Category Archives: self-care

Relationship Timing and the Fragility of a True Connection

Two different women in the last few weeks have lit up my chemistry match. Both of them mentioned their boyfriend.

I might get bummed out, but I wasn’t. I was actually happy for both of them. Not so happy for me, but hey, I can wait. I’m in no hurry.

I said this to the last woman over breakfast tacos, “Relationships are fragile. If you’ve got one and it works out, congratulations. They are hard. I am really happy for you. If it doesn’t work out, then I’m still here. Either way I’m happy for you.”

And while I have that tongue in cheek desire to ask, “So how’s Brad?” But I don’t. That would be shitty and passive aggressive. What I can do is let them go. Stay connected via chit-chat, but not make any suggestive comments. The relationship will either take care of itself or it won’t. And as far as I’m concerned, my relationship is coming.

What I’m building during this alone time is a new familiarity with my goals and desires, outside of any relationship. If I stay single forever, THESE are the things I want.

  • A stronger more committed relationship with both of my teenaged children. (This is 100% up to me.)
  • The creative drive and time to stay with my process.
  • Time to workout and time to rest.
  • Healthy meals.
  • Some inner source of self-love (must be in place before starting a new relationship)

Alone I am able to focus on these thing without distraction. I have no other pulls on my time and energy. Alone my general state is happy. But I long for a lover and companion. What I learned last time, however, was that even if you have all that you think you want, you may be missing some unknown ingredient. I think for me, that ingredient was the ability to love and forgive myself for my mistakes and ongoing flaws. I’m constantly working on them, but there they are.

We’ve all got our issues to discover and work on. The betting I understand my own the better I can be in relationship to someone else and theirs. So as long as these other women are in relationships that are working for them, I am happy to continue down my own path of discovery. I wouldn’t walk to be a backup or a rebound relationship anyway. They allowed me to catch a glimpse of what is possible for me, next time.

Take care. If you want to talk to someone about love and single parenting, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image:  coffee date, creative commons usage

Growing Up in a Warzone: Childhood Trauma and Adult PTSD

It’s no wonder I don’t know how to express anger. The anger in my family of origin was shown to me as a dangerous weapon. My father raged and the entire family cowered. I was four when it started. In these times, the war times, as a four-year old kid, what you need is a comforting adult to pick you up and soothe you. “Everything is going to be all right.” Except, in our family everyone was triggered and afraid. There were no adults in the room. And when my father drank in addition to raging, all hell would break loose inside our house. It was during these times that I escaped to my stick and stone fort up in the hills behind our house.

I was building forts and stocking them with stick guns and rocks. And I would take refuge in the hills whenever things got to hot in the house. And this happened often. And again, what a little kid needs at this point is a parent to come and find him, hold him, reassure him. What I got was relief from the roaring house and isolation. I was a lonely little boy. None of my friends could understand what was happening at my house. Sometimes I was afraid to have them over to play, because I didn’t want them to experience the war zone.

As an adult this coping mechanism is still triggered. And honestly, most adults suffer from isolating behaviors, even if they weren’t born into the anger zone. I think those of us with depression just find deeper and darker silences than most. So as an adult under major stress I head for my fort in the hills. I keep my mouth shut. And I huddle alone waiting for someone to rescue me. The rescue that never comes. The rescue that can’t really come, because I have to rescue myself. No mom or sister is going to come and find me. And even if they did the relief would be temporary.

The fear and isolation are inside me. And in my childhood I learned to be a wonderful performer. I made straight A’s, played all the sports, and even became a profession magician at 12. I was doing magic tricks all the time to keep the family happy. Of course, it didn’t work. I was sad. My family was sad. My dad was rageful.

It is such a familiar feeling when I retreat back into my isolation. It doesn’t feel good, but it feels familiar. My broken and alone self is one I identify with. I have been broken for a large part of my life. I was broken at the age of four and the trauma is still deeply hidden. Of course, the body does not lie, and that trauma comes out at shame and lack of self-love. I’m really horrible to myself. My internal voice often says things so mean I wouldn’t say them to an enemy. I’m working on that one, big time.

Still, growing up in an unsafe and hostile family home trained me to be hyper-vigilant. I guard against anger and disappointment, by trying to be a better person. I’ve learned some of my weaknesses and I’ve learned to compensate for some of them. It’s a long process of growth and recovery. Today, however, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Even ending a 2.5 yo relationship, I find myself in a “sky’s wide open” future mindset. Today I could go anywhere, do anything.

The path for me now is to be still. I often rush into things before I am certain of the answer. Today my higher power is in charge of the next steps. I’m going to live my life with joy and grace and see what opportunities step up to meet me.

image: anger, creative commons usage

What’s Underneath the Pain?

