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?” 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 better I understand my own issues 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 want 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

Constant Craving

I understand the feeling of longing. That ache at having something or someone in your life that is missing. A gap in the joy of your life that is just out of reach or lifetimes away, depending on the strength of your longing. I think I’ve lived a good portion of my life in longing. It is a familiar state.

Today, single again, I really have access to my craving for physical affection. I notice it in how appreciative I am of the women passing through my field of vision. It’s not that I’m lusting after them, I am simply noticing their beauty, and the lack of similar comfort in my current situation. I can feel in my bones what it’s like to be alone and wanting. It’s almost an energetic feeling, like I am motivated to be a better, more attractive, me. But there is sadness in the craving as well.

What I wonder is how to keep that craving alive when I do have what I want in terms of a relationship with a woman. How can this sharpness and presence be with me even in a long-term relationship? Do I need the longing to be motivated to pursue? Does my romantic side appreciate the ache and longing more than the contentment of having a loving relationship?

In the several times in my relationships that I’ve been truly happy and fulfilled, the expansive joy is there, but the moment seems to pass. The mundane creeps back in and chores become resentments and love taps become responsibilities rather than joys. What is it about the craving, the hunger, that makes me a better lover, a better man?

I want a fulfilling love relationship. And I want that healthy craving, ambition, to continue in my life as well. It’s a fine balance. One you get what you think you want does your heart and mind start searching for what you want next? For me, I don’t think that was the case. I was never looking for another relationship, but I certainly turned my focus away from attracting my mate towards more personal, self-focused pursuits. How do we stay romantically engaged for the long haul? What about the craving is necessary to keep the love line warm and active?

If I can see that the craving is a longing for something inside of me, rather than an external goal or relationship that I want, perhaps I will begin to unlock the answer. There are always projects left unfinished, and dreams still gathering dust inside me. When I’m not in a relationship I can devote whatever time I want to these projects. I don’t have to consider anyone else’s timeframes, needs, or schedules.

When I’m in relationship, even as good as it gets, parts of my creative self get compromised. And perhaps this is the craving I experience when I’m in relationship. It’s more about total freedom. However, I know that total freedom is also a trap that stalls me out in my creative pursuits as well. If I have too much time, a whole afternoon for example, I might not get started until after a walk, a nap, lunch, and by the time I get going it’s 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon and I’ve got to start thinking about getting ready for the week ahead.

Certainly this craving is something in me that drives me forward. If I am craving a women, for a relationship, for example, I am more likely to eat well, to keep my exercise routine constant. I am more likely to be working to make myself the best mate I could be. When I’m in relationship, sometimes, those things get put on the back burner. See, I’ve GOT the relationship, so why do I need to constantly work on myself or my physical health? I’ve won the prize of this beautiful woman and companion, now I can really settle down and get my creative dreams in gear.

It doesn’t work that way. Even in relationship I have a craving. Sure, it’s for something different. I no longer observe and appreciate all the women passing me on the street, no I’m more reflective on the time and energy I need to move my creative dreams forward. And, I guess, it seems like the thing that I most want, a relationship, is in some ways a challenge to that “time at craft” I crave. So when I have what I want I crave something different. When I don’t have a relationship, I put a lot of time into craving and pursuing women. I think the catch-22 is for me to work out with myself.

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image:  kiss, creative commons usage

Breaking Up: Loss as a Journey

I thought I was going to die. This last breakup was more expected and yet more devastating than any I’d gone through before. I think it was because I had such a strong relationship that had come to pieces. I think it was also because my entire identity was wrapped up in being a couple with this person, being codependent. It’s easy to do for those of us prone to over commitment. So, even though the actions toward suicide were never put in place, my mind often yielded to the fantasy of dropping myself off a high bridge, except I was afraid of heights. Suffice it to say, it was bad. I was in bad shape as I moved back into my mom’s house to recover.

Grief

Feeling the hurt after a breakup is one of the keys to healing and recovery. You have to go through the pain of loss, you cannot shortcut your recovery. As a typical male this process was hard for me to get started. I knew I needed to cry. I felt the sadness deep in my bones, but I couldn’t access the tears. I wrote letters to my ex. I took inventories of what was good in the relationship. I accepted my faults and wrote about where I had failed to live up to my end of the deal, where I had gotten scared and recoiled from my partner rather than turn towards them.

One of the things I did immediately was start going to Al Anon meetings. 1. I needed to be with people and not isolated in my single bedroom at my mom’s. 2. I needed to hear from others who had been through hard times and used the program and their “higher power” to gain strength to recover. 3. I needed a network of friends I could call when things got tough. And the local Al Anon meetings provided all this support immediately. I was not alone. I was not the only one hurting. I was encouraged to call others and talk about what was going on.

