I sat on the hard, wooden bleacher bench and watched my daughter’s volleyball team be destroyed by their opponent, a man sat down next to me. He smiled and said hello.  I smiled politely and felt a nervous flutter in my gut.  He turned his attention to his daughter, a teammate of my daughter’s, and only occasionally glanced my way.  I did my best to avert my eyes and avoid conversation, afraid that something I did might belie the nervousness I felt.  He was handsomer than I had remembered, and fitter than I’d expected. Although, in fairness, I’d never seen him up close and in person before. He seemed relaxed and at ease.  Happy, even.  I kept telling myself that there was no way that he could know that I know what I know.

Because what I know is that 6 years ago he cheated on his wife with a good friend of mine.

My town is just small enough that if your daughter is between the ages of 12 and 14 and plays volleyball competitively, she’s probably on my daughter’s team.  And so here we sit, Casanova and I — on a cold, hard bleacher bench, with the cold, hard truth resting resolutely between us but only I am aware of our shared secret.

When my friend Izzie first met Sergio, she and I weren’t really friends.  We were more like acquaintances.  Our friendship grew as our marriages failed and pretty soon we were sharing all sorts of intimate stories over coffee or (more frequently as time wore on) margaritas.  The first time Izzie met Sergio, she told me later, was like falling off a cliff.  The attraction was immediate and deep and shattering.  It went beyond the physical and into the complicated realms of respect, admiration, and genuine appreciation.  Within months they were crossing lines that shouldn’t be crossed, and Izzie was hopelessly and completely in love with Sergio.  Every last part of her behavior with him was wildly out of character for Izzie, and she wrestled with all sorts of guilty demons, but her heart was determined and single-minded.

There were a lot of things that predestined the unhappy ending of their story, but primary among them, even more so than the fact that both were still married, was Sergio’s professed fondness for “the European way of approaching these things,” as he euphemistically put it to Izzie after she was already too far gone to retreat.  See, Sergio was raised in Europe, amongst money and wealth, and was of the belief that marriage was not necessarily about fidelity but about being partners in raising children and maintaining a family.  He suggested to Izzie that affairs were necessary simply — and only — to have needs met that weren’t being met within the marriage.  And as time wore on, it became clear that such a set-up — a long-term, no-strings-attached affair — was all that he was prepared to offer or consider with Izzie.  Faced with this truth, she was totally crushed, and I was silently outraged (as every good friend is, right?).  It was beyond me how he could see my smart, beautiful, open and loving friend and not want every last thing she was willing to offer him.  I was appalled and frustrated and furious on her behalf, even as the rational part of me knew that, of course, this is how these cookies usually crumble.

Izzie moved on with her divorce and slowly, with a strength that I admired and tried to emulate, put her past behind her.  She displayed remarkable grace and kindness toward Sergio when she heard from him or ran into him, and despite feeling some lingering sense of want, she never wandered one step down that path again.  It seemed that perhaps Sergio and all the messiness from that relationship was behind her, and therefore, me.  Much later, Izzie heard that Sergio’s wife had finally filed for divorce, and that the two were separated.  And time did it’s predictable, comforting march away from that time and pain.

Until Sabrina decided that she wanted to play volleyball.

I saw Sergio’s last name on the team roster and called Izzie.  She confirmed that it was, indeed, Sergio’s daughter on the roster, and we both made the usual “small world” comments.  I didn’t think much of it until the following weekend, when I found myself standing awkwardly at the snack table next to Sergio’s wife.  She tried to make small talk with me, and I, probably quite rudely, walked away.  All I could remember was how much Izzie and I had wondered about this woman all those years ago.  What was she like?  Did she know of Sergio’s affairs?  Did she suspect?  Did she care?  What was wrong with her that he looked elsewhere? (This last was, admittedly, horribly unfair, but a product of the mindset we were in at the time.) And now here I was, forced to make small talk with her, and — gasp! — maybe even grow to like her.

Competitive volleyball is a grueling sport for parents — two to three practices a week and weekend tournaments that start at 8 am and don’t end until almost dinnertime.  There is lots of waiting around between matches and lots of coordinating food and travel.  After a season of this, I have realized the utter foolishness of my earlier belief that perhaps I could simply avoid Sergio and his wife for the year or two that our girls might play together.  I can no more avoid them than I can avoid my own daughter at matches.  It’s impossible.

And so I have done the unthinkable:  I have sat and talked with Sergio’s wife at length at matches.  We have emailed occasionally to confirm practices or set up tournament details.  And I have grudgingly come to like her.  But we have not shared a single interaction during which her husband’s betrayal did not lurk right under the surface of my consciousness. I wish that it would go away, but it won’t.

