The Beginning of Something Else

On June 1, 2007 I found out my husband and partner of almost two decades had been unfaithful to me since before our marriage, and had been having intercourse with prostitutes for 3 1/2 years. This is what happened next.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Grey is the new black and white

Tonight in my S-Anon meeting I was reminded about a large part of the reason I ended up married to an addict.

My mother's father was the child of an alcoholic father. His mother, my great grandmother, divorced her abusive husband in a time and a culture where that was unheard of, so it must have been pretty bad.

My grandfather didn't drink, didn't have any addictions as far as I know. But he was an absolutist and a dictator. If he said the sky was pink, everybody would have to agree knowing full well that they could see it was blue and that everybody else could see it was blue. If Grampa said it was pink, it was pink.

As a child of such an oppressive father, my mother developed a very absolutist view of the world - black and white, good and bad, no room for shades of grey. No room for mistakes. No excuses. No second chances.

Mom isn't harsh, but I can feel the judgment. She's good at the passive aggressive guilt-trip. I wasn't even aware of the dynamic until the past year and a half of therapy. But I recognize it in our interactions now.

In my black and white childhood there were rules. For example, rules about what "good people" do and don't do. Good People don't rock the boat, don't make others feel uncomfortable, don't impose on others, don't boast, follow orders, think of others first. I'll even go as far as to say it was implied that good people don't feel deserving and don't expect anything in return for sacrifice. In fact, the very best Good People suffer in silence for a lifetime.

So, striving to be worthy of the Good Person mantle, I never developed boundaries or tools for dealing with conflict. (There was no open conflict because of the previously mentioned Good People qualities.)

Instead I developed the ability to be reasonable, understanding, accommodating and nice no matter what. (Except when I was mean, which I have been with my husband and my mother. But I could never see that because I defined myself as a Good Person and there was no room for a Good Person to be wrong or bad. Otherwise that Good Person would then be a Bad Person.)

I defined the world in terms of good and bad, right and wrong, smart and stupid, perfect and awful. It was all very clear.

What happened next?

Ta-daaa! My higher power saw I was missing some tools, and provided me the opportunity to gain those tools. Poof! Enter sex addict husband!

Nowadays I remind myself that I don't have to be a Good Person. I give myself room to be human. And I make a lot of mistakes. Then I clean up as best I can. Then I move into the next moment. Sometimes this happens easily, sometimes it takes a lot of effort.

Sometimes I forget that I'm only human. But eventually I remember. And then I feel peaceful and free. I'd so much rather be human than Good, Right, Smart or Perfect.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Walking off a cliff

This past weekend I took a workshop about developing and performing solo work. I was terrified, so I knew I must be heading in the right direction.

After the first meeting on Friday I almost pulled out, full of that nagging fear that I have nothing to say, nothing to offer. But over and over again I brought myself back the new mandate I've given myself: Give my gifts and celebrate what has been accomplished.

And as it turns out, once again, I'm glad I didn't run away from the fear as my body so wanted to do. Once again, I got so much out of staying.

Over the course of the weekend I developed this piece, which I performed last night for a small audience in a tiny theater:

The Perfect Gift

Gifts have been an issue for my husband and me since early in our relationship.

We met in Seattle in 1988 doing fringe theater. He was sharing a room in a crack house with 3 other guys (not crack addicts, just alcoholics) and working at a popcorn stand under the monorail. Future husband material, right?

But smart, funny and creative are my drugs of choice when it comes to men and he was all of those things.

The $70 a week he made selling popcorn supported his life as one of the founders of a small theater. This theater was started by a group of old friends just out of college. It was a labor of love and produced astounding original work fueled by the arrogance of youth, pitchers of beer, sex and cigarettes.

Probably the first gift he gave me, though I didn't recognize it at the time, was teaching me improv. In improv you make it up as you go. You get a location, you say yes, you define the space, define your characters – high status, low status - you give your partner gifts, you give up control. If you have faith in the process, you can create great art. Or at least, funny art. Or you can suck.

It was in those rehearsals that I learned to walk off a cliff. Sometimes I'd fly, sometimes I'd crash an burn. But I learned about living in the present moment and trusting that even though you don't know what's going to happen... something's going to happen. And that no matter what, after that, good or bad, there's a new moment and a new possibility.

Life in Seattle was good. It was a fertile time. Nirvana was playing all ages shows around town. Microsoft and Starbucks were heating up. And Seattle was a theater town. Regional theater, Fringe Theater, children's theater, theater in the park. A lot of theater. It was also a great city for food, and Husband and I discovered Thai food. We loved it all, from the authentic but pricey place on Capital Hill to the cheap place in the U District that used ketchup for their Pad Thai sauce.

