How NOT to apologize: a handy primer

Don’t start out by co-opting the subject’s pain.

Don’t continue by drawing minute and irrelevant distinctions in their facts; such as quibbling between 8 times out of 9 or 9 times out of 9.

Don’t victim blame.

Especially don’t victim blame children.

Don’t mischaracterize the subject’s personality in an effort to avoid responsibility.

After all of that, definitely don’t say “I apologize” like it’s supposed to mean something.

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Sorrows and Deep Sighs

The world is bona fide mess.

Our president has tacitly threatened nuclear war on the one other country in the world with a leader stupid enough to retaliate. The institution of police have openly embraced their role as blue terrorists in our communities. A series of catastrophic hurricanes is steadily destroying lives and nations in the Caribbean. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are struggling to survive.

My tiny, insignificant corner of personal misery isn’t much by comparison, but it’s everything when my own mind is no refuge from the wretchedness. The only solution I can think of is to put my misery to bed.

The end of my marriage came without my consent, or input of any kind, really. My husband simply left – emotionally and verbally if not physically. No matter how I begged for communication, he simply stopped talking or acknowledging my role as his spouse in any way. All of my anger, all my despair, centered… no, centers, to be fair, around the loss of my agency. To this day, I seethe with frustration over never being able to confront our problems head on.

But that was his entire goal.

If he never accused me of failing him, then I couldn’t accuse him back. He wanted a do-over without consequences. Because to him, ignoring our 12 years together means they didn’t happen the way they really happened, and without my input to contradict, he can remember them any way he likes. My real failings become imagined in whatever way suits his narrative. My real quirks become monstrous or nonexistent as fits the story he wants to tell himself (and the next woman). My heartache, too.

While I have real regrets and real sorrow and real hurt, my worst pain comes from my erasure. There is nothing I can do to make myself relevant in his life again, for good or ill. I’ve long since let go of my love for him, but becoming invisible to the single person I trusted with every corner of my soul? That’s a betrayal I might never recover from. No matter what indictments I can throw his way (and there are plenty), the crux of my misery rests on the helplessness of being invisible.

And that’s on me. Because I knew he didn’t really see me. I knew it, and I chose to make excuses for it. When he insisted on portraying me in ways that were inconsistent with my perception of our relationship, I objected – in the beginning. But when those objections were met with “I’m just teasing”, I backed off. Because I didn’t want to perceive my role as humorless. I wish I had. I wish I had been perceived as humorless instead of whatever was in head. At least then there would have been a modicum of truth to it.

Instead, I dove into the dark spaces between what I knew was real and what he would acknowledge. There was peace in not having to talk, and I embraced it wholeheartedly. I was tired. I’d spent my entire life navigating emotions for people too damaged to do it on their own and I was just fucking tired. What he offered was freedom from that, and I accepted.

And that’s on me, too. I was tired, I was lonely, and I made a fatal mistake out of weakness.

It’s happened to better people than me, but strangely that doesn’t bring me much comfort.

My misery may be tiny and insignificant in the context of the world, but it’s also tiny and insignificant to the other person who might have shared it. I am a myth to the only other person in the world I wanted to be completely real with. I let go of him a long time ago, but it’s time to let go of the frustration surrounding my erasure. I will have to come to terms with the truth of my failings on my own, and maybe that’s as it should be. There was a saying in my house growing up – You’re the only one you have to look at in the mirror.

I’m the only one staring back. That’s enough.

Help is a Four Letter Word

It was almost a year ago that I shared a funny story with my therapist. I was trying to illustrate the inherent stubbornness of my nature. (Some would say willful obstinance and that’s certainly their prerogative. Ahem.) It’s a story from my childhood that I’ve shared and laughed at for over 30 years.

When I was eight, we moved neighborhoods but not school districts and it was the day for me to walk home by myself for the first time. Unfortunately for me, it was also “clean out your desk” day and back then they gave you a cheap garbage bag and a thumbs up while you stuffed 40 years worth of paper worksheets into 3 cents worth of perforated plastic bag. I set off confidently enough, but got turned around fairly quickly until I was well and truly lost. I wandered for a long time. Crying, trailing snot and a torn bag behind me, strewing old papers in a pathetic wake along suburban residential streets, I wandered in what was most likely circles, and given the length of my legs at that age not even big ones. It felt like hours and hours to my little girl mind, though in reality it probably wasn’t more than one hour, at most. But I was scared and worried and I kept on walking.

That’s the salient point in the story, as I’ve always told it. I kept walking. I didn’t knock on any doors to ask for help. I definitely didn’t sit down and wait for someone to find me. Oh no – I stubbornly snorted back my snot and kept going! Because even at eight years old I was an obstinate, willful thing! Ha ha, isn’t that funny?!

