MARRIAGE


marriage“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.” – Unknown

My husband came home from work today, after hanging out with some guys at the bar to watch the Masters, and said “I think we are becoming a minority.” Knowing my husband as I do, I could have gone in so many different directions with that comment. I looked quizzically at him and, as has happened hundreds of times in the 21 years we have been together, he realized I had no idea what he was referring to. “It seems like we are the only ones left married,” he said smirking. I laughed, knowing he was being facetious but I also stopped for a second and took in a deep breath. He is right. Maybe it’s because of our age, maybe it’s because of where we live, maybe it’s because of our circle of friends and acquaintances but, whatever the reason, it seems like every day we learn of more and more couples splitting up. Today he learned about yet another and, as is always the case, it sends chills down your spine. You can’t help but wonder if one day it will be you. I cannot deny that there have been moments – more than I care to admit – that I wondered if our marriage would survive.

I entered into marriage completely clueless. I had no role models. I had no reference point. Frankly, I had no interest in getting married. I had determined, at a pretty young age, that I wanted to have a fantastic career and would not submit to giving up my dreams for any man. And, I certainly did not want to have kids. Sure, I was a feminist. I was also broken from all that I had experienced in my childhood that I couldn’t even imagine a reality where I could be happily married. By the time I was in college, my mother had been married and divorced 3 times and was on her way to her fourth. My father had 2 under his belt and my sister, 14 years my senior, had just split up with her husband. She would go on to marry 2 more times. I wanted nothing to do with all this. I was not interested in participating in this ritual that seemingly always had an unhappy ending.

I was a serial dater after I got out of college. I would meet guys, date them, break up, find another, date them, break up, find another and the cycle went on and on. Nobody lasted more than weeks or maybe a few months and the relationships never went very deep. I had so much intimacy with all of my gay boyfriends that I never felt needy in that way. If it were not for sex, I would have been content to hang with my gay posse forever, collect some cats and become a living, breathing stereotype. I simply did not see a pathway that would ever lead me to wedded bliss. I had a great career, was starting to make some money and had, what I believed to be, a relatively glamorous life. I worked for a major movie studio optioning books for movies so I spent my evenings going to plays, movie premieres, parties, fancy dinners – all surrounded by the largest group of gay men imaginable. I guess, perhaps one of the reasons I could not see the pathway was because there were not very many suitable candidates crossing my lane.

I met my husband when I was 24. When I think about it now, I realize how I was still an emotional amoeba. I simply knew nothing about the world yet I had lived what felt like 5 lifetimes sorting through the turmoil of my family’s drama. We met as friends – he and I were both dating other people (he was living with someone!) so there was no pressure on the relationship. He seemed like a nice enough guy and, much to my amazement, I found myself quickly intrigued by him. The relationship became romantic very quickly and, after we sorted out our other conflicts, we started dating for real. Both of us being somewhat impulsive, dating lasted about two minutes before we fell remarkably, passionately, overwhelmingly in love. He was my soulmate. I could not imagine how I could spend one minute away from him, which was extraordinarily difficult since he lived 3000 miles away on the other side of the country. We managed to find ways to see each other several times a month and each visit was filled with anticipation – heart-racing, soulful expectation. And every goodbye was marked with tears, sometimes painful and gut-wrenching, because we could not imagine how we would be able to fill our lungs with oxygen without the other to move the diaphragm. We so quickly became a symbiotic unit and every thought I ever had about not wanting to marry went out the window like a paper floating away in a brisk March wind. My fears or uncertainty about how I could sustain a relationship seemed foolish and immature. Here I was madly in love and all I could think about, even at the tender age of 25, was how fast I could begin my life as his wife.

We got engaged in less than 6 months and just a little more than 2 years after we met, we walked down the aisle in a lovely spring wedding and began a whole new chapter in our lives. We set out to right the wrongs of our parents. We vowed to do it differently. We committed to break the cycle. We blindly, ignorantly, whimsically set out on what seemed like a perfectly paved pathway together.

Next month will be 19 years since that lovely spring wedding. 19 years – nearly two decades! In contrast, his parents’ marriage lasted 13 years, my parents stuck it out for 15 before they separated, my sister’s ended at year 14. There was a moment, several years ago, that we realized that we had hit some magical milestone in our family. We were officially the longest married couple. We made a toast. And returned to our blissfully banal life. We have expanded our symbiotic union by two with sons that keep us grounded and focused and remind us why we decided to enter this extremely challenging and complex obstacle course.

In 19 years we have had more than our share of fights and far too many moments, through tears, that we each gritted our teeth and questioned our beliefs. That perfectly paved pathway has revealed many cracks, uprooted roots that have pushed up the concrete and we have tripped and fallen many, many times. We have been challenged to find the intoxicating love that left us in tears when we could not be together every moment of the day. Now the tears were rage-filled and that love was nowhere to be found. Well, actually, it was buried beneath piles and piles of hurt feelings, unkind words, bad choices, anger, resentment and all the wonderful things that are often hallmarks of long-term relationships riddled with financial woes, exhaustion from child rearing and general disappointments that life did not turn out to have the fairy tale ending you dreamt of. For some couples that is where it all goes awry. For many, the challenges become too untenable and the relationship dissolves. For us, we had many sleepless nights, raging battles and days where we could barely look at each other because we loathed the sight of the other but we pushed through. Perhaps the fear of splitting up was more overwhelming than the notion of trying to tolerate each other another day, but we persevered. Despite our efforts to hold it together, I was certain we were doomed. Everyone around us seemed so happy. Their marriages looked so healthy. Everyone seemed to be having sex ALL THE TIME while I couldn’t muster the energy to even think about it most of the time. Everyone appeared to be blissfully in love, even after the trials of marriage had weathered their bond. They all seemed to have a healthier, stronger, more powerful attachment and I didn’t see how my marriage could ever compare.

