Two years later

The Thinker by Rodin

Two years later, I feel acceptance and serenity.

When a loved one dies, there is no accounting for the nature and length of the grieving process. Nor is there a way to know for certain whether you have really moved beyond their death. Yet here I am two years after my mother’s death. When I think about Mom at all, and most days I do not, those are my feelings. I accept that she is forever gone from my life. I find myself wholly at peace with her absence.

When I learned of her death, I was racked with powerful bittersweet feelings. Feeling unhappy, distraught and an emotional wreck were to be expected. I did not expect to also feel relief and happiness. I was relieved that her misery was over at last. I was glad to resume a normal life. In addition, I was happy that just maybe my mother was now in the presence of the God she had so slavishly worshipped. Perhaps she was even reunited again with her long deceased parents and many deceased siblings.

The first few months after her death felt surreal and were unnaturally quiet. It seemed like her death was just an extended absence. After all, for much of her last thirty years we lived apart. At best, I spent a couple weeks a year with her. It had become normal to be away from her. What was not normal were the last fifteen months of her life. She and my father had been living their retired years in far away Michigan. Her health had reached the stage where living at home was no longer an option. They sold their house and moved across the Potomac River from me to a retirement community called Riderwood. However, by that time she could hardly stand up and had to be carried up stairs. When she walked at all, it was with her walker. I went from seeing her once a year to once a week or more. Unfortunately, the time I did spend with her was rarely pleasant. Each visit demonstrated that her body was falling apart. Finally, there was little more of my mother than a shrunken old woman in a nursing home bed, ashen in the face, her eyes occluded and blank, her hair a surreal unnaturally white color. Near the end, her disease would not let her utter a word or even turn her head. You were never sure whether she heard you or not. I put on a brave face in her presence. I bawled in the hallways or in the privacy of my car. At some point how could anyone, including the dying, not take some relief from death? My mother’s death was ultimately merciful.

It took about six months before I really felt the aftershocks. My mother was the emotional heart of our large Catholic family. She was a loving person but she was far from perfect. She grew up impoverished, traumatized by the Great Depression and burdened with the impossible expectations from the God she loved yet that seemed to require ever more sacrifice and duty. She exuded duty and guilt, values she probably would not have wanted to transmit to me but which I absorbed anyhow.

My forebrain understood all this, knew that she loved all her children and was a product of circumstances. My neocortex had a different opinion. It still resented my perceived insufficient nurturing and the harsh punishments she meted out when we were children. I navigated through life but felt more and more detached. Inside, I was filled with turmoil. My neocortex was like a vast, dark storm cloud desperately wanting to discharge some lightning. My forebrain wanted to keep it at quite a distance.

Eventually I found myself disgorging my confused feelings to my therapist. Through therapy, I learned that to resolve my feelings that I had to do more than blab to her about them. I had to share them people who could empathize. Attempts to talk about my mixed feelings about Mom with my Dad were deflected. This left my siblings. One sister did not reply when I cautiously raised the issue in an email. Another listened patiently then gave me a different perspective of Mom, for being younger she had witnessed much less of her dark side. It was an older sister who I met for dinner one evening when she was in town who at last let me discharge my voltage. The one thing I had not anticipated was that I had a sibling who was far more upset with my mother than I was. It was clear from the endless tears flowing down her cheeks as we talked. “It’s is just hormones,” she claimed. For me, while I loved my mother some part of me also loathed her. Yet my older sister claimed that she never loved my mother at all. Her tears suggested otherwise.

At first, I had no idea I was on the road to recovery. Yet within a week, the storm clouds had disappeared. The voltage was gone. The skies were blue and the sun was shining in my life again. Since then I have felt simple acceptance at her passing and a serenity that suggests my feelings for my mother have finally been wholly reconciled.

On my first motherless Mother’s Day, I made a point to drive out to the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland where her cremated remains lie. This Mother’s Day, I felt no such compulsion. When I am near Silver Spring I certainly intend to pay my respects again. However, the sense of duty is gone. This suggested to me that whatever unintended apron strings were pulling at me from her grave had been cut. Instead, I concentrated on the one living mother left in my life: my mother in law. I made sure we sent her a card and called her on Mother’s Day. I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day and many more to come.