I’ve been working with my therapist a lot over the last few months, trying to get underneath my major complaint: overwhelming sadness and regret. Sure I am sad and anxious. Those are real feelings. But where is the anger? I have no access to my anger. And this is a problem for me. I avoid anger. I’m scared of anger. But anger is your friend.

I learned at an early age the destructive power of anger. My dad, the alcoholic, had rages that scared the crap out of everyone in my family. I was 5. I learned from then on that anger was not safe. And like my father during his sober times, I learned that anger and disappointment were best kept inside and never exposed to others. I learned dysfunction. I learned to hide my feelings. And most of all I learned to avoid conflict at all cost. I learned to lie to diffuse tense situations. Even if the lie was not in my best interest.

This plays out in my relationships like this. A girlfriend says something really mean to me. A little time later she says, “I hope that didn’t hurt you. I was just telling you how I feel.” “No,” I would lie, “It didn’t hurt me.” But in that lie I was discounting my real feelings, I was not standing up for myself, and I was accepting unacceptable behavior towards me from someone I loved.

It’s no wonder that anger is hard for me to find inside myself. I’d rather avoid anger, conflict, disagreements. But anger is also energizing. And it’s that energy I was missing in my efforts to recover from my lingering depression. And I don’t think my therapist had the tools or experience to handle what I was going through. Sure, he tried to get me to express anger towards him for failing me in my treatment. But he was also my lifeline. He was the only one I was telling most of my fears to. And flipping to anger towards him, no matter how I felt about him, was too hard. So we struggled together. But I’m afraid I could’ve used a less passive engagement. So I’m seeking new counsel.

This pain that is underneath the sadness and loneliness is something we all struggle with to varying degrees. Some people try to deal with it head on, with therapy, 12-step groups, or journaling. Some people choose to avoid or cover it up with alcohol or drugs. The first group is trying to get through the struggle. The second group is trying to mute it, escape it, forget about it. But the second group is doomed to more of the same feelings they are trying to cover up. Alcohol is a depressant. It’s not a sleeping med. It’s not a way to relax. It’s a way to forget.

In conscious healing, an individual uses all the resources available to deal with what’s going on in their lives. In my case, the cognitive therapy was unable to counteract the bad chemistry in my brain. No amount of counseling, no amount of journaling, was going to pull me out of my depression. And as the meds continued to fail, I went through long periods of hopelessness. Even in the midst of a privileged life I was thinking about killing myself. Even with two great kids and several family members who were close and close by, I was cowering in my beautiful house trying to figure out how to painlessly off myself. But it was the bad chemistry speaking. And I knew enough to laugh at my suicidal thoughts. Sure I thought about it, that’s called ideation, but I NEVER made a plan.

If you ever find yourself making a plan, call 911. Your brain is trying to kill you.

I have a lot of pain underneath my current sadness. And I have a long way to go to get more comfortable with conflict and releasing my anger in a healthy way. For now, I’m still stuffing some of my feelings, and I’m still scared about some other things that feel out of control. In fact, most of life is out of control. All we can do, all we can focus on is ourselves and our program of recovery. We cannot wait for the other person to change. We cannot cajole them into recovery. We have to let them go, to find their own way, to seek their own higher power.

Look underneath what’s bugging you. Is there anger there? More sadness? Then get some help. Write about it. Reason things out with someone else. Because until you begin to uncover what’s going on inside your head and heart, you will continuously be driven by things that don’t serve you.

Yes, I have lost everything for the second time in my life. But I still have so much to live for. And, for now, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’m still digging into and talking about my anger resistance. But everything seems to be moving in the right direction in my life. I’m putting in the work on myself. I’m striving for success rather than just survival. Oh yeah, the meds kicked in a few weeks ago and it was like I was a different person. I came out of some sleepy depressive fog, and I could tell my old jovial, engaged self was back.

Take care. If there’s anything I can do to help you on your journey, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: sad clown, creative commons usage

 

Sitting In Silence with the Grief

I didn’t think I was going to survive the last breakup. Sure I was experiencing a prolonged depression that was kinda scary, but this was darkness multiplied. I was certain I was going to collapse into a depression so deep that I would be unreachable.

I knew even before I moved out that I needed to beef up my support network. I started attending Alanon meetings almost daily. I got a sponsor and about 4 phone numbers of guys I could call just to check in. What a great resource. And what a great lesson the program teaches: you can’t focus on the alcoholic and their recovery, you can only focus on yourself. In fact, you are the only one you can worry about. You are the only one you can change.

