leveling up: the power of self respect

I had an experience today that made me grow as a person.  I don’t always get to say that, but today I did.  Like many such experiences, it wasn’t one I wanted, but unlike many I’ve had, I made the most of it and grew from it.

I went out on a few dates with a woman that I really, really liked.  She wasn’t perfect, but we seemed to have a genuine connection on multiple levels.  Today, she told me as graciously as she could that she was not interested in a romantic relationship with me, and that she wanted to be friends.  There were a number of factors involved for her, but in some ways it was a real disagreement between us – I truly thought it could have worked out if we had made time for it.   I wished her the best, and hold no resentments towards her for doing what felt that she needed to do for herself, but I told her that I cannot be just friends with her, because I wasn’t interested in that kind of relationship.  This was hard, because it was a first for me.

For most of my life, whenever a romantic relationship ended, I handled the “let’s just be friends” conversation with a verbal agreement…and with a concealed intention to employ what Harris O’Malley (aka Dr. NerdLove) refers to as “the platonic friendship backdoor gambit.” This particularly loathsome move is essentially when a person agrees to be friends with someone they are primarily interested in romantically, with the hope that their prospect will one day realize that the person they call their best friend is really the one they wanted to be with romantically all along. It’s dishonest, it’s unhealthy, and perhaps most acutely, it’s painful.  Despite that, nearly all the John Hughes coming of age movies from my adolescence have some form of this situation as a basis, and I can’t tell you how many times I thought “maybe THIS is the one that catapults me from Lloyd Dobler, lovable loser, to Lloyd Dobler, guy who gets the girl.” (sidebar: How in the world did a movie with such a clearly unhealthy relationship become so foundational in depicting the kind of relationship I once thought I wanted?)

It’s not that this plot line never happens in real life.  Some people really do realize that their best platonic friend is actually their soulmate.  But more often than not, the result of trying to maintain a mere friendship with someone you’ve fallen for, particularly a close friendship, is an exponential multiplication of heartbreak as the prospective beloved finds happiness in the arms of someone other than the person who was placed in the “friendzone,” often after months of spurned advances and painful attempts to convince the other to change his or her mind.  The crazy part, in some ways, is that the friendzoned person has nobody to blame but themselves for not having clearer and stronger boundaries about what they actually want.  Their problems, as we say in Alcoholics Anonymous, are largely of their own making.

I know all of this personally, because I’ve done it repeatedly. In the wake of my second marriage, I had a short (mostly drunk) fling with a woman I never should have, and when she repeatedly told me she only wanted friendship with me, I chose instead to believe what I wanted to, rather than what she was actually saying.  When it all came crashing down, she very accurately pointed out that she was not, in fact, being cruel to me, because I had accepted the terms she had presented, but had not been honest with my own intentions.

Today I didn’t do that.

I knew going into the conversation that it was not going to be a “and then I realized how you’re so much that I’m looking for in a guy, Pete” conversation.  But I went anyway.  I have no regrets for having developed interest and feelings for her, nor do I regret telling her so. She’s a truly great person, and any man would be lucky to be loved by her. At the same time, I have no regrets for telling her we can’t be friends, because that was absolutely the truth, from the deepest, most integrated corners of my integrity.  I will miss her, short though our time together was, but I will also sleep peacefully, live deeply, and move forward well knowing that I did what was right.  A year ago, I didn’t respect myself at all, but today I have the courage to face into a situation of pain, while not sabotaging my own future happiness.

Mom

My mom passed away peacefully on Saturday, January 27th, 2018, after nearly a decade of slowly fading from some form of progressive dementia.

When people have asked how I or members of my family are handling it, there’s a part of all of us, I think, that say something about how it is a blessing in some form, given how difficult simple activities of life had become for her.  But even blessings are hard sometimes.  Mom was only 68 years old, and started showing at least beginning signs of this in her 50’s, although we didn’t notice it at the time.

One of the cruelest parts of the decline process (and there are many) was the loss of verbal skill and understanding. Mom taught me many things.  I often find myself repeating pieces of simple wisdom she imparted to me, such as “it’s only worth what someone is willing to pay for it,” or “your problem, Pete, is that you think you have to understand everything.” Mom was a reference librarian, but even before that had been a voracious reader and thinker. Mom loved words.  She enjoyed laughing at clever phrasing in books, smiling at Dad’s frequent puns, and nodding in quiet agreement as sermons were preached or scripture was read.  And her love of the Word was something she passed on easily to those she interacted with, whether it was through praying with students or friends, or teaching her children to memorize the Scriptures for themselves. The verse I still remember her teaching me most vividly – one that has repeatedly served me well throughout life – is Proverbs 15:1, which reminds us (in the King James version) that “a soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.” I remember this most vividly, I suppose, because it wasn’t just words for mom.  Many teachers and professors have made me memorize facts, figures, history, and even Scripture throughout my life, but mom taught me to memorize Scripture because it was life – and she lived this passage, and so many others like it – in a way that was impossible to ignore, and impossible to not respect, regardless of one’s faith persuasion. And as I think back on her life, and on the many things she taught me from an early age, particularly about words, and the Word, my Christian faith tradition also reminds me that death, even death through slow decline, does not have the final word.

