On Unconditional Love and Being “Good Enough”

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

– Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”

Yesterday was my first full day back home from an awesome week-long vacation. My wife & I spent the week in Los Angeles with our closest friends (another married couple) at their relative’s house. We hiked the Hollywood hills, hit up a handful of SoCal’s most popular beaches, tried the local cuisine and even got a taste of the West Hollywood nightlife. While away, I implemented a new morning routine based in Mindfulness and Self-Improvement. Perhaps I’ll blog about that later, but for now it is not relevant to my inspiration for this post.

Being back home yesterday was difficult. I am an elementary school teacher currently on Summer Break, so I didn’t exactly have to go back to work, but there are so many things on my Summer To-Do list. I know a lot of people think that teachers have it easy in the Summer, but we are working just as hard, though thankfully at (ideally…) a slower pace. After my wife left for work, I made myself a To-Do list for the day. My list included working within a Professional Development course I am taking for work, doing some of my own school work (I am working towards another degree), making a phone call, unpacking my bags from the trip, going grocery shopping and working out.

These seemed like realistic goals. I’d easily be able to accomplish them on an average Wednesday, but I didn’t account for the fact that I am terribly jet-lagged on top of the usual vacation hangover we all experience to one extent or another after traveling. I felt overwhelmed as the hours ticked-by and I felt more & more exhausted. I wanted to have everything done by the time my wife got home, but it just didn’t seem like it was going to happen.

This is where I should have said to myself, “It’s okay, you’ve been traveling and your body is still adjusting to being back home. You can go grocery shopping later and if you don’t work out today it won’t be the end of the world. You tried your best and that’s all you could have asked for from yourself.” Instead, I told myself I was lazy, should have gotten up earlier, not shopped for running shoes online (I realized I couldn’t go for a run because I have been desperately needing new running shoes and had retired my old ones in California after taking them on one last rendez vous to the Hollywood sign–kinda like giving a dog all their favorite treats and taking them to the park before their appointment to be euthanized later that day), and just tried harder overall.

This was obviously very negative self-talk. When my wife got home the feeling of being a failure immediately sank in, because I still had grocery shopping and working out staring at me without a Strikethrough in sight. Once she got settled, we took our dog for her evening walk. Evening walks have an obvious benefit for our dog, but it is also a time where my wife & I are able to connect. During these walks, we have some of our best conversations–we process dreams, events that stood out at work, lingering thoughts on our minds, and voice our fears & anxieties. During our walk, I talked about the things I got done, but the conversation kept coming back around to me expressing how unaccomplished I was feeling.

My wife said that it sounded like I’d had some unrealistic expectations and that I needed to adjust my mindset, this was true. She also said that I had done a great deal considering how tired we both are (she called in to work in the morning to say she’d be in late so that she could sleep-in a few hours–much needed) and how much catching-up needed to get done. Since I had made the shopping list and did some meal-planning already, she suggested that once we got back from our walk, we’d just go food shopping together. I suggested that since it was a shorter list (only a half-week’s worth of items) that we could go to the closest grocery store instead of our usual market which is across town.

We agreed and the plan was set. but when she asked me what was on my mind after that, I couldn’t help but acknowledge the fact that I still felt like a failure. Because I couldn’t accomplish my goals for that day on my own, I started freaking out about how I’d never accomplish all of my goals set for the Summer. I was complaining about how the Summer was almost over–which it is not–and that I had barely done anything to show for it–which is not true. We were now back in our house and I was sitting on our couch as she sat on the floor beside me. She stopped me and said all of the things I should have told myself earleir, “It’s okay, you’ve been traveling and your body is still adjusting to being back home. You can go grocery shopping later and if you don’t work out today it won’t be the end of the world. You tried your best and that’s all you could have asked for from yourself. You’ve been doing a lot this Summer–too much at times–and you’ve gotten so many things done or made progress within. I love you and I’m proud of you.”

Just as she said those last words, I realized that I didn’t believe her. Or at least, that I only believed half of it. I believed that she loved me, and I knew that everything she had said before that was true, but I felt a wall go up when she said she was proud of me. I felt I was trapped inside of a glass case and everything she said after I love you was muffled and I felt so alone. I told her that I wanted to believe her, but I couldn’t. When she asked me why I felt that I could not believe her, I broke right down into tears because I knew exactly why.

