Alone Again (naturally)

I was a latchkey kid, though not until I was 9-1/2 y.o. or so. For me it signaled responsibility. And being alone wasn’t scary, since I knew a sibling would arrive before too long, and then my mom. When I got older, and my siblings were married or off to college, I was a newly-minted teenager. What teenager doesn’t want some time alone without parental interference? By the time I was in college, I counted on having time to myself, although it was easy enough to find some company–on campus, at a local pool hall or bar, at the hovels where much older friends of mine lived. When you’re young, confident, at least mildly attractive, it is entirely your choice whether to be alone or not.

Once I began to pursue my career in earnest, I sunk a great deal of time and energy into it (as I’ve said before). My work became, to a great extent, my life. Much of my work had to be done alone, and time spent away from work often involved processing work experiences (like some other people, my processing requires talking-through). Friends from work were good sounding boards, but the other folks in my life got pretty well overloaded with my “processing-all-over-them.”

When I was taken away from my career, it was kind of like breaking up with a long-term lover. Because just being reminded of your lover is so terribly painful, you end up avoiding everyone/everything that reminds you of the relationship. So virtually all of my work-friends, the basis of my social world, were gone. My family, having grown accustomed to my working 60-70 hr weeks, had little contact with me over the last couple of decades, and there was really no reason for that to change. Well, actually, my family dynamic is another story.

I am both the youngest of five and an only child. Allow me to explain. My parents each had two kids when they married each other, and then came me. So I have siblings, but none of them shares both of my parents. When I was 9, my parents split and I went with my mom, along with a brother and sister. My sister married and moved out within the year, the age-spread being big enough that we were never really that close. My brother, who was my best friend when I was small, stayed until I was 13, when he went to college. I visited him there, and we’d hang out whenever he came home, that is until he met his soon-to-be-wife. Then his visits waned, though they didn’t stop right away. About a year into his marriage, my brother basically stopped being a part of my life.

As for my father’s side of the family, one brother ran away to California and the other brother, two years later, ran off to Texas to be with grandparents. I spent summers with my dad, and the occasional holiday, up until the summer of my fifteenth year. I had to go to summer school, and since it was going to ‘eat into’ my dad’s designated visitation, he said I was welcome to visit but he refused to pay my way. Naturally, at 14-going-on-15, I was without the wherewithal to transport myself the 1,300 miles between his house and my mom’s. Since that time, relations with my father’s side of the family have been strained and sporadic at best.

My mom has been an anchor in my life, maybe the anchor. During my last year of college, she asked me to leave home and find a place of my own. My feeling about this was that since she had initiated this change, she would be the one to initiate the next phase of our relationship. So, I moved, she helped, but then weeks would go by without so much as a word from her. Eventually, when I’d sunk myself neck-deep into work, months would go by with no call from mom. One year, I got no birthday card, and not so much as a call on Thanksgiving.

A year ago, I found myself in a desperate situation, and orchestrated what I now see was a “cry for help.” By the way, I’ve always been uber-responsible (remember, the latchkey thing?). I’ve wanted to do everything the best way possible, and as much on my own as possible. Last spring, though, I’d hit a wall. I’d seen two semesters of school start without me (I was a teacher in my former life). My husband and I were separated, but couldn’t afford to live apart. (So there was a lot of hurt and anger in the house we occupied together.) I’d lost my circle of support, such that it was (work-folks). My world was falling apart. One Saturday, I just up and left the house. I went out walking around (and sobbing) for about two hours. I ended up sitting on a bench in a neighborhood not too far from my house, wishing I could see some way through, or find a bush to crawl under and stay the night. Hoping for some response, I sent a text to a long-time friend (hi! i’m having a nervous breakdown! you?). My husband and I had never been more than 20 minutes away from each other without knowing where each other was. But not my old friend, my husband, nor anyone else even noticed that anything was amiss. I was gone, and, it seemed, forgotten.

It wasn’t until recently, when I was watching some show on TLC (which, by the way, seems largely to show just series’ of cautionary tales–Hoarding: Buried Alive in Just a Week!, or My 600-kb Life: This Will Be You within the Year!) that I understood what had happened. Someone mentioned a suicide attempt, and that it was an obvious ‘cry for help.’ Now, I’ve been suicidal. In fact, I have a hard time believing anyone who says they’ve never been suicidal. What has stopped me, every time, is the thought of the damage it would do to other people–people who have cared about me. So cries-for-help have never been a part of my repertoire. But as I processed that phrase, and considered myself in recent years, I saw that I had “cried for help.” It was just utterly ineffectual! I was depending on somebody to ‘watch’ what was going on with me, and they just weren’t.

What’s the takeaway from all of this? Perhaps just another set of life’s contradictions. You have to love yourself if you expect others to love you. But you have to know yourself to love yourself, and we learn who we are largely through others. The hardest lesson is that when you need help you should ask for it (crying it into a wilderness won’t work). But to ask for help you have to find someone who can/will hear it. Ain’t that just a kick in the pants? When you are feeling most lonely is when you most need a friend you can rely on, but when you least believe yourself to have one.

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Go Along to Get Along?