As for Sergio, he probably thinks me somewhat aloof; certainly he has not guessed at our connection.  My last name, unlike his own, is very common, and I have been careful to avoid mention of Izzie’s name in conversation with or near him.  Still, I find myself unfairly disliking him.  More so than Izzie, I cannot seem to forgive him for causing her tears and heartbreak.  Yes, I know they were consenting adults making a mutually inadvisable decision, the outcome of which was not likely to be good, but I cannot help but lay the blame at his feet.

And I find that it is not just Izzie over whom I feel protective, but Sergio’s wife, too.  I do not know her well or even consider her a friend, but I like her, and I hate that I know this about her marriage and she probably does not.  I hate to imagine that she would likely feel humiliated and betrayed by my silence, too.  And so I blame Sergio for all of it. For Izzie’s tears and his wife’s ignorance and my strange, awkward position.  It’s probably not fair, but I do.

I know for certain that I will never, ever, in any small or large way, betray what I know to Sergio or to his wife.  I would not violate Izzie’s trust in that manner under any circumstances, and I have no wish to cause possible pain to Sergio’s wife.  Instead I will continue to sit through practices and tournaments, musing silently to myself about how far and wide our choices resonate.  Nothing that we ever do is completely over.  It is there, always, reappearing in surprising places and with never-anticipated results.  Our pain, our mistakes, our lapses, all there, capable of being discovered at any given moment and inflicting further pain even years and years later.

I will keep my thoughts to myself.  I will wonder at the possible irony of someone in the gymnasium knowing something equally painful and unexpected about me or my life.  And I will continue to sit on the hard, wooden bleacher bench, watch my daughter’s team, and silently contemplate my friends and their lovers.

affairs

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Filed under divorce, relationships

unlovable

My cousin Brady and his girlfriend Allyson are expecting babies. Twins, to be precise.  He’s 26, and she’s 24.  They found themselves on the unexpected end of a positive pregnancy test after Allyson became one of those women to defy the birth control odds and become pregnant while taking the Pill.  So, they have moved in together and are planning for their family.

But the babies aren’t the problem.  It’s the history that predates their conception by many, many years that is. Brady and Allyson’s mutual histories are fraught, but the details are not really relevant.  What is relevant (at least to me, at least today) is that Brady is scared to death of losing Allyson and (in his own words) doesn’t understand why she won’t let him love her.

Fortunately today he called the right person to talk about this one.

As Brady began to describe Allyson’s behavior, the things she is says to him, and her overall demeanor, I felt, with a sinking heart, the recognition of an old and powerful foe.  Allyson is making demands of him and, when he complies, making more.  She is throwing down the gauntlet, and when he refuses to pick it up and submits himself to her will, she is enraged.  She constantly tells him that he needs help, that he is messed up, that he needs to work on himself, and when he does, she is not mollified for even a moment.  The more he tells her he loves her and wants to be close to her, the more she pulls away and gives him more lists of things he’s doing wrong.  Even as she acknowledges that he is trying and doing a good job meeting her demands, she cuts him down and threatens to leave.

He is, understandably, a bit confused.

I’m not.  Because I understand Allyson perfectly.

Allyson has abandonment issues.  Serious, deeply-rooted, abandonment issues from a personal history guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes.  I know, in the core of my being, that Allyson is testing Brady because she is scared to death.  And the biggest, worst, most unforgivable thing he has done is to believe himself capable of loving her.

Because, you see, Allyson believes that she is unlovable.

Somewhere in the darkest parts of herself, Allyson does not believe that she is worth loving.  Her life history has proved this to her subconscious, and a subconscious stubbornly clings to the defenses it believes will protect us from future wounds.  It sees truths where there aren’t any, because it seeks the simplest and most obvious answer to every pain.  When people who are supposed to love us by the simple laws of nature do not, then clearly it is because we are unlovable.  The laws of nature cannot be wrong, certainly, so it must be us that is lacking, unworthy, flawed in the worst way.

Therefore, it logically follows, the subconscious tells us, that anyone who could possibly love us is horribly flawed themselves.  Obviously, there is something terribly wrong with them if they believe that they could love us, that we are worth loving.  They must be awful themselves, because no sane, emotionally healthy person could find us worthy of true, unconditional love and acceptance.  So it is up to us to figure out what is so wrong with this person and do it before they figure out for themselves how worthless we really are.  It is a race to push them away before they discover the truth about us and inevitably leave, disgusted and appalled that they ever considered making a life with us.

