I don’t believe there was ever a time that I wasn’t in love. How embarrassing, but it started with some pretty serious fantasies about William Shatner when I was 7 or 8. Really. No joke. The young, sexy Captain Kirk, that is, with his tight black pants and blond hair. I was madly in love. And I can still remember my father humoring me, telling me, “let’s call him on the phone right now…” and actually getting one of his friends to pretend to be the real William Shatner. But right as I was on the brink of actualizing my love and hearing his voice, my mother stepped in and said, “stop teasing her.” I can still see my dad laughing at the top of the stairs with the phone in his hand, because he thought it was so funny that he’d tricked me.
My father was, first and foremost, an entrepreneur. But with that creative genius he was also a narcissist, a sociopath, a manic-depressive, an alcoholic, a gambler and every other addict you can imagine. My mother was, on the other hand, a beautiful, peaceful, loving woman, who, to her credit, put up with my dad in a rather submissive, I-have-no-identity-of-my-own sort of way for 22 years. Though there wasn’t much fighting, the two were night and day. And being raised by such extremes is like waking up in Hawaii and going to bed in Alaska.
I didn’t stand a chance.
I lost myself in dating. In fact, I loved it. It gave me a high like no other. My relationships were deep and some meaningful. But mostly one of two things occurred: I either chose guys that made me feel completely in love but neglected me, OR I chose men that loved and adored me, but I neglected and then ran away from them. There was never any balance. Eventually, I met and married a computer addict who ignored me, physically, mentally and emotionally, abused me, raped me, cheated on me serially during my second pregnancy and eventually blamed me for leaving him and ruining his life (go figure). And yet, comforting to me was the fact that I was in a relationship.
The one underlying theme through all of my dating (except one; I’ll get to that later) is—that I left them all. I bailed out. I moved on. And because of this, I never thought I had a problem. I just thought I was fickle. As long as I did the dumping, I was alright. For some reason there’s something more dignified in dumping than being dumped. I just hadn’t met Mr. Right (wrong!)
The most confusing fact of my dating life was that I never casually dated, but rather, fell madly in love, and locked myself into some hot mess of a union, only to run away from the relationship right around the six-month mark (like clockwork) because the man either bored me to death or grossed me out.
When I married, I made sure to do it quickly, so I would bypass my inevitable desire to leave. I could only sustain long term relationships if they were long distance, or, if I was locked in. So, it’s no surprise that my entire courtship to my ex-husband was online and that I married him before my senses kicked in. Because, as soon as they did, something in me said RED FLAGS GALORE. But, I didn’t listen. I wanted to be married and I was too lazy to keep looking. Besides, I believed marriage and kids would set me straight.
Boy, was I right. But in ways I’d never expected.
Every day of my married life was turmoil. I used to lock myself in the bathroom and huddle on the floor, in the corner, rocking back and forth, crying, begging God to either get me out or do something to make him change. At one point I moved back home, ready to divorce him. But when I went to the doc and he told me I was pregnant, I was trapped. I decided to go back and give it another try.
There was temporary peace for a little while. We moved back to the States from Europe and he quickly found a good paying job. But he and I had little in common and the daily grind of life soon wore us down. The more he ignored me the more I nagged. The more I nagged, the more withdrawn he became.
“You need to change, if you want this marriage to work,” I’d beg. On my end, of course, I was the perfect wife. Ha. And so his affairs started right through my second pregnancy and onward until eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. At one point, when I was 8 months pregnant, he left me for another woman, leaving me in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. I had one toddler, another on the way, no job, no skills, no education and zero assets. I was doomed.