Somewhere in the space-time continuum, my mother’s spirit is still present. She is happy for me. She is glad I cut those final apron strings. At times, I imagine that she is whispering to me. She is saying, “Get on with life, Mark. Life is to be cherished and savored. Do not forget me but do not let my death hold you back either. Be free of me so you can make the most of your life. Someday we will meet again, and when we do we will meet in love, as friends and as peers.”

Thanks Mom. I love you too.

The Illusion of a FWB

The Thinker by Rodin

So, do you have a FWB? If you are like me (i.e. married), you may not know what a FWB is. I had seen the acronym around though. A simple Wikipedia Search quickly satisfied my curiosity.

A FWB is a “Friend with Benefits”. He or she is a person of the gender you are attracted to whom, in addition to being a “friend” (a rather amorphous term) also puts out for you. I have to admit, at first blush having my own FWB sounded great to this old married dude. Providing my wife went along with it (“It’s just sex dear, it’s not like I am in love with her. We are just good friends.”), it could be very convenient. If my wife is having another one of her interminable migraines and I am feeling a bit randy, I could just call up Judy, or Ashley or Kim, and, good friends that they are, would say, “Sure come on over for a quick roll in the hay.” Afterwards (since I do not smoke) we could play cards or talk about Lindsay Lohan’s latest adventures in rehab. Oh, by the way, shall we pencil in going to the art show a week from Saturday?

I suspect the number of married people with FWBs is tiny. It seems to be the single folks out there, usually recovering from the complications of a failed relationship that are drawn to finding a FWB. After all, a FWB relationship has many of the positive sides of a relationship without any of its downsides, like the emotional wreckage. Just as having sex with a condom (hopefully) protects you from sexually transmitted diseases, having sex with a friend protects you from all those nasty relationship issues. At least that is how the FWB theory goes. It is not like having sex with a bunch of strangers at an orgy. You are having sex with your friend, and since he or she is your friend, well, they would not lie to you about anything like having herpes or AIDS would they? In addition, since they are your friend, and they care for you, well, they will be circumspect and avoid becoming intertwined into a deeper emotional relationship with you.

Meanwhile, while you recover from your latest failed relationship, you are not left high and dry. There is no need to resort to your vibrator, or your right hand or the love doll in the closet to respond to Mother Nature’s urgings. While your emotional wounds heal, you can get the sex you need with your FWB. Since you are just friends, when you do not need him or her anymore and find that next special someone then everything is cool. Their feelings will not be hurt when you drop them as your sexual partner. Moreover, in the event your next relationship implodes, your FWB will be there. Well, maybe.

That, as best I can decipher it, is the lure and logic of a FWB. A casual search of Washington Craiglist personals today shows that women in particularly are looking for FWBs. (Men often say they want a FWB, but from their postings it appears they just want a woman who will act like their whore.) Oddly enough though, they do not have one already, so they have to advertise for one. Just some guy or gal to “chill” with. This seems to involve have a few beers in a sports bar, maybe seeing a movie together and then going back to your pad for some harmless conjugal sex.

Even though I am married, one of the reasons a FWB appeals to me is because I think it would be great to have someone into casual sex who liked me as a person and who (here’s the amazing part) is not struggling with their own personal issues. I do not know about you but here I am, age 50, and I struggle with personal issues every day. So does my wife. So does every person I know beyond a surface level, i.e. my friends. We are all embroiled in a certain amount of toxic crap. But not my FWB. She would be special. She would have her head together. That is why, if I need a FWB, I expect that she will be a psychologist or social worker. In my mind, only psychologists and social workers truly have their stuff together. So I am thinking if I need a FWB I will go around town and leave my card at the office of each female social worker and psychologists in my area between, say, age 40 and 50. Do you want a FWB? Call Mark at 703-555-1212. Let’s meet for drinks at the local sports bar. According to my wife, I give great back scratches. Also, I like blogging, classical music and politics. We can have great sex when we both feel like it and no commitment! And we can keep meeting at a sports bar occasionally just to chat. That should intrigue them!