So, I accessed some of the pain through journaling. And I watched some sad romantic movies that got a few tears going. But mainly, I just sat with my sadness. I wasn’t inspired to read, though I did buy most of the Al Anon literature as a starting point. I couldn’t just make myself cry, though that’s what I felt I needed. So I sat. And as I ruminated about the past and was bombarded with images and feelings of my ex I tried to say a prayer of appreciation, “Thank you, Samantha, for these wonderful times. I bless you and give you up to God.” And I said it over and over.

I learned to pray again in the simplest terms. “Help me to hope again, God.” “Help me to heal.” “Help me to see a future.”

And I continued my exercise program by walking or playing tennis every single day, without fail. No excuses. This was one thing I could easily control, and if I put my mind to it, I could succeed. And some success was important to me at that time.

Alone time. Prayer. Journaling. Meetings. Phone calls.

That was my strategy. And in a matter of weeks I was having momentary flashes of hope. I would notice walking around the lake that I was actually having positive thoughts about the future. It was subtle. And the ups came with reciprocal downs, but the roller coaster started leveling out and I was having days with little or no obsession about my ex. I was grateful. I built on that momentum and went to more meetings and called more friends. And as the grief began to lift I felt myself imagining and hoping for a new relationship, again.

Turning Point

As things were starting to get better for me, I remember a distinct moment when I decided to get back on the online dating sites again. There was something hopeful about imagining hundreds of women who were looking for a relationship. I wanted to dip my toe in the water and see what they looked like.

I wrote in my profile that I was first looking for friends. And that’s what my intention was. I wanted to meet some women to do things with, but not necessarily to date them. I was pretty certain that my relationship boundaries were not up to snuff, but I could certainly go for coffee or a walk with some women and see what happened. And I think it was this action, this hopeful seeking that really turned the corner for me emotionally. Even the tiniest glimpse of desire in me was a welcome indication that something had changed. That hope was still inside me. And while I was in no position to date right away, I was optimistic about the possibility of having another “date” at some point in the future.

Results

As of this writing, I’m about three weeks in on the dating thing. And I’ve had some interesting experiences. I have one woman who I play tennis with. That’s all we do. We haven’t talked about “dating” the entire time we’ve been playing. I’ve had a few promising first dates that went nowhere. And I’ve got a few first “hello” dates planned for the next few weeks. And while I’m not planning on making any of these women my girlfriend, the idea of having a few women friends that I can hang out with, is quite exciting. Where things go beyond friendship, well, there’s no telling. My heart thinks I’m ready, I know I’m not. So, we’ll see how things progress from here.

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image:  elvis, creative commons usage

Divorced with Children: It Does Get Better

I’m pretty sure I thought I was going to die when I found out my wife had been to see a divorce attorney. The worst possible outcome for my life was coming at me like a freight train down a one-lane tunnel. I was afraid, I was sad, I was angry. But most of all I was scared to death of what my life would look like alone. Truly alone again, for the first time in 13 years.

And it was hard. It may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, but I survived. And on the other side of that loneliness was me. Learning again that I am happy when I’m by myself. I don’t need someone to complete me. Sure, I love being in a relationship, but I don’t need one. Well, I kinda do, but you get what I’m saying. I learned, again, that I can be perfectly happy by myself.

I have my own time schedule. I can go out with friends at any hour for lunch, drinks, or breakfast tacos. I don’t have to check-in with anyone. I just go. And for sure, that’s something I’ve been doing is getting together with lots of friends. Friends I might have neglected a bit in my last relationship.

Well, I’m back to being single again. And I’m discovering a new angle as well. My kids are more important to me than any other relationship. I let that one get away from me in the last 3 years. I was putting my desire and devotion to this new woman, above time with my kids. And it wasn’t really a conscious decision. But I kept opting towards my girlfriend and away from being dad. Of course, as teenagers, mostly what your kids want is transportation. And they are busy making friends and being teenagers, so they “need” us a lot less. But I was not actively showing up, not actively asking for “dates” with them.

I’ve changed that since this last break up. I now have regular tennis dates with my daughter. I call her for lunch randomly. And while we haven’t made it yet, I’ve been talking to her about going to my favorite church on Sunday. As I am alone again, I have a lot of time to reprioritize my life. And my kids come first. I forgot that idea for a while, that was my fault. But I won’t forget it again.