The joke was on me, of course. Sure, some couples seem to have the good fortune of peaceful and loving relationships and personalities that are not like firecrackers with short fuses and a lit match. Many couples, however, put on a good show when everyone is looking in order to make the pain of their own unhappiness less visible in hopes that it will make their misery more manageable. They sweep it under the rug and put on a good face, hoping no one will notice, existing in silent desperation. For me, I had to learn to stop looking around for comps and spend more time looking at my own relationship and understanding what it needed to work properly. When I searched my soul, I knew I loved my husband on the deepest level and could not imagine a life without him. I needed to focus in on that and stop worrying about the window dressing. None of that shit mattered.

As I watched so many friends delight in the sparkle of new relationships after their marriages ended and they were reborn into these new loves, I had to dig deep to find a way to reconnect with the man who changed my life and brought peace to a war-torn girl. I doubted, I questioned, I ached, I cried, I searched, I begged for mercy. And then I fell in love all over again. This time, I fell in love with the old pair of shoes lying in the back of the closet that I had forgotten were hiding out, stuffed underneath some boxes of new shoes that were so shiny and inviting. I slipped into those shoes and they felt warm and comfortable, and my feet knew exactly how to mold themselves into the leather. They were perfectly suited for me. I exhaled and I opened my eyes wide to find that nothing ever changed between my husband and me. We still loved each other deeply – in fact, we were much more in love than we had ever been but we had lost our way. We fell victim to the complications of life. We stopped paying attention, took our eyes off the road as the car careened into the woods. It was a bit dented but still ran pretty well and just needed someone to get behind the wheel and steer it onto a new road.

I love my husband more today than I ever could have imagined that pretty spring day 19 years ago. I look into the eyes I have stared into millions of times and I see our lifetime together. Soon we will be together longer than we have not. Now we fit together like two puzzle pieces that slide together so easily. There were days we had to shove ourselves together, taking a second look to see if, in fact, we were the right pair of pieces but, now, it is easier. Sure, we still take each other for granted at times and we still have trouble finding time and energy to have quiet intimate moments but I know, without any uncertainty, that there is no one else I would travel the road of life with. We are a real story, a 3-dimensional, full-color, reality of married life. We are imperfect, we hurt each other, we make mistakes. And, we love each other with everything we have. And we fall in love over and over again.

OCEAN VIEWS


IMG_3683“The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, hates, and weeps. It defies all attempts to capture it with words and rejects all shackles. No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can’t.” – Christopher Paolini

I just took a walk on the beach – a pretty uncommon occurrence for me in February. Fortunately, I have been swept away to Florida for work for the weekend and had the luxury of spending an hour to take a leisurely walk along the ocean, feeling the sand nestling between my toes and listening to the serene sounds of the smashing waves along the sea shelled shore. I often forget the effects the beach has on me. In fact, while I have known I was coming down here for a few months, I gave no thought to packing a bathing suit or even setting aside time to relax on the beach. I looked for excuses to not do anything relaxing and focus the time away on the work that I am here for and any other work I could sneak in with 2 uninterrupted days to myself. It’s odd when I think about it now – why wouldn’t I have focused on the beach, the pool, the spa or some other indulgences for myself? I am staying at the Ritz Carlton – there is an unending array of options for me to pamper myself and, yet, I focused solely on the amount of work I could accomplish while here. I really did not pack a bathing suit and I kept checking the weather hoping for rain.

Yet, once I got here, I could not escape the majesty of the ocean. From the balcony of my room, I immediately felt ensconced in the warmth of the sea air and calmed by the lull of the ocean tide. Peace and calm took over. As I walked along the ocean today, I marveled at how blissful I was and how my brain so easily shut itself down. Of course, being me, I pondered this and, for the first time in a really, really long time, I did not have much to think about except watching the seagulls and breathing in concert with the waves.

The beach has always been a significant part of my life. Perhaps it is because I am a cancer and, as a water sign, feel very connected to the ocean. Perhaps it is because some of my best memories of childhood took place at the beach. Perhaps it is because you simply cannot be stressed when you sit and watch the ocean and become mesmerized by the ebbs and flows of the tide. The calming that comes over you is difficult to be disrupted. When I was very young, my family spent lots of time in Montauk, NY because my father’s parents owned a home there. After coming over from Italy and settling in the Bronx where many Italian immigrants landed, my grandparents decided to truly move out to the country and settled in what was, at the time, a very undeveloped area – a simple fishing village – at the very tip of Long Island. Back in the 60’s when they retired out there, everyone built little cape cod houses on giant pieces of property that remained untouched. My grandparents carved out a piece of their land to develop a vegetable garden that rivaled some produce farms. They replicated the gardens they had grown up with in Sicily and, from their crops, produced some of the most aromatic, magnificent food I have ever tasted. You could not walk into my grandparents’ home without a pot of gravy on the stove or a fresh pizza in the oven. My little 5′ grandmother Annie could cook up a feast for dozens and managed to smack a few fannies with her wooden spoon as the children ran through her house.

In the days when my parents were still living their idyllic life, we would venture out to Montauk several times a year, especially in the summer, and experience some of the most tranquil moments of my lifetime. My grandfather, who always seemed like a little old Italian man (despite his great height and stature), would bounce me on his lap and play with all his grandchildren as we ran around their spacious front yard or ride our bikes along the gravelly, windy roads in their neighborhood. My grandmother would yell at us in Italian if we even dared to step foot near her garden. I was not a particularly adventurous or disobedient child but, sometimes, the curiosity simply took over and I would go down deep into the property to see what all the fuss was about. It was spectacular. In my lifetime I have never seen such elegant eggplants or bright, luscious tomatoes. There were peppers and cucumbers and cauliflower and broccoli. I never had any interest in the actual vegetables but I was fascinated by the magnitude of it all. I would peek my nose over the small fencing around the garden and, without fail, my grandmother chided me and I quickly dashed off to avoid her wrath.