Thanks be to God.

not forgetting

July 18, 2017

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 A.M. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.
Joan Didion

I’ve been asked a few times about whether I miss drinking, and it prompted me to look back on the older pics on my Instagram feed. In a few instances, I can look back and see memories of times spent with friends, of moments of quiet reverie, of enjoyment and fun, but I also see a lot of that “unattractive company” that Didion describes, and maybe that is part of what keeps me from wanting to drink again.

But I haven’t deleted those pics, because I don’t want to forget where I’ve come from. Instead, I want to continue to come to terms with that person and make right what can be made right. The idea of “forgiving myself” has always perplexed me a bit, which was hammered home during my fourth step, when my sponsor pointed out that “there’s one person notably absent from your list, and that’s Pete.” Part of making things right with Pete is clearly acknowledging everything Pete went through, without justification, rationalization, or overdramatization. Glad to be where I am today, but I got here because I was once there.

dissociation

July 18, 2017

The first person I knew who was open about her experience of dissociation due to trauma was a friend in college. She’d experienced some form of abuse from a relative as a child, and in an attempt at self-protection, her childlike mind had created a narrative that those things happening to her had actually happened to a different little girl who had just told her about those tragic experiences. I’ve had a heart for people who have experienced such trauma since, even if I didn’t always understand their thought processes entirely.

I don’t begin with that to suggest that I’ve gone through something of that magnitude – only to illustrate the degree to which the human mind is a truly amazing thing. Tonight, as I was driving back downtown for yoga class, I passed a brewery I used to frequent, and instead of thinking about how great it would be to stop in, I had the strange feeling that my experiences there had actually belonged to someone else, that some other guy named Pete had sat in the beer hall, raised a toast to his second marriage finally ending at the bar, or experienced heartbreak to the soundtrack of clinking glasses and heavy metal. It feels the farthest thing from who I am becoming now – not in an angry revenge seeking way, or a mournful memory driven way, but more of a confusing identity seeking way. Who was I then? Why did I do those things? What was I thinking?

Perhaps I’ll never have answers to those questions. The most peace I’ve had in years has come from accepting that my present moment is all I have, and that living now is more than enough. And so, as I focused on last week during yoga: “right now…it’s like this.”

mom and the 9th step

August 6, 2017

Mom has been steadily declining over the last decade from dementia. Most of the time she sits watching whatever is around her or sleeps. Tonight, after talking with my sponsor about how I might do this, I went to visit her at the nursing home and read her a sort of bulletpointed letter regarding the ways I had been resentful, selfish, self-seeking, or had otherwise caused harm to our relationship. It was of course a little bit sad to have that conversation with someone who can’t respond – and who doesn’t understand that the words that are being said are even for her in the first place, let alone what they are at all. I ended by telling her that my main regret, aside from going down this road to begin with, was that it took this long to try to make amends, and that I wished I could have spent coherent time with her as I am now. But sometimes the only real way you make amends is by living them, and I am grateful for every new opportunity to do that.

Thanks for teaching me, over the course of your life, what forgiveness looks like, mom. I wouldn’t have been able to do this if I hadn’t known what your forgiveness would have looked like if you’d been able to show it to me again, but I do know, and I’m thankful.

4

August 9, 2017

I hear sometimes about people who have negative experiences with AA meetings, whether due to feeling that they don’t belong or that they maybe weren’t “alcoholic enough” to qualify. That makes me really sad. While I can’t say I’ve loved every single meeting I’ve been to, I’ve not been to one that wasn’t marked with profound gratitude and acceptance of life in all its messy glory.

After my first meeting, I was talking with a guy who told me a little bit of his story. He looked steadily at me and said “all of us have been in some version of what you are in now, and if you are ready to do whatever it takes, you can have what we have now.” I couldn’t meet his gaze at the time. There was a strength and power behind his eyes that I was ashamed to not understand. His eyes looked like granite, like he was a thousand years old, with a quiet confidence that made everything I’d looked for in all the years of trying to swagger through life look like paper maché.