Dear God grant me the serenity,
To accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference

The serenity prayer from AA and Alanon got me through this dark period. But prayer and community were not enough. I was still left with hours, days, nights, of aloneness. And the darkness came and tried to swallow me. The hardest part is the loneliness. Sure the heartbreak is a bitch unlike any other bitch, but the loneliness is the killer. Loneliness keeps you up at night when you’re tired and hopeless. loneliness is the killer. And loneliness is only in your mind. Loneliness is a feeling. An idea. Loneliness is changeable. But getting beyond the loneliness takes time and effort. And for me that meant a lot of praying. Getting spiritually connected again was the gift that keeps on giving.

AA and Alanon are spiritual programs. No matter what you believe in, you come to believe in a “higher power” as you begin to visit the meetings and listen to everyone else’s stories. That higher power can be God, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, nature, or even the collective love and power of the group. You’re relationship to your higher power is up to you. And here’s the real eye-opener, your significant other has a higher power too. And they must surrender and find that relationship for themselves. There is no fixing the other person. And there is no waiting for them to change. Their path is between them and their own spiritual program.

In the darkness, and the days and nights of silence I began to pray again. Simple prayers like, “Help me God.” Not really asking for anything specific but guidance for God’s will for me. Which is really my will and hope for myself powered by prayer and belief that there is some larger force in the universe that I can put my trust in. And there is a force in the universe that I can release the drinker to. Their path involves this transition too. It may take a year, it may take a lifetime, but I believe we call come back to a god of our choosing.

The silence and loneliness and grief brought me back to a deeper connection to my own soul. A deeper connection with myself. And that ever elusive self-love.

May you find your own path back to a higher power. And may you learn how much you are loved and valued in the world. Even if it’s only the love of the group. Attend meetings. Talk to people. Get phone numbers of people you can call when you’re down. And then sit quietly and listen. Your soul and inner voice will begin to tell you stories. Maybe some lies too, that you can examine over time and release.

You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.

If there’s anything I can do to help you on your journey, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: sad child, creative commons usage

Back In Pursuit of Love: Slow Dating

Giving up on a loving relationship is one of the hardest things you might do in life. Calling it quits hurts and goes on hurting for weeks or months. And somehow, when you come out of it, the desire to be back in relationship comes back as well. It’s sort of a magic process, this human recovery story. Find love, explore life together, breakup, and we’re back to looking for love again. The human spirit is very optimistic when it comes to relationships.

And then there’s online dating. For most of us, a bit to busy to be sitting at a bar trying to attract someone, the online scene is the next best chance we have of finding companionship and potentially love. But it’s a long haul. You don’t want just anyone. You want the ONE. The NEXT. The lover who will join you for the twilight years. And that adventure begins with a single spark. And that spark is oh so hard to find.

Viewing hundreds of profiles can get pretty depressing. There are so many NOPES out there you might begin to wonder if there’s ANYBODY out there for you. Even with huge dating sites like Match.com and OKCupid you can exhaust the dating pool, browsing for maybes pretty quickly. And if you’re a guy, the next step is waiting patiently, hoping that someone responds to one of your outreach emails. And you wait. And you hope. And you wait some more.

Then someone cute and seemingly intelligent pings you back. “OH BOY,” your brain and heart say in unison. And we’re off to the races. And if you’re anything like me your imagination takes over and you begin to fantasize all kinds of date ideas, and conversations, and long walks on the beach. And the real trick is hinting at these flights of fantasy without overwhelming the other person or seeming too desperate. Just last week I overplayed my hand with the first woman who gave me hope. And in a heartbeat she texted back, “I think I’ll pass.” And this was after a very cool and promising first coffee date. But just like in real life, you have to drop the fantasy and move on. And we’re back to the waiting.

What’s different for me this time around is I have a much better idea of my ideal mate. I just had a 2.5 year relationship with a very near miss. “So close!” I just had a woman give me a taste of the potential. I caught a glimpse of that “down the road” feeling. I was looking forward to growing old with this woman. And I come back to the game with even more energy for presenting myself with a renewed vigor.

I learned these things about myself in relationship.

  1. I need someone who is athletic like me. (so we can do it together)
  2. I’m not much of a drinker, and that same ideal is of critical importance for me.
  3. The attraction both physically, spiritually, and emotionally has to be very strong.
  4. We need to be great at doing the mundane tasks of living life together.
  5. We have to both be working on ourselves, both in the relationship, and in building a relationship with ourselves.
  6. They need to be self-aware and emotionally intelligent.

I had all these things just months ago, and still the relationship went south.