I remember climbing the dunes only to find the breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean. After my little body made the climb up the steep sand hills, I would just exhale when I saw the waves breaking. I could not wait to run down and tempt my fate, praying not to get swept under. Needless to say, the tide often pulled me in and I emerged laughing and with a bathing suit filled with wet sand. My mother hated the water and, frankly, hated the idea of putting on a bathing suit even more, so she usually sat under an umbrella watching from a distance, smoking a cigarette or reading a book. She never played in the ocean with us but my father, if he was with us, usually came running in to rescue his kids. It was glorious. It is all still so perfectly vivid in my mind. They are precious moments – a short blink of time – that left such impenetrable marks on my soul. The memories represent bliss, serenity, calm, peace, happiness, joy. I pray that I never lose my memory because these are possessions that I cannot safely lock away in a vault to be pulled out and admired. They exist only in my mind. No photographs, no videos, no one left to talk about it with. They are mine and exist only in me. My grandparents’ house has long since been bulldozed – the property developed by the new inhabitants of Montauk. Now it is filled with wealthy weekenders who have moved past the Hampton’s and, while they love the charm of the upgraded fishing community, still want to have their creature comforts – their McMansions, their gourmet kitchens, their in ground pools.

The last time I went back to Montauk was around 1990. I was single and decided to take a weekend for myself. It was an unusual move for me at the ripe old age of 23. My life was all about my friends, my job, dating and having fun. But the quiet, introverted part of me desperately needed to be alone, to recapture the memories of my childhood, to ponder my reality. It was probably the beginning of my journey right there because it was painful and difficult to find peace on that trip. I was confronted with the realities of my life. The idyllic scene I had so masterfully captured and framed in my mind was now being disrupted by the truth of my life. It was infiltrated by divorce, abuse, death, misery, disconnection. The rays of sunlight that shined in my memories were masked by dark clouds and thunderous noise that did not at all resemble the calm and peaceful waves. Suddenly, I was confronting everything that went wrong. Going back to that joyful place made me sad. It brought me pain. I had a journal and I wrote and wrote and wrote. I poured my sadness onto pages as I sat by the water. I cried. I rode a bike around the village and visited all of my favorite haunts. I went back into White’s Drugstore where I had wandered as a child, buying bubbles, coloring books, postcards to send home to my friends. Everything looked similar but it was all different. I was all different. I was broken and I was first beginning to learn just how broken and was trying to find my way to a repair shop.

I have never been back and, remarkably, have never been there with my husband. I discovered a new happy place with my family – the Jersey Shore. I adopted my husband’s fond memories from his childhood and created new memories with my own family. Our children spent weeks during the summer on Long Beach Island. We take them to Asbury Park. We visited Jenkinson’s Aquarium and played the games on the boardwalk. And, the beach still brings me peace. I still feel the calm. I have managed to push past the sadness of that part of my life and illuminate with the soft glow of distance and understanding. It was just a sliver of my life – just a flicker, a gust of wind – but it also shaped me. It made me who I am today, even if in some small way. I had a glimpse into what life could be and it helped provide me with a simple sketch of what I might want my life to look like. It helped me understand that it is not all bad. Nothing ever is. There is always a silver lining. I am disappointed I don’t have more memories of that family, that house, that beach, that life. Yet, I am grateful it was real, even if just for a split second.

One day I will return to Montauk to try to recall the precious memories with this new mind, with a healed heart. But, for today, I walked on the beach in Florida and succumbed to the pure pleasure that the ocean brings. I was peaceful, I was happy, and I remembered.

 

 

 

 

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY


motheranddaughter“The woman who bore me is no longer alive, but I seem to be her daughter in increasingly profound ways.” – Unknown

Today would have been my mother’s 83rd birthday.  And, Friday marked one year since she passed away.  As I have shared in this blog before, her passing was an event that did not hold much significance to me at the time because I felt I had said goodbye to her many years before.  Despite that, this past year has left me with the need to do a lot of reflection to help me come to terms with my feelings about this complicated relationship in order to begin a healing process resulting in forgiveness and transcendence from decades of trying to love someone who was fundamentally incapable of experiencing or giving authentic love.

This is a journey I did not enter into willingly.  In fact, I had my mind all made up when I learned that her life was nearing its end that I was relieved and ready to move on to the next phase of my life – a life without having to look over my shoulder and wonder when the next onslaught would occur.  I welcomed the freedom that came from knowing that the hurt, the humiliation, the constant anxiety about when she would next strike out would finally come to an end.  When I got the word that she had died, I texted my best friend to let him know and he immediately called me in bewilderment, wondering if he should console me or plan to take me out for a celebratory toast.  He gently prodded, fascinated by this highly unusual circumstance of someone losing their parent and not immediately  kicking into the rituals of mourning, honoring, etc., and asked “How do you feel?”  Of course, he knew that the feelings would be complicated.  He implicitly knew that I would be struggling to find words to make sense of the emotions, even in my own mind.  At the time I was quite laissez faire about the whole situation, resolved that I was ready to start anew.  I had prayed for an escape from the grip she had on me and suddenly my wish was granted and now I had the time and space to react and redirect myself.