My therapist chuckled a little with me, but asked, all guileless and with genuine curiosity, “What would have happened if you had just sat down?”

And my brain’s gears came to a screeching halt while I stared at her, dumbfounded. No one had ever asked me that in 30 years and it definitely wasn’t part of my story. This is supposed to be the part where we all laugh at what a perversely dogged child I was, so I just looked blank while my brain struggled to change direction. Then my emotions caught up before my head did and I was choking on a flood of tears while I struggled to get the words past my closed throat. “I’d still be sitting there.”

It ate up 15 minutes of my therapy hour before I could breathe again. Before I could face the fact that at eight years old, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that no one was coming to save me. I knew that if I wanted to get home, it was up to me.

As it happens, my stepfather was out looking for me, and we eventually ran into each other and he took me home in our family car. But while I was relieved to be going home, I was also nervous about getting in trouble for getting lost in the first place. Because that’s my family’s legacy – self-sufficiency to the point of an eight year old fearing punishment over getting lost.

This was a family who loved me. My parents (and extended to aunts, uncles and grandparents, such as they were) loved me and wanted me to be happy. They absolutely wanted my safety and happiness above all else. But the execution was poor. They were lacking in tools, they had wrong information, and to a certain extent were just too fucking selfish to do the job of making me feel secure and protected. I honestly felt, at eight years old, that was my job.

I’m still unpacking the pain that one not-so-innocent question revealed in me, not least because those same people are still failing me.

I kept on feeling that way – through adolescence, teenage years, and well into the time when another human’s safety and happiness depended on me, I felt that I could only count on myself and had only myself to blame when it all went to shit. No one was coming to save me. Ever. I inherited my family’s selfishness completely. My world was entirely my own, only my own actions mattered, and all the blame belonged to me.

That’s a difficult life to lead. It’s even harder when you add in a confused, lonely man who thought he wanted to “rescue” me but really just wanted me to apply my control-freak ways to his life, too. Still trying to portion out the blame appropriately for that one.

I lived my entire life not understanding that there is supposed to be a certain amount of help and support when you ask for it. Is it any wonder I chose someone so spectacularly bad at giving it when I finally let myself ask? I still struggle with the concept! For children, it’s supposed to be unconditional. I missed the children’s boat. I know adults who are still trying to catch it and it makes me sad and a little impatient for them. That’s their journey and I try to remember it’s not helpful for me to judge it.

But it turns out there’s a boat for adults. There’s a life raft when you need it, a cruise liner, sometimes a private yacht. There are people who know how to say the right thing at the right time, whether it’s encouragement or a reality check or nothing at all. Sadly, I didn’t marry any of them. But today, I asked for help and a lot of people jumped in to offer it. They can’t go back for the lost eight year old with the torn bag of school papers, but they are here for me now.

I don’t subscribe to the “everything happens for a reason” bullshit line of reasoning. But I do think that our minds are built to make order in chaos, and to jigsaw the randomness of life and the universe into some sort of cohesive meaning. So I don’t think that my husband needed to be a lying coward who would rather burn our lives to the ground than admit he made a mistake, but since he was, I’ve been given the opportunity to learn about what constitutes help, when I deserve it, and who to ask for it. And that’s not a bad lesson to take.

Joys of Snack Size

A year ago, I wrote about the Dissolution of Snacks and its somewhat surprising mark on my journey through grief and the loss of my marriage. Today I want to talk about the joys of snack size.

I moved, you see. Downsized from 2400 square feet to 900 square feet, with all the attendant miniaturization of appliances one would expect. My plates don’t fit in the surprisingly tiny cupboards so the door never completely closes. It’s annoying. Peek-a-boo, I see you snarky little reminder of a once bigger life. I keep giving it side eye, like the cupboard is suddenly going to feel shame and quietly swallow the back of my plates so the door can shut completely. (If that happens, the nature of this blog is going to change drastically.)

The refrigerator is tiny. I can see the top without standing on tip-toe and it lacks a meat drawer. I thought I’d feel bad about that, because I’ve spent so long filling up a family-sized fridge that even after the family was downsized, I was still trying to fill it up. Like the refrigerator itself was making my shopping list based on its capacity. But here’s the thing – I don’t feel bad at all. Right now apartment-fridge holds a bag of pre-chopped salad, a 6 pack of flavored water, a bottle of wine and the smallest size sour cream you can buy. I honestly didn’t know they made sour cream containers that small. It’s adorable. It’s me-sized. It won’t get gobbled up by my housemate because somehow I raised a person who doesn’t care for sour cream. It is mine all mine. This is notable because two years ago I would open up the fridge to use a spoonful of sour cream out of the GIANT ASS TUB I bought three days prior only to find it gone, sacrificed to the lunch nachos my ex-husband was so fond of. I would buy industrial sized vats of sour cream and there would NEVER BE ANY when I wanted some.