But things were about to change. When I gave birth to my second son, a few months after, the ex begged to come back. To everyone’s surprise, I said yes. How could she? they said. But, I told him I’d only get back with him if we bought a house. Again, everyone was shocked that I’d suggest making such a permanent move when our marriage was on the rocks. And yet, for the first time in my life, I started to think logically, rationally, shrewdly (that’s the word we apply to women who use their brains). Thing is, I wanted property–something I could own– in case we divorced. I wanted an asset. So, a few months later, we settled on a beautiful little property in the suburbs and as soon as we moved in, I made another important move. I registered for college. Over the course of the next few years, while raising babies, taking care of darn near everything in the house, managing all our finances and working part time for a Philadelphia publishing house that was hiring “entry level” copy editors, I got my degree in English Literature and Journalism, graduating magna cum laude. Finally! I could take care of myself (or so I thought). And just in time. The ex started having yet another online affair. I immediately began to interview at publishing houses and magazines and was soon offered a job in the city.
So, in 2004 several important life-changing events took place: my father died of a drug overdose coupled by a nagging case of lukemia, I finally divorced, and for the first time in my life, I was alone. And though I had started to make some pretty wonderful changes in my life, I still had so far to go.
For one thing, I was scared to death of relationships and even sex. After what I’d been through the past seven years I was the epitome of panic-stricken. But, because I felt so emotionally neglected through my marriage, I desperately wanted love and I did NOT want to be alone. Being alone was horrifying. Besides, in my mind, it was the sign of failure. But I didn’t know how to love or what love was; it had been so long (actually, I never really learned). Because of that, I imagined it might have something to do with passion, that it would look and feel the way it was portrayed in The Titanic, or The Notebook. I wanted perfection after what I’d been through, but I was scared as heck to go find it.
I dated G for three years– it was the longest amount of time I had “loved” anyone, and so I thought I was definitely on my way to greener pastures. But G would give only so much and then withhold. Oh how seductive he was with his pull and push, and his ultimate and oftentimes complete avoidance. When I met him he was quite lonely, as was I. Though I can’t say that he ever “came on strong” sexually, he was a flirt, did pursue me and was definitely interested in me. Our sex life was wonderful for the first 8 months. In fact, our whole relationship up to the one-year mark, was like a fantasy. He was sexy, loving, a great communicator, hard working, very interested in me, and giving. But suddenly, as if we had crossed an imaginary line (actually, we had– I started to talk of a commitment), it all changed. He began withholding all forms of intimacy from me the following year, giving me every excuse in the book not to have sex (prostate problems, “I love you too much to do that to you,” I’m afraid of STDs (I have none), and so on). Not only did he withhold sex, but general forms of emotional tenderness as well. He never touched me, kissed me or made any advances whatsoever. And he stopped sleeping over because my “bed was too soft,” or he didn’t feel comfortable in my house, in my neighborhood, etc. I liked to sleep with the windows open in the Spring and he couldn’t handle that- and so that became a reason not to sleep over at all. There was no room for compromise with him. We did hold hands a lot and hug when we saw each other. But in my mind, it became more of a brother-sister type relationship than a romantic one between a man and a woman.
Red flags were popping up all over the place. And yet I stayed. We broke up at least 7 times over the next couple years (me doing all the breaking up, of course) but would get back together, every time repeating the same pattern: sex, love and passion during the first month or so and then a slow decay of emotion and pulling away on his part (fear of commitment, withdrawal and avoidance), and a building of anger, resentment and frustration on my part- for him (not me, of course). Ah, blame.
I suppose because I was no longer under such obvious abuse (as when I was married), I considered my relationship with G to be normal and healthy. G and I were, after all, “best friends,” and he did after all, tell me he loved me. What more does a girl need? I mean, yeah sure, he withheld sex from me, but he did not withhold love—or so I thought. He was very into me, called every day, we spent loads of time together, we were extremely compatible, into the same things, and treated me with as much respect as I had ever known. He never cheated. Wasn’t a liar (or so I thought). At times very giving. And most importantly, I was attracted to him physically and mentally. If he loved me and I loved him, what else was there?
Well, there were his debilitating issues that went completely against my value system and yet, I chose him over my values. He smoked pot, had no libido, didn’t take care of his appearance and avoided intimacy like the plague. There was no next step with him. There would be no marriage, no moving in, no increased intimacy. I was at the end of the road.