In the year since my mother’s passing, I have had a metamorphosis of sorts.  In my own way, I have undergone a process of grieving and realigning myself without the force of my mother’s mental illness driving an undercurrent in my life.  Despite the fact that I had terminated my relationship with her nearly 7 years before her death, I was still struggling on a daily basis, balancing my indignation and my guilt while continuing to fear her wrath, her scorn, her outbursts intended to try to regain a connection with me.  She patented the art of attempting to have bad behavior rewarded with attention.  It took great resolve and discipline to not take the bait.  As an adult child, I still yearned the love of my mother and wanted nothing more than to wake up from a seemingly bad dream and find myself in a fairy tale, basking in the glow of love showered upon me by my mommy.  I never lost the wish, the unwavering desire to curl up and be loved and nurtured in a way that I understood was a gift meant for other little girls, simply not me.

As I worked through the process – one that I intentionally pushed to the background to be a backdrop to everything else that was going on in my life – I began to see answers and understanding emerge around me like giant thought bubbles bursting over my head.  I knew when I began the journey of healing that I would never truly understand my mother.  I acknowledged, albeit reluctantly, that her actions and behavior would never make sense to me.  I did not have all the puzzle pieces.  I was missing huge chunks of her history that informed who she became as an adult.  I did not understand the demons that she confronted as a young child and had no way of understanding the role they played in the destruction of her life.  I never had a clear sense of the roots of her mental illness.  All of that, however, was intellectual masturbation because none of it mattered in how I felt.  And, frankly, for the better part of my adult life, I spent my time trying to understand, trying to solve the equation.  How I felt was always secondary.  I knew I was a victim of her illness and I knew that our relationship was ultimately detrimental to both of us.  I woke up one day and realized with crystal clear certainty that we were better off without each other than with.  And I walked away.  As my therapist has explained to me so many times, I nearly erased myself from existence by abandoning the most primal and pivotal relationship in my life.  I annihilated myself by rejecting my mother.  And, at the same time, I gave myself life.

I have struggled over the past year to find my way with this.  Life has presented me with seemingly unending complications to derail my focus and challenge my own mental stability.  I have struggled with my own purpose, my intentions and my truth.  Losing my mother without ever closing all the loose ends left me with a complicated web of questions and emotions that I knew I had to tackle when I was ready and in my own unique style.  No one – absolutely no one – could help me make sense of it.  I was living an experience that not a single person I know has ever experienced.  I was alone on an island left to sort out a big giant tangle of ropes in hopes that, when untwisted, I would be able to toss them out to pull in my raft and return the land of others.  I had hoped that by whacking through this mess I would suddenly feel differently, look like everyone else and be able to return to life feeling more complete and more connected.

It’s been one year and two days.  367 days of quiet contemplation.  8,808 hours of attempting to locate a lost piece of myself in order to better fit into my world and begin to blend in with everyone else.

Guess what?

I failed.

On the bright side, I am beginning to forgive my mother.  I am finding ways to have compassion for her and understanding that hers was the road less traveled – and not in a good way.  No one would ever sign up for the cruise that she took in her 82 years. No one would willingly leave the earth with a scant few by their side, having more regrets than joy.  Four marriages, three children, four grandchildren and her passing was barely noticed.  I feel sad for her.  I grieve for a life that was lost to an illness left untreated and an unwillingness to relent and accept that perhaps the darkness that she lived with was not simply the way it was meant to be.  I take no comfort in my righteousness that she deserved what she ultimately received.  I wish, I truly wish, I could have made a difference for her.  I wish I could have saved her and brought her to my island.  I tried so many times to heal her with my love, thereby, hopefully, healing myself.  However, it was always short-lived.  She thrived on chaos and manipulation.  She needed to break things down and then attempt to put them back together in order to feel like a savior.  She needed to be a victim and find blame in everyone else.  She did not know what it meant to forgive.  She only knew how to hold a grudge and suffer as she exhausted limitless mental energy feeling anger and resentment, ironically usually targeted towards those she most frequently hurt.

For me, today, I am learning to get beyond all that and am starting to understand the impact of her life and her behavior on me.  I am not a victim of my mother.  I am a product of my life experience and it is my choice to continue down the pathway she led me or to take a detour and find my own lane.  She is not a compass for me – a fact that pains me greatly because I believe so deeply in the power of motherhood and the role we play in guiding our children to their own paths while standing by to guide them to another and another as they need us to.  Nonetheless, my mother is all around me.  She shows up in my life in the form of other people that create struggles for me – the narcissists that invariably make their way to me; the angry, damaged and pained individuals that sniff me out falsely seeing me as a safe harbor.  I am simply not that port and I am learning to accept that about myself.  My job is not to rescue anyone but to provide an atlas built from my own painful journey.  I am not a walking support group and I have come to accept and, in fact, insist, that I am not here to be pitied or protected or, quite frankly, understood by anyone because we can never truly understand the complexities that make each of us unique.  Instead, I am here to give love, receive love and hope to leave a legacy that includes inspiring and empowering others to live a more meaningful life.  And, for that, I thank my mother.  Without her, I am not sure that these lessons would have made their way to me.  I am not sure that I would have the courage to look at life the way I do.  I have no certainty that, without my mother, I would have broken down and been rebuilt in a way that provides me with my own brand of power.  I am not perfect and I struggle to make sense of things every day but I feel grateful to have the opportunity to tackle life and connect the dots in the way that I do. As with many things in my life, I would never go back and change history.  It all informed my place today.  The road could have been easier and my choices could have been better but it is all about the journey.

This morning I talked to my best friend again and shared with him a piece of my truth that has crystalized for me.  I have spent so much of my lifetime trying to adapt myself to fit into the world in a way that would enable people to understand me better.  I have twisted myself up so painfully trying to blend in and make sense in other people’s worlds.  However, today, my own gift to myself on my mother’s birthday, I committed to allowing myself to be me.  367 days after my mother left the earth I am finally becoming the person I am meant to be.  And, after 45 1/2 years of life, I know I am just getting started.