***

When I was in High School, I ran as a sprinter in Track & Field. I was talented enough to be on the Varsity team from the beginning of my Freshman year. In my Senior year, I became Team Captain and managed to graduate with the School Record for having the most School Records. I had also been cast as a lead role in a Theatre production (I pursued acting in the Fall when sprinting season for Track was not active). I was selected by my teachers to take part in a Leadership class and met all credit requirements for early graduation. In order to maintain eligibility to run Track, I opted to partake in an Internship program my school offered in place of traditional classes for early graduation candidates which spanned across my final semester. Colleges were beginning to recruit me and after so many years of struggling to cope with my mother’s alcoholic behavior, I was so ready to leave Boston.

My mother never missed a Track meet. When I was cast in a play, she bought tickets to every show, every night we performed. She would constantly tell everyone how proud she was of me and would tell me in front of everyone how she always knew I could do anything I put my mind to, how I should always reach for the stars and just keep climbing higher and higher. “You are just so awesome and you continue to amaze me. I’m so proud of you, baby,” she’d say to me from within the crowd of my teammates after I stepped down from the podium with my Track medals. We’d come home and she’d put my new medals on the display shelf which sat in our den. This shelf was the first thing people would see whenever they came into our house, so of course they would always marvel over it and my mom would go on & on about how accomplished I was and how everyone should just see me run. Sounds like the ideal life & support system for a hard-working teenager, right?

One night, I had been chatting on AOL Instant Messenger with a friend, a girl. Our conversation had gone from talking about mundane daily things with the usual subtleties of flirting to talking about our fantasies and overtly flirting. You know, racy teenager shit…dry humping and ear-lobe nibbling and such. Anyhoo, it was about 9pm so by now my mom was her usual drunk self. She’d come home every night and open a bottle of wine while she cooked dinner and then would just keep drinking as the night went on until she decided she was drunk enough to fall asleep and not wake up with a hangover the next day so that she could go to work and “be herself” again.

She usually kept to herself (and by kept to herself, I mean she would shut herself in her room after dinner, watch TV and ignore my existence until I came in her room to say goodnight) and the computer was in my room, so I was used to keeping myself occupied either chatting online with my friends or playing video games. Which is why I was caught off-guard when she appeared in my doorway and told me she needed to pay a bill online so I would need to take a break from the computer for a bit. She was quite drunk at this time…unusually drunk for a weeknight…but I didn’t question her logic, because I’d usually try to keep our interactions brief when she was drinking anyway. I found that to be the best way to keep my anxiety low, since I couldn’t escape her altogether. I told my friend I was going to take a shower and I put up an Away Message.

This is the part of the story where you kind of have to have been in-the-know about the interwebs in the early 2000s and were familiar with AOL Instant Messenger and Away Messages. I had put up a message that said something punny about taking a shower, but in my hurried state to get out of the same room as my mother, I forgot to check the box that would hide all chat boxes, even if you received incoming messages, as long as the away message remained active. While I was in the shower, my friend sent me a message. Our chat box popped up on the screen while my mother was on the computer “paying a bill (I’m pretty sure she got on the computer to snoop, anyway..)” and she had read our whole conversation. When I got out of the shower, she confronted me, less-than-gracefully, about the content of the conversation.

“What the fuck is this?! Who is this person? What are doing on the computer that I pay for? Are you stupid? You must be stupid. I know you are stupid. You’re dumb. You’re dumber than Kevin (Kevin is the younger brother of one of my teammates who has Down Syndrome). He’s smarter than you. You’re not going to go anywhere in life. You can’t even get into college (I had yet to receive any acceptance letters from schools, it was still too early in the process) and you won’t. You–“

And that is where, for the first time in my life I went completely OFF on my mother. I interrupted her next sentence and screamed “SHUT THE FUCK UP! JUST SHUT UP. You can’t even stand up straight right now and you’re telling me that I’m dumb?! You’re so drunk that you can’t even speak without your words slurring. You’re always drunk. All you do is drink and then you tell me I’m a piece of shit. Leave me alone! I don’t even want to see you anymore. I HATE YOU. I really mean that I do, I hate you.

