The realization hit me like an armful of shopping bags crammed to the brim with high-heeled boots, some with a really heavy wedge bottom: there are some questions I probably should not ask and some questions that I desperately need to ask. The hard part of this dawning understanding is realizing that what I have to know and what I so badly don’t want to know intertwine – and I didn’t realize the obvious correlation between those factors until just last week.
Sometimes a week is a random blip in time.
Sometimes it’s seven days of rumbling foundation in the architecture of your life.
If I look at the totality of my life as though it’s a vividly colored picture, I notice some things immediately. The coloring often strays outside of the structured dark lines and some of it was done with such strength that it’s impossible that my metaphorical crayon didn’t snap right in two. The shading is light but it’s also dark and there are areas made up entirely of a bright yellow. But there’s some blackness too, some soot-filled charcoal grey, and then there’s that entire section that’s the color blue you only see in the sky right before the storms rush in.
Like a map, like a fortune, like a blueprint, I can see this picture – and one of the elements stands straight out as though it was initially constructed to live inside of a pop-up book: the deep desire for anger to be my absolute last feeling of resort.
I don’t like to be around anger, even as a spectator. It probably doesn’t take a genius to understand that my aversion to battle stems from witnessing events like divorce and custody wars so early on.
I’ve been there; I’ve seen that. I’ve walked through that darkness.
But here’s the problem: while I’ll never go out of my way to pick a fight, I’ll stand up for myself and confront an issue that needs to be explored. I was always that way. I was taught to be that way. Part of it is about self-respect – I mean, of course it is – but it’s also that I just want to be a part of things that are honest, things that are real. I truly believe that almost anything can be resolved through communication. I’m a big one for talking things out, and when I finally understand or accept or get over something, I’m not being deceptive when I say that I am really over it. The issue that once confounded me will confound me no longer. It will not rule how I see things. It will not serve as a permanent mental filter that I strain each and every interaction through. I will not hold the misstep I have forgiven you for against you; I won’t bring it up a year later when I’m angry with you for something else entirely. And I’ll never revisit it, because I’d rather go someplace brand-spanking-new and scenic, maybe a place where there’s no stress – maybe a place that comes with a masseuse who is not always me.
But lately I find myself realizing something jarring, something that in actuality should not be all that surprising: I haven’t fully dealt with some incidents in my life. That I haven’t is directly linked to not wanting to experience the anger that would accompany confronting what once hurt me.
These are the things that still haunt me.
I might have avoided those initial biting stings of anger, that simmering residual pain that comes along with immediate confrontation, but not delving into things at the time felt so good. Avoidance was a Cookie Monster Band-Aid with a swipe of symbolic Neosporin that covered a deep cut, but it all left me with a scar. During the blackness of so many nights and through the haze that often colors the dawn, those moments continue to play like a broken loop in my mind, but it’s never continuous. And the loop will never end in a state of harmony because of one simple fact: there was never a true ending.
Not everything was resolved.
Not everything was confronted.
Not everyone was confronted.
And I know with utter certainty that I would much rather set myself ablaze in the dry, intense heat of an August afternoon in the deserts of Death Valley than be the one to do the confronting about some of the things from which I’ve chosen to run.
What would my friends say, I ask myself as I risk falling into the same bottomless pit of pathetic-girl-abyss, about how I’ve chosen to not ask questions because I don’t want to know the truth?
What would my father say?
About a decade ago, I went to see a therapist. I’m a big believer in therapy, though I don’t necessarily believe that you must see a therapist all the time. I’ve gone during a few tough junctions in my life, the phases a biography of me might label the crossroad sections – my parents’ divorce when I was almost six; my father’s death when I was fourteen, followed a year to the day by the death of one of my dearest friends; a rough breakup in my twenties. I have been to both male and female therapists, and I don’t necessarily prefer one to the other, but as I got older I gravitated towards one who was male. I remember seeing him, this lovely guy named Mike, for the first time. It had been years and years – eons almost – since I had gone to therapy, and it was the first time I had ever commissioned a therapist for myself. I felt kind of like a grown-up – a fucked up, emotionally fragile grown-up, but a grown-up nonetheless.
I remember sitting in Mike’s office that first day, running through my life as succinctly as I could, attempting to cover all the formative experiences, trying desperately to also explain that I didn’t let those experiences define me. When I got to the end of the hour and finally stopped to catch my breath, Mike looked at me and shook his head. His eyes were soft. He had been watching me as I spoke, jotting things down. I couldn’t see what he wrote, just when the desire to write struck him. He nodded as I spoke and he had a very kind face.
I was a good therapy patient. I figured that if I was paying to be there, I might as well open up and let all the past shit pour out across the small space that separated us while I sat in the suede loveseat and he sat in his leather chair. I remembered that time long ago when my mother brought my sister and me to therapy soon after the divorce, and I remember not liking that therapist and thinking that he was so silly and so obvious, playing word association games with me to figure out who I was. Why didn’t he just ask me who I was? Instead, I had to sit there and pretend I didn’t know what he was doing, acting as though his transparent strategies were working like a charm. I remained polite, but all I could think as he interacted with me in perhaps the least effective way possible was that I might have been six years old, but I was not a moron.