It’s hard. Relationships are not all flowers and walks on the beach. A lot of the living that needs to be done can be repetitive and stressful. What you’re looking for is someone who can tackle those ups and downs of the human experience with a positive and joyous attitude. Yeah, I’m still working on that for myself. But I AM working on it, and constantly.

I’m not in the pursuit of perfection. But I am in pursuit of 100% authenticity. And I am listening and feeling into what I want in every venture back to the sites filled with hundreds of pictures and profiles of women.

I am hopeful again. I have one new contact that has potential. And I’m slowing my roll a bit. In fact, I woke up this morning composing a letter to her in my head. What I wanted to say next, to reel her in a bit, while remaining cool and collected. You don’t want to overheat, over-promise, or over-pursue. It’s a fine balance. Honesty, clarity, and some demonstrated amount of joy. But heck, I’m a writer, so I should be able to do this.

And I’m actually not looking to date at this point. I’m looking to find some friends who happen to be women that I can spend some time with. If things move on to dating, I want that phase to transition quickly into a relationship. And I suppose the difference for me is monogamy and getting back out of the online dating scene. I look forward to looking at only one profile, the one I experience in real life. So much of what people write about themselves is fantasy, or even delusion. And some of what people put in dating profiles are out right lies.

Finding that genuine needle in a haystack is going to be a long haul, I imagine. And this new “hello” contact is responding to my letters in a 24 – 48 hour window. So there’s that challenge as well. Keep looking while really hoping to be able to stop looking.

And that’s really what we are all looking for. Someone that causes us to stop looking. I am much better in relationship than I am in pursuit. I am much more interested in building a life rather than building an online profile.

Slowly but surely, with patience and grace, I will be in relationship again. Months from now, a year from now, I hope to be writing you again about “the love of my life.” Heck if you don’t believe it, how will you ever get there.

Yes, God, I’m ready this time. Ready as I’ll ever be. So BRING IT.

Keep the faith, and if you need someone to talk to, check out my coaching page.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image:  dating, creative commons usage allowed

 

Facing My Personal Dragon: Depression

It’s a bit risky, all this talk about depression. By writing about my struggles I might, for example, give anyone googling my name access to my personal medical history. I might be limiting the future of my career. I might be scaring away potential employers, lovers, friends. But I can’t stay in my darkness alone. Depression is a disease of isolation and fear. I have courageously embarrassed my illness, though I’m not ready to admit to the actual diagnosis that is now part of most job applications. I have a disability. Hard to swallow sometimes, but real.

In my teens I experienced this major depression for the first time in my life. Sure, I’d been a moody kid, but a lot of that mood had been creatively fueled optimism. But when I moved away from home to attend a prep school, my foundations crumbled under the intellectual rigor of the school and swept me into a hopeless and airless place. I could no longer think straight. I was failing Spanish for the second time. And I was depressed and beginning to self-medicate with marijuana. Not a good period of my life.

Since that first breakdown I have struggled 4 or 5 times with utter and complete darkness. A darkness so dense that is wrecked every project, job, relationship in my life. And I know I will be depressed again. It’s a crippling diagnosis when you hear your therapist or psychiatrist say, “You will probably deal with varying stages of this your entire life.” How would you to share that with a potential girlfriend or employer? Hard to stay positive in most circumstance.

While the discussion about mental illness has come a long way, the real darkness and power of depression is not well depicted in our popular culture. Sure TV shows have “manic” or “depressed” characters, but seeing actual depression is nothing like the worst show’s scenes and conflicts. Quite simply, when a person is depressed, even if they “want” to write about it, purge it, let is come out creatively, it’s as if a power switch has been turned off in your creative brain.

Going into my last depression that was triggered by the loss of a new job, I knew I was headed into a depression, but I was powerless to stop my slide into despair. I could see it was coming. I asked my talky  doctor and my meds doctor for help. I pleaded for help. I committed to writing it out, and staying present with my sad ass self. It simply was not possible. Stringing a few sentences together while in full-blown depression is… well… nearly impossible.

So, headlong I went, tumbling, into despair. I was fulling conscious of what was taking place as my creative and emotional faculties diminished. I was front and center as my 2.5 year relationship crumbled under the weight of my illness. And ultimately I was left to face my dragon alone. Utterly alone, homeless again, and defeated. And yet, not defeated. Somehow, I kept going. I kept walking 5 – 7 miles a day. I kept eating and sleeping well. I kept making and keeping appointments with my care team. I kept going in spite of feeling like ending it.

