Failure to launch

I have been very successful in my professional life. I set a lot of long-term goals when I was pretty young and achieved them all. I am really proud of my career and teaching has been my passion for over two decades.

My personal life, however…that’s been kind of a disaster. I think most of my colleagues would be surprised at how much I struggle outside of work. My relationships, for one, have been less than successful. My marriage ended within five years. My ten year long relationship with my exboyfriend, M., was a series of disasters and heartbreak. My current relationship is BY FAR the healthiest one I have been in. However, it is currently being tested by my anxiety and agoraphobia.

My struggles with mental health are such an area of shame for me. I think because it creates such a dichotomy between my professional life and my personal life. I know I present myself as being totally in control and confident at work, and yet the opposite is true in “real life”.

I met my therapist this week and we were discussing my relationship and how I feel envious of my boyfriend’s ex wife. That sounds crazy, so let me expand on that! He and I have been together for several years and have not made a ton of progress in our relationship. We are very committed to each other and very much in love, but sometimes our lives are still disjointed. He is with me half the week and the other half of the week, he has his two teenaged sons. Luckily, they have been very accepting of me and are amazing kids. But when he’s with them…he’s with them. A lot of that is my own fault, though. He always includes me in their activities, dinners, etc. Oftentimes it is out of my comfort zone and I do not attend. I do see the boys a good amount, but it isn’t as often as it should be. His ex wife has been dating her boyfriend for only about six months, but he has become a permanent fixture at her house and with the boys. They integrated him pretty quickly into their family.

I often find myself envious of this and then immediately feel ashamed because I know it is my own fault. My boyfriend is wonderful and always assures me that everything is fine and he is happy in our relationship and with me. My therapist basically said point blank that he is trying to include me and make me feel like a part of his family and I am “failing him”.

This was like a punch to the gut for several reasons. The first being that feeling mike a failure in general just sucks. The second is that my boyfriend is honestly such an amazing person who cares so much for me and is so, so good to me. He is the last person I want to disappoint. I love him and I love his kids and I want to be with them all more than I am now. It is important to me to create more of a family structure with him and I feel like my mental illness is preventing me from being able to make that a priority.

A third reason is M. His illness and his subsequent death will always feel like a failure to me, no matter what anyone says about it not being my fault. Logic tells me that there was nothing more I could have done, that I went above and beyond to help him, and that I was powerless. But, as with most matters of the heart, logic doesn’t win. I will always feel a pang when I think about M. and his final days. I will always wonder what I could have done differently and if he would still be alive if I didn’t give up on him. I will always feel like I failed him.

I know “failing” my boyfriend now is not a literal matter of life and death. And he acts like the issues with my anxiety are no big deal. But I can already predict what will happen…each little disappointment will chip away at his love for me. Each “no”, each “I can’t”, each excuse I make will cause him to take a tiny, almost indiscernible step away from me. It won’t be noticeable at first, but one day he will suddenly be very far away. I will most likely lose him at some point. I think that is why I have never allowed myself to really, truly feel comfortable in our relationship. The pain of losing him will be too much, so I protect my heart.

It was hard to hear it, but I know my therapist is right. I am failing my boyfriend. And I probably did fail M. in some way. But, most importantly, I am failing myself every single day that I let anxiety control my life. And that is the most difficult failure of all, because I can’t blame it on anyone else. I can’t ignore it, run away from it, divorce it…I carry it with me constantly.

One step forward, two steps back…

I know I do not push myself enough when it comes to my anxiety and agoraphobia, but I do try. Ever since the summer when I had a semi-nervous breakdown, I have just been really focused on getting back to the semblance of a baseline. I am pretty close to that, but my comfort area remains really small. It is really hard to push myself when all I really want is to feel normal and I am scared to rock the boat. But in the past couple of months, I have drastically reduced the amount I take Xanax, which feels good. I am back to taking it on a as needed basis and I rarely need it (but that is because I don’t really go anywhere…)

Today, my boyfriend’s son had an important athletic competition about 30 minutes away. I have only driven that far a few times since the summer, but fortunately it was in a direction and on highways I am really familiar and comfortable with. My boyfriend went early and I met him there a couple hours later. All of the expected responses I normally have did not really happen. I did not wake up during the night thinking about the drive and I felt relaxed and in control all morning. I did check the traffic a few times to make sure it was smooth sailing and I did take a Xanax about a half hour before I left. But, I drove there with no problems!!! The last couple of times I have had to drive that distance, I had panicky feelings and was tempted to turn around and go home and that did not happen at all. I really did not feel anxious and I was really pleased about that. It felt like winning a small battle in a very ginormous war, but a win nonetheless!