Happy Birthday Mom.  I wish you could have gotten to know me.

MY DIRTY LITTLE SECRET


secretI have a dirty little secret.

I suffer from depression.

Not the blues.  Not feeling down in the dumps.  Full on depression.  The kind that takes me to a very dark place.  And, apparently, I share this disorder with 14,999,999 other Americans – a vast majority of them women.  I don’t necessarily keep this fact a secret but it is not typically my lead-in when I meet people.  Oddly, I don’t actually think of myself as someone who gets depressed but, as part of my efforts to live authentically, I have had to come to terms with what I refer to as my “dark periods.”  These periods do not pop up that frequently.  In fact, I can go years without having any type of serious depressive episode but, like earthquakes, it is not about the frequency, it is about the magnitude.

I suppose it was my birth right.  My mother suffered from depression most of her life.  She attempted to take her own life on two separate occasions when I was a young child.  Both times she downed an excessive amount of pills (likely aspirin because we didn’t have too many medications in our house) and I remember being in the ER at the hospital wondering what was wrong with her.  Despite the fact that she was often going to therapy, she never seemed to be able to treat her depression and, I suspect, it is because she desperately needed to be medicated.  Her depression was only one one of her many mental ailments.  My father struggled with alcoholism his entire life.  My brother is bipolar and my sister, like me, lives with depression and, likely, other forms of mental illness.  Our family legacy is both biological and environmental.  There is severe mental illness in my mother’s family and my parents, fighting with their own demons, inflicted a significant amount of trauma on my siblings and myself which, according to science, likely created a chemical imbalance and a form of PTSD that we each confront in our own unique ways.

Over the years, I have become skilled at dealing with my depression, from looking for the warning signs and fortifying myself, using exercise and diet as a minimizer, as well as treating it with antidepressants.  One of my challenges, however, is that my depression typically creeps up on me when I have either run out of things to distract my attention from it or when crushing stress becomes too much for me to bear.  Sometimes there are specific incidents that bring it on like negative interactions with people that leave me empty, wasted or diminished.  But, in most cases, I don’t see it coming and once it is upon me, I can’t find a way out of it.

I recently researched symptoms of depression to help me understand it a bit further.  I wanted to determine if what I was experiencing was truly depression or just some low periods.  I compared my feelings to the list:

  • persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood – check
  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities, including sex – check
  • restlessness, irritability, or excessive crying – check
  • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism – check, check
  • sleeping too much or too little, early-morning awakening – check
  • thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts – check
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions – check

People often think that those of us who suffer from depression are downers who have difficulty functioning in everyday life.  These are just some of the myths that create stigmas and often prevent people from being honest about their own mental illness.  For me, the truth is I function very well and, most often, I am pretty upbeat – typically the life of the party.  And no, I am not bipolar.  I simply am not depressed every single day.  But when I go down, I go down hard.  And once I am down, it is very hard to get back up.

Recently, I went through an extremely dark period.  It felt like it came out of nowhere but, upon reflection and analysis, there were many triggers including work stress, holidays, and some challenging personal relationships.  I realized it was chasing me down and I was running from it like an animal being hunted as prey.  I just didn’t consciously realize I was scurrying from capture until it caught me and pummeled me.  When I saw the face of my demon, I recognized instantly that it had been sneaking up on me for a while.  Unfortunately, once I thought I got rid of the beast, I relaxed a bit and was shocked when it quickly reappeared and lingered  like a stalled-out hurricane.  It blew in, did some destruction and then seemed like it was moving out to sea.  Much to my surprise and severe disappointment, it changed direction and ended up blowing back in, this time much stronger and hanging on for a much longer period of time.  I was absolutely certain I was having a nervous breakdown. The darkness was so severe and so intense that I could not see my way to clarity.  I did not think the clouds would ever pass, that the winds would ever let up or that the rain would stop pouring down.  But, as is always the case with storms, they do pass and the sun shines through the clouds offering the hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Depression is even more complicated in my life because it is magnified by the echoes of the traumas of my childhood – the scars of which layer on top of my depression and validate many of my dark thoughts.  When I sink into worthlessness, my memories of words or experiences that traumatized me as a child, come to the surface and haunt me, giving credence to every distorted feeling I experience during these episodes.  It’s as if I am an alcoholic and, despite my efforts at recovery, there is always an open bar or a  friend standing by with a bottle to prevent me from ever achieving sobriety.  I have enough ammunition to keep me down for decades and, during some of these dark periods, I am rather confident that the sun will never shine again and that all of my worst experiences are my truth and personify who I am and what my life is meant to be.

The scariest part of depression, however, is not the admission of my illness nor is it the actual experience of going through the dark periods.  The scariest piece comes in the aftermath when, with a clear head, you realize just how low you have fallen.  When you realize just how easy it is for your mind to take you to places that seem unfathomable when you are rational and have your senses intact.  You realize that, in a split second, the pain that you are experiencing will take hold and you are captive to its powers and incapable of freeing yourself, left only with futile attempts to defend yourself and preserve some level of sanity so as not to have devastating outcomes.  I recently had a conversation with a close friend who had spent some time with me while I was in the middle of this recent episode and he shared with me his and his wife’s experiences and concerns for me.  It was humbling and, to some extent, overwhelming and humiliating.  He was kind and thoughtful in his comments and shared his fears in a compassionate and loving way.  But, it was in that moment that I realized how far away I go during those periods and how far removed from reality I am.  That is frightening and makes me feel vulnerable in the worst possible way.

