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.