It is just that the more I think about it the more I suspect that psychologists and social workers are in some crucial aspect of their lives also messed up. In fact, the only human beings who (allegedly) were not messed up were messengers from God. Unfortunately, both Jesus and Mohammad are long dead. Moreover, I seem to be attracted to women. Finding my FWB is going to be tough.

I have not had much casual sex. It is probably just me, but I am not very successful divorcing sex from having human feelings for the person I am making love to. The couple of times I tried casual sex left me feeling empty and a bit dehumanized. For me it was like drinking soda that had gone flat. I was left to conclude that those people who tried casual sex had not gotten the real thing: sex within a caring relationship, which if you can get it is amazing. However, if you are having sex with your friend, isn’t that a caring relationship? Well, maybe. When I think of myself having sex with some of my female friends what I suspect would happen is: (a) even if I were single, there is no way I could convince them to have sex with me in the first place; (b) if we did have sex then our relationship would change fundamentally, and probably not for the better; (c) it would be significantly inferior compared with having sex with someone I love; and (d) both of us would likely end up more screwed up than we were before we became FWBs.

If you are in a FWB relationship feel free to leave me a comment telling me that I am all wet. I would particularly like to hear, not about the FWB you coupled with last week, but the one that you coupled with five years ago. Are you still friends? Or has your friendship been reduced to sending Christmas cards once a year? Do you still feel the same about your friend as you did before you made love with him or her? Overall, was your FWB relationship healthy or hurtful?

I will leap to a conclusion and suggest that for the vast majority of you the answers will be no, no and yes. And I will also bet that for about 10% of you, one of your “friends” left a calling card that, if it can be cured, required a trip to a doctor or health clinic. If they did not, I will bet that another 20% of you are or have worked through this issue with a therapist, or wish you had the money to do so.

I believe that sex and the relationship between two people cannot be divorced, as much as at times we might want to be. If they were, perhaps we could better deal with the wacky stuff life throws at us. We might be able to fool ourselves for a while, just as we can pretend that there are no dusty bunnies in our house even though we have not dusted in a year. I suspect if you have a FWB then you have merely sold yourself on its illusion, rather than acknowledge its less than perfect reality.

Perhaps rather than posting that ad on Craigslist for your FWB, maybe you should be finding a therapist instead and discover why you want a FWB in the first place.

Therapy for Everybody!

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been seeing a shrink about a year now to work through a few issues. In my family we’re no longer ashamed to be seen associating with mental health therapists. “Licensed clinical social worker”, “psychologist”, “psychiatrist”, even “psychotherapist” are words that now easily roll off our tongues.

It never occurred to me I would ever need or even want to see a shrink of my own. It seemed sort of unmanly somehow. Real men, women and children from normal and healthy families (and I assumed I fit in those categories) didn’t need mental health specialists. This is what passed for my reasoning. I figured I was supposed to struggle through my own stuff alone. That was an intrinsic part of the human experience.

And I guess I could have kept struggling alone. But at some point the suggestion came for me to see my own shrink. I found in a strange sort of way I was looking forward to it. For a while I sat through sessions wondering just why I was there. I pictured myself as the one in the family fully grounded in reality. The only therapy I needed was fuzz therapy: my cuddly cat Sprite all curled up on my lap looking up at me with his adorable Bambi-like eyes.

I thought therapy was reserved for people with real issues. For example, I figured if I had compulsive hand washing problem I needed to consult a shrink. I seemed to navigate fine through life. It was true there were aspects of my marriage and family situation that seemed pretty topsy-turvy at times. Yes, occasionally the stress level got pretty high, but nothing more than I could handle. I was an immovable rock. The high seas could crash against me as much as they like but I was (I thought) fundamentally unchanged. I could handle it.

Still when the wife told me to go see a therapist I figured she must see something in me that I did not quite see. So off I went. And now every couple weeks I sit in a room with a guy about my age and a diploma with a PhD in Psychology on his wall. We talk about my life and the answers to life’s persistent questions.

I still don’t understand what this therapy business is doing. I am not usually aware of any real changes in my thinking or behavior from one session to the other. Basically I just sit there in the cushy chair and talk. And mostly he listens. Occasionally he throws in a suggestion, or repeats back to me what he is hearing. This often means I have to restate my words several times. And then we move on to the next topic. Sometimes this is in a structured way, but often in an ad-hoc sort of way. All this for $130 for forty five minutes. I’m glad I’m not earning my living as a Wal-Mart greeter.