Today, I had sour cream. A small amount, out of a tiny cup that I bought four days ago and that nobody has touched in the interim. I felt like the star of a commercial that plays during Gray’s Anatomy – some ideal of a single adult woman who delicately spoons out a condiment and never once wonders where it could disappear to if she’s not guarding it.

Likewise I find myself hanging pictures in my bedroom without regard for how they’ll be accepted by my bedmate – a sixty pound mutt of dubious artistic taste and even less preference. Pens go where they are most convenient for me, as do batteries and wash cloths. A brief survey of the other members of this household revealed that they don’t particularly care where I put my shoes, so long as three of them can stick their snouts in the really stinky ones and the fourth need not trip over them. I share my closet with no living thing, and even better, no ghosts.

After years of anxiously verifying my choices with another person (especially when that person had opinions but only reticently shared them – preferring the more quixotic option of silent resentment when I couldn’t read minds), the peacefulness of feathering my own nest can’t be overstated. The delight in single serving anything will never be taken for granted by me again. It’s mine all mine, and ghosts don’t eat sour cream.

Things That I’m Over

An abbreviated list:

The idea that selfies are narcissistic, especially for women. Firstly, so what if they are? Like the mental masturbation that you do to feel superior isn’t? Secondly, no they aren’t. Women putting themselves front and center with their own agenda is simply weird because they’ve never been allowed to do it before. Welcome to the future. It has filters.

Purity progressives. Fuck those guys. Guess what? We’re nowhere near a revolution, guys. And policy making equals compromise since the founding fathers. Who were no saints, by the way, but it WAS their lives on line at the time. It’s so great that you can pontificate from metropolitan cities where your wi-fi is fast, your food is slow, and your activism is a giant circle jerk with other pasty white people who try on “bi-curious” for size. How’s the air up there? Some people do real work. You might want to try it some time.

Getting older. I pulled a muscle in my sleep the other night. How the fuck does that happen??

“Devil’s Advocates”. Shut up. Just shut up. The devil is his own best advocate, okay? He gets around making his argument JUST FINE all on his own. It’s called life. You’re not an advocate, you’re a stinky troll. Go back under your rock.

People who don’t understand privilege. Really? C’mon, it’s part of the vernacular now and if you still don’t get it, it’s because you don’t want to get it. Privilege does NOT equal wealth or fame. Privilege DOES equal certain unearned “free passes” from daily struggles not shared by everyone. Privilege does NOT mean you’ve never had it rough. Privilege DOES mean that you could’ve had it rougher. Privilege does not mean you can’t vent, privilege does mean you might not want to vent about Starbucks being out of your favorite flavor to a single working mom drinking yesterday’s Folgers. Use some sense. Then use your privilege to speak up for those who don’t share it.

Women’s clothing industry sizing. SERIOUSLY GET IT TOGETHER GUYS!! MY WAIST HAS A MEASUREMENT AND SO DOES MY INSEAM. YOUR “12” IS BULLSHIT AND SO IS YOUR METHOD FOR SEWING ON BUTTONS.

Commercials. I’ve lived so long without network television that I forget how offensive they can be. And then Pepsi invades my internet news feed.

Divorce. FML, I really, really want to be over this. Hurry up already.

Selling things on Facebook. Nope. People are entitled, pushy assholes. Over it.

Living in “rural America”. Where the church folk are terrorists and anti-intellectualism reigns supreme. Look, hillbillies and rednecks, I’m sorry you are constantly picked on and made fun of by “liberal elites”. MAYBE STOP GIVING THEM SO MUCH MATERIAL TO WORK WITH, MMMMKAY?

Listicles. These things suck, don’t they??

On letting go

When something awful happens, particularly emotional trauma, it feels like the world suddenly wants to give you advice on how to handle it. If it’s not typewriter text overlaid on a seascape with a vintage filter, it’s platitudes from well-meaning friends, or the ever-not-helpful Facebook parables. The common thread is that you’ll feel better once you do it, and everyone wants to see you do it (if for no other reason than you’ve been a giant downer for the last 18 months and for god’s sake, can’t you just please wash your hair??), but the actual process is more of a mystery. Bookstores have devoted entire shelving units to “self-help” titles, and a quick search on Amazon for same brings back over 650 thousand returns (which should in itself tell you that nobody has this shit figured out, but hope springs eternal). Letting go: it’s all “good”.

I’m here to tell you it’s not. It sucks dirty canal water off of hairy donkey balls.

