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Almost Whole

“Things that are broken can be made whole.” That’s my favorite line in Little Princes.

Conor Grennan did not volunteer at the orphanage in Nepal for religious purposes. When he decided to start a non-profit organization for the sole purpose of rescuing 7 of the orphans he met from drug traffickers, he still did not think he was doing God’s will. But there were so many miraculous incidents that allowed him to succeed in his mission of finding these orphans, and their parents, and reuniting their families, that he decided to buy a Bible so that he could rediscover God.

This line was actually spoken by Conor’s friend, Liz, who would eventually become his wife. She confessed to him that she was married and divorced by her mid-twenties. She felt so broken and ashamed at the time that she stopped going to church. She tells Conor that “God used that time of great sadness to reclaim me, to redeem me. Things that are broken can be made whole.”

Isn’t therapy, too, about making people whole? Isn’t that what I’m trying to do with my blog? I have never thought of it in those terms.

I have always feared that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Like I was born with some kind of crack in my foundation that becomes apparent whenever I make another mistake. My therapist said that perhaps these cracks are there to allow me to breathe. I didn’t believe her when she said this, and I was annoyed that she was trying to turn my fundamental flaw into something positive. Those darn therapists! Always trying to see the positive side of things.

I signed and notarized the divorce papers a few days ago. Usually every step forward makes me cry, but this one did not. Not yet, at least. Maybe it was because I had it notarized by my tennis partner after our match and went to lunch with my team afterwards, which did not leave me any time for self-reflection. Or maybe I’m finally beginning to accept that this is the right thing for both of us.

In any case, I did not beat myself up for leaving or for failing to make things work, as I usually do. I did not let my inner critic tell me that this is what I deserve. I can’t say that I am at peace with the whole thing, but I am further along than I was when I wrote the first post on divorce.

In this moment, I am focusing more on my blessings than my losses. Perhaps this means I am on my way to becoming whole.

Swashbucklers Anonymous

My name is Christy Barongan and I am a swashbuckler.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m reading The Art of Empathy in an attempt to help me with my hyperempath problem. I finished the chapter on empathic love, and it is so true of me that it freaked me out. I almost had a panic attack and had to take a nap afterwards.

In this chapter she lists 4 impediments in a potential mate: 1) a lack of emotional skills, 2) an active addiction, 3) unhealed childhood trauma, and 4) the presence of a toxic ex-mate. These impediments are practically criteria for a relationship for me. I like challenges, but come on! This is ridiculous! Reading this list drove home the fact that most my relationships had little chance of succeeding from the start.

Ironically, reading this chapter also helped me to not beat myself up about my relationship choices. I am drawn to people with these problems for the same reason that I chose to be a psychologist. I want to help people. I believe everyone is capable of turning their life around, and I am confident that I can help them do it. I never back down from a challenge, and I never give up. These are all qualities that I’m proud of.

However, I am beginning to realize that every challenge has a cost. Even if I do something I enjoy, like play tennis, write a blog post, or talk to my brother, it drains me mentally and physically. Which is OK. I love doing these things, so it’s worth it. But in the past, having the ability to help someone was reason enough to do it. Whether I wanted to do it or not was irrelevant because my wants and needs didn’t count. And I never paid attention to the impact that giving so much of myself had on my well-being.

In a way, that’s one of the benefits of being prone to depression and anxiety and of having allergies, GERD, and asthma. Now I have to pay close attention to everything I do and how it will affect me. I have to be intentional about all of my choices. It’s a pain, but it forces me to take care of myself.

Also, when I choose to do something challenging, most of the time I’m not too attached to the outcome–except in relationships. I’d like to move up to 4.0 in tennis, but if I don’t, I’ll just keep trying. Same with writing a best seller. I know the odds aren’t in my favor, but I enjoy the process, and if it never happens I won’t be devastated. I don’t even take it personally when I can’t help a client get better.

If I had the same attitude in relationships–that I gave my best effort, and that’s all I can do–then perhaps I wouldn’t feel like such a failure in them.

It also helps that McLaren calls people like me swashbucklers rather than codependents or love addicts. She describes swashbucklers as people on a heroic journey filled with impossible tasks and mythical beasts. Sort of like relationship warriors. But like Odysseus at the end of his adventures, I think I’m ready to come home.

Maybe I can use my superhero skills to save myself.  After all, who is better qualified to help me than me? I don’t even have to do it alone. I could create a support group for hyperempaths. A 12 step program for swashbucklers, if you will. I think it could be a big hit.

So if you’re interested in participating, let me know.

