I have always enjoyed being alone. From as far back as I can remember I was just as content playing alone as I was playing with my friends. As a matter of fact, I cherished my time alone. I have many solitary activities that I enjoy, so being alone is never a problem for me. In the past year I’ve lost entire weeks doing whatever I wanted, alone, then wondered where the time had gone. Yet as much as I enjoy my time alone, I always feel lonely. As I started writing a completely different blog, the pieces to this puzzle fell into place.
I did enjoy being alone as a child, but I now understand why. For whatever reason, I grew up feeling like I was the cause of, or responsible for, what ever “feeling” existed in our family at any given moment. Those days when everyone seemed happy and easy going were because I had done all of the right things, I had said the right words, been the right person, and therefore people around me were happy. On those days that our home was filled with gloom I felt I was also responsible. I had said the wrong thing, I had looked at someone incorrectly, I had worn the wrong outfit or failed to complete the proper chores. In some way, I was responsible. For all of it. So I spent time alone. I sat in my 3rd floor bedroom playing with my trolls, above the fray of whatever was happening below. If all was happy I was content to miss out on the fun, because as far as I understood, my presence was just as likely to bring with it the shadow of doom as it was to add to the joy; and I had no way of knowing which my presence would bring. As soon as I entered the room it was entirely possible that everything would change, the mood would sour, people would snarl and stomp about in silence. It made no difference which way the mood went; it was my burden and my burden alone.
So of course I learned to enjoy my time alone. I became an avid reader, I created a vivid imagination, I learned arts & crafts, all in an effort to be happy being alone. I understand now that would never be; I would always feel intensely lonely, because the “happiness” I felt when alone was an illusion. I wasn’t happy to be alone, I was happy to not be with others. What a big difference!
I have always understood my intense need to make everyone happy, I just never understood why, and more importantly, how this would shape my life as an adult. The reason I felt so responsible is popularly called a lack of boundaries. I see now how ludicrous this is. My mother had 4 children in 5 years, a husband who worked full time and worked on a graduate degree full time, and she had no mother of her own to help. Add to this that she felt like a fish out of water in an upscale community, having come from humble beginnings, and there were alcohol issues in the family, and we see a recipe fraught with disaster. When she was stressed she had reason to be. And that reason wasn’t me.
As I grapple with this issue I wonder why I took on such a burden, when my siblings did not. What was it that made me think I had such power that I could change the mood in our home at the snap of a finger? Why did I feel responsible when they didn’t? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know, as I look over my adult years, how I came to where I now find myself.
In my early 20’s my BFF was Lynn. She and I did everything together. We spent all of our weekends together, we went to movies, we hung out at each other’s places, we had a good time. She was newly divorced and not interested in dating, I was uninterested in dating, so we were a match made in heaven. We were both working on ACOA issues (adult children of alcoholics) so we could relate in terms of steps, and co-dependency, and other buzz words of that age. One weekend she had a family wedding to go to. She was dreading it and asked me to come, which of course I did. It was about 8 hours from where we lived, and on the drive there we discussed ACOA issues and how to negotiate our own growing self awareness with our unenlightened families. We made a pact: neither of us would drink too much. We would be there for each other throughout the entire weekend. We would look for trouble signs and intervene on the other’s behalf. We would be each others care takers, protecting each other from the evils of alcohol and screwed up people. Most importantly, I would be there for her. It was a great plan. Until I blew it and got drunk.
I don’t remember why I got drunk. Was it inadvertent, like I was unaware of the power of the drinks I was consuming? It’s possible. That had happened in college once, when I attended my first martini party. Or had I gotten drunk deliberately, so I wouldn’t have to face the situation? Or, as Lynn believed, had I just been so selfish that I got drunk for no reason at all, other then my own self desire to have fun. Whatever the reason, it ended our friendship. An 8 hour drive is a long drive when someone is furious with you. My feeble attempts to apologize were met with rage. I had abandoned her in her time of need and there was no excuse. And it is true – there was no excuse. Had she and I had proper boundaries though, this would not have been a make or break it situation. Had she not felt that I could control her experience at this family event, she would never have looked at me to do so. Had I not felt I possessed the power to change the mood of any situation, I would never have accepted the assignment. I gave up trying to apologize after the first 1/2 hour and spent the rest of the trip silently berating myself for being such a failure and deserting my friend. We never spoke after that weekend. As I look back at this now I see how crazy it all was. I couldn’t protect her from her demons, only she could do that. It wouldn’t have mattered if I hadn’t gotten drunk that night; her experience would have been the same. The only difference would have been my lack of a hangover the next day. But it was with this experience weighing heavy in my mind that I started to retreat.
A few years later I had just finished my graduate degree, I had a decent job, a nice car, and I lived alone. And I loved living alone. I loved spending weekends alone, I loved coming home to only me, knowing my home would be exactly as I’d left it, knowing I had control over the mood I felt, feeling for once there was some predictability to my life. Yet at the same time, I felt intense loneliness. I wondered what was wrong with me that I didn’t want to go out with my friends? Why did I decline invitation after invitation? Why did I look the other way whenever a cute, appropriately aged boy looked my way? Why was I so uncomfortable in social situations, and why were they so exhausting and scary, especially in light of the fact that my social skills are excellent. I declined invitations from my friends, I missed dinner parties, I stayed home during important nights out. I expanded my enjoyment of my alone time by getting a vcr and watching movies alone. I read more. I held opportunities of social engagement at arms length, because it was clear to me that I was an Accident Waiting to Happen. The issues I thought I had overcome from my childhood, my ability to bring down the mood of an entire room with the sweep of my words, my ability to save even those I loved the most from pain and discomfort, it was all still there. I was still responsible. And a failure.