A year ago I exchanged this text with my daughter while she was at her mom’s. house.


screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-6-13-29-am

She was letting me know she saw my activity on her Netflix account. I was sharing with her until my ex-wife found out. Oops.screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-6-12-38-amAnd as we begin to exchange more notes and texts she is reaching out for rides and coffees. I’m happier now than I have been since the divorce. My current living situation is not ideal, but my mental, physical, and spiritual programs are running in high gear.

So, what I’ve learned in the last seven years since my divorce, is that yes, things get better. My last relationship really showed me what authentic, non-judgemental love felt like. And while it didn’t work out, she gave me a new benchmark for what a good relationship looks like.

I am blessed with two great kids. It’s up to me to make dates, set boundaries, and show up as a fully empowered dad. I’m working my program, and life is about as good as it gets.

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: dad with kids, creative commons usage

As Goes the Sex So Goes the Marriage

Sex isn’t everything. It’s not even the most important thing. But when sex goes off the rails, there is probably a lot more wrong in the relationship than right. Examining some of the myths of sexual ennui and suggesting paths to reconnect.

First off, I have to admit, these ideas didn’t work in my marriage. And there were plenty of other factors in why we split. But sex, and the lack thereof, was the first real indicator to me that something had gotten disconnected. Some aspect of our relationship outside the bedroom had gotten so painful that the activity in the bedroom had frozen over. Frost in the marital bed is a quick wakeup call or a slow death knell.

In my case, we did start going to therapy, but I didn’t make our intimacy an issue. I was letting her lead in therapy, because it seemed she was so unhappy. So in trying to be accommodating I was also sweeping my empty sex life under the bed. It didn’t seem to be an issue for her. Weeks could go by without more than a casual touch, and she was fine. I was reaching out for any touch and coming up rubbing myself most of the time.

How did it get so far out of balance? Had our level of desire always been so different and the early romance was enough to hide the mismatch? Let’s look at some of the reasons given for not being in the mood and see if we can come up with a strategy for rejoining in the bedroom and in our relationships.

Busy, Distracted, No Time

What makes a couple too busy to be intimate? What priorities get so far embedded in our minds that we forget our hearts? Work stress can be a libido killer. If I am threatened at my job, I’m not going to be ultraconfident in the bedroom. And if I don’t ask it won’t happen… So what can I do to reenergize myself in the evening, when I am about to arrive home and I’d like to feel some of our old chemistry again?

Remember what makes her happy. Does the kitchen need a quick once-over before dinner to get her feeling more comfortable with leaving the dishes in the sink to make room for some hanky panky? Maybe she just likes to know she’s joined and supported in taking care of some of the chores around the house. Make time to clear the distractions (housework, bills to pay, getting the kids to bed) and then make the time to be close and quiet. It doesn’t have to mean sex, but it does necessarily mean closeness and cuddling. Start there and see if anything develops.

Getting At The Heart of the Matter

Is there something else that’s out of whack in the relationship? If a woman feels the relationship is not a priority they are likely to put their energy and attention somewhere else as well. If it’s always your work, or your “projects” that are calling your heart, perhaps you need to look at what about your relationship lights up your passionate emotions as well. If you’re not sure what passion looks like, you might be in need of a refresher course in your love life.

Sometimes bigger issues can make their way into the bedroom, cutting off all hope of joy and passion. Make sure you get together with someone who can help you both work through the bigger issues. If sex is off, there might be something larger at play. Don’t let it go too long before addressing it, or you could lose the sexual passion from neglect. It’s not hard to see a young starlet and think, “Oh boy, I’d love to…” but it’s more challenging to keep seeing that arousal in your day-after-day mate. But the core of the passion will come from clearing the decks of unfinished business.

Back to Business

When things are flowing in the relationship both partners can instigate sex. Usually it is one partner more often than another, but there is little resistance. When the relationship is in balance, usually the sex is balanced as well.

Connected sex means seeing your partner as you are making love to them. It’s easy to disconnect and fantasize, but staying connected to your partner, seeking out her eyes, is the best way to remain close. And when the sex is close and connected the relationship is usually trending along similar lines. You can’t have connected sex when the relationship is in troubled water. And while make up sex is a thing, it’s not the best way to go about having a relationship, getting in fights because the sex afterwards is amazing.

Staying connected to your partner means being aware of their sexual desire and giving nudges and suggestions in that direction. Both your needs can be met if you’re both thinking of each other. Listen to what your sexual relationship is saying about the state of your relationship to your partner. If things are out of whack in the bedroom, chances are you need to look at what’s going on elsewhere.

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: sex, 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

Teenaged Kids? Hard to Reach or Open to New Opportunities?