Four months in, and I feel my soul solidifying like that granite, with an internal stability and strength that I’ve only seen glimpses of in other people. It’s good. Really good. Thankful to God for all of it.

the gift of desperation and me

August 15, 2017

Every time I practice yoga, I’m reminded of all the days my life fell apart. All the vulnerability of the curtains thrown back, my heart exposed like a miniature Saint Sebastian lodged in my chest, arrows multiplying and ripping through it. And perhaps worst of all was knowing that despite all of my confusion and protestation and screaming searing anger, in the end, I’d brought almost all of this on myself in one way or another.
I knew better than to have one of everything and then another round.
I knew better than to invite emotional vampires into my life.
I knew better than to distrust my instincts about whether I was being told the truth.
I knew better than to stay in situations that would lead to heartbreak.
But I did all of those things anyway.

I’ve heard longtime recovering alcoholics talk a lot about being given the “gift of desperation,” and it’s a funny thing, but I know that gift now, maybe a few years later than I should have. It is cold and hard, like the floor, but it is firm and solid, like the truth, and although it is truly an empty place, it provides a foundation and a space within which to not only recover, but to actually reconstruct. And that is where I have found life, and love, and strength, and faith, and without any sense of emotional masochism, I am endlessly thankful for the gracious gift of desperation, for without it, I would have never had a glimpse of what I might become – someone I am absolutely crazy about being.

you can’t keep what you hold on to

August 18, 2017

In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It’s tempting, sometimes, to take the things I’ve been given in life and build a fortress with a moat (dragon included, because dragons are awesome) around them in an attempt to keep it all for myself. There’s a sort of logic to this protectionism of the soul that I think we all feel sometimes, perhaps from the natural world. For example, if I have enough air and water and food I get to keep living longer than if someone takes those things from me. The difficult thing to remember is that life isn’t just material, and that there is a lot to it that we only sometimes get glimpses of. Sunrises. Sunsets. Children laughing. Embraces. Piercing conversations. Forgiveness lived out. A cup of coffee. Whether in these moments and things or others, every now and then the flimsy veneer of the material world gets peeled back, and (if we are paying attention) we can see how much utter abundance we live in, and how much we can very easily give away to others.

And the sacred upside down backwards crazy wonder in all of it is this: when you give your life away, you get it back, plus more. There’s a mystery to this that I won’t even pretend to understand, but having found it to be true, I have to tell you about it. You only keep what you give away, and you absolutely lose what you cling to. This isn’t some “prosperity gospel” name it and claim it and pray a Jabez prayer over everything you want. I think we’ve all been disappointed like that. It’s about seeing what you have and then being so damn grateful for it that everything in your heart overflows and pours into someone else’s place of need, and then seeing how you blessed them and being so grateful for the chance to help that your heart overflows again…you get the picture.

We often say “thank God it’s Friday,” and rightly so, but every day is a good one to be grateful.

Siri Says: Resume Dating

August 24, 2017

Apparently, Siri thinks I should be back on the market.

About a year and a half ago, my second wife informed me that she and her kids were leaving me and moving out of state. Once I’d moved past the shock into the acceptance of it, I did the things I needed to do to move on, and have been largely successful in doing so. I even set myself this notification for today, a year later, with the intention that I would engage in self care for a full year, heal, get my life figured out, and then let myself start dating again (although, as a friend pointed out, this makes it look like it’s an agenda item I need to cross off before I get to go home for the day.) I naturally conveniently forgot about it about a month later, had a misguided difficult to define [situation?], a few nice dates, but otherwise haven’t been in any kind of serious relationship for this past year. More than anything, I was surprised when this notification came up. It’s already been a year? That went by fast.

A kind friend reminded me that the point wasn’t to just not date. The point was to heal and to recover from the emotional trauma I’d been living in for the previous several years. The person I was a year ago couldn’t handle life. It wasn’t just about my failed marriages or codependency. It wasn’t about my alcoholism, which had started to really ramp up in earnest right about then. It was a spiritual problem, and the only answer to that is a spiritual solution. Abandoning all hope in myself and throwing myself on the mercy of God was the first step, but it’s led me to a far better place than I ever imagined while drinking. I can pretty safely tell you that I’m becoming the best version of me you would have ever met, particularly compared with previous editions, whether I’m in a place where I’m dating or not. I’m just happy being me. Really.

So it’s a strange place to be. I’m grateful for all the heartbreak and mistakes that got me here, despite wishing so many times that I could just erase all of it. I wouldn’t dream of it now, and I’m so blessed to be able to share my story and be of service.