Listen, first of all, letting go does not happen on a schedule. You can’t time it according to the 7 stages of grief, you can’t force it by following someone else’s plan. It’s an ongoing process with hills and valleys. No, scratch that. It’s an ongoing process with spikes and pits. And the pits have spikes. There are days when you’re balanced precariously on a spike looking down and days when you’re impaled on a spike staring at the sky above. And it’s raining. Grief, pain – these happen in their own time and they will just take what you don’t give them, so you might as well put your life on hold while they shake you like a terrier with a rat. That is an accurate description of how much dignity you’ll have in the process, by the way: limp and covered with dog spit.

Secondly, the prevailing opinion is that letting go leads to some serene, blissed out state where the lotus position comes naturally and the grocery store being out of your favorite ice cream during PMS no longer makes you want to go on a rampage. Also false. There is no reason, ever, for the store to be out of Ben&Jerry’s Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch at any time. But more importantly, letting go doesn’t leave you happy, it leaves you empty. Hollow. Drained. Here’s the thing about grief: it was once happiness. Of course it was, or you wouldn’t feel so awful. You don’t start at base zero and go down. Grief pulls you down off your happy little platform into a giant, steaming pile of shit. You can’t just watch your pain blow away in whatever F5 tornado tore through your life and expect the happiness to be there waiting when the dust settles. It’s all gone. Everything. Now you’re at base zero.

Oh, and here’s a little addendum to that second point: anger. Hoo boy. Anger is the carpetbagger who rides into town right after the tornado and is all, “We will rebuild!” but just goes around kicking your stuff while you’re trying to pick it up. Not that it can’t be helpful. In my case, anger led to some productive changes, like shutting down toxic relationships and to stop apologizing for being myself. So, to continue the metaphor, carpetbagging anger kicked over some dry rot and let the bugs out. But being forced to watch that, to participate in taking down the rotted, crumbling foundation of my former happiness? Gross. So gross.

Okay, so far, letting go happens on its own (often inconvenient) schedule, and it leaves you empty (after pissing you off). What’s the appeal again??

Could be simply the relief from the agony of grief. Emptiness is way better than constant anxiety, stomach problems, endless fatigue and a full set of luggage under each eye. Could be the promise of new beginnings – the idea that something better is waiting to be discovered. Both of these are valid, but they don’t really describe my experience.

For me, the end result of letting go is that I never have to do it again. Not for that particular pain. I’ve let it run its course and chase through every chamber of my metaphorical heart, and it will never come back as anything but a memory. Sometimes the memory smarts a bit, maybe it nips at my feels with sharp little teeth, but it will never, ever strangle and suffocate me again. I’ll never be sucked into that tornado, never be subjected to that storm, never have to rebuild that house. The emptiness is a relief, and the hope of a new happiness is a possibility, but the lesson of never going back is my greatest reward. I will never make those same mistakes, I will never be vulnerable in that same way again.

Letting go makes me stronger, but I couldn’t have told you that, let alone imagined it a year and a half ago. The process is a mystery, a non-linear jumble of fucked up parts that kicks over your foundations and impales you and shakes the life out of you. And if you survive it, you’ve lost an integral part to your former happiness. Letting go is not “all good”. No wonder so many people never get around to it.  I should probably close this out by saying something optimistic like, “But it’s worth it!” The truth is messier than that. I don’t know yet if it’s worth it. It’s been a helluva process. Maybe being stronger will have its own consequences that I can’t see yet. Emotions are weirdly entangled like that.

I’d be happy with a popular message that gives a truer picture of what letting go is actually like. On letting go

 

 

Annual

Life is improving. Slowly. Marginally. It’s all very undramatic and anticlimactic. Boring. But boring is good after the shock and awe campaign of the last 12 months.

Shit. Has it been that long since my life blew up? Yes, yes it has. They say that after a major life event, don’t make any other drastic changes for a year. I’ve never taken that advice before, but it was forced on me this time.

It sucks.

It’s also revealing. Revolutionary. Wretched. Weird.

I’m cautiously making plans. I have a future, and it looks encouraging. School. Independence. City life. Friends. I’m 40, not 18, I promise. But it does feel like new beginnings and next phases. I’m tentatively approaching anticipation. Skirting the edge of excitement.

Lost things are retreating. Bridges are appearing. None of it is certain, but for the first time in a year it’s not completely shrouded in a depressing, gray fog. Pain is abandoning the siege. The fortress is damaged, but not downed. Ravaged, but not ruined.

Anyway, the pace is plodding. Still the better part of a year to go before the future manifests. Plenty of time for lists, plans, revisions, and surprises. Happy birthday, my destruction. Time to rebuild.