There is no time to slay the dragon. The dragon is your friend. — Reshad Feild

Somehow, I have been forced to accepting my fatal flaw. I cannot escape my own demons, I have to live with them. I cannot fight with the dragon when the dragon is a part of my DNA. As crushing as it is, I have to befrind my own depression, learn to accept my limits, and continue to work on forgiving myself for succumbing to the madness that is depressive illness.

Let me describe for a minute the experience I had three weeks ago, as a new medication came on-line and vanquished my depression. From the pits of isolation and self-pity, I kept working my program. I kept taking the meds and demanded of my psychiatrist that we try something new. I was not satisfied with survival. I was going to thrive again. And while I wasn’t confident in my plan, or in my doctor’s ability to offer me a fresh torch inside my deep cavern of shame and sadness, even in the absence of confidence, I had to walk on.

And then an amazing thing happened. It always happens. I always come out of it. But this time it was so dramatic, this switching back on of all my facilities, this return of hope and confidence, that everyone around me noticed the change. My inner power source was lit again. I began blogging immediately, even though I was dealing with a major breakup AND depression. This new drug, somehow, lifted the sleep-like fog that had suffocated me and my loved ones for the last 6 months. Like night and day, I was writing, contemplating new songs for my band to rehearse, I was imagining myself back in a relationship, with a good job and plans for the future. I was reborn.

And that type of swing is scary as shit. It’s horrifying for the people arround you to see the lights go out and their happy friend vanish into some abyss of sadness. In depression my thoughts become so heavy, my very existence becomes so tentative, that I simply STFU (shut the fuck up). I can’t tell you how I’m feeling, so don’t ask. If I told you it would freak both of us out. I can’t express my utter rage and disappointment with my life or my illness that seems to routinely rip all the joy and hope in my life. So I get real quiet. And for someone who writes, and someone who loves to talk and laugh, this transition becomes obvious and dramatic for everyone around me.

Okay, so I have this illness. I have this diagnosis that isn’t ever going to change. I might have long periods of stability and progress, but in the shadows is ALWAYS this prospect of losing it all in a wash of bad chemicals in my brain. It’s no joking matter. My family and a very select group of friends knows or have seen my loss. For everyone else around me, I just seem to disappear. Sure I”m still ON Facebook but I’m not posting anymore, I’m lurking and feeling sorry for myself that so many of you are going on with your normal, amazing, everyday lives. I’m stuck in the asylum of my mind, struggling to get out of bed in the morning, struggling to stay out of bed in the afternoon, and struggling with the simple tasks like shaving and dressing in normal clothes every day.

And, once again, I’m hopeful. Once again I have confidence to look for a high-powered marketing job. Once, again, I’m open to looking for a new relationship, even though my last one was crushed under the weight of my sadness.

That’s the part that I’m more in touch with than ever. Okay, doc, so I’m going to go through cycles of this the rest of my life? I’m not sure how to plan for that, or tell prospective mates that they might lose me at any moment, but I’m willing to take the steps to keep moving forward. The dragon, my depression, is with me. He’s not going anywhere. And to fight him is to fight and destroy myself. So instead, I’m going to love and befriend this dragon of mine. And while the beast has the fire power to destroy my life again, I have hope, I have confidence, and I press on with the believe that understanding will make the cycles less potent., the depression less debilitating. Still I’ve got to talk to any prospective mate about this dragon before we begin making future plans. And while I’m not ready to check the box on job applications that says I have a disability, inside I know I do. Inside I know the fall is just a slight tweak of my brain chemistry in the wrong direction.

Keep the faith, and if you need someone to talk to, check out my coaching page.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image:  my temporary tattoo, creative commons usage allowed

Drinking Lessons

I have a love hate relationship with alcohol that has been with me since I was five years old. My dad was a mean drunk. And I could’ve easily gone that direction in my life as well. I was a very angry young man in high school. And when I discovered drinking (underage, yes) I went after it with a passion. I liked how confident it made me feel. invincible. I was in love.

The summer after my high school graduation I was at a party that had kegs of beer. I remember it being a euphoric night. I was popular and well-liked in high school and the beer just made our joyous celebration that much more joyous. That was probably the last time I really enjoyed going beyond a light buzz. That night as I was drunk driving home I crashed my car trying to miss a deer stalled in the road. I’m very amazed that I’m sitting here, after the wreck that should’ve killed me. I suffered a minor concussion and a lost car and that was about it. But I woke up. I no longer thought alcohol was a great friend.

And it’s not that I didn’t drink after then, I drank a little bit and still enjoyed the feeling of being slightly buzzed. And I’m sure in college I also drank to excess and had a few wicked hangovers. But it was never the same after my wreck. I saw the physical danger of being drunk. It was about that time, during my second year in college that my dad got sick.

