I was told four years ago by a mental health professional that perhaps a future goal of mine should be having “appropriate relationships” with people. Say what?
This meant behaviors like blackmailing friends to do what I want, co-dependently controlling those around me and defaulting to martyr people pleaser mode would have to stop. Also getting the heave-ho in this quest for appropriateness? One night stands, relationships built on substances and friends acquired because of their status.They would have to be replaced by giving to others without wanting something in return, not dominating conversations with overblown emotions and generally being more considerate. This all seemed pretty difficult especially not letting emotions steamroll my whole life. When you grow up in alcoholism land, explosive crying, insane rages of anger and non-stop arguing are just kind of the norm. I learned it early and practiced it all throughout my 30s. Emotions, either of the crazy variety or the extreme repressed flavor, could become weapons in relationships and I wasn’t afraid to use them to get what I needed. Also, when you’re high and drunk for a couple of decades, the concepts of normal and appropriate become incredibly warped. You mean not everyone throws electronic devices at their boyfriends? My bad. So re-learning how to be a better friend, husband, brother and son has been a journey just like my recovery. The biggest thing I’ve learned and have to relearn pretty regularly is that not everything is about me.
Hard to believe but it is true. Dominating situations with emotions, personal drama and personal wants is the oldest of old behavior and something that needed to go. Teenage histrionics were something fitting at the time but in my late 30’s they were just pathetic. I’ve learned this isn’t about ignoring how I feel. Quiet the contrary. It’s about breathing and honestly assessing situations before I let emotions drive my bus into the Grand Canyon. The other thing this mental health person told me was I had to remember that no one could make me feel anything. What. A. Revelation!!! If I was in charge of my emotions, I could no longer blame others for making me feel certain things and therefore escape accountability for my actions. Again, this was another tall order. But if I wanted relationships built on love and honesty, I had to knock it off.
Today, being the married man I am, I have lots of opportunities to practice (and forget) these lessons. While my small group of friends and I indulge in the occasional bawdy, inappropriate conversation, I’m proud to say these relationships are appropriate. Free of guilt, ridiculous expectations and questionable motives, my friendships are simply allowed to be fun, supportive and precious. In my day job, I do a lot of social media marketing for clients on Facebook, Twitter and the like. I recently had to explain to a client the difference between ‘personal’ and ‘social”. Social is a lively Facebook thread about something timely from pop culture, for example. Personal, and therefore maybe not the kind of thing you should post, would be things like posting photos from a recent neck boil operation or the details of your divorce. As we discussed this delicate art of being able to express personality and humor without crossing into inappropriateness, it dawned on me I was the one being asked for advice on this kind of thing. Me, the former master of disaster relationships! Talk about a change. My friend the mental health professional would be so proud.
“Oh, please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!” might be the best line in a children’s book ever. But Maurice Sendak created so many great lines and images and moments, it would be impossible to pick just one. Sendak would have been 85-years-old today (if you haven’t checked out the Google Doodle in honor of Sendak, please do so now) and his legacy is a profound one on me. I remember reading and rereading Where the Wild Things Are over and over again as a kid. It scared me. It sadden me. It made me laugh. Where the Wild Things Are was passed through our family with its ripped pages, torn cover and scribbled on backside. Books like this one along with Where the Sidewalk Ends and everything Jim Henson touched on television were the things that made me want to tell stories of my own. My appreciation for Sendak certainly grew as I got older. When I worked at my parent’s bookstore in high school, I saw firsthand how kids were still in love with his books. It’s a special artist whose works endures and touches so many generations and Sendak was certainly that.
Last year, I watched the incredible Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak and again my love for the guy exploded. So brilliant, honest and open Sendak isn’t shy about who he is and what he believes. As a gay man, Sendak had to hide his 50-year relationship in fear that it would ruin his career as a children’s book author. Also incredibly moving are Sendak’s stories of his much loved siblings. Being a person who loves their brothers and sister, I related big time. And he was also very, very funny. For proof, please watch his hysterical, no-holds-barred interview on The Colbert Report.
So Happy Birthday, Maurice Sendak! Thanks for teaching me how to be a wild thing.
The funny thing about optimism is that even though its something I whole heartedly believe in, it can vanish the minute the waters get rocky. Like it’s incredibly easy for me to preach, “Don’t worry. This too shall pass” to other people but practicing in my own life? That’s another story. I’m sort of on-paper, in theory kind of optimist but will flip-flop back to pessimist land in the blink of an eye. You know, kind of like the friend of your’s from college who went vegan but still ate chicken sandwiches when no one was around. So knowing this about myself as I do now, I sort of have to work overtime to keep optimism and faith alive.
Staying out my pre-programmed Irish thinking of “This world’s going to hell in a handbasket!” can be accomplished if I do things that make me feel good. I was once told that I could slowly achieve self-esteem if I practiced estimable acts. Once someone explained to me what estimable acts actually were (by the way gossiping and buying cocaine did not make the list. Go figure.), I’ve been able to live by this. Mainly, it boils down to thinking of others. If I’m wrapped up in my own garbage, my day is usually garbage. But if I’m busy doing things that make me feel good like helping my fellow-man, my day usually gets better. Sometimes, Its texting somebody I know is having a rough time. Sometimes, its making coffee for a meeting. Sometimes its letting my husband sleep in. And in a pinch, holding the door open for somebody or picking up some thrash can be lifesavers too.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that after a few weeks where I honestly felt crappy and felt like things weren’t ever going to get better, they have. This is largely in part because I kept doing stuff that helped others and myself. Even when it drove me nuts. On this Sunday evening, I am actually optimistic. I’m working on some great projects. My relationships are good. I have some fun events this summer. The amazing thing about being sober is that I have seen my life and other people’s lives change. I beleive that my life is only getting more incredible as the days pass, even if I can’t see exactly it at the time. The song is right– anything could happen. And more than that, I think it already is happening.