I stayed as long as I did because I believed I had to make compromises and that I couldn’t “have it all.” And that aside from these issues, we shared a great life together. Surely we all have to make sacrifices, don’t we? Especially if we feel love toward someone?
And yet, underneath it all, I knew something was wrong. That I wasn’t being true to myself was just the beginning. After a year of no sex with G, an affair with a guy I never loved to fill the void that G left and about 5 months of going back and forth between the both of them, I guess you could say I hit bottom. I thought I had done so well for myself in avoiding someone like my ex-husband, but in actuality, I only went the opposite extreme. One was a sex addict, the other a sexual anorexic. I was somewhere in between hoping and expecting to be SAVED by a man who had the sense enough to know that I needed a balance. What I never realized was that I was the one lacking balance. I was the one to blame.
Around this time, I got into a support group for cigarettes. I suppose because I had viewed myself as a victim of my father’s addictive behavior for so long, it was unreal to think that I could be an addict myself. Hello? Two-pack a day smoker, staying in a relationship even when it’s bad for you?! Eventually, I saw with my very own eyes how my life had become unmanageable and how I really was addicted to men (because for the first time ever I wrote it all down on paper), it occurred to me too, that I needed to change.
I had given up goals, given up direction, given up dreams and plans all for the “hope” of a new man. I had wasted hours, days, weeks and years on thinking, or rather obsessing of nothing but my relationship to whomever. I had let men control me. I had spent exorbitant amounts of money on men because I either felt sorry for them, wanted to impress them, or secretly wanted to buy their love. I had spent exorbitant amounts of money on men just to visit them in foreign countries or call them on the phone and chat for hours. I had embarrassed myself, accepted the unacceptable and abandoned my values for men. I had even once or twice put my children at risk of emotional damage, isolated myself from my family, lowered my standards and done things I would not normally do, just for a man. I had ignored my children and I had ignored my opportunity for true growth.
It was time to change.
Several things occurred to me during this time of what I like to refer to as my “enlightenment.”
I realized that:
My ex was a representation of my father. At first, I resisted this. I had heard this spoken so many times and I could see some of their similarities but I wasn’t convinced on any deep level that I was “dating” my dad. Then it occurred to me. My love for G was one sided. I really adored him. His personality was wonderful, he was funny, hard-working, musician, grungy, we had a lot in common. I was so darn happy to be with someone that I actually LIKED that i never took into account if he LIKED me. I never considered that his love for me was also a part of the equation. He neglected me, basically, and it was pretty painful. I allowed it to happen because the thrill of being with someone FUN and ALIVE was more important than meeting my own needs to be loved and treated well. Did it matter that he loved me? No. What mattered then, was that I loved him.
Through that, I saw the parallel. I adored my father. I loved his personality. He was funny, hard-working, musician…we had a lot in common. I felt ALIVE with my father. Because of who he was as a person. And YET, as per my mother’s advice, I was told to love him “as is” and not take into account how he treated me. It’s no surprise to know that he treated me much the same as G; neglectful, uncaring, always had something more important to do than spend time with me etc.
The important part was this: to love my father and not get anything in return is substandard parenting for a father/daughter relationship but there’s not much you can do about it. I can not change my father (I can’t go out and get another one) and therefore, have to accept him for who he is, especially if I like him and want to hang out with him. But this type of relationship is NOT OK for a healthy, romantic, love relationship between two adults who do have choices. Romantic love, sorry to spoil the fantasy, is not unconditional.
There are two parts to the Love equation. That is all. And I always seemed to go for one or the other. Never both. Here they are in their simplest form:
1. I must love someone; respect him, care about him, be attracted to him, treat him well, be compatible with him and generally LIKE him, not fear intimacy or be emotionally closed off.
and number two…
2. He must love me; respect me, care about me, be attracted to me, treat me well, be compatible with me and generally LIKE me, not fear intimacy or be emotionally closed off.
