I can’t believe that today is two years that you have been gone. There hasn’t been a single day that has passed that I haven’t thought about you. So many things remind me of you- hearing Beast of Burden on the radio, an advertisement for that green Rolex, a Facebook memory of you buying your recliner from years ago…
My dad has been so sick lately. He’s been in the hospital four times in just a month and a half. Today- right now- he’s having an exploratory heart procedure to see if the doctors can pinpoint what is causing the majority of the problems he’s experiencing. It feels like a weird coincidence that my dad is having a heart procedure on the same day you died of a heart attack. I joked to my sister that maybe you would watch over him to protect him, but I know you weren’t his biggest fan. I think you will do it anyway- for my mom and my sister and for me.
The heart is such a fragile thing, in every way. It is so easy to break and so difficult to repair. My dad keeps getting these second (and third and fourth…) chances. I wonder what would have happened if you had just one more chance, too.
My teenaged students often ask me (innocently) why I don’t have kids. I talk about my life and my nieces all the time, so it makes sense that they are curious. They are also at a point in their own lives where they are thinking about their futures and whether marriage and a family is something they eventually want.
When I was a teenager and just becoming sexually active, I was terrified of getting pregnant. At age 16, I had an older friend drive me to Planned Parenthood to get prescribed birth control pills. I always assumed that at some point when I was older, I would just know that I wanted children. Spoiler alert: that time never came. The idea of pregnancy and childbirth terrified me and when I got married at age 27, I kept waiting for my biological clock to start ticking. Then my marriage went to complete shit. My ex husband gave me an ultimatum about having a baby and I knew better than to bring a child into a bad relationship. I chose divorce.
In my 30s, more and more of my friends announced their pregnancies and I was delighted to buy strollers and onesies and pack-n-plays, but still never felt envious. If anything, experiencing pregnancy through the eyes of my friends made it even more unappealing to me. I excitedly met and cuddled their babies and still never felt the pull to be a mother. The only feeling I remember having is waves of guilt that my mother was not becoming a grandmother like her contemporaries were. To her credit, she never pressured me in any way about whether or not I wanted a baby.
When I was with my exboyfriend, there was a period of time when we discussed marriage and whether or not we really wanted to both close the door for good on parenthood. I was in my late 30s and he was five years younger, so the decision mostly fell in my lap. He, like most men, had more time. My time was running out. I went to my gynecologist for my annual exam and for the first time ever, she mentioned that I should really start seriously considering whether or not I wanted to have a baby. I told her my concerns and she offered to do a blood test that would determine my fertility.
I went into the test pretty nonchalantly, having the confidence of always having good health. My results were unexpected. She essentially said that I would not be able to get pregnant on my own and if I wanted to have a baby, I would need to see a specialist and most likely begin IVF immediately. Although it was surprisingly disappointing to have the choice of motherhood taken from me, I wasn’t devastated and felt as if that was the last real sign I needed that it just wasn’t in the cards for me.
As a teacher, I felt as if I had an opportunity to have a positive influence on children, just in a different capacity and it was fulfilling in a lot of ways. However, when my sister had her first daughter, I understood for the first time what parents always said about their children. My first niece made my heart explode with pure, unconditional, overwhelming love. My second niece made my heart expand in ways I didn’t think were even possible. I don’t know if I could love my own children as much as I love my two nieces. I would literally give my life for either of them and I desperately want them to have the happy childhood my sister and I did not have. I am so lucky to be a very active auntie. My sister lives in the same town as me and I see them almost every day. They are truly the loves of my life.
My mother jokes that my sister’s children are miniature versions of us. My older niece, who is five, is very much like me- in looks and temperament. She is fair skinned with blue eyes, and is so smart and sensitive. People often mistakenly assume she is my daughter when we are all out in public. My little niece, the two year old, is a clone of my sister. She has darker hair and brown eyes and is impish, funny, and stubborn like my sister.