Self-Compassion

My compassion reserves are running low. In my last relationship I took the words of Jesus and Buddha literally about how we should be able to love everyone. It was practically a 3 year exercise in compassion. But by the end I wondered if perhaps I had misunderstood what they meant about loving others. It was a lot of work to have to channel Buddha and Christ just to tolerate being in his presence. I feel like I’m experiencing a backlash now. All those feelings I tried to deny are coming out with a vengeance. I guess I was supposed to have compassion for myself, too.

I’m not very good at self-compassion. Every time I try, the Inner Critic berates me for whining about my problems when I have a good life. I don’t know what pain is. I’m not living in a war-torn country. My life hasn’t been devastated by natural disasters or school shootings. All of the people I love are still alive. Who am I to complain?But surely I must have the right to honor my feelings. My suffering must count, too, if God cares about all of us. So I’m going to write about what’s upsetting me, without apologizing for it or justifying it or willing myself to be positive.

This week I will be moving closer to divorce. Filing forms. Getting documents notarized. More tears. More snot. You would think there would be a limit to how much it’s possible to cry over something. That 4 years would be more than enough time. I used to pray to God–plead, even–to tell me what I could do that would allow both of us to be happy. Leaving seemed like it would just make us both miserable. And it has. And I don’t see an end in sight for me, at least. I’m trying not to blame God or myself. But in this moment, my faith in a happy future is wavering and I feel like I deserve the pain.

I have 2 family members who are currently on the opposite ends of the bipolar spectrum. My brother is trying so hard but still feels terrible.  It hurts me that he’s hurting. My dad is manic. Mania feels great for the person experiencing it, but it’s hell for the rest of us. But what power do I have to make him see?  If he were my client, I could make him see our psychiatrist, get him on meds. But as a daughter, I am practically useless.

I’m afraid to answer the phone when my parents call. Which makes me feel horribly guilty, because I know their time on earth is limited and I will regret not talking to them more when they’re gone. But the call is almost always about something bad. Something I’m expected to fix. Or something I don’t want to do. At minimum, I’m supposed to be a receptacle for the stress, but I can’t take it. It’s too much. I’m not able to function afterwards.

So I have to be strategic about when I call or when I answer. It has to be a time when it will be OK if I fall apart. But since it’s hard to choose something where there’s a good chance you’ll fall apart, I often forget to call altogether. Which makes me feel even guiltier and reactivates the vicious cycle. I wish it could be easier. I wish there were some way I could be a good daughter but also protect myself.

It takes a lot of work to maintain my health. Since I have GERD, allergies, and exercise-induced asthma, I have to take shots, nasal sprays, pills, steroid inhalers, rescue inhalers. I’m not supposed to have coffee and chocolate. I can’t eat or drink 3 hours before exercise or bed time. If I drink too much during a match, I’ll even throw up water. It’s frustrating to have to worry about throwing up every time I play. Or brush my teeth, even. But giving up dental hygiene and tennis are not options.

My mental health is always hanging in the balance. It’s work to maintain my sleep cycle because of my night owlness. I can’t miss any of my drugs. I can’t miss Ativan for even one night. I meditate, pray, journal, exercise, and all of the other self-care strategies. But despite my best efforts, I can never make it to the end of the term without burning out before I cross the finish line. I can’t handle the stress of my life. I can’t get out of bed right now. It makes me feel weak. Inadequate. Unable to do the basic tasks of life.

Just got a call from my lawyer friend that my paperwork looks good to go, so I guess I’ll be filing for divorce this week for sure. If you believe in God, feel free to say a prayer for me. If you don’t, send positive vibes my way.

100th Post!

One of my favorite books of all time is What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty. It was our most popular book in our Remedial Book Club; we actually had a meaningful discussion about it for the entire meeting. Ordinarily we talk about the book for 30 minutes–mostly about who would play the characters if the book were turned into a movie–and then we eat, drink, and gossip about people in the tennis community for 2 hours.

The book is about a woman who falls off her bike in spinning class and loses her memory of the past 10 years. In her current life, she is about to turn 40, has 3 children, and is going through a bitter divorce. After the accident, she thinks she is 29, madly in love with her husband, and is about to have her first child. The book also follows the stories of Alice’s mom, sister, and grandmother, all of whom are in the process of letting go of grief. In addition to being hiLARious, the book also makes you reflect on who you have become and what you thought your life would be like.

I am now in the process of filing for divorce, at my husband’s request. I am glad that I waited until he was ready, because now he understands why our marriage can’t work. I have a better appreciation for the significance of rituals. Even though it’s just a formality, since we’ve been apart for almost 4 years, the legal aspect of it has reawakened my grief about losing him. Of all the people I’ve been with, he is by far the one who was the most stable, reliable, and trustworthy. It saddens me that this wasn’t enough to make things work.

I will be 45 in a few months, and I would have never predicted that this is what my life would look like. Although it is still sad and scary to be alone at times, I am thankful for this opportunity to get to know myself better. I am still experiencing compassion fatigue from my last relationship, and I really want my next one to be different.