When it became pretty evident my boyfriend’s son was going to be the champion of the event, I mentioned to him that maybe we should ask his ex-wife (who was also there) if she wanted us all to go out to dinner to celebrate with their two sons. I asked him if maybe we could meet in between my house and hers or have them come down a little closer to my house (she and I live about 20ish minutes away). He won (hurray!!!) and afterwards it was decided we would all go out to dinner. My boyfriend and I went back to my house and his ex-wife and son went back to her house to let him shower and get their younger son, who was home. The kids decided they wanted to go to a restaurant that is about 10 minutes further away from their mom’s house, which made it about a half hour away from my house, but in a direction I am not really comfortable driving.

I just could not do it. After pumping myself up for the original drive and then sitting in a gym for five hours (which was REALLY overstimulating with a tournament going on), I just immediately shot the idea of going out to dinner down. Of course, I told him I wanted him to go and because the kids chose the restaurant, I did not want to request a different one. I honestly NEVER want anyone to be negatively affected by my anxiety and I have so much guilt all the time about how it does hurt the people I love, whether because they are concerned about me or disappointed I can’t go somewhere.

It just felt like a real anxiety rollercoaster and because I always, always focus on my losses over my wins, all I am thinking about now is that I couldn’t make it out to dinner. I am so upset and disappointed with myself. I feel so bad about myself. I don’t feel worthy of being with my boyfriend. I am embarrassed that he has to make up an excuse for why I am not there, although I told him to tell the kids the truth. They are teenagers and I told them about my mental health issues in the fall and I never want to lie to them. Having this problem makes me hate myself. My therapist said something this week about how I make anxiety such a huge part of my identity when it really is just one thing about me. I don’t have a good answer for that. I just am so disappointed in myself right now and I feel like even through I should focus on how I was successful for the drive that I did, I am just upset about the one that I did not do.

Hold on…let me overthink this

So much of my anxiety is anticipatory. Like 90% of it. I know this, yet it is really hard to control. It is almost impossible to tell myself to just simply not think about something. It would be like me saying to you, “close your eyes and DON’T think about the color blue.” ALL you are going to do is think about and imagine the color blue. Since so much of my anxiety is related to travel and most travel or trips or drives are planned and not spontaneous, I suffer from anticipatory anxiety almost constantly. If I am invited to a dinner or event, I anticipate it for the days leading up to it. I overplan, checking Waze and other maps to see how long it will take to get there. I overthink all the different things that could go wrong or the elements I can’t control.

Even with horrible anxiety and panic disordered, I have always been pretty independent. I preferred (and still do prefer) to drive somewhere alone. I never want to be a burden to someone or ruin their time by having anxiety. My sister went away for a weekend over this past summer, during the same time I had a negative reaction to a new antidepressant, and I had the closest thing to a nervous breakdown I have ever experienced. It is still hard to think- or write- about. My sister has been planning a girls’ weekend trip to Florida for the first weekend in December (like fly out Friday and home Monday) and I have been soooooo anxious about it. It has literally ruined the entire month of November for me. I just think over and over, like a broken record, that I don’t want her to go. Selfishly, it isn’t that I think something will happen to HER, rather it is that I think something will happen to ME.

I have never been or felt so dependent on other people. I never had this kind of a reaction to someone else going away. I was desperately hoping for something to happen to prevent her from going, but I also knew that wasn’t fair to her. She didn’t ask to be my person like this and she is a hard-working mom who deserves a fun weekend away. It has been difficult because she is the person I am closest to and who I would confide in the most about these things, but I don’t want her to feel guilty about leaving me or me being upset.

