My family had moved away two years before, so I wasn’t there. I wasn’t the one in school who she told that she’d swallowed all the Tylenol. I wasn’t there to watch her life fall apart and hold her hand through it all. I wasn’t there to see her slow descent into that darkness.
But the truth is, I knew.
I knew from her letters, from the sporadic phone calls. I knew from other people’s letters. I had been waiting for that phone call telling me she’d done it. Honestly, I’d been afraid no one would call me. I was afraid to send her a Christmas card in case something had already happened.
But when it finally happened, she was okay.
She had her stomach pumped and was admitted to an in-patient adolescent psych facility. She came out with dyed black hair, a teen bipolar diagnosis, and a cigarette habit.
She came out unrecognizable.
The next summer, I went to stay with her for a week, as I had the summer before. It was different. It was scary. Everything was just a little bit off. I sat in the waiting room of her psychiatrist’s office while she went for a check-in.
At the end of the week, her mother took me aside and asked if she’d been acting weird. I kind of shrugged and half laughed, but her mother asked again, telling me she was serious. That was when I realized something I hadn’t quite gotten before.
I was supposed to be watching her.
She stayed with me for a week after that. We went to the boardwalk. She flirted with the 20-year old ride attendant, and skipped down the boardwalk singing American Pie at the top of her lungs. She listened to the Beatles constantly, flipping the cassette of Abby Road over in the player whenever it ended, the music running all night long.
I was afraid. I was sad. I wasn’t strong enough to keep her from slipping out of control.
After that summer, there weren’t any more letters. I got a Christmas card from her a few years later, but I didn’t answer it. I didn’t call on her birthday anymore.
I’ve never really forgiven myself for that. If I could see her again, I would tell her I’m sorry, that I wish I could have been there for her, that I wish I had known how to be present and accepting of everything she was going through.
But I was 15.
I taught high school for 5 years, and if 15 year old me had been in one of my classes? I would have hugged her. I would tell her that it was a lot to handle. I would tell her that it wasn’t her responsibility to keep someone else from slipping.
I would tell her that it wasn’t her fault.
I guess I’m just not ready to tell myself that yet.
I spent the last many years married to a woman with fairly severe (clinically diagnosed) Borderline Personality Disorder. I could very easily fill an entire book writing about what that experience was like, so it’s hard to know how to distill it. Here are some things I know-
-Years of being subjected to masterfully performed gaslighting has left me very unsure of all my own judgements and perceptions of reality.
-Years of being degraded and emasculated when I wanted to discuss my thoughts/feelings, being told that it is unattractive for a man to show “weakness” to his wife, has left me uncertain of when its ok to be vulnerable with other people.
-Years of walking on eggshells, trying so hard to do and say everything just right, but knowing that no matter how well I did, the next blow-up/emotional attack was always coming.. has left me perpetually anxious, and steeped so heavily in learned helplessness that I often struggle to even feel that I have any control over what happens in my life. I never used to be that way at all.
-Years of having all my contributions and accomplishments minimized or forgotten, and all my imperfections magnified and carefully score-carded, has left me with close to zero sense of self-efficacy.
-Years of living with someone who is intimacy avoidant and uninterested in sex, but being told the whole time that her disinterest is caused by my shortcomings—because I didn’t last long enough in bed, or because I lasted too long in bed (yes, both of those), or because of the stress I was causing her by me not making us enough money (even when I was bringing in over six figures a year), or because I was paying too much attention to (suffocating) her, or because I was not paying enough attention to (neglecting) her—has left my self confidence so damaged that I almost fear being intimate with someone again.
Probably the worst part, though? During the early “idealization” phase of the relationship, she was incredibly jealous and protective of my attention (which, at the time, I foolishly believed was just because she loved me so much) that, focusing all of my time and attention on her needs, I greatly distanced myself from any male friends I was close to, and completely cut off contact with all of my female friends. So once she flipped me into the devaluation phase, I was left with a partner who had zero interest in me, other than what I could fix or provide for her, and only weak remnants of friendships remained. I was effectively isolated to the point that I spent most of my free time just sitting alone in my basement, wishing things were different.
Isolation is definitely one of my biggest hurdles right now. I’d really like to make some new friends, particularly some female friends since I lost all but one or two, but no clue where to even start. I just really miss having more meaningful conversations and connections with people.
Another hurdle is figuring out how to integrate “what I know to be true” with “what I feel to be true.” For example, I can write down a list of all of my business/financial accomplishments and objectively say I’ve been successful in that area. I know this to be true. But I do not feel that this is true. I can find endless examples of things I’ve done or experiences I’ve had that show most of the negative feelings that I mentioned above are illogical or don’t line up with reality. But again, I still don’t feel that.
I would love any thoughts or advice from anyone who has gone through something similar. What worked? What DIDN’T work? How did you re-connect with yourself? How did you re-connect with other people and build some new meaningful friendships/relationships?
I’ve heard stories about the realities of the discovery, but never really internalized them because the journey was never that personal. It was always a distant family member of a friend. The degree of severity was never actually driven home until I became a member of the club.
Now, I have multiple myeloma.
I thought long and hard for about a week about I would, and how to, share the news. My wife and I had to explain it to our teenage kids. We had to explain the realities of my upcoming chemotherapy. We had to explain that “Dad may not be his usual self” for a while. I smiled all through the discussion. After doing so, and studying the varying communities where I chat and play, it occurred to me that a cancer diagnosis is not a widely shared struggle. Most do so surrounded only by the closest of family and friends.
Honestly, that’s just not me.
In a previous life, I was a master karate instructor. I only retired back in 2012. At my prime, I used to tell my students that if I can inspire just one person to keep training and become a black belt, then I’ll feel accomplished at my work. While I left the practice to focus on my family, a lot of black belts now claim me as an early influence.
So, I took the same approach with this cancer diagnosis and started posting about it on Twitter and Facebook. If, in my journey, I can inspire just one person to fight back, then I’ll have contributed. Yes, I’m going to make this personal. Yes, I’m going to push past this and live a long life. Yes, I’m going to take you along for the ride. If you don’t want the details, don’t read my posts, unfollow me on social media; but SOMETHING I say just may light a fire under someone and convince them to not give up.
I used to say that the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life was running a triathlon. Then it was taking my Master’s test in karate. Then it was maintaining a good marriage. Then it was raising two healthy kids.
Today, I realized my whole life has prepared me for the challenge of cancer. Y’all come along for the ride.