I’m currently reading The Art of Empathy, by Karla McLaren. It’s the first book I am aware of that teaches hyperempaths like me how to keep from burning out. I’m hoping that this will help me be more intentional about my next relationship. I’m hoping that it’s possible to break the pattern of relationships that you’ve grown up with and that you’ve followed all your life and to start anew.

Since I have reached my goal of 100 posts, I thought I would also take stock of my blogging life, which is much more positive. This blog is the first time that I’ve shared my writing with others, and I am so proud of what I have written so far. Even prouder than I was when I finished my dissertation.

I’ve been trying to write on and off for about 10 years now but only took it seriously a few years ago. Until then, I never realized how demon-filled the writing process was. Every time I sat down to write, Perfectionism, the Inner Critic, and the Drill Sergeant were all there to meet me, reminding me of how much I suck. So to commit to blogging 3 times a week–and to share the most vulnerable parts of myself in every post–is a huge accomplishment.

However, now that I’ve learned more about publishing, I am forced to accept that the odds of writing a best seller are not great, and even if it does happen, it won’t be any time soon. I’m not going to give up, of course, because I never give up, but I’m trying to focus more on the process of writing rather than the end result.

I’m trying to approach blogging the way I approach tennis. I’ve made $60 in prize money, which was several years ago when I won the 35 and over singles division of a tournament. (I was also the #1 rated 35 and over singles player in Virginia that year!) But I spend hundreds of dollars a month on tennis, so as a money-making enterprise, it’s a failing business.

But that’s OK. I’m not doing it to make money. I play tennis because it’s fun, because it challenges me, and because I have made wonderful friends. Although my romantic relationships have been a disappointment, my friendships have far exceeded my expectations.

Blogging is also fun and challenging, and I enjoy getting to know my readers and other bloggers. And it’s way cheaper than playing tennis. So I’m going to set another goal, which is to write another 100 posts by my blog’s first birthday, which is September 24.

Hope to see you then!

Memory

I love the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” I love the idea that even if you take the memories away, the love between two people remains. And I like the message that we must experience pain in order to experience joy. But lately I’ve been wishing I could erase the painful memories from the past 10 years.

Let me first say that I am thankful for my memory, lest I be struck down with dementia for being ungrateful. It helps in my job because clients expect you to remember everything they’ve told you from the first session on. And when you see 30+ clients a week, that’s a lot of stuff to remember.

The most painful memories help me to have more compassion for other people’s suffering. When I was depressed, I could not conceive of any possible value that could come from my pain. But now that my brother is depressed, I am better able to help him because I know what he’s going through. You’re not afraid to sit with other people’s pain once you know firsthand how lonely it is.

My memory also helps me capture the intensity of my feelings when I write about my experiences, which hopefully makes my blog better. I am guessing that most writers have good memories and intense feelings. But sometimes it can be a tough combination. That’s probably why writers are so neurotic.

Lately there have been some memories that I wish I could forget. Or at least remember without feeling like it’s happening all over again. It’s almost like having PTSD, reliving these hurtful experiences every time they pop up.

Yesterday I remembered how my first husband told me while we were separating that I have a heart of gold. He said it was the happiest day of his life on our wedding day and the saddest day of his life when we signed the divorce papers. How can you feel that way about someone and still choose to leave them? What good does it do to have a heart of gold if it doesn’t help you make a relationship work? In a way I am thankful that he was loving through the entire process, but sometimes I wish I didn’t remember how I felt at all.

The letting go process in my second marriage has been just as painful. It hurts just as much now as it did 4 years ago. It still makes me cry. Every step we take away from each other renews my sadness. When will this grief subside? That whole one year estimation is a bunch of crap. I wish I could just forget the past 4 years–all the pain and all the stupid things I did to try to ease the pain that just made things worse.

The only memories I would miss from the past 4 years are the first trip when my mixed doubles team went to districts, getting Federer’s autograph at the Cincy tournament, and UVA’s basketball season this year. Which makes me seem like some superficial sports fanatic, but it’s true. In my defense, part of what made these experiences memorable is that I shared them with my friends and family. I’m sure there were other positive memories worth holding on to during that period of time, but I can’t think of any at the moment. Right now, all I remember is the pain.

The only good thing about this second divorce is that it helps me understand how you can love someone and still let them go, even when it breaks your heart. I’m not angry at my first husband any more for leaving. I understand why he did it. It doesn’t alleviate the pain of either loss to realize this, but I have a better appreciation for how complex love and marriage are. That’s something.

Today I’m not able to do the things I try to focus on in my blog–practice self-forgiveness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. But maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently.

Whose Fault is It?