The most confusing thing about this is that I don’t logically know WHY I need her so much or why I am so afraid for her to be away. But, like most people with anxiety, I know that logic really goes out the window. My therapist has pointed out many times that I am actually the one who does things almost daily for my sister, whether it is babysitting my nieces, running errands, picking something up for her, helping her with something at her house, etc. I do a lot for my sister and yet I feel this immense panic at the thought of her being far away.

It is frustrating because I don’t need ANOTHER thing to be anxious about. I have enough things already and now it feels like I am adding something new to the list, while still not making a lot of progress on my existing triggers.

Metamorphosis (part 1)

Part 1: The Caterpillar

Covid was one of the best things to happen to me as far as my agoraphobia goes. Nowhere to go, nothing to do…everyone HAD to stay home. For two years, I had the perfect excuse to not go anywhere. There were no vacations, no trips to the city, no concerts at the beach, no day trips, no overnight visits…nowhere to go, nothing to do. For two years, my comfort zone steadily shrank and my anxiety was practically nonexistent. That aspect of quarantine was wonderful. I was stuck at home, newly in love, and so content to just snuggle on the couch with him binging Netflix and Hulu. I still did weekly therapy, focusing on remote teaching, my new relationship, and the death of my exboyfriend. But, inevitably, life has started to go back to “normal” and I am left feeling very not normal. I knew Covid was a causing a huge step back when it came to my agoraphobia, but I don’t think I really grasped how much it negatively affected me. Before Covid, my “comfort zone” was an hour and a half or so. I still got anxious going somewhere new, but it was pretty manageable. I struggled with bigger trips and flying was still a huge obstacle, but I was doing ok. Over the past two years, my comfort zone significantly shrank to being about 25 minutes or so and I don’t like being in the car with other people. I especially am anxious about driving with my boyfriend and his two children. I have spent a lot of time in therapy talking about the need to expand my horizons and widen my comfort zone, but I haven’t actually acted on it. A couple of weeks ago, my friends went on an overnight girls trip to a place about two hours away. Even before Covid this trip was not one I usually went on, but this time I didn’t say no right away. I really did think a lot about going, but the length of the drive, coupled with a night at a bar and sleeping in a hotel was just overwhelming and I did not go. I obsessed over the decision, cried a lot, and was incredibly hard on myself for not being ready to do it. I realized that I had to stop just saying I was going to take drives and push myself and I needed to start just doing it. A couple of days ago, I drove (with my boyfriend) to my parent’s house, which is about 45 minutes away. Even though it is a route I had done hundreds of times in my life, I have only been to my hometown two times in the past two years and I had not driven that distance with my boyfriend before. It was the tiniest of accomplishments, but still was a step in the right direction and it was better than nothing. I decided that I am going to try to drive to the beach tomorrow morning by myself. It is about an hour and fifteen minutes away. I know the only way I am going to get better is to keep pushing myself to drive more often and go a little further each time. I am going to bed tonight telling myself that there is no pressure. If I start driving and can’t make it, I can go home and try another time. So…until tomorrow…

Love hard

I think I love my boyfriend too much. I have never felt like this before. I am like a teenager who has a major crush. Sometimes I just find myself just staring at him and I always want to touch him. It is sweet, but it also makes me uncomfortable. It makes me feel vulnerable and it is hard to think about how much it would hurt to lose him.

When I was in college, I dated a guy for a couple of years. He treated me really well, but his family was also very supportive of me during a time when my own family was incredibly dysfunctional. When he ended our relationship, I was completely heartbroken. He made a fleeting comment that has stuck with me, even 20 years later. He said something about me putting him on too much of a pedestal and how it put so much pressure on him. He was a great boyfriend, especially considering our ages at the time, but I think I allowed myself to depend on him too much. I became needy, which is never a very attractive quality to have.

I am very independent. Before meeting my current boyfriend, I was fine being single. I have never really been someone who needed to be in a relationship. In fact, after my divorce and after my other long term relationship ended, I wanted that time to myself, to focus on myself.

I think part of the issue is that I really just think my boyfriend is amazing. He is the sweetest, kindest, hardest working, most responsible man I have ever been with. It’s a good problem to have. But…it still feels like a problem. I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It is like I need to pinch myself that this is real- that this is really the relationship I am in. I dealt with so much drama and pain in the past and it is still hard to believe that a relationship can be so healthy and good and easy and drama-free. We have only gotten into a couple of disagreements and neither manifested into a fights. That is very foreign to me, as my previous relationships were full of conflict and arguments.