My older niece (I will refer to her as Five) is very sensitive. She gets easily upset and her feelings are quick to be hurt. She is so sweet and cares about other people. Five also seems to be a little predisposed to anxiety- she is scared of thunder and afraid to fall of her bike. Her younger sister is fearless, like my sister was. I was terrified of rollercoasters growing up and my sister would be pulling my mom’s arm to get in line. Even when I was a teenager, I was still scared of storms and would climb in my sister’s bed at the first sight of lightening. I was the older sister, but was always more cautious, a natural worrier, and overly sensitive.
At first, the comparisons between Five and me would make me so happy. I loved her so much and I felt like there was such a connection between us that went beyond the normal auntie/niece bond. I glowed with pride when strangers would comment how much she looked like me (my sister would jokingly call me Aunt Mommy) But, as Five got older, I started worrying about the ways I DIDN’T want her to be like me. I don’t want either of my nieces to have their lives dictated by fears or anxiety or mental illness.
When Five would overreact and exhibit signs of any kind of anxiety, my sister would make comments like “she’s just like you.” This hurt me so much. I know my sister never said it to hurt me, but it did. Because of all the fears I have (and there are a lot), the biggest one I have is that Five will end up like me. It makes me sad to write that because I know I have a lot of amazing traits that I would be proud to pass on to her and her sister, but I do not want her to experience mental illness the way I have. I think deep down that was a big part of why I did not want my own children- that wanted to avoid having a child be genetically predisposed to the mental health issues I have.
My nieces are a huge reason why I fight to stay healthy and try to manage my anxiety and panic disorders and agoraphobia. I know I am not doing a great job at it right now, but I am working through it all. I just worry as they get older, they will start to notice things more and more. I just want every aspect of their lives to be better than mine and I want them to be better than me.
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?”
How? Why? Already? What the actual fuck? IT’S NOT FAIR.
These were my first thoughts after hearing that my ex-boyfriend has a new girlfriend. Then I hysterically cried and vomited. Afterwards, I took time to really think about it and why I had the reaction I did. I made it very clear to him that we were over. I have started to move on and have been feeling better lately. I know he does not have friends or family near him and is probably very lonely. I know that for him, staying sober includes having to stay busy. But…a girlfriend? It has only been a few months. It makes me feel very replaceable. Yet, that is not what bothered me. The idea of him being intimate with another woman…that stings for sure, but also I do not think that was the real source of me being upset. What it finally boiled down to was: it’s not fair. I just kept saying that over and over. He literally broke my heart, he destroyed our relationship, he lied and cheated. I saved his life and he ruined mine. And he moved on first??? And so soon??? And he is supposed to be focusing on his sobriety?? It’s not fair.
I am rolling my eyes at myself writing that. I KNOW life is not fair. And in the bigger scheme of life, my problems with him were minuscule with what other people around the world deal with. I am not dismissing my pain or heartbreak, but I think saying he “ruined” my life is a little dramatic. What happened was the most traumatic thing I have ever been through in MY life, but I know by comparison many people struggle with so much more.
A coworker of mine has two adorable little girls. She is so sweet and kind to everyone. Her 40 year old husband was just diagnosed with terminal cancer and this will most likely be his last Christmas. THAT is not fair.
My best friend’s sister suffered a loss this year. A good friend of hers was estranged from her soon-to-be ex-husband. He went to her house late at night and shot and killed her…in front of their children. THAT is not fair.
My friend, former lover, and colleague jumped off the tallest bridge in NYC to his death a few months ago. He was an amazing person, teacher, friend…the funniest person I have ever known. No one really knew just how bad his depression was. When he jumped, he did not hit the water, but the concrete footer of the bridge. THAT is not fair.