Ultimately, my depression does not make me a bad person.  It does not prevent me from engaging in intimate and meaningful relationships.  It does not inhibit my ability to live a productive and successful life.  It does, however, force me to be acutely aware of the triggers and make choices differently than others who might not endure the same struggles.  It is like any other disease.  If I were diabetic, sugar would be my enemy.  If I had a heart condition, cardio would be a danger for me.  My medical ailment, caused by chemical imbalances in my brain (and, possibly, exacerbated by the hormonal disruption caused by the onset of menopause) forces me to think very seriously about how I interact with people, situations I put myself in, and how I deal with stress and anxiety.  I am neither ashamed nor afraid to share my truth but I realize that many will never understand this dimension of my life.  I need not be pitied or treated any differently.  It is just part of my truth.  And, fortunately, severe depression is something that rarely strikes me but, I acknowledge, that even if it happens once every five or ten years, it is real and it is dangerous.

So, I share my dirty little secret for the millions of Americans who are afraid to share their truth for fear that they will be stigmatized or ostracized.  I am not afraid because I am fortunate enough to have a small, intimate group of friends and family to whom I can turn for support during my dark periods and who understand my struggles and provide me with the love and nurturing that I need to get through the haze.  I also have an amazing therapist who works with me during dark days and, more importantly, during the bright ones to keep me focused on tackling the demons that bring me down and keep me down.  But, for many, they don’t have such luxuries and cannot be honest with themselves or anyone else because they feel shameful or afraid of the consequences of revealing their truth.  And, for some, like my own mother, they simply are not capable of seeing the truth in themselves and spend their lives living in denial, inflicting pain on those around them.

If you struggle with depression or know someone who does, take a moment to learn more and create a safe environment for yourself and others to live honestly and authentically.

LOVE


Today’s post is short and to the point.  We’re talking about love.  Something that is scarce yet abundant.  Something that is colorful yet black and white.  The idea of love is something that I wonder about frequently because I continually challenge the notion when it comes to my relationships.  My brain has been working hard on this recently as I have been reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly – the type of book filled with powerful messages that roam around in your mind for days and days after you’ve read them.  I find myself highlighting passage after passage and going back and re-reading to make sure I understand the import of what she is saying.  Ultimately, this book is forcing me to think very deeply about the relationship I have with myself and the ones I share with others in my life. Today I read a poignant passage on love:

We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.  Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.

Those are some big, strong, meaningful words.  Words that swim around in my head and make me think about every person in my life.  I wonder about the vocabulary I use to describe how I feel about them.  I am not one to throw the love word around that much.  In fact, I tell very few people that I love them because when I say it, I want to be certain I mean it.  I use it mostly with my husband and kids.  Because, with them, I am sure.  When I measure love against Brene’s yardstick, I know that I love them fully and completely.

I remember, as a kid, my mother used to tell me “I love you but I do not like you.”  They were hurtful words meant to invoke her disdain for my behavior or something about my personality that she did not enjoy while still ensuring her underlying implicit love for me as my mother.  As a child and then as a young adult, my whole body tightened up when I heard those words because of the sting of the blow.  And I found them hard to process.  In my mind, the one clearly negated the other. Of course, she could be angry with me about something or be displeased with my behavior but she should not have stopped liking me in the process.

I do not believe I can love someone whom I do not like.

I do not believe I can love someone with whom I have not shared a deep personal connection.  

I do not believe I have the capacity to love anyone when I am feeling lost and not able to find the strength or courage to look at myself and love myself.

When I think about my mother’s words today, I recognize the impact they had on me and the impact the continue to have on me.  How can I possibly like myself if my mother does not like me?  How can I possibly love myself if I do not like myself?  I struggle every day to rid myself of those words and to not identify her pain with me.  Yet, on my darkest days, those words are an oasis that allows me to reinforce why I feel badly about myself and offer me a hole to climb into so I can run away from the hard work of being present and vulnerable.

I know when I love someone because I can physically feel the emotion that comes from my connection to them.  I can feel the trust and the comfort that comes from being vulnerable and open.  At the same time, I also know that I can abuse this love because I feel safe and secure.  And, naturally, they can abuse me as well.  It’s risky.  And, while we certainly don’t set out to hurt those we love, sometimes it just happens.  What this means is that we have to work harder to take better care to ensure that we choose the right words, we express our love for each other openly and honestly and we protect those most fragile and significant relationships.

I have a lot of wonderful people in my life and lots of people who I truly adore and have strong feelings for.  However, when I look at Brene’s words and I put them to the test, I recognize that my loved ones are very few and far between.  It’s hard work to get to love and stay at love and I am just fine with that.

MISSING


“Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brene Brown

I am currently working on a very meaningful project – coaching someone to help them uncover their story.  I love this for so many reasons but mainly because I am helping them find their story to authentically and passionately share with others the importance of the work that they are doing.  It is an exciting journey for them because they are being pushed to explore aspects of themselves in ways they may not have before and it is interesting for me because I am challenging myself to be present on their ride and partake in the same activities.  Part of my role is to provide journal prompts each day to encourage them to write.  The prompts are often benign and are intended to simply get them to explore some thoughts and put them down on paper.  I’m not particularly interested in what they write.  I simply want them to write.  But, of course, the mere exploration of thought creates pathways to information and the act of scribing creates further connections and suddenly stories are unfolding right in front of you.

Yesterday, I offered up a prompt to write about someone that you miss, dead or alive.  I put no parameters around this topic because I wanted them to explore on their own who they missed and why and, perhaps, what it meant to miss someone.  Do you miss someone because they are no longer part of your life?  Do you miss someone because they have passed on?  Do you miss someone at that very moment even if you are going to see them the very next day?  The exercise was intended to allow them to journey along all those lines.  As I am trying to parallel the exercises and simultaneously write on the very same topics, I commissioned myself to tackle the same subject…and fell short.  With each journal prompt, I also ask that we write about something that we are grateful for and/or something we are disappointed about from our day and, last night, I got really hung up on the first part.  I focused on my lack of gratitude, which was, conversely, a source of disappointment for myself.