Now, the really amazing part of this new development was that my dad could no longer drink because of the meds he was put on. And as he sobered up from 20-30 years of constant drinking, he sort of became my dad for the first time. At 19 I was able to relate to him in a new way. And when he wasn’t drinking his old happy self came back. Sure, there was a ton of sadness, because he was dying of brain cancer, but we had time. I got my dad back, for about a year and a half before he died. And while it wasn’t the drinking that directly killed him, it was the drinking that had kept him hidden and distant from me for most of my formative childhood.

If I had some doubts about the coolness of alcohol up until that point, I got the message loud and clear. Drinking sort of fucked up your thinking. And continuous drinking changed the physical/chemical structure of the brain. It was a heavy price for ending the estrangement between my father and his kids, but it was the best (and worst) time I’d ever had with him. While he was dying. We reached for each other and sought time that we could be together for the first time in my life.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been drunk since my dad died. What’s the point? It’s an escape and I was too focused on capturing and recording my life (through writing and other creative projects) that I didn’t want to miss a minute of it being fogged up by drinking. That’s not to say I didn’t want to from time to time. But something held me back. Some internal governor was set and after two beers I was done. I still like the taste of some beers. But I usually have something I’m working on in my creative brain that I don’t want to lose to the buzz, so I just don’t drink that much. And as a preference I’d rather have sparkling water.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t continually been touched by alcohol. I just choose to stay conscious. I hope that I am facing my issues head on rather than trying to escape from them or block them out. I have issues. But I’d rather face them sober.

What’s your relationship to alcohol?

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: beers, creative commons usage allowed

Here’s more about my journey with alcohol.

Avoidance Never Works

When I was little my dad was a rageaholic and an alcoholic. And I learned to run and hide. Sometimes as an adult this is still my reaction to conflict. I’m a chronic avoider and it’s hurting me and my relationships. The coping mechanism that served me when I was 5 no longer works, it actually makes things worse. And sometimes, even when I know I’m doing it I can’t stop myself. Later I can look back and see the foolishness of my non-action, and if I really examine the behavior I can begin the process of undoing my childhood trauma and become a better adult. That’s my theory, anyway, and I’m ready to explore it.

Avoidance can show up in my life in the simplest of ways. Like sometimes I don’t open my mail for a week. If it’s from the IRS or my insurance provider, I might go longer. But it’s not working for me, it’s actually doing self harm as I worry about what the IRS wants. Turns out it was a letter letting me know my tax refund was once again being delivered to my ex-wife for child support. Oh joy. Not bad considering I was sure it was an audit. A simple act of opening the letter would’ve spared me a week of pointless worry. That’s how it starts. That’s a little sign of my dysfunction.

At work this type of behavior has actually cause a lot of chaos and worry. It’s not really procrastination as much as it’s fear of hurting someone’s feelings, asking them to stay late, holding them accountable for delivering on a project. It’s called conflict avoidance. And while I am a people pleaser at heart, this is more about my fear, my worry, and my avoidance. It never helps and always makes my job harder. I try to toughen up, I try to get more organized and still I find myself avoiding unpleasant conversations, unpleasant tasks, and the unpleasant task of managing other people. You can see how this might be a problem.

In relationships the stakes are even higher. Love is the emotion I crave, perhaps to an unhealthy extent, but I’m willing to roll with that. The avoidance that comes along with always trying to keep your partner happy, now that’s another story. And a big problem for me. If I can blow off the conflict by not responding, sure I don’t get in a fight, but really I’m giving up my part of the argument before it begins. I’m lessening myself worth in some way so the other person gets their way and remains happy with me. This is a formula for disaster.

What other ways to I avoid things? Setting up dental appointments is always a struggle. Paying bills never comes first, heck I used to leave letters in the mailbox for days. And then I met someone who was exactly the opposite. She attacked the mailbox, the bills, the chores, the unpleasant discussions. I was in awe. I was also pretty shut down by her direct action. I admired her, I was amazed at her energy and resolve to just “do what needed to be done.” Whether she wanted to or not. She was never lazy. And she was rarely avoidant.

So I’m looking at my avoidance with a more clear perspective. It’s not a flaw in me or my personality. It’s something that I learned at a very early age that I also need to unlearn. I need to be a bit more like my friend and  just do things. Like take out the trash when the bin is full. And here’s the kicker: without being asked. Filling up the water filter in the fridge. Changing the air filters. It’s not that I mind doing the tasks, I just tend to not do them when I see they need doing. I tend to think, “Oh I’ll do that in the morning.” Not my friend. Not ever. She just does the dishes at 10pm even when she’s tired and would rather get in bed. She just does stuff. I just avoid doing stuff.