I have written before about my lack of self-worth. Obviously, I think that plays a role in this. There is a part of me that truly feels like I do not deserve someone as good as him. It is just crazy that I look at this man and feel what I feel. It isn’t just attraction. It isn’t the “newness” of it- we have been together for almost two years. I don’t know how else to explain it besides I just feel like I love him too much.

I read an article about the “dangers” of loving someone too much and I feel like I am pretty introspective (20+ years of therapy will do that!) and am honest with myself. I tried to see myself and our relationship in the examples, but none of it fit. I have good boundaries with him, am still very independent, and have a full social life outside of our relationship. Hs is with his children several days/nights a week and I keep very busy. I can see his flaws (look, even though he is wonderful, he still makes mistakes) and I don’t think he takes me for granted (this has been a problem I encountered in other relationships). I think the only one that stood out to me was that he might end up feeling smothered. Like I am going to be like that cartoon girl who picks up the cats and hugs them too hard and they hate her. I don’t want him to feel pressure that he is responsible for my happiness and well-being because he is not. I say I can’t imagine how I would survive losing him, but the realistic part of me knows that I would because I have gotten through very difficult times and lived to tell about it.

I think it is the vulnerability that scares me the most. Loving him makes me feel weak and out of control. My anxiety does not enjoy that feeling. The LAST thing I want or need is to be in another codependent relationship. I probably need to just stop analyzing things so much and actually just allow myself to he happy and enjoy being in such a great relationship.

“Normals”

I feel a new type of insecurity in my relationship that I have never experienced before. It is not due to jealousy, rather it is because of fear. I never worried about getting my heart broken before. I knew it was a possibility, but I did not think about it much. In my last relationship, I sort of felt like I always had the upper hand because he dealt with a lot of issues, including alcoholism. That sounds REALLY terrible now that I wrote it down, but it is true, and I promised myself I would always tell the truth on my blog- the good, the bad, and the ugly. Both M. and I dealt with mental illness, but mine was much more controlled. I had my shit together and he didn’t and that gave me a false sense of security in our relationship. I knew that he loved me, but I also knew that he depended on me, too.

I recently was with two friends of mine who are a married couple. She had a lovely, happy childhood and he did not. His parents were both abusive and were very hard on him. My friends also are friendly with my current boyfriend and I was trying to explain to them how I feel about my relationship with him. I said something, more directed to my male friend, like, “he (my boyfriend) is just SO normal. He had a normal childhood and a normal life and even his divorce was really amicable and normal. I don’t mean he has never had problems or faced challenges, but his family and his life are just really functional. He must listen to the stories of my family and my previous relationships and my problems with anxiety and secretly think ‘man, she is really fucked up.’ and it makes me wonder why he wants to be with me.” My girlfriend immediately jumped in to reassure me that my boyfriend loves me and what happened to me in my childhood was not my fault. But my male friend…he got it. He said he feels the same way sometimes, which made me feel better. And listen, I know that the word “normal” is incredibly difficult to define and super subjective. In my mind, normal equates to a lack of trauma and dysfunction. Being normal might seem like an insult to some people who interpret it to be synonymous with boring and ordinary. But to me, normal has a positive connotation and means safe and secure and healthy and functional.

A good example of this just happened recently. I had to get a CT scan of my sinuses. When my ENT called to give me the results he mentioned that I have a deviated septum. When I told my boyfriend this, he asked me if I had ever had a nose injury. I know he was thinking about whether I got smacked with a basketball in high school gym class. I thought about it for a minute and was like, “no, I don’t think so….oh wait! When I was 18 my dad got arrested because he head-butted me in the face and I thought he broke my nose.” I said it so casually because honestly I don’t really think about that event much and it was over 20 years ago, but my boyfriend looked taken aback. It was sort of a funny conversation, but also incredibly sad. It almost made me feel lonely and for a second, I missed my ex-boyfriend, M., because I knew he could relate and understand to having a screwed up family and childhood.