I love playing games.  One of my favorites is the Blame Game.  Even though any couples therapist will tell you that you’re not supposed to do this, I’ll use every piece of evidence of every argument I can remember to prove that it’s not my fault.  I have no doubt this has contributed in part to the demise of some of my relationships.

However, even though I don’t like being at fault, I also blame myself for everything.  I’m one of those people who takes too much responsibility for problems.  Maybe that’s why I am also willing to do more than half of the work to try to “fix” the relationship.

The whole blame and responsibility thing is even harder to sort out when you throw in mental illness.  Lets say, for example, that you have an abusive alcoholic father.  Is it his fault if he hits you while he’s black out drunk?  Is it his fault that he has an addiction-prone brain and can’t just have one drink?  What if he had been sober for a year but relapsed because a buddy guilt-tripped him into going to a bar to celebrate his new job?  What parts of the alcoholism are his responsibility?

In my work, the Blame Game is the most problematic in a sexual assault.  It is often the case that both parties were drinking.  However, when friends are assigning blame, the perpetrator is seen as being less responsible because he was black out drunk.  The victim is seen as being more responsible for allowing herself to get that drunk.

And when the victim comes to therapy, she also believes it was her fault because she had been drinking.  The perpetrator usually doesn’t come to therapy.  In rare cases, the victim will bring the sexual assault to our judicial system to get the perpetrator to take responsibility for his behavior.  And the victim almost never wins.

The two most common disorders we see in the Counseling Center are depression and anxiety.  These are disorders where the person takes too much responsibility for their problems.  If they can’t will themselves to get out of bed and go to class, it’s their fault for being lazy.  When I suggest that a client try meds for her panic attacks, she often says no.  That’s a cop out. She should be able to do it on her own.

I don’t claim to know the answers for how much blame a person should assume.  I do know that the split in assigning blame is rarely 100% to 0%.  There is always some part of the problem that we can take responsibility for.  And when we take responsibility for our part, it usually makes things better.

Sometimes no one is to blame.  This one is really hard for people to accept.  How can you play the Blame Game if it’s no one’s fault?  But let’s say a typhoon hits the Philippines and causes mass destruction.  Whose fault is it?  There is power in blame because it gives us the illusion of control.

But there is also power in forgiveness.  We can forgive the other person for wrongdoing, even if they haven’t accepted any responsibility.  And we can forgive ourselves for our role in the problem.  And forgiveness is much more freeing than blame, regardless of whose fault it is.

 

Starting Over

In my post on breakups, I talked about how sad it is that at the end of a relationship, someone who you once loved and chose to spend the rest of your life with could become someone who you hate and don’t recognize anymore.  How can both of those things be true?  Was this other person always there, lurking beneath the surface of the person you thought you knew?  It’s hard to reconcile. 
 
But then sometimes those two people who hated each other are able to put the past behind them and try again.  I am all about forgiveness, but if someone hurt me that badly, I’m not sure I would be able to give him a second chance. 
 
First of all, there’s the issue of trust.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I can be too trusting.  However, once I have been wronged, I never forget it.  And every time I remember what they did, I get upset all over again.  Starting over would require leaving all of those past grievances behind, and I’m not sure my memory and my obsessive nature would allow me to do so. 
 
Then there’s the issue of whether I could trust my judgment.  If I thought I knew the person the first time and I was wrong, how would I know if I were reading the person accurately now?  Ordinarily I’m pretty good at reading people.  But sometimes I can be in denial–especially if knowing the truth would mean letting go of the relationship.  Could I trust that I would go into it this time with my eyes wide open?
 
Granted, sometimes it’s not about an error in judgment.  Some people are really good at hiding.  But that’s scary, too.  If he fooled me before, would I know if he were hiding now? 
 
And then there would be the opinions of other people.  Which I know you’re not supposed to care about, but I do.  Would they think I’m foolish for giving him another chance?  Even if they didn’t tell me that they disapproved, I would know.  I would feel it.  And it would be hard for me to share anything about the relationship with them.  I would feel ashamed, even if I were trying not to care about their opinion.
 
Despite these reservations, If I had to make a prediction about what I would do, my guess is that I would give it a shot, because I’m an optimist.  That’s what allows me to cheer for a losing team and to believe I can come back in a match when I’m down 0-6, 0-5.  I believe in miraculous comebacks.
 
Sometimes people are afraid to try again because they’re afraid to get hurt again.  That doesn’t usually stop me.  If they hurt me once before, it’s not like it would be some big shock if it happened again.  And if I survived it the first time, I could survive it again.  And then I would know for sure that it can’t work. 
 
Plus, no one can predict the future.  No one knows for sure what will happen.  Love requires a leap of faith.  Yes, you may fall, but without taking that leap, you never get anywhere.