Husband prided himself on his cooking. Although looking back the only thing I remember him cooking is spaghetti sauce. But I was smitten and really didn’t notice that he wasn’t exactly a prolific chef. So that Christmas I got him a gift I was sure he’d love - Tommy Tang's Modern Thai Cuisine Cookbook. Perfect, right?

Well, he hated it. In fact, he was offended. Somehow it (and I) had failed to meet his expectations. I was crushed. After that, giving him gifts got hard because there was always that underlying anxiety of getting the wrong thing. But we made it through that little bit of pain and kept going.

Nothing major happened in the gift area for several years until one Christmas. That was the year he couldn't wait and gave me my present early. He got down on his knees at the end of our bed, totally naked, and proposed. I was filled with love. The ring was beautiful. I said yes. That was a good gift.

After we'd been married for about 4 years he asked me if I wanted kids.

“Yes, but I don't think I'm ready yet”

“Sometimes it takes a long time. So maybe we should start trying. Just in case.”


That sounded reasonable.

Nine months later we got the best gift we'd ever given each other: Our son.

I remember that feeling – coming home from the hospital with stitches in my gut and a prescription for Vicodin thinking, “Please! Don’t send us home! We have no idea what we’re doing!” But nope. They pack you up, wave goodbye, and then your in your car and on your own. But as it turns out, for the first few months the baby mostly eats, sleeps and poops, so it’s not a complex as you’d think it would be.

So, very little expertise, and not much sleep either, but once again we made it through.

Having a kid is one of the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it’s also the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s a really good gift.

The first Christmas after Son was born all the presents Husband had bought got stolen out of the trunk of our car, including a huge basket of fancy beauty products from Kehil’s. So he went back to Kehil’s to get more presents and ended up telling them the story of his stolen gifts. A charming guy with a good story, right? The manager disappeared for a moment and returned with a basket full of shampoos and soaps and lotions and scrubs – for free! So now, we’re Kehil’s customers for life. That’s a good gift!

My recent attempts, however, have proved only moderately successful. The $400 iPod that he lost almost immediately. The beautiful watch I got him for our 10th anniversary that got left at the gym. Somehow I feel like I’ve missed the mark. I still haven’t found the Perfect Gift that he loves and treasures.

On June 1, 2007, I found out that my husband of almost a decade, the love of my life for close to 20 years had been keeping a secret – leading a double life of sorts. The person I knew and trusted more than anyone else in the world had been hiding things from me since before we were married. In an instant, my very best friend, my partner, my lover...died and I found myself in an intimate relationship with a stranger.

Now at this point I know at least some of you are wondering, “What was the secret? What did he do?” And I’m gonna tell you that it’s irrelevant, because it’s not about him. It’s about me.

So what do you do when the world as you know it falls away and there is no ground on which to stand? Not even a branch or vine to grab on to and you feel so raw, like your skin has just been seared off with a blow torch?

I wanted to do what I’d done when I was 12 and my dad went camping and never came back. His note claimed that he was leaving the country to seek experimental treatments for some disease. Five months later we found him in a hippie commune trying to "find himself."

I wanted to do what I’d done then. To shut him out. To swear off trust. To swear off needing anyone else ever again.

But, there was the matter of that earlier gift he’d given me. So it wasn’t just about me and my pain. I had a son to raise. I didn’t want to just walk away. I wanted to stay – in the midst of fear and groundlessness –to see if I could still give my little boy this family we’d started together.

It’s been almost two years now, and during that time I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve made my husband responsible for my happiness. I’ve trusted what he thought and said over my own better judgment and intuition. I draw with a Sharpie instead of a pencil. room for mistakes. And I’m so afraid of conflict because of what it might mean about me that I immediately invalidate, fix and change without listening. Great wife material,right?

Staying with the pain and discomfort of betrayal, not running, not distracting myself, (though I have to admit I went through a lot of single malt scotch in those first few months) I’ve discovered that I CAN take care of myself. Not as a stop-gap until I find someone else to do it. Not as a defense. But as a way to be awake and conscious in my life.

I can make the choices and decisions I used to leave to others. I can move forward on my path even in the face of the scariest shadow of all – the unknown.

And so, 20 years later, my husband and I find ourselves doing improv together again. Trying to be in the present moment, to let go of past mistakes and create a new relationship without any idea of what the future might be. It’s a pretty big cliff and it’s definitely frightening. But he’s working hard, I’m working hard, and we make it up as we go.

I read a quote recently. It said, "only to the extent to which we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us."

That is the gift my husband has given me. And it’s a really good gift.