Life isn’t fair. So many horrible things happen and even though it is upsetting and it hurts and I am surprised, my ex moving on is not really one of them. I do not begrudge him happiness- I want him to be sober and be in a healthy relationship…someday. I just don’t feel like he deserves it yet. It is all still so fresh and painful. And I think about dumb things, like is he “really” sober and what does he tell this new girl about me and everything that happened with us and his health and his family? But then I remind myself that absolutely none of that has any effect on my life, except feeling a little emotional about it.
So, as the end of 2019 nears (thank goodness), I am really going to try to put everything that happened behind me. I cannot dwell and feel indignant and hold on to the pain anymore- it is only hurting myself. I am not ready to forgive him and I am not sure if I will be ready when he wants to make amends, but I know that I cannot move forward if I am always thinking about the past. Some things are not fair and everyone feels that way about something in their life.
Steve Maraboli, an inspirational speaker, stated that, “the only thing that makes life unfair is the delusion that it should be fair.” I am not going to say that “it’s not fair” anymore about this situation. What really is happening actually IS completely fair- that life is going on…for him and for me.
One of my early childhood memories from before my dad started drinking was standing with my feet on top of his. I was seven or eight years old, he would hold my hands and I would stand on his feet and hold on as he walked around the room. We were not really dancing, but it was fun and my sister and I would take turns. I think a lot of little girls do this with their daddies and it is a sweet memory I have of him.
When I was in college studying literature, I was very drawn to a particular poem:
My Papa’s Waltz
by Theodore Roethke
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans Slid from the kitchen shelf; My mother’s countenance Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle; At every step you missed My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head With a palm caked hard by dirt, Then waltzed me off to bed Still clinging to your shirt.
There are a lot of different opinions and interpretations about what this poem is describing. Some readers interpret it as the happy childhood memory of a young boy playfully dancing with his father in their kitchen, while his mother gazes on. Other readers believe that the dance is a metaphor for physical abuse by a drunk father. The first time I ever read this poem, I instantly believed it depicted abuse. However, I wonder if that is because my father became an abusive alcoholic (while my mother helplessly watched on). I always tell my students that this is the beauty of literature- the reader is able to interpret what they read in their own personal way. We all (sometimes subconsciously) are influenced by our own life experiences and as a child of an alcoholic, that was the lens I saw the world through. Yet, I got a feeling that this boy still loved his father, which was another part of the poem I could relate to, because I still love mine.
I know without a doubt that if my father was not an alcoholic, he would have been an awesome dad. Just like I know that if my exboyfriend did not suffer from the same addiction, he would have been a wonderful life partner. When I went to an Al-Anon meeting recently, someone used the phrase “detachment with love”. I realized that I unknowingly started doing this with my father years ago. I have his nasty emails blocked, his ringtone on my phone is “silent”, I immediately erase his toxic voicemails and I speak to him as minimally as possible, especially if I know he is drunk. When I see him, if he is sober, I chat with him, but I stopped letting him “in”…I try to no longer let his behavior negatively affect me. I accepted that I was not going to be able to change him, so I stopped trying to.
I am currently detaching with love from my exboyfriend. While I never felt responsible for my father, I did feel VERY responsible for my ex. By protecting him and enabling him, I was actually hurting us both, which I am able to see now that I have some space from the situation. I cannot protect him from the consequences of his choices and I do not want to continue to suffer because of his actions. By releasing those feelings of responsibility for him, I was able to start focusing on myself and my needs.
I love my father and I love my exboyfriend, but I hate their alcoholism. My father, the man who should be the one to protect me, physically hurt me and still verbally abuses me. My exboyfriend, the man I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with, lied to my face and cheated on me, violating my trust.
I think I will always see the world as the child of an alcoholic and as someone who deeply loved and was in an eight year long romantic relationship with an alcoholic. It is just a part of who I am, woven into the essence of my being. However, I know that they both made their own choices, but that I also had the ability to make a choice for myself.
And my choice was to detach (with love) from both of them.
