I Don’t Belong Here

I am not like them, don’t take me wrong, I have my own issues, I have skeletons, ghosts and regrets, and I am over 25 years sober, I wore out my drinking ticket early on. More so than alcohol I really enjoyed drugs, illicit; I self-medicated for years. Then somewhere along the way I had to decide whether living was something I was game for. I had lived through physical and emotional and verbal abuse, I had my share of sexual abuse too and I even called some commercial rooftops and bridges my home for a while. That has all changed, I am sober, emotionally stable, well let’s face it stability is something of a moody little…well, you understand, it comes and goes, and I think that is applicable to everyone. But I think my stable days are far more prevalent than those days when I just can’t seem to make sense of how or why I feel a certain way.

But as I sit here in the back of the room, I feel guilty, I feel like I shouldn’t be sitting hear listening to them talk, listening to their feelings, to their honesty, to their admissions. Because I am not like them, I don’t have an eating disorder, I don’t think I ever have. I don’t understand what it’s like to break down over a snack, over eating something that should sustain my life, to not wanting to consume enough calories to satisfy my body’s needs. I don’t get why it’s so hard to stop eating, or to want to force myself to throw up afterwards. It’s not logical. I can listen to them and hear why they do the things they do but I have not experienced it and can’t put myself in their shoes, and as guilty as I feel being in the room with them, I also feel blessed.

When I quit using alcohol and drugs, I knew I could survive because I was no longer doing something that might kill me outright, I didn’t need the drink or drug to live. But with these people the very thing that is supposed to give them life, the very thing that is meant to provide them sustenance so that they may live is something they are deathly afraid of, just the thought of having a snack can trigger a panic attack sending them into a downward spiral leading to dark places, places where they question their very self-worth and depression envelopes them so much so that it blocks out all light, where the very argument for living is a losing battle.

Eating disorders have so many facets and classifications to them, it is difficult to follow for someone whom has never experienced it. There is anorexia, orthorexia, bulimia, restrictive food intake disorder and binge eating. Then there is Other Specified Feeding or Eating disorder and Unspecified Feeding or Eating disorder.  The only thing that I can share with these people is the catalyst trauma, for me dealing with my sexual abuse meant doing drugs to mask or hide the pain for a while, for someone with an eating disorder they may quit eating, absorbing the hunger pangs caused by not eating, seeking comfort in the hollow, empty feeling. Or they may seek that pain of over eating and then maybe the dizziness and pain of retching to rid themselves of the food they just consumed. For some there is a seemingly innate desire to rid their diets of everything not deemed healthy to a point where they are so anxiety ridden it affects their relationships with anyone around them, that the very thought of any form