Ironically enough, I am not someone who enjoys journaling because, for me, it sometimes seems forced and I am often harshly critical of what I write.  Because I typically write with the intention of having others read it, I am extremely focused on my choice of words, the deeper messages and having compelling content.  And, of course, that is exactly what journaling is not and exactly why I should spend more time on that activity.  Journaling is most powerful as a tool to allow for a free stream of thought to enable you to find those pathways to your inner voices.  I recognize that it’s nuts that I resist it and, as a result, I am forcing myself to take advantage of this opportunity to embrace the art of journaling if only to have some connection and authenticity with this project.  What comes from it will only be the icing on the cake.

Last night when I set out to write about someone I miss, I struggled.  I could not really come up with anyone that I missed so much that I wanted to write about it.  There are a lot of people that have been a part of my life that I do not have any connection with anymore because of life circumstances.  I do miss some of them and, sometimes I feel badly about the role I played in our disconnection.  I miss what they used to mean to me and I feel sad about the fact that, in many cases, I allowed the person to slip out of my life.  There are also certainly people who are currently a part of my life who I do not see very often and I surely miss them.  In truth, some of the people that I am closest to live at a great distance from me so I am constantly missing them but that has become a regular, ordinary characteristic of my life.  I don’t like to write about it because it frustrates me and also makes me very sad.  So, ultimately, I avoided the topic entirely and I ended up spending my time writing about my own disappointment in myself for not feeling more grateful and for letting myself continually get caught up in malaise rather than focusing on the positive aspects of my life.  The subconscious thoughts about how missing people makes me feel bad surely inspired a whole lot of negativity towards myself and was a perfect platform to display my deep levels of disappointment in myself.

This morning, as often happens when I am returning from dropping my kids off at school, I took a few minutes for some self-reflection and started thinking about the exercise again (yes, this is how this stuff works.  A simple little prompt can permeate your thinking and just sit with you for days.  It’s pretty awesome).  With a somewhat clear head, the loud and resounding noise was that the person I missed most right now was me.

I’ve gone away.  I have allowed myself to get caught up with the messiness in my life.  I focus on all the things wrong and nothing that is right.  I have become blind to the beauty around me like the rich fall colors and the fragrant aromas of the season that so often make me feel whole and connected.  I feel disappointment in myself in regards to many areas of my life.  I am harshly judging myself and critical of my thinking and endeavors. I am, as the brilliant Brene Brown would say, caught up in a shame spiral.   She says that “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”  That is a potent message and, when I reflect on my life right now, it truly represents how I feel and why I miss myself.  I miss the person who rises above and feels tremendous gratitude for all the richness and texture that makes up my life.  I miss the strength that I typically exhibit to work through the clutter and chaos and the pride I feel for having muddled through and come out the other end feeling confident and powerful.  I miss waking up every day looking forward to the challenges before me and going to bed at night feeling tired but inspired and excited about what comes next.

I miss me.

The good news, I suppose, is that I can see myself in the distance and know that I am not far away.  And, chances are, it will likely not be too long before I return.  However, in the spirit of honoring this exercise, I will recognize that the person I miss is me and I will pine for myself and encourage myself to find my way back.  I will, like any good friend, extend a hand to help myself back up the hill, shout out directions as I traverse the rocks and catch myself if I slip.  And, until my return, I will keep on missing me and will remember another passage from Brene:

“Shame resilience [is] the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it.”

She says, “shame derives its power from being unspeakable…language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”  So, I guess this little exercise, this benign journal prompt is exactly what I need to help myself as only I can.

MY GAY BEST FRIEND


I have a gay best friend.

Apparently, it has become something of a chic accessory to have one.  Teen Vogue called GBF’s the hottest fashion accessory of 2010.  GBFs are listed in the Urban Dictionary as  every guy’s gateway to getting a hot girl.  However, for me, not being all that trendy and definitely too old to be “of the moment”, my GBF is by no means an accessory.  Instead, he is a blessing for which I am very grateful.

Truth be told, I might consider myself something of a magnet for gay men.  I never gave it much thought until recently because it all seemed pretty normal to me. I have always been surrounded by a fair number of gay men –  I grew up and have lived most of my life in the vicinity of New York City and I have worked in creative industries. I was a theater geek in  high school and college and, as a result of growing up in a complicated, dysfunctional and broken family, I was always searching for acceptance in many of the same ways that my gay male friends were as they were embarking on their journey of sexual identity.

Over the past year, my own attraction to gay men and their innate attraction to me, has become abundantly obvious to not only me but also those around me.  I have sort of developed a rep for being the chick with all the gay friends.  I kind of love that because I adore and cherish my guys.  But, being me, it is simply not in my nature to accept things without first understanding the underlying meaning and, therefore, have spent some time inquiring about this phenomenon.  I’ve asked a number of my gay friends, particularly my gay bestie, to explain what the attraction is and I’ve gotten quite a few interesting responses that intrigue me.

Aside from being snarky and bitchy, which stereotypically makes for a great gal pal for any gay man, I seem to have a “quality” that draws these guys to me.  I have fancied myself a fag hag but, after considerable research and much discussion, I have learned that this is not at all a positive label and does not fit the bill for me.  As a married woman with a family, I immediately fall out of the category as I am not likely to fall in love or desire any of my gay friends.  The appeal and the dynamic is completely different for me.  While I love that my guys all have pretty great fashion sense and typically enjoy going shopping with me, the depth of the relationships are what makes them meaningful to me.  And, especially with my GBF, I feel like I can wear my worts and be accepted in a non-judgmental, non-competitive way.  And, I suspect, the appeal for them is similar.  There is no drama and we all simply go with the flow.