She ran down the hallway, into her room and slammed the door behind her. I could hear her crying through her door. I shut the computer off without even looking at it. I don’t even think I shut it down properly, I just hit the power button. I could still smell the Rain scented body wash on my skin. I sat on the side of my bed, in the farthest corner of my bedroom and started to cry, silently. I heard the shuffling of my grandmother’s feet coming up the hallway…she would never pick up her feet fully when she walked in the house, so her slippers made this shuffling noise everywhere she went. She came into my room and sat next to me on the bed.

She had a box of tissues in her hands. She took one tissue out and dabbed it on my face, then handed it to me. We sat there completely silent for a moment or two. The only sounds in the house were the faint sounds coming from the TV in the kitchen and my mother’s sobs coming from behind her door. After I got my breathing somewhat under control, my grandmother took my hand in hers. “Your mother is very sick. She’s not well. She shouldn’t have said those things to you, and you shouldn’t believe her. You are a great person. You work very hard, you’re smart and you’re beautiful.You are going to go so far in your life. I know it. You’re my baby and you always will be. I love you and I’m proud of you.” We hugged, and she shuffled her way out of my bedroom. I listened to her footsteps go down the hall. She never went to my mother’s room. That night when I went to bed, I kissed my grandmother goodnight and walked right around my mother’s room, closed my bedroom door and went to bed.

The next day, it was as if nothing had happened–almost. My mother was cold towards me and very short with her words, but never mentioned what happened that night. Not the next day and not ever again. In fact, we didn’t talk about it for almost a decade until I brought it up nearly a year ago as part of my recovery to say what had gone unsaid and to let her know that that night has always stood out to me in my mind and how terribly hurt I was that she acted like she was the only person hurt during that whole ordeal. She still doesn’t want to talk about it. Again, it is one of those times where I wonder if she was too drunk to remember or if she pretends she doesn’t understand how serious it is so that she doesn’t have to deal with it. Both are the worst-case scenario, so I don’t even know why I wonder to begin with.

***

That night was not the first time my mother had put me down while drunk after praising me all day. It was not the first time I doubted myself or my abilities, but it was probably the most outstanding because it was the first time I spoke up for myself. It was the first time I let my anger towards my mother for her drinking show and it was the first time I said anything without being concerned about whether or not it would hurt her feelings to share my own. But the terrible part is, I hadn’t fully realized until yesterday that I have been walking around believing my mother.

My grandmother’s words were so tender and so kind, just like my wife’s were yesterday. They came from a place of understanding and unconditional love. They are compassionate words and the feelings expressed within are 100% authentic. I realize that now, but when my wife first told me she loved me and was proud of me, I put up that glass case so that I wouldn’t have to believe her.

My wife has never done anything to suggest she’d say one thing, but mean (or be thinking) another. She is actually a very direct person, which is one of the things I love most about her. But after years & years of being told I was great by my mother, only to be cut down by her later, I started defaulting to the belief that I am a failure if I don’t get everything done and then some, all of the time. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by what all needs to get done that I won’t even try…I’ll put it off until I feel like dealing with it. Or I’ll only do one thing a day and then spend the rest of the day trying to distract myself from the fact that I could be doing things, but I’m not because I’m afraid to fail.

When someone commends me for doing a great job or gives me a compliment, I thank them…but on the inside I’m saying to myself “If only they knew what a failure I really am.” And that doesn’t make sense. How could everyone else have such wonderful things to say about me and my efforts, if I am secretly this failure? Where is the failure? I realize that I’ve developed the terrible habit of cutting myself down whenever someone shares something they appreciate about me (even when it’s something as small as saying they like my shoes today) because I’d rather hurt myself–even when it is unnecessary–than allow anyone else to ever hurt me again the way my mother did, so many times.

After talking all of this out with my wife yesterday and allowing myself time to process, I made a promise to myself. I am going to try and deactivate my glass case. I built it a long time ago to protect myself. I needed it and it worked at the time. But I am no longer in that environment. I have sought out a healthy support system in my personal and professional life and no one in my circle would ever cut me down. I’ve got to stop putting up walls when people share something nice about me, only to tell myself I’m an impostor or a secret failure on the inside. I am no longer a child trapped in an abusive household and it’s time I started acting like it within my own mind.

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