It was during this time that I met my ex. It was if I was a keg, fully pumped and ready to sustain any thirsty person who came along, and in he walked. And, as he began his love bombing, I was primed and ready to take it all in, to accept that I was his savior, to believe that I had another chance to do good in the world. I guess I can liken it to Star Wars. I grew up believing I possessed the dark force, I had a brief respite during which I thought I had learned the light force, only to find out I was still on the dark side. Until he came along, telling me I was his light, his soulmate, his guardian angel.
While I had shied away from social events, believing I was one step away from wreaking havoc, my ex’s family became my beacon of hope. They, like he, were socially awkward and shy. They were afraid of being intrusive in other’s personal lives, so they remained aloof. Only to protect those around them of course. They did not “pry” into others pasts, present, or future. They kept to themselves. They were reserved, shy, religious people, who only needed bubbly old social butterfly me to save them. And save them I did. I could feel the mood change at holiday gatherings when I entered the house. I could feel a staid, somber occasion turn into a lively, loving event. I could inspire the conversation, the concern, the sharing, the warmth they so desperately needed. And yes, this was a great responsibility, but it was also a great power. I had the power to change the course of a meal. And change them I did. With flair.
Of course, with great responsibility and great power comes great exhaustion and great stress. Perhaps in a way, my illnesses were my bodies way of getting drunk and avoiding the responsibility. During those times when I was too sick to attend events, I felt tremendous relief when my ex and the boys left the house. I wasn’t relived because of the quiet, or the solitude, I was relieved because I didn’t have to perform. Whatever happened at that gathering would not be my responsibility, and I had no power to direct it.
I came to resent my in-laws and their claims that they were shy, and socially unable to converse like normal people. I grew tired of hearing about this “gift” I had that made people feel at ease, that facilitated conversation and relationships. I grew angrier and angrier, each time I was told they had no responsibility to be social because they didn’t possess the “gift”; that was mine and mine alone. And my confusion grew; in leaps and bounds. Why did I yearn to watch my ex and the boys leave without me, yet feel so lonely after they had gone? All I wanted was to be alone, but it left me unhappy. As I grew sicker and sicker, as the pattern repeated over and over and over again, I began to accept that I was the disturbed party. It was I that needed help. I was the one who was to blame for everything that went wrong in our marriage, our family, our business. The power and the responsibility; all mine. And I had failed. Miserably. Instead of being his guardian angel, his families beacon of hope, the social butterfly who brought everyone together, I was an invalid and, worse yet, I shunned his every attempt to salvage our relationship. It was I that was at fault when I didn’t want to go out to dinner; It was I that was at fault when I was too sick to go to a party, or even a funeral. It was all me. Just as I had as a young child, I had ruined everything.
I now know that he and his family don’t “lack the gift” of social ability, they are just too narcissistic to care. I now know that I wasn’t at fault for not wanting to go out to dinner with him, with his dark moods and unwillingness to engage in civil conversation. I now understand that it wasn’t I who set a bad mood in our home; in fact, it was him. He was the one who walked into an otherwise serene and sunny home and turned it into the Temple of Doom. And, contrary to what he told us and anyone else who would listen, he wasn’t husband of the year. When he came home at 9:30, after having been gone since 8AM, when all the kids were in bed and everything done, he always said “do you need anything”, as if he honestly cared and was concerned. I did not misinterpret those statements. Those statements meant: I’m home now so I want credit for being a good husband but I have nothing to give you. I suppose that is the bottom line; he had nothing to give. Ever. I was the keg, he was the red solo cup and the keg was empty. Of course the red solo cup would move on, seeking sustenance.
Last night the boys were to be with him from 4 till 7:30. I was a bit nervous about being alone during this time, as I was about being alone today. I have always worked my ass off to make Christmas the happiest time of the year, and it always was. We were together and, for a time, always happy, loving and at peace.
Last night, when they left, I started baking cookies and, while a batch was in the oven, I looked at the Christmas Lights I had lit and saw the candles all over the room and, before I knew it, I had lit every single candle and turned off all of the lights except the colored ones. I turned the music up loud, the way I like to hear it, and I danced and I sang and I baked and I felt joy at the beauty of it all. I wonder what would have happened had the boys not returned home at 5:45. Would I have continued to marvel in the beauty of my “home”? Would I have continued to dance, and sing, and be loud and inappropriate and full of joy? Or would the loneliness have set in? And today, while they are with their dad and I sit here writing this, I feel a sense of wholeness in my stomach. It’s that feeling you get when you are down to the remaining 3 or 4 puzzle pieces. You feel excitement at finishing and admiring your accomplishment, but there is also a sense of loss, in that you no longer have this challenge to face and must find another. Is that what I’m feeling? The joy of finally understanding this, mixed with the sense of loss for these feelings I have held for so long? Even as I write this I know I am not “healed”. When my boys came home early last night I wondered what I could do to make them have fun on Christmas eve. I wondered if I had done something to make them leave him so early. In my heart of hearts, though, I know that they came home early because there is no need to be with him. He doesn’t care if they are there or not. They are a prop, a small part in his play, side stories in his novel of life. And today, if they come home early again, I will feel a sense of responsibility. I have spent their entire lives making sure Christmas was the happiest day of the year. What right do I have to abandon them now? But I also know it is not my fault; I can’t do their father’s part for him.
My heart breaks for them, as they learn how little their father has for them. My heart breaks for them as they watch how much their mother has grown, how much their lives have, and will continue, to change. And I finally (think) I understand that while my heart might break for them, I can not change their experience. I can not give them true happiness. I can’t wrap it up and put it under the tree. I can’t fill their stockings with a whole family, or a normal childhood, or an available father.
All I can give them is the new me. All I can do is hope that it is enough.