This all makes perfect sense understanding where I come from.  The female dynamic in my family was very triangulated with my mother and sister constantly competing with me and my mother pitting us against each other.  My early experiences with women were complicated and challenging and it resulted in my tendencies to gravitate towards the boys because they were easy.  I was also bullied severely as a young girl.  I was frequently taunted by other children because I was chubby, insecure, wore glasses and didn’t know how to fit in.  I was an easy target for the kids because I was painfully shy and overtly sad and, with everything going on in my home, I didn’t have the skills or confidence to stand up for myself.  The bullying was shameful and I hid it until I was beaten badly by another girl in 4th grade.  Suddenly we were in the principal’s office with my mother and hers and everyone knew what I had endured.  My mother’s own shame over being so disconnected from what was happening to her child rendered her incapable of doing much but feeling guilty. Back in the 70s, they didn’t have resources for kids who were bullied so I continued to tolerate the abuse until I got older, developed a bit more confidence and, thankfully, by high school I was able to tap into my natural ability to build rapport with others and finally found a safe space for myself.  Not surprisingly, I also found myself surrounded by a bunch of guys who were painfully confused by their sexuality.  They knew then, as they know now that I am someone who implicitly understands their experience and offers complete acceptance.  I suspect it is a part of the fabric of our beings, part of the signals that we give off, that we find instant connection.  As my GBF will tell you, Like likes Like.  We get each other.

Looking back at the various gay men that have played a central part of my life, one interesting trend has emerged.  In my younger years, most of the gay men with whom I was close were deeply in the closet.  They all came out to me many years into our relationship and typically after the intensity had faded a bit.  I’ve wondered why they were not able to share their truth with me and realized that it was primarily because they were struggling to be honest with themselves.  What I offered them was the space to be whomever they needed to be without labeling them or challenging them.  As a teen and young adult, the dynamics sometimes got confusing to me because I never truly understood the unspoken boundaries of our relationships.  Not having the sophistication that I have as an adult, I did not understand that these men were, in fact, bonding with me like a port in a storm.  I was a safe haven because I never put any pressure on them to see me as a romantic partner because I, myself, was struggling with my own self-worth and did have any romantic expectations.  Our parallel struggles made us extraordinary emotional counterparts.  However, I would be lying if I did not admit that, sometimes, I wondered what was wrong with me that the relationships never evolved into more.  And, relying upon my strong self-deprecating capabilities, I always assumed that it must have been me.  I never even considered the alternative.

For sure, these relationships worked for me because of my need for emotional intimacy – something that was so lacking in my life growing up and was being more than satisfied with these men.  I felt loved and nurtured.  Unconsciously I was seeking unconditional love and it was coming at me in abundance.  As I got older and my need to combine emotional intimacy with physical intimacy increased, it became more challenging for me.  Because of my relationships with my gay friends, I was often emotionally unavailable to men that I dated.  No one I dated understood or connected with me in the way my gay friends did and, frankly, I was not even open to letting them try.  What I didn’t know then but later learned is that my situation was not as unique as I believed it to be.  This dynamic existed in many gay men/straight women relationships with each filling very unique and powerful needs in the other.

Everything changed when I met my husband.  He was the first man that I had met who was able to provide me with a complete and fulfilling relationship.  I found myself, for the first time, being able to connect together a powerful emotional intimacy with strong physical intimacy and so began my 20-year love affair.  The relationship with my husband and the arrival of my children quickly changed the dynamics in my life and, for years I did not have any close relationships with gay men – most likely because I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to devote to them.  Nonetheless, my innate attraction to gay men and theirs to me continued and, living in a community with a large gay population, they continued to flock to me and I slowly grew my herd.

I recently read a great article about the power of relationships between gay men and straight women.  The article quotes John R. Ballew, a professional counselor from Atlanta who suggests that “from the perspective of gay men, women offer intimate friendship that is generally free from the complications of sexual interest.  For straight women, gay men offer male friendship that’s free from game playing. Women can relax and be themselves with gay men in a way that’s usually not possible with hetero men.”  There is a real phenomenon between some gay men and some straight women that is unlike any other relationship.  It allows for a level of emotional intimacy that often gets marred in a physical relationship.  For me, there are many unique aspects that I think lends to the strength of these bonds I have, particularly with my GBF.

My GBF appeared in my life several years ago when I started a new job.  We met at a work function and had, what I believed was, an immediate chemistry.  Of course, knowing my GBF as I do now, he was playing me a bit and I fell for it.  He’ll tell you that he didn’t feel the same powerful connection right away but was intrigued enough and motivated enough to get to know me better – but that is the hallmark of our relationship.  I’m impulsive and he’s strategic.  We are ying and yang.

When I met my GBF, I was at a crossroads in my life.  I was changing careers, my kids were a little older and my marriage was well into its second decade. Unlike when I was younger, I was not necessarily seeking out a deep emotional connection.  I just needed allies on my journey and, for whatever reason, I knew, instinctively, that he would be an important player.  Plus, he made me laugh.  I had no intention of becoming close friends with him, never expected that our relationship would stretch much beyond work pals and certainly never expected that he would essentially become part of my family.  Given my history, it was rare that I would let anyone get that close to me.  And, since he lived 1000 miles away and only came to NYC once every few months at best, it would have been difficult to bridge that gap over random cocktails or dinners after client meetings.  Yet, we did.

Whatever the reasons, whatever the connections, what I know is this:  To quote my friend Tom Fiffer, who wrote in his blog this week “Blessings come in the form of people.”  I have been blessed with many spectacular people – men and women – and my life is better because of those I share it with.  And no matter how rough the road is, some people, particularly my GBF, make it extraordinary.