After I got divorced, the only communication I ever had with my exhusband was one email he sent a few days after we went to court. In it, he wrote, “I’m sorry I couldn’t fix you.” To this day, I think it is the meanest thing anyone has ever said to me. However, if I really take all of the emotion out of what happened between us, I can kind of understand what he meant (granted it has been ten years since we got divorced, so it is easier to look at things more objectively now). I had a really bad anxiety disorder, bordering on agoraphobia, and I now I think he did not know how to help me. He took an entirely “tough love” approach, which was the opposite of what I really needed. In his mind, he felt like he tried everything to help me (not true AT ALL), but I think he honestly believed that. Perhaps what he was trying to say is that he was sorry that he was not able to HELP me (or I am giving him too much credit and he really was just that much of a dick).
In my current situation with my exboyfriend, I can sort of relate a little more to the notion of wanting to fix someone. I can honestly say, and I truly believe most people would agree with me, that I tried everything to help him. I learned the hard way that you cannot help someone who does not want to be helped and you get very hurt loving someone who does not love themself. I was still speaking to him until he made the final decision to not go to an inpatient rehab. It was solely his decision, but I strongly disagreed with him. I told him that he made his choice and that I had to make the choice that was best for me, which was entirely cutting off all communication, for good this time. I just knew I could not support him anymore if he wasn’t 100% committed to getting help, I couldn’t just stand by and watch him slowly kill himself, and that I was greatly hindering my own well-being by keeping an olive branch constantly extended to him. He also told me that I was a “trigger” for his drinking, which might be true, but I was not comfortable with feeling like he was using me as an excuse to drink. Tomorrow will be one full week that I have not spoken or responded to him. He has tried to reach out a few times, but I literally just ignore him and have him blocked on social media.
It is really hard. The part of me that loves him and has always taken care of him wants to talk to him. I miss the good parts of our relationship, I miss him. I don’t miss his drinking or walking on eggshells in my own house. In some ways, it is a relief to not speak with him, because it lessens the responsibility that I feel for him (I know I shouldn’t feel ANY responsibility for him, but I just do…he’s completely alone). He insists in his voicemails and when he occasionally texts with my sister that he is staying sober and attending AA meetings. I just don’t believe anything he says. My sister and he were very close and she basically told him she could only support him and text with him if he is sober.
Today on her way home from work, my sister saw him walking into a liquor store. She waited a few minutes and then went in. She stood silently behind him as he paid for his vodka and when he turned around, she asked him if he wanted to talk. They sat on a bench for a half hour together. My sister is such a caring person and she has been very worried about him dying (they were very close, he is the godfather to her two year old daughter). She told me most of their conversation and it just made me really sad. I feel like I can’t get MORE sad, but I somehow do. He told her how lonely he is, but she caught him in several lies about his drinking. He told her that he misses me and drives by my house several times a day. He told her that he knows how badly he hurt me, especially over the past two years and the recent events in the past six months.
I doubt that. One of the last things I said to him before I cut him off was that when he felt the urge to drink he should look at the photos of himself in the hospital when he was in the coma. I figured seeing himself so close to death, on life support with a breathing tube, with his arms restrained and tied down to the bed, would deter him from drinking. He responded that the photos didn’t really affect him, that he couldn’t remember any of it and that when he sees himself like that, he feels disconnected and it doesn’t seem like it is really him. Meanwhile, I look at the photos and feel like I am going to vomit. The memories instantly come flooding back: the image of the giant green succulent mural painted above his bed, the bitter smell of the hospital disinfectant, the swishing sound every time I moved in the mandatory plastic gown, the endless beeping of all the machines hooked up to his body, constantly glancing at his blood pressure numbers and temperature on the monitor. I will NEVER forget a second of those 28 days.
I feel so much loss and pain. It seems so deep inside of me and so permanent. I am forever changed. I can’t help or “fix” him. I used to believe if I cared about him enough, he would start to care about himself. I used to believe all of his good qualities outweighed the bad.