Now I have a saying I use when I feel myself doing this. “Just do the right thing. And do it now.” It works well with chores and minor tasks. It’s a bit more complicated with relationship discussions or opening the IRS envelope. It’s a trait that I’m learning how to unlearn. Avoidance never makes things better, in fact, it causes me to worry and ruminate over all the possible awful outcomes. Those worries are better confronted in the moment. Open the bill, open the letter, tell someone they are hurting your feelings. I’m getting there. But it’s not a linear process. While I know this information well, I’m still avoidant.

I could be mad at myself for this behavior. I could beat myself up, and do, when I finally open the letter and realise all that worry was just wasted precious time. A lot of time not being fully present. Sometimes it gets so bad I freeze up and stop communicating at all. And that’s when things get really bad. But I do recover. I am conscious of when I’m avoiding. I still do it, but I’m doing it less. And I’m learning to take the uncomfortable feelings or worry by the horns and looking the damn bull in the eye and saying, “To hell with you, fear, I’m going in!”

What kinds of things do you avoid?

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Laws of Attraction and the Opposite Sex

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We are programmed to admire the opposite sex. It’s part of our DNA. Maybe more for men than women, but “we all look.” I was wondering about this a few days ago as I was walking around the lake with my fiancé. Still it’s so fun to look. What is it about voyeurism that’s so enticing? Or is it something more animal?

When a Lamborghini drives by I do my best to get a look at it. Something about the curves, the exotic nature, and the power of that car. 

I like to people watch. Most of us do. But I don’t think of myself as a hound dog. I’m not cat calling or overtly staring. And I’m not trying to hide it from my soon-to-be-wife. We both admire the stream of runners and walkers as we walk together.

Am I sexually attracted to them? Am I looking to cheat on my fiancé? Or is it more of a fascination thing?

One similar situation I compare this phenomenon to is fancy cars. When a Lamborghini drives by I do my best to get a look at it. Something about the curves, the exotic nature, and the power of that car. And I could stand next to one and not grow tired of admiring the engineering.

Perhaps that’s a similar response when looking at a particularly attractive and athletic person. You want to observe the lines, the muscle, the curves. But it’s not like I want to sleep with them all. It’s just that I can appreciate god’s handiwork and the attractive power of the opposite sex. I don’t really want to drive a Lamborghini, but they sure are fun to look at.

I also noticed the other day is how we are programmed to see youth as a beauty as well. And with today’s media obsession we are even more trained than ever to admire the teen shape. The zero body fat, zero age lines, race-ready bodies that go flying by almost have a glow about them. Again, it’s not sexual at this point. At least sexual in the physical sense, the sexual power is more of an animal instinct.

As I’ve grown older and more aware of my own aging and changing shape, I have become more aware of our how media-driven tastes have been focused on the youth. Except in my world, I am no longer interested in youngsters. I have a teenage daughter of my own. I’m more interested in appreciating the lines and burnished look of people my own age, or even older.

Holding hands with my fiancé on the running trail doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm for watching. I’m affirming my joy and connection with this woman, as we go about the dance of living together.

How beautiful to see a gray-haired lady smiling and cruising along getting her 5-miles in. I’m less interested in teen-looking athletes and more interested in people who are happy in their own skins, people doing their own lives with style and grace.

Maybe the fact that we’re all on a running/walking trail is a bit of a filter. Everyone out here is active and working on staying that way. That’s what I look for in a partner (one that I have in spades) and that’s what I look for as I see these beautiful women passing by along the trail. Sure, the occasional gazelle is pretty to see leaping along, but I’m no gazelle. I’m looking for people of my tribe. And part of that tribe is mid-life and going strong.

Holding hands with my fiancé on the running trail doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm for watching. I’m not limiting my opportunities by selecting and being selected by a mate. I’m affirming my joy and connection with this woman, as we go about the dance of living together. You’ve got to stay active to maintain an active lifestyle. And if you’re both into the task you can both enjoy the journey.

Today I’m not really people watching for attractive young women. I notice the allure and draw of their energy and physical form. No. More I am looking for the energy of life in all its active forms. The thing about a Lamborghini that makes it so fascinating is the rarity of seeing one and the knowledge that it goes fast. Same thing with my fiancé: a rare beauty that goes fast. I exercise next to her so I can keep up 15 and 20 years from now.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Joy of Divorce and the 3 Gifts of Breaking Up

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While we held it all together for our family, it was not all that ideal. But I was convinced that life was not ideal, and that for the comfort and future joy of my kids I would stick it out, no matter what.