All of my life I’ve tried to live up to others’ expectations of me. Being raised in a strict household, my brothers, sister, and I were expected to toe the line. Every question or command from our parents was to be answered with a “yes, sir” or a “yes, ma’am.” When that particular household was dissolved, the home became much less strict but outside the home my new environment was the deep south, where social expectations are so thick you can almost taste them in the muggy air. It only took me about three weeks into my fourth grade year to learn that fashion, demeanor, and attitudes were rigidly monitored by peers. Although it was years before I saw a fistfight at school, there was no mistaking it when the social rules had been transgressed. Southern gals are trained, beginning in the womb I guess, to be the arbiters of social interaction and to show no mercy when the rules are flouted. Southern guys learn quickly (through the consequences imposed by southern gals), and anyone who does not conform usually ends up moving to California or New York. And for them the move comes not a moment too soon.

Given my background, it was utterly predictable that I would be a good rule-follower. It started as a coping mechanism and quickly became the ‘path of least resistance’ that allowed me to get by largely undetected (and thus largely unscathed). I didn’t aim for success so much as I wanted to avoid drawing negative attention. When I was in college I, like many others, began to reflect on myself and my previous motivations. Faced with the pending responsibility for my own future, I wanted to better understand myself so that I would choose a suitable direction. But when that understanding met with much of what I was learning in classes–about history, intolerance, inhumanity–I began to really worry. What would I have done, for example, if faced with what the Germans faced in the 1930s and 1940s? Most German people, I had learned, had little to no conception of the breadth and depth of the horrors being committed by their militarized government. The intolerance was clear, through the widely disseminated rhetoric, but also in the enactment and enforcement of egregiously inhumane laws. Since I was such a rule-follower, I wondered, would I have tolerated the Nazis? Would I have been a ‘good German soldier’ and gone along? Would I have been more like Rolf or one of the von Trapps?

Just in the last two years, circumstances have pushed me to a deeper understanding of my own motivations. Even though I’ve always tried to please others by conforming as far as I could to expectations, at least since college I have also followed my own impulses. Sometimes doing ‘my own thing’ has made my path more arduous–it took me longer to finish school than I’d expected. I had to take some time off because of burn-out, not once but twice. When I landed my first professional job, after just three years I experienced a medical ‘event’ that affected my job performance to the point where I had to take a leave of absence and ask for special dispensation (which goes *completely* contrary to my ‘do-not-draw-attention’ directive). Eventually, that job ended in disaster. I was devastated.

One thing I’ve learned through this process of devastation, though, has been a great relief. I realized that my failure, my lack of success after nearly twenty years’ investment, revealed that I wasn’t just a ‘go-along-gal.’ All of my adult life I’ve been concerned to meet others’ expectations of me, that’s true. But I realized that I’ve also been concerned to meet my own expectations of myself. This colossal failure resulted from a condition where, for the first time in almost two decades, it was no longer possible for me to meet external and internal expectations. Something had to give. What I gave up, however, was not my own expectations. My work did not fail to live up to my standards. As far as my own standards go, I did everything that I should have done and more, and I did those things in the best way that I could. It just happened that in so doing, I no longer followed all of the ‘rules’ that some members of my work community thought I should have. (The full story is sordid, disillusioning, and long. I won’t be telling it here.)

Suffice it to say, I was able finally to find some comfort in my failure. To myself I stayed true, and when push came to shove I did not compromise my own vision or my integrity to meet the demands and pressures of the community to which I’d worked so hard to belong. In short, I might not have gone along with the Nazis after all!

Why “Tart not Bitter”?

This is my very first blog, and its very first post–so I thought I’d start with an explanation of the name…

I’ve always aspired to be one of the ‘happy-go-lucky’ people. You know, those people who go with the flow; the reeds-in-the-stream type? I think I even achieved happy-go-lucky status sometime in college, but it seems to have faded, gradually and without much fuss. As I suppose it would, since a happy-go-lucky lady would not be the type to notice minor slippages in her carefree-dom. On to the tartness, though.

My realization that I was verging on bitter came when my career path took a steep downward turn (more on that, much more, later). The full spiral, down and down it goes, has taken years to manifest, though not many. Having devoted myself–the very core of my being–to my career meant that failure in that area was, as far as I was concerned, failure full-stop. Hence the overwhelming tendency to become bitter. I trained over one decade, and practiced in my profession over another decade. I “leaned in” before it became a ‘thing’ women are supposed to do. So one can imagine how difficult it is to cope when the door you’ve worked decades to prop open suddenly seems to have left you stuck outside, able only to peek in the windows while others ply your trade.

There is a silver lining in here somewhere (so sayeth she of the happy-go-lucky aspiration!). Something better lurks around the corner, and if that door hadn’t closed I never would have begun the search outside of it. This is the story I’m telling myself. This, too, is why I say I’m tart, not bitter. I tend to the bitter, but I also grapple toward the sweet. I know that life can be sweet, even if I know not how one could get from here to there. So, I’m bitter-but-with-a-promise-of-sweet. I’m tart.

Next post, I’ll explain why all of this helped to convince me that I would *not* (contrary to my prior worries) have followed the Nazis…