My daughter is 14 and entering high school today. My son is 16 and has his own car. Trying to get them to a sit down dinner once every two weeks can be tough. They’ve got so many things going on, and things, that to them, are more important than seeing me. But it’s my opportunity to let them know there is nothing more important to me than them. And I’m forced to do a better job of expressing this as we all grow older and more independent.

Today they are going back to school. And I’m taking them Starbucks to mom’s house for the launch. It’s a fun and big event. And they roll their eyes. But they will appreciate the photos later in life.

But as teenagers, they are going through a very specific development staged: separation. They don’t need to be with me. They don’t really need me for much, my money flows through their mom into their wallets. They don’t need my home-cooked meals every other week. They are in the process of individuation. They are becoming their own little humans, with agendas and circles that don’t involve me. It’s okay. I hear they come back to you as the grow a bit older.

I’m not waiting around for them to get it. I’m making dates with both of them to do engaging things. With my daughter it’s easy, we’re playing tennis. My son is a bit more of a challenge. His girlfriend is older and is going to a local college this year. So he’s always got something he’d rather be doing. And that’s the way it should be. Dear old dad is second priority. And still I miss them.

In fact, I’ve missed more of them since they were 4 and 6 when my then wife decided for all of us that a separate future would be better for us all around. The unfortunate thing is, in divorce only one partner has to make the decision to leave and there’s not much that can be done to stop it. I’m sure we both lost a lot. But she only lost two weekends a month. She got them 100% of the rest of the time. And their relationship with their mom is much closer. It’s more complete. She’s done everything for them. I’m a little sad about this abscense. But there’s not much I could’ve done about it. I got what I got in the settlement even though I asked and fought for 50/50 parenting. She knew what she would get if we went to court, so she asked for that.

Dads do get the short end of the deal most of the time in divorce. Wives get the house, the kids, and the lion’s share of the money. Dad’s… Well, we get a hefty child-support payment and if we’re successful, we can afford a small enough place that can still hold our kids and ourselves. But it’s been a hard 7 years for me. I’m still struggling to get above the debt that has incurred while I’ve been looking for work. And that debt, owed, for sure, is now enforced by the Attorney General’s Office of the State of Texas. Woohoo. Yep, she went there. And unapologetically keeps the boot of their “enforcement” on my neck everyday. And that’s a challenge. I wake up and have to forgive her for being so mean. It’s not like I wasn’t paying her from every paycheck I got. I was, am, and will.

If you can avoid divorce and keep from destroying your life, I would advise to try to work things out. I still think I could love her. Well, not like being in a relationship again, after all that has happened, but in the divorce I did not want out. I was still the hopeful one ready to fight for my family. But you can’t fight alone. She was gone. She’d been gone for over a year.

Today as I bring coffee to my kids at my old house, I’ll have feelings of regret and feelings of pride, side by side. And I’ll see my ex-wife and wish her well. And for a few minutes we’ll be that family we could’ve been. And we’re not. And the kids are not “kids” any more. They’ve moved on. And in many ways, so have I. But in missing them now, as teenagers I have to take action to make sure I’m still a big part of their lives. It’s up to me. No one else is concerned with getting together.

Single parenting is hard. But the good thing is you get to do it 100% your own way.

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: back to school, creative commons usage

Your Sex Is On Fire: The Intoxicating Burn of Love

Everything in your body changes when you have sex with someone. For me, when dating, having sex becomes the moment that I go exclusive with that one person and say, “This is the relationship I’m going to give a try.” But these days, I am more clear than ever that sex is an intoxicant, and should be treated with respect. I’ve certainly gotten into a few relationships due to great sex, that I might have avoided had I taken a bit more time to get physical.

I believe sex is a spiritual event. A connection on a level that begins to transcend the normal walking and talking interactions of daily life. I’ve never been able to have casual sex. (Okay, maybe in college a couple of times.) To me sex is the beginning of a commitment. I know that my brain chemistry changes when I have sex. I get all electrified and positive. And this is just the sex part. If you multiply that effect with a touch of “love” man you are in for a serious impairment. You cannot think clearly when the sexual chemistry starts. If you go physical too early in a relationship it may cause you to overlook signs that this might not be the best relationship. You’re brain and body are so focused on the sex, and getting more sex, it will blow right past the red flags warning you to take a harder look at what’s going on.

There is no hard and fast rule in dating these days, about how long you “date” before you have sex. In fact, I’m sure that the swipe apps of Tender and Bumble are more setup for casual encounters, for the younger set, but I think they are heading for disaster. However, if you were to make a decision to indulge in casual safe sex for a while, I suppose you can try to keep your emotions out of the sex. I’ve never been able to do it. But perhaps I’m old-fashioned.