The other thing I realized was that:
When we hold on to a bad habit or an addiction for so long, whatever that addiction or habit may be (alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, the real or imagined love of another person etc.) it is because it gives us a (false) sense of security. It makes us feel tethered, grounded, whole. It takes the edge off living. But our addiction is NOT about that which we are addicted to. Our addiction is a way in which we avoid ourselves.
When I divorced, I wrote in my journal that I felt at the same time happy to be free and extremely fearful. I felt like I was no longer connected to something bigger and greater than myself. I felt alone, isolated, free-floating. I didn’t like that feeling. So, within six months of being a newly divorced woman, I made two very bad choices: I started smoking cigarettes again (a habit I had quit for 10 years), and, I latched on to a man who wasn’t good for me but gave me that sense of being connected again.
When we are afraid and lonely and scared of the “emptiness” of life, we tend to make very bad choices. But what can we do to get over that fear? What can we do to stop the pain we feel when we are “floating around in space”? What takes the edge off?
An alcoholic will drink.
An overeater will eat more.
Someone who fears loneliness will cling to another person…
None of these things really takes the edge off. You take a “hit” of your drug of choice and it only causes the desire for another hit and another. Next thing you know, you’re a junkie.
I realized that G did the same thing for me as cigarettes. I could lose my identity, not have to deal with my pain and suffering, and I could feel tethered to something bigger than myself as long as I had him around. He took the edge off. Just like alcohol to the drunk, drugs to the junkie, food the overeater.
None of those option, however, is a solution.
Loving someone more than yourself is not an honorable action unless it is applied to your children. Between equal adults this kind of imbalance is born out of a need to feel connected. When you don’t feel connected to anything, you suddenly want something more than ever. You want to put something into your body, eat something, smoke something love someone just to take the edge off. Westerners have equated a feeling of security and wholeness with the idea that something (food, drugs or another person) will fill the “void” and make you whole. Well, what if you started believing that THERE IS NO VOID? That you are complete.
This is how my change began. After years of reflection and self-discovery I believe I now have the courage to face many of my fears. I believe I have made peace with myself. If someone doesn’t like me, I let it go. I have enough self-esteem in me now to say there are a million men in the world who will treat me with love and respect and because I believe in my own worth, I will hold out for something better. And the only reason I can hold out for something better, is because I am full. I am not starving. I am complete. I look in the mirror every day and say, Not bad. I can deal with that. I set realistic goals for myself and I try to complete them. And most importantly, I have chosen to be a grown up and think maturely and responsibly. I no longer cling to fantasies or obsessive thoughts of anyone because I now realize there are more important things in this world than a relationship with a man. People in the world are suffering. I am strong enough now to give back.
It has been no easy road. In fact, change never ends. There is no point of perfection where you can say, I have arrived! I still fall back into some of my old habits in small ways, but not in ways you would think. I don’t call G up the phone anymore, for example, or take a puff on a cigarette. I’m not exactly addicted to the idea of being in a relationship either. Despite the fact that I am, I am now very independent. I don’t obsess anymore, nor do I have severe mood swings, doubts, fears, pain, or suffering when it comes to the man I do love and who loves me. Instead, I’ll bury my head in the sand, so to speak, and avoid my responsibilities for an extended time. I may find myself playing on the computer too long, or not being good about my finances. I may neglect myself by doing too much for others, not getting back to the gym or overeating. I catch myself doing this though, and I know to get back to business. That avoiding myself is not the answer. Facing my problems and my responsibilities is the answer.
In the end, I equate my life and the changes I made to mountain climbing. You struggle up the side of this huge mountain, hanging on for dear life, maybe slide down a time or two. But then you come to a place of rest and you sit back and look up to see how far you still have to go. And you think nothing has changed and there are enormous lessons still to be learned, the summit is so far away…But then, you look down to see how far you’ve come and you realize the climb, the struggle has not been in vain, and that your effort and endurance has brought you farther than you ever imagined…