My friend and my boyfriend- they are “normals”. I, for sure, am not. I try to have the appearance of having it all together and I am very successful in a lot of different ways, but deep down I feel broken and dysfunctional and different and less than. I know a lot of this is my own self-perception and I am working on that. My boyfriend is the most amazing man I have ever known and I pinch myself every single day that we are together. I feel so lucky to have him in my life, but the problem is that I don’t always think he is lucky to have me in his (I am certain he would beg to differ). And that is what creates insecurity for me…because if I don’t think I am good enough for him, when is he going to realize that?


Doing good.

I read a fiction novel over the summer and one of the characters had an internal dialogue that really stood out to me. It may seem strange to feel connected to the feelings of a character who is not real, but I guess the English teacher in me knows you can feel inspiration from any type of writing. This is what she thought…

“For years, I’d told myself that doing good meant I was good. That doing better made me better. Yet looking back I can’t help by wonder if family dynamics, insecurities, and jealousies had warped me to the point where I no longer knew if I did things because I wanted to or because it was what pleased someone I loved. And if the latter, then what did that mean, and who was I, really? Was I someone with the courage to do what needed to be done when it wouldn’t please others?”

I have written blogs about being a people pleaser and sort of explored why I think I am one, but I never really addressed how it makes me FEEL. Doing things to help the people I care about does often make me happy, but it also really sucks sometimes. There are times when someone mentions something they need or want and if I am not able to do it, I feel guilty. For example, if my sister complains about her house being messy and chaotic because she has two kids under four and her fiancee works long hours, I feel immediately guilty that I am not there helping her. It is almost like a compulsion to do things for people and it can sometimes interfere with my own life and time. It is almost like if I have free time, I feel bad. I push my own needs and wants to the back burner in order to be available to others. I also feel like people, understandably, take advantage of this trait. I think that many people who are people pleasers are also looking for praise and validation and many times the gratitude I receive is underwhelming for the amount of time and effort I put in. I sometimes find myself doing things for people that they never even asked for and I become more stressed about getting it done than they are. I know that I am doing this to myself, but it is really a difficult habit to break.

I love when people describe me as being “nice” because to me that is synonymous with “good” and oftentimes I do not feel good enough. I think a lot of this goes back to me never really being able to address my own needs or put myself first. It is exhausting trying to make everyone like you, to being agreeable and helpful all the time. I know that this must be linked to my (unfortunately) extensive amount of experience as a codependent. Boundaries have never been my strong suit. Saying no is REALLY difficult.

Urban Dictionary defines this as the “disease to please”. That is pretty funny and clever, but also kind of sad. I know for me that this stems from being a child of an alcoholic. In an article about people pleasers in Psychology Today, the author states that, “Many of us have experienced painful, out-of-control conflicts with loved ones. We worry that disagreeing or arguing will destroy our relationships, that others will get so angry with us that they’ll leave us. It’s understandable and common to want to avoid conflict. But it’s not helpful or possible. When we avoid conflict, we suppress our feelings, wants, and needs. And this causes us to disconnect from ourselves and from others (we can’t be emotionally intimate when we don’t express our feelings). So, the more we try to avoid conflict, the more we lose touch with ourselves (our interests, hobbies, friends, goals, and so on), which is why people-pleasers and codependents often feel like they don’t know what they want or like.”

Like with many things, I am a work in progress. I do truly believe that I am a good person, a nice person. But I also know that there are reasons that people do the things they do and that self-awareness is the first step to addressing the problem. I am trying to be more cognizant of when- and why- I do the things I do.

(Too) Close for Comfort

Living through a pandemic was obviously challenging in many different ways, but there were also some things that having to quarantine for a year and a half made easier…for one, my agoraphobia. It was definitely a nice break from having to constantly worry about going places because there was, quite literally, nowhere to go. Reflecting back on it now, I can definitely see how this caused some major setbacks for me. My “comfort area” has drastically narrowed and I have not had to push myself to leave it for a long time. Before COVID, I was okay with driving about two hours from home in most directions, but now I am probably hovering around an hour. I know that now that things are opening back up, I have to start pushing myself to go places, but it is just so hard. It. Is. So. Hard.