But anyhow this therapy stuff seems to be working for me. Maybe it is just coincidence, but I seem to be getting better at managing my problems and my own life. Things that used to annoy me don’t seem to annoy me as much. I seem to be a pleasanter person than I remember being. My wife and daughter seem happier to see me, and I am happier to be with them. And I keep going back and talking to my shrink. I sometimes I wonder why I am still there shelling out money.

It seems like everyone I know beyond a superficial level is doing therapy these days. Those who aren’t getting it I bet often secretly wish they were, or would if they understood its value. I’m starting to believe that in our complex world pretty much anyone — no matter how well ordered and happy they consider their life to be — would be better off in therapy.

I’m trying to figure out what is really happening in therapy. Am I really getting better because I spend my time talking to a guy with a PhD in Psychology? Is this better than, say, talking to my minister? I don’t think it hurts that my shrink has all these lovely professional qualifications. But I’m also starting to suspect that with a little training we could all be pretty competent therapists.

For me the value of therapy is simply that I can unload the stuff running around my mind. It has to get spoken, heard, repeated back and probed. It doesn’t mean as much (for me apparently) to analyze it in my mind. It’s only when these feelings are articulated, expressed and heard that the feelings derive meaning. Then they appear in a place that I can grab on to them and actually tackle them. In other words the simple act of sharing them with another safe human being is in itself therapeutic.

In less complex times I think our friends, family and neighbors were our therapists. Many of us still do this of course. But increasingly intimate family connections fray upon adulthood. In my family we are all geographically separated. I have one sister about an hour away. Everyone else I will probably only visit by buying plane tickets. Yes, we do have email to keep in touch but unloading on family is inherently risky. Family members more than anyone else really know you. They know what buttons to push to trigger devastating emotional damage. I’m sure my birth family wouldn’t do it deliberately, but might they might do it inadvertently. So I’m not anxious to unload too much on my family. As for neighbors, they live too close to warrant the exchange of intimate information. I can’t risk the whole block knowing my private life. As for friends I can’t think of any friend I have who I’d really want to exchange my most intimate stuff. Even with my wife I find I have certain thoughts and feelings I don’t want to share with her. But with a therapist I have a safety valve. I have that necessary but missing mental health link. And that by itself makes the difference.

So I say therapy for everyone. If it were up to me we’d all have individual therapists we would see on a regular basis. I realize there are cranks out there in the mental health world. It’s important to spend some time checking a number of therapists out before settling on one you are comfortable with. Even if it is just a trusted friend you can confide in, I think it is in the nature of human beings to need to confide and unload your thoughts with someone. Those of us who try to deny this need probably do so at our peril.

Healthy Love and Mental Health

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on mental health issues over the last year or so. Maybe my life is unusual in that I believe I come in contact with more people with mental health problems than most people. Or perhaps I am overly sensitized to mental health issues. But the more I learn about mental health the more I believe that the majority of us have persistent or chronic mental health issues.

A lot of us don’t seek treatment. The usual coping mechanism seems to be to ignore mental illness or just chalk up its miseries as part of the price of being alive. Some of us develop coping techniques so we can keep these issues contained in some relatively safe spot. Occasionally they pop out, often during periods of stress, to show us they are still around. Clearly for others mental health issues are so chronic and debilitating that their whole lives are filtered through the suffering and pain of their mental illnesses.

I went through a period of mild depression a couple years back. Unlike lots of people I sought treatment. For months I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even recognize the symptoms within myself. But eventually I figured out that crying at my desk for no logical reason and enduring persistent low level headaches for weeks at a time meant something was out of kilter. It seemed strange to find myself in a psychiatrist’s office, and stranger still to be spilling my guts to a therapist. But it seemed to work for me. Within six months I was off the drugs and felt relatively back to normal. In that sense I was fortunate. My depression appears to have been situational and limited in time and scope. But I had enough of a taste of it to develop empathy for those with much more chronic mental illnesses. It also made me realize that the scope of the problem is huge and our response to it as a society is less than adequate.