Of course, the subconscious does its devil’s work without consulting the conscious part of our brain.  That’s the part that really, really, really hopes that this person is true and honest and so wonderful that he has seen something in us that is so perfect and special that we are actually deserving of love after all.  We hope against hope that he is right and we are wrong and somehow he will rescue us from our self-imposed exile from love and intimacy.

Because, let’s just acknowledge the obvious here:  real intimacy isn’t possible with truth and vulnerability.  Innately we know this.  It is why, early in relationships, we all share our stories and hear theirs and gauge reactions and are buoyed by every acceptance of every little quirk and shortcoming.  We know instinctively that the only way to get close to someone is be vulnerable in that moment and see them accept our vulnerability and whatever weakness it allowed them to see.

Adults with abandonment issues are not always closed off.  In fact, I think what confuses the heck out of the people who do love us is that some of us (Allyson and myself included) share a lot of ourselves.  We seem open and forthcoming and the types who proverbially wear our hearts on our sleeves.  We also tend to be initially very accepting of others’ flaws and emotional baggage.  I believe this is because subconsciously we’re hearing their stories and thinking “Hell, that’s nothing.  Is that all you’ve got?  I’m a freak of nature.  I’m unlovable.”  People — friends, lovers, spouses even — are sucked in.  They, understandably, are comforted by the acceptance we offer and reassured by our own apparent willingness to share.  We seem to, as a friend once described me, “incapable of having a superficial relationship with anyone.”

And it’s not an act.  I swear on a stack of Bibles that it’s not.  Our acceptance and our willingness to share are real and honest and well-intentioned.  We do sincerely want to be close to other people.  We do sincerely accept their short-comings.  We aren’t acting or manipulating.  I promise, and if you don’t believe me, read the psychiatric journals and you’ll discover I’m telling you the truth.

But, inevitably, when the person we are getting close to begins to truly care about us, the subconscious sends up the flares and sounds the alarms.  What is wrong with this person?  And we begin to dissect them, searching frantically for clues as to how they could believe us worth this attention and caring.  We are some of the friends, lovers, and family members you have known who seem to self-sabotage Every. Single. Relationship.  We can run off a good man faster than you can say “What the hell was wrong with that one?” And we can stay and defend a total loser for decades if we have deemed him as unworthy as us and therefore our perfect fit.  We are the women who date the users and players, and the men who pamper and coddle the princesses and manipulators.  Our emotional brethren are those who have been beaten and abused; in fact, sometimes we start out as one and end up as the other.  Some of us engage in breathtakingly self-destructive behavior in a pathological display of self-hatred.

What makes this insecurity so insidious is that it is deeply buried.  I am quite sure that were I to say all of this to Allyson, she would have one of two reactions.  She would either a.) be appalled and defensive and tell me that it’s ridiculous because of course she is lovable.  She would point to all the people who love her and list her achievements and accomplishments and reassure me sincerely that she values herself.

Alternatively, she would b.) be shocked that I had seen through her myriad of protective layers and discerned her truth.  She would dissolve into tears and stammer through an explanation of why she isn’t truly lovable, with her subconscious swimming to the surface to offer into evidence the many reasons for her unlovableness.  She would acknowledge that it sounds ridiculous, but explain how and why it is true.  She would apologize — for what, precisely, would not be clear — and she would assure me that she doesn’t expect me to understand.

And no amount of love or reassurance or sympathy or empathy on my part would pierce the carefully constructed and defended self-concept created by her subconscious many years ago and supported and reinforced in relationship after relationship that she has likely self-sabotaged.

But the remarkable thing about humans is our capacity to grow beyond our emotional limitations.  We have the innate ability to identify and correct wrong mindsets and patterns.  It isn’t easy, of course, but it is, in all likelihood, the answer to the greatest existentialist question of all, “Why are we here?”

I don’t know what it would take for Allyson to break down her protective walls, allow Brady in, and accept her own worth in his eyes.  It has taken me more than 40 years to understand the problem.  It might take me another 40 to fully understand the solution.  One thing I do know, however, is that once the truth is out, once you are able to say all of this for the first time to someone you love, the ramparts begin, slowly, to crumble.  The moat of fear surrounding your vulnerability starts to fill in with all of the love and warmth and caring that people have poured into your soul for years. And gradually, glacially, that reeking, rotting layer of your self-concept begins to shift.

Alter.

Heal.

I have no idea if Brady will have the patience, maturity, and love to stick it out with Allyson as she thrashes and rages and battles with her own sense of self-worth.  I can’t say whether his own difficulties and history will interfere with his ability to understand and appreciate her feelings.  I do hope, however, that there is some kind of happy ending waiting for these two at the end of the story.  Because I love happy endings.

Especially for the unlovable.

unlovable

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