This past weekend, my boyfriend and I were discussing going to his mother’s beach house about an hour and a half away. Naturally all of the logistics pushed their way into my head- “it is the first weekend of the summer”, “everyone and their mother is going to be there”, “it will be SO crowded”, “the traffic is going to be a nightmare”. This is the doozy for me every time, the nail in the coffin…the traffic that I will have no control over. And then all the what-ifs start piling on….”what if I get sick?”, “what if I have to go to the bathroom?”, “what if there is an accident and the road is closed?”, “what if I have to go to the hospital?” (mind you, in my 42 years of life, I have gone to the hospital exactly one time for bronchitis).

Years ago, my therapist asked me what the worst part of thinking about flying was for me. Easy…”I can’t get off the plane if I want or need to”. She replied, “WHY would you NEED to get off the plane?” I still have never really had a good answer to that question.

The problem with anxiety and agoraphobia is that I can sit here and have a perfectly logical conversation about it. I am intelligent and well-educated. I have read articles, editorials, self-help books, etc. about these disorders. I can even be my own devil’s advocate (well, really, why WOULD you need to get off?). But, the problem is that once you start feeling those feelings, all logic goes out the window. I can’t control the wave of panic or the sensation that I can’t breathe or my body feeling on fire or any of the other multiple physical reactions that come along with these thoughts. I know it is all about lack of control. I know that. But when it is happening, it is really hard to remember that I don’t need to be in control.

I started dating my boyfriend a few months before quarantining began. It has been a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because we had so much time alone together to be a couple, to learn about each other, to enjoy each other’s company. Also, we work together and he is my boss, so although it is something that was disclosed to HR, it caused a lot of gossip. It was nice to be able to take a step back from that. Now that things are “normal”, he and I are old news and no one really cares

It has been a curse because he wasn’t exposed to this side of me. Obviously, I told him I have these problems from the beginning. I would never hide that from anyone. But it has been very easy for him to say that it is no big deal, he can handle it, it wouldn’t change anything about how he feels, etc. I believe him that he believes himself when he says these things, but I also know that dealing with this can get old quickly. It is easy to say it is not a big deal until the time he wants me to go somewhere and I can’t do it.

And therein lies the other problem. My boyfriend is the most amazing, patient, understanding, caring man I have ever been with. I am so lucky to be with him. Even through the death of my ex-boyfriend and my grieving process, he has been unwavering in his support. Okay, that is not the problem. The problem is that I feel like I don’t deserve him. It isn’t like I have super low self-esteem, it is more like I feel like I am not worthy of him. He is so normal and I feel like I am so…flawed. He had a pretty normal upbringing and I had an extremely dysfunctional family and an abusive alcoholic father. In some ways, being with my ex was easier because he was more messed up than I was. That sounds mean in light of his recent passing, but it is true. I took care of him, I had my shit together, and even though I had these issues, his issues with addiction and depression dominated our relationship. Now, I feel insecure that when my new boyfriend sees the REAL me, he is going to end things or not love me anymore. I have never really felt like this before (not liking it). I have shared a little bit of this with him and he is so reassuring and sweet and always asks me, “why do you think that?”

I don’t know…why do I need to get off the plane?

“I’m proud of you.”

My boyfriend and I were watching TV today when his thirteen year old son texted him warning him that his twelve year old brother was upset. My boyfriend called his younger son to see what was wrong. At first his son seemed upset and angry, but after talking to his dad for a few minutes, he seemed to calm down. I guess he has a tendency to have emotional reactions and outbursts.

As they were hanging up, my boyfriend said, “I’m glad we talked about it and that you feel better. I’m proud of you.” I had to hide my tears when he hung up and looked at me.

One thing about my boyfriend that I never expected to feel is admiration for his parenting style. To be honest, I really was against dating someone with children. I do not have my own and that kind of “baggage” seemed daunting to me. I love hearing him on the phone with his sons- he is so sweet and caring.

My tears, though, were not from the surge in my heart I felt for him in that moment (although I did), but rather from those four simple words that he so casually said to his child: I’m proud of you.

Do nothing taker.

Liar, cheater, stealer.

Scumbag daughter.

You’re a LOSER.