It is clear from my reading that the causes of mental illness are still hard to pin down. There appears to be a genetic predisposition toward depression for many people. But it is not clear if it takes events for depression to be manifested, or whether people can get depressed solely due to a predisposition. I do believe that a lot of depression has its roots in how we coped with difficult times in our lives. And I am increasingly convinced that much of these stresses have their roots in early childhood. But they have receded so far in memory that we have no recollection of them.

I have been curious of late why good people stay with people who are toxic to them. Why on earth would a woman who has been physically and emotionally abused by her husband cling to him and say that she can’t live without him? My reading suggests that it may be a result of addictive attachment hunger issues from our early childhood.

I think this is true with me and might be one of the reasons I suffered from depression. It is also one of the reasons I have been either so naive or idealistic when it comes to romantic love. I want to believe there is someone out there who is so in tune with me that we play off against each other perfectly. This ideal person (presumably a woman) can play me like a piano, and I can play her the same way, and life is somehow a continuously pleasant buzz instead of a series of challenges and harsh realities that it often is.

I know that when I was born I was one of three boys in diapers that my mother was shuffling at the same time. As a parent who struggled through nurturing one child I know how difficult child rearing can be. I can’t imagine doing it for three young and active boys at the same time, not to mention two older girls that my mother also was mothering in 1957. In her biography my mother fessed up. I came along at a time when she was mentally and physically exhausted, and quite likely depressed (although she has never admitted to being depressed). While she loved me as any mother would love a child, she was overwhelmed with work, stress and motherhood. I was very much a “time-shared” baby. I know I didn’t get the amount of mother time that children typically get. I probably picked that up even as an infant and it affected me in some powerful ways. Although adolescence is a natural time to pull away from the parents, I pulled away particularly from my mother. The issues were I thought overly excessive Catholicism and conformity, but I now suspect that these were but catalyst issues. The likely real issue was simply that I had not gotten the quality time from my mother than I wanted as an infant or growing up and I resented it. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I could do something about it. And unfortunately when I struck back I did it in a mean and vindictive way.

Part of my coping process until that time had been to play the “good son” role. I endeavored to be the peacemaker in a family of 10. A large family is, by its nature, a boisterous, sometimes rowdy, and always loud place. When the noise and the perceived mayhem got too bad I withdrew to my room and tried to shut it out. I latched onto my father, whom I perceived as calm and gentle mannered, unlike my rather temperamental mother. But my father also got to work with civilized people in clean and modern office environments eight hours a day. My mother was a housewife. Mothering and parenting was a 24/7/365 occupation.

As an adult I suspect I seek that which I felt I was sufficiently denied as an infant. Growing up I likely wanted to feel like I was one with my mother, and I wanted to feel special and utterly cared for by her. An inevitable part of growing up is learning to detach from the mother and confront the world alone. I was probably detached way too soon for my liking. Missing that attachment I seek it now in my marriage. But the reality is that marriage is not a supplicant relationship where I get the love I need from an authority figure. It is a relationship of equals where my responsibilities to provide love are as necessary as my wife’s obligations to me.

So my notions of how romantic love should be (shared perhaps by the majority of people in my country) are probably naive also. It is probably counterproductive and unhealthy for me to seek that sort of bonding in a marital relationship. We need to realize that we are seeking the unattainable. More importantly, if it were attainable, it would be unhealthy.

Still, for many of us adults this lingering attachment disorder echoes through our adult lives. My hope is that I have channeled these longings in appropriate ways. I have tried to have a consistent loving and nurturing relationship with my daughter. And yet sometimes I wonder if I have gone too far in the nurturing the relationship as a reaction to my attachment disorder. Since my daughter is now fourteen she is going through a natural and necessary process of pulling away from me. I wonder if I was perhaps too much of a micromanager of her life. I wonder whether I should have trusted and empowered her more earlier. If I had, would she be a more functional young adult? I don’t really know but my gut says “yes”.

It would have been smarter to know and understand this before she was born. I would have changed my parenting strategies a bit, I think. I will be upset to learn if in spite of my best efforts my daughter spends her adulthood affected by similar attachment disorders.

If so Rosie, please forgive me as I forgive my mother. I did the best I could.