Later on, I heard him tell my mother that my sister refused to talk when they were alone, that she just stared at him with her arms folded, and soon she stopped going to therapy because it was deemed a waste of money.
At some point I stopped going too. And that decision was fine with me because that therapist was an idiot.
When I was older, back when I saw Mike, at some point he diagnosed me as having kind of an Avoidance Anxiety disorder, in that I had conditioned myself to avoid things that made me uncomfortable. It was actually me who brought up the idea to Mike. I had noticed that, throughout my entire life, I avoided things that were less than pleasant, but I made things bigger and more uncomfortable by avoiding them. A friend could call, for example, and I wouldn’t be in the mood to talk. So I would tell myself I would call her back, but then I wouldn’t and soon she would call again and the whole thing would start feeling weird because too much time had gone by now, so I’d avoid the call again, and now something that was really nothing had morphed into a huge thing, and I’d hide from it like it was a monster with bony wings that secretly lived in my bedroom closet.
I didn’t want or need medication to cope with this diagnosis. Frankly, unless it’s a pill that could make me lose five pounds while eating tacos or one that would make me sleep anytime I wanted, I had no room in my life for medicine. Instead, it would be about shifting learned behavioral patterns, making different choices, making better choices.
It would be about becoming the brave person I always knew I really was.
I started by dealing with any financial issues I had and those quickly fell into place. The ease on my mind was immediate. Dealing with incidents as they came up all but eliminated my stress and my fear.
I liked this new me.
Shifting the Stop-Avoiding action from my bank account to people was harder to pull off. I had to get rid of my ability to pretend that things were perfect, something I did a lot in a massive effort to avoid dealing with relationship messiness.
But I surged forward.
For this new quest I had to pack light – there was some emotional baggage I was going to have to lift. I decided to leave behind my well-worn hard-to-get crown in the process. Pretending to be
un-gettable when I wanted someone was always easy for me to do. I could play the game with the best of them, and if the guy I wanted ended up hurting me, I could also play the I-could-give-less-than-one-fuck game too. But it all began to seem to me like avoidance, like I was actively trying to avoid the truth, like I was hiding from my own life. I was avoiding anger and pain, and I was done with that bullshit behavior that only led to me walking away with pretend dignity as a consolation prize.
I didn’t want a fucking prize. I wanted what I wanted and I wanted who I wanted and I was going to put it out there – put myself out there for real – and actually deal with the repercussions of this new cloak of bravery.
It was hard. It’s always hard to change. But, holy shit, did I grow strong.
I might have lost a crown – but there were days I felt like a true superhero.
It’s really a shame that I never liked capes.
The next big relationship I was in felt new for me – for a lot of reasons. Every guy I had been with since I was seventeen had been someone who had been a friend first before a random night came along when I decided I wanted to pull my shirt over my head in his presence. My newest boyfriend, the one I had after doing all the painful work on myself, was a stranger to me before he became a person I loved. He didn’t know my history or what was real and I didn’t know his history either. We would have to learn how to open up with each other.
I was myself with him. I told him what I wanted. I told him what I needed. I figured out how to handle the worry that came with the geographical distance between us. I told him when I was angry and when I felt as though I became completely devoted to him.
He wasn’t nearly as good at sharing his emotions with me. He’d get defensive if I said something was bothering me. And he didn’t believe me when I told him after a fight that I wasn’t angry anymore.
I think he was used to girls who held grudges.
But I was never that girl.
We didn’t work out, and it’s actually almost impossible to picture myself with him now, but when it ended, I told him a lot about how I was feeling. I had friends tell me that I should keep my mouth shut, that he didn’t deserve me or my words and definitely not my thoughts, and I understood their point of view. How could I not? I had learned my own value. I knew I wanted someone who was more settled and more communicative, but I was also badly hurt by his actions and his deceptions and I told him so. I wanted to tell him so. And if he walked away from that knowledge by feeling better because a girl he was lucky to get in the first place was sad that she lost him – if that’s what he got from our final interactions – that’s on him. Me? I got a wave of despair that was lined with the shimmering silver colors of truth and hope, and I know it was all worth it.
Those were the days that I asked the tough questions, the days I told myself to take a deep breath and not to feel afraid. I pulled it off – that stamina, that practiced strength – for a long time. I had self-respect in spades, but I had also grown harder and I knew for sure that I couldn’t trust people I wanted to believe that I could.
I became a girl who didn’t even attempt to fake it for an hour at a bar if I didn’t think someone had serious potential to loom large in my life. I had no patience to “give it one more try,” like my mother and some friends implored me to do with certain guys. Part of stopping the avoidance thing was ceasing the action of avoiding the real person I was, and now that I was no longer interested in hiding from myself, I saw that I had standards that were hard to meet.
But this I knew then for sure -- and I know it still: I'll wait forever if my only other option involves settling.