I’m so disappointed. Again.

Selfish. You don’t care about anyone but yourself.

You’re a joke.

Why do I waste my time with you?

Those are just a few of the many, many insults and negative things my father has said to my face or on the phone or via email over the years. Although there were incidents of physical abusive, he was always SO verbally abusive.

I was (and still am) a good daughter. I am a public school educator. I own my own house and car and am financially independent. I have a Master’s Degree. I have found the strength to leave two very bad relationships and completely start over. I help my sister. I spoil my niece. I have won several teaching awards throughout my career. I have never done drugs or excessively drank. I was not (or only a little lol) promiscuous. I have taught as an adjunct professor at two universities. I’m not writing all this to brag, but rather that I have had some worthwhile and important accomplishments in my life. I am a good person, a good friend, a respectable member of society. Yet, I can’t remember a single time my father has said to me “I’m proud of you.”

I have said this before and I genuinely mean it: I know my father loves me. He tells me this every time we get off the phone or say goodbye in person. He actually writes it at the bottom of every email, even the ones belittling me. I guess that might be part of the reason I have such a convoluted concept if what love really means.

My boyfriend and I were having a conversation last night about the idea of love and our previous relationships. I have told him much about my failed marriage and how my ex husband treated me. I said, “getting divorced was so difficult because I still did love him.” And my boyfriend responded with, “after how he treated you and the things he did…why? Why did you still love him?”

The question hung in the air for a few minutes while I thought about it- to be fair, that is something I have always just said, but never thought deeply about. “I don’t know why. I guess because he was my husband?” I realize how ridiculous that sounds now. Having a “title” or a certain role in someone’s life doesn’t mean anything. At the time, I felt as if I owed him love because I was his wife and he was my husband. And I feel the same way about my dad…I love him because he is my father (it kind of makes more sense to say I love him in spite of him being my father).

Hearing my boyfriend so effortlessly say those magic words to his son, with no agenda and with sincerity, was bittersweet. I love that he is the kind of man who talks to his children and helps them see value in themselves. I saw a quote recently: “when you criticize your child, you don’t make them hate you, you make them hate themselves.” I’m over 40 years old now. It took time (and therapy!), but I know my worth and am pleased with my accomplishments. I no longer need my father’s approval. But I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t freaking love to just once hear him say, “I’m proud of you.”

Nice.

As an English teacher, I often stress to my students the importance of using creative words. Instead of the word “bad”, use “terrible”. Instead of the word “pretty”, use “gorgeous”. One of the biggest offenders when it comes to nondescript words is “nice”. The dictionary defines it as fine and satisfactory…not exactly the most flattering or sophisticated adjective.

I remember when I was in my 20s, I met a guy through a mutual friend. Afterwards, she asked him what he thought of me and his response was that he thought I was “nice”. I remember being offended by this and over analyzing it- “What does that MEAN…nice?!??” I thought it indicated that he wasn’t really interested in me. It felt like an insult.

I didn’t realize the significance of this simplistic, four letter word until I was 30. To put it bluntly, my ex husband was mean. After getting divorced, I remember saying to my sister that all I cared about when it came to meeting someone new was that they were nice. After experiencing my dad not being nice and my husband not being nice, that word took on a new, deeper meaning. I am very happy to say that my new boyfriend is truly nice. It took being with some unkind men for me to appreciate someone who is genuinely a good, kindhearted person.

I can honestly say that I am a nice person. I strive to be. I try to do things to make other people happy. I am thoughtful. It is kind of weird to write this because I feel like I am bragging (and trust me that I have many flaws). During the time my coworkers were teaching from home during quarantine, I mailed out 70 cards, just to say hi and keep in touch. I also sent congratulatory letters to the 120 graduating seniors who were my students from last year. This is one of the ways I know how to show love and appreciation.

Today, I gave my mailman a card and a $10 Dunkin Donuts gift card because tomorrow is National Postal Workers Day and clearly I love mail (who knew?!?!) My boyfriend was saw me do this and said, “you are SO nice. You’re the nicest person I have ever known.” I just smiled and accepted it for the lovely compliment it was. There are far more creative and glamorous synonyms that can be used, but I now understand the simple beauty of being nice.