As it was happening the divorce was the worst experience of my life. I was the one who wanted to work on things, but was told, “It is over.” I struggled with my own sadness and the imagined sadness that I knew my kids would experience. I tried to entice my still-wife back into the idea of staying together. I tried to bully her into realizing how bad things were going to be without me. I tried to convince her that she was wrong. I did everything I could think of to save the marriage.

Here’s the rub. The marriage was hard. Outside of the first few years of parenting (including the global crisis of 9-11) things in the relationship were not ever easy. We had very different styles of housekeeping, very different ideas about what made up a perfect weekend. And while we held it all together for our family, it was not all that ideal. But I was convinced that life was not ideal, and that for the comfort and future joy of my kids I would stick it out, no matter what.

My then-wife, on the other hand, decided for us both that “no matter what” was over. And though we said, “’til death do us part” we really didn’t mean it. She decided for us that it was over. And all the second person can do at that point is go through some of the Kubler-Ross grief stages.

But the gift of the divorce was bigger than I could imagine. Looking back, now seven years, I can say it was the most transformative event in my life. What cracked with the fracturing of my marriage was my own protective shell. The heart that was suddenly in so much pain burst forth from my chest and I started writing about it. Writing like I’d never written before. Writing, in some ways, to survive the crisis I was in. And I’m still writing.

Even alone, I was happier than I had been for the last few years of my marriage. As I began to discover the activities that gave me joy, I was able to include my kids more regularly in those activities.

The first gift divorce gives you is time and solitude. It’s painful. It was lonely. But in the hours and days of my loneliness I had to search again for the things that gave me joy. I no longer had the family group to mingle and play with, I had to find my own happiness. My alone happiness.

I wrote. I started playing my guitar more regularly. I walked the neighborhood endlessly to get into shape. I rejoined a tennis team. And I allowed the sadness and aloneness to transform me. I began to find happiness outside of being a parent. I got to discover my life’s joy in the times when I could not be with my kids. It was a moment of crisis that turned into a moment of self-discovery.

The second gift divorce gives you is the perspective on love and life. During the throes of divorce I was not able to see how this was ultimately going to be a good transformation. But as time wound on, I was able to reflect, first to myself and then to my kids, about how things were actually better now. I had a conversation with my daughter one morning before school that went like this.

“I know this divorce thing has been hard on all of us, but you do see how somethings have gotten better, right?”

She did not look convinced. “Like what?”

“Like how you and I are playing tennis together now. When I was married to your mom it was harder to find time to do stuff like that.”

“Okay…”

“And you can see how happy I am, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, maybe it wasn’t going to get any happier with your mom. Maybe she was looking for something different. And even if I didn’t know it, maybe I was too. But now, as we’ve all gotten a little time away, can’t you see that we’re all a bit happier?”

“I guess so.”

The biggest gift of my divorce was the release to become a happier, healthier, and more loving partner to a new woman. I bring my joy and my affection, and this time, the rules of engagement are very different.

Granted, she was eight years old then, and not really processing all that I was saying. But the message was this. Even alone, I was happier than I had been for the last few years of my marriage. As I began to discover the activities that gave me joy, I was able to include my kids more regularly in those activities. About six months after that conversation I had standing tennis games with my daughter on the weekends they were with me. It was a peak moment to be on the tennis court hitting balls with someone I loved so much. I had tried to get her mom interested in tennis, but it wasn’t meant to be.

The third gift divorce gives you is the freedom to go forward in your life and find someone to love again. And, if we’re lucky, and if we’ve done our homework on what broke down in the marriage, maybe we will find someone who we can truly love and who can love us back.

The biggest gift of my divorce was the release to become a happier, healthier, and more loving partner to a new woman. I bring my joy and my affection, and this time, the rules of engagement are very different. There’s something about a post-divorce-with-kids relationship that sort of puts things in perspective. The divorce taught me how to be alone and happy. The divorce gave me two great kids that are dependent on me for love, support, and encouragement.

And then the divorce gave me the time back. The time to be myself and discover my core talents again. And this is the me that my new fiancé fell in love with. Independent. Joyous. A dedicated father. And a creative madman. And this creative whirlwind came from the trauma and transformation of my divorce. As I was losing everything I discovered a larger me, a meta man who could rise above the distortion and anger and love in spite of everything else.

What I do best in life is love. And that I have been given a gift for sharing that experience via writing and music, is one of the major wins in my life. This new lease on love is another. May you find what you were looking for. May you find the happiness that comes from within so you can share it with others. The divorce gave me back my joy and freedom and allowed me a second chance to find life-long love.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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