As sex leads the way to love, the pathways in your brain really begin to get hyperactive. You start thinking about long-range plans together. You start imagining yourself with this person, living together, getting married, having kids. Love is the drug that has launched a million relationships. It’s also the drug that has gotten a lot of people in serious relationships with people they otherwise might pass on. If you hit the love drug too early in a relationship you might not have the opportunity to see your new partner responding to enough of the varied life experiences that happen. What is this person like under pressure? How do they respond to daily frustrations with work, money, life? Love paints over your observational senses with a rose-colored watercolor.

I’m only just back in the dating pool, but I’m setting my sights on 3 – 6 months with no sex. I want to have time to meet and play with several new partners before settling in on the one I want to have sex with. The one I want to take to the next level. That’s the plan. We’ll see how my resolve sticks when I meet someone who really clicks with me.

That’s the thing, click, get excited, but slow down. Don’t blow past all the early experiences of getting to know this person. Don’t skip any steps. And don’t let yourself get intoxicated before you have a chance to evaluate the potential relationship in honest, sober, terms.

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: sex is on fire, creative commons usage

Getting High: The Flip Side of Depression

It’s sometimes called bipolar, but that term is overused. In my case I have depression and I have non-depression. And sure, my non-depression (or normal) me is a bit more energetic and creative than most people, I would argue that I have not had a manic phase since I was a teenager. I get high, yes, but its natural energy (maybe some coffee) and it’s what I consider the real me. The undepressed me. Still, you might think I was high if you met me.

And that’s a part of the problem. When I’m “energetic” I can get a little scattered and hyper. But really, that’s me. I’m usually a happy and inspired person. I’ve been this way since I was a little kid. Always engaged, always trying to lead the group into some crazy fun adventure. And as an adult I’ve learned to turn my energy into an asset that’s engaging and successful. And if I can stay on the UPSIDE of my depression, I’m golden. When I fall off my balance, however, it’s quite dramatic. It’s scary for me and the people around me.

So this is the aspect of my condition that I’m working on in therapy. What is the trigger that sends me sliding into the darkness? Is there anything I can do as it’s happening (I can feel it, like some bad intoxication) is there therapy that can help? It’s truly my Achilles heel, this falling depression that overwhelms me and shuts down even some of my basic functions.

I’m working on it. But it still scares the crap out of me. How can a fullly-funtional adult drop off the face of the Earth? And I go low. I get confused and overwhelmed. And I get real quiet. I don’t speak. If I did speak the crap I would talk about is so scary, even to me, I think I would run you off. And the damage this cycle has done in my life is unexplainable. The lost days, weeks, and months I’ve spent in non-functional depression is too many for me to admit. It’s a lot.

What we know about depression these days, is it is a physical disease. After a few major depression your brain and body begin to adapt to the situation and over time the physical properties of your brain begins to change. And this adaption is not a good thing. It’s as if the pathways towards depressive emotions are superconductive. It makes it easier for my brain to flood itself with the panic chemicals. And when that happens all bets are off. It’s as if the lights go out in my eyes and I become some zombie form of myself.

Again, I’m working on it. And I’m confident in my new meds. And I’m getting a new therapist. So I’m as active in my healing and recovery as I can be. I’m still scared. I’m still worried as I’m interviewing for new jobs. How can I be confident that I can do the job if at some point I fall apart? I’m not. I’m scared. But I’m moving forward as best I can, and doing all the things I can think of to get help.

I’ve got a care team. And I’ve got a supportive and understanding family. And it’s not enough. When I drop I drop off the deep end. I can’t see or feel the love that surrounds me. I can’t feel anything but hatred for myself and my condition. And that’s a circular path that leads even further downward.

I hope you don’t know what I’m talking about. But I’m guessing you know someone in your life who has suffered from depression or bipolar illness. And if you can get a glimmer of  empathy from my stories, then I’m happy with my reveal. I’m taking a big risk letting all this “depression” information out. I’m still in the prime earning years, and any employer who Googles me will come upon this blog.

Years from now I’d like to be writing about how my drug cocktail has been successful for 10 years of remission. That’s not likely. The disease raises its head at the most inconvenient times. And I will be depressed again. I’m hoping to mitigate the down. I’m hoping to have more compassion for myself while I’m going through it. And I’m hoping that through some cognitive therapy that I can reduce my cycle time. Heck, I’m hopeful that the down will be a blip and not a deathly yaw.

Either way, I’m on my way towards health. I’m optimistic. And the new job opportunities are here right now. Fear forward. Then keep going.

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: depression, 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