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.

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.

Complicated

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I had my first “date” since breaking up with my exboyfriend.  It felt too soon, but I had to remind myself that the romantic part of the relationship with my ex ended far earlier than our break up.  I had not been intimate with anyone (including him) in well over a year.

It was a guy I knew from high school, but not very well- more like we had mutual friends.  We both agreed we did not want a relationship, rather just a “friends with benefits” situation.  I am not sure why I thought that was a good idea for me because I overthink EVERYTHING.  But, I also knew this guy is not the one for me and I just wanted to put myself out there in an effort to move on from my ex, so I figured I had nothing to lose.

I was very nervous but everything went well and I enjoyed his company.  I was surprised when he continued to call and text me every day- I was not really expecting that kind of communication, but it was really nice.  We made a second date, which he canceled on the same day and then another second date, which he also canceled (one hour before).  Both times he canceled he blamed work (which I believe because he has a demanding job), but he never attempted to choose a different day.  It has been two weeks now and I feel like if he REALLY wanted to see me, he could have carved out some time.  It’s like that movie, “He’s Just Not That Into You”…if a guy wants you, he will find a way.  So, I did what I always do and started asking everyone’s opinion on what I should do- my guy friends, my girl friends and my sister and took their advice (which really ended up not being what I probably would have done) and maturely told him it wasn’t working out.  He was snarky back and said he “gets it, I don’t trust men” and told me he doesn’t “do complicated”.

I think calling me “complicated” was presumptuous on his part.  I mean, let’s be honest, I definitely AM complicated, but I did nothing during the time talking with him for him to be able to fairly make that assessment about me.  I didn’t call or text him and I was totally okay with the first cancellation.  I know I didn’t do anything “wrong”, but yet I feel like I messed up.

My sister asked me why I feel the need to ask SO many people their advice and opinions on what I should do and without even thinking I responded, “because I don’t trust myself.”  My answer caught me off guard, but I realize that it’s true.  I feel like I have made so many bad choices and ignored a lot of red flags in the past and now I am not comfortable trusting myself to make decisions .  She also asked why I was settling for this guy.  Not that he is a bad person or anything, but he does not have the qualities that I want in a partner.  Again, without thinking, I blurted out, “because I have low self-worth”, which I also realized is very true.

I was enjoying talking to someone new because it felt good and I liked the attention and it was a good distraction from everything that happened with my ex.  But then, I just started obsessing and worrying and analyzing and questioning everything about this guy.  I think I just need more time.  And I know that I need to focus on myself more and deal with some unresolved issues.

I don’t know why I think I do not deserve to be happy or to have a wonderful person in my life.  I sadly wonder who would really want to be with me?  I think my exboyfriend accepted me and the problems I have because he also suffered from mental illness and he was so sick himself.  I feel so flawed and damaged and…complicated.

The girl…

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I came across a website recently, http://www.lisaoliveratherapy.com, and I have found it to be SO inspirational.  She is a therapist who writes so elegantly, but also her messages are so relatable.  I am still having a very difficult time “letting go”, not only of my exboyfriend, but also of the entire traumatic experience I went through with him.

In this blog, she writes about how we sometimes identity with our hurt to the point where we “become” it and begin to over-identify with it.  I definitely have a tendency to do this.  During my childhood and teenage years, I was the “girl with the crazy abusive alcoholic father”.  I started having problems with anxiety when I was in my 20s (which I am still dealing with) and I took on the identity of the “girl with anxiety who couldn’t get on a plane or drive far”.  After my marriage ended at age 31, I became the “girl who went through a terrible divorced’.  And now I have become the “girl whose sat at the bedside of her alcoholic boyfriend of eight years while he was in a coma for 17 days, even after she found out he was lying and cheating on her, and even though she saved his life, his parents still treated her as a scapegoat.”

I go down these rabbit holes where I become the tragedy…it defines my life, my identity, my day to day routine.  I have an obsessive tendency and I must have said, “I don’t understand why his parents treated me the way they did” like 2,000 times over the past six months. It is like I can’t get over it…I don’t know HOW to get over it and there’s a weird tiny part of me that doesn’t want to get over it.  I am not saying that I like to feel like a victim, I truly don’t, but I desperately want some kind of acknowledgment from his parents for the sacrifices I made for their son.  My friends advise me that I need to let it go, that not every situation ends with closure and I know they are right.  My exboyfriend tells me all the time that he knows how much I did for him (and the fact that we are still in contact will be the subject of my next blog…still really struggling with enforcing boundaries), but I feel like I deserve more.

Unbeknownst to me, he contacted his parents and told them that the rift between them and me was negatively affecting his recovery and he threatened to cease contact with them if they did not try to rectify things with me.  This is the complete opposite of what I want and I was very upset when he told me this.  But of course, I got an email from his father a couple of days later saying that he told them I think they hate me and they don’t and they also don’t “hold a grudge against me” (what the actual fuck? what possible grudge could they even HAVE against me????).  His dad proceeded to write that all they care about is their son’s recovery and that the day he walked into the ICU and saw him in the coma was the worst day of his life.  All the email did was make me more angry.  There was no mention of me at all (and I do truly understand all they care about is him, but COME ON…throw me a bone).  Does his father think it wasn’t the worst day of my life?? At first, they were not even going to travel to come here and then it took them two days to get to the hospital.

I know for myself that I have to find a way to stop making my whole life and identity about this and him.  I am preventing myself from moving on, but there is something safe about that…like that expression, “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t”.  I am terrified about dating or meeting someone new.  I cannot imagine being in a relationship with anyone but him.  And if I am honest with myself (which is why I started this blog), part of me feels unlovable and fears no one else will want me.  I feel so broken, so damaged.  On the surface, I look like I have it all together, but inside I am a freaking mess.  Who would want that? And even if I found someone, how will I ever trust them? I am holding on to all of this because I am scared to move on and as long as I can wrap myself in trauma and continue identifying as “the girl”…, no one else can hurt me.

Which leaves me…?

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Lately I have been having a hard time with labels.  I know theoretically, people are not “supposed” to have labels, but when I was in 8th grade I was slapped with the label: “Child of an Alcoholic”.  This label became a part of who I was, how others saw me…it became a part of my identity.  However, in my case, this label was not a bad thing.  After I was given this label, I knew I wasn’t alone.  I was a part of a bigger group.  I could check out books in the library that could help me understand myself and my father better.  Once I got older, there were online groups I could join.  That label lead me to write this blog.  Over the years, I accepted and even embraced having the label “Child of an Alcoholic” or a COA (now a ACOA).  That label made me feel like a victim, but also gave me strength.  It made me feel like a survivor.  I never used being a COA as an excuse for my behavior or treatment of others, but it helped me analyze myself, my relationships, my family.

I have a lot of roles in my life that can be labeled: sister, friend, teacher.  Up until a year and a half or so ago, I would have added child of an alcoholic to that list.  I never really saw it as a bad thing, rather just a fundamental part of who I was.  It was one of those things that if I met another COA, we had an immediate bond.

Almost a year and a half ago, my father had a stroke.  After drinking every day for over 20 years, he stopped.  Just like that.  One day he was a drunk and the next day he wasn’t.  It sounds ridiculous and impossible.  It seems too easy.  He is not a perfect father now, but he is no longer belligerent or unpredictable.  He does not verbally abuse me through email, voice mail or in person.  I’m not afraid of him anymore.  Trust me, it is so much better, but it is also confusing.  If my father isn’t an alcoholic anymore, am I still a COA?  I talked to my therapist about it, knowing what her answer would be…of course I am.  Him changing now does not erase the two decades of abuse that I suffered through.  It doesn’t just magically repair all of the damage he did to me and to my family.  I guess I am just having a hard time reconciling the before and after of who I am if he’s no longer an alcoholic.  I know fundamentally I did not change, but things do feel different.  I suppose that is the dangerous part about having labels- what happens when they change?  I mean, at one point in my life I was a wife.  Then I got divorced and the next day I wasn’t one anymore.   But that situation seems different to me.  I guess the breakdown of my marriage happened over time and I knew it was coming.  My father becoming sober was so unexpected, it happened so fast.  And although I was a wife for several years, I was (am?) a COA for the majority of my life.

There has been a part of me throughout this past year and a half that has just been waiting…waiting for my dad to drink again, to have another stroke, or even to die.  And now that some time has passed, I’m beginning to trust that this is the new image of my family.  I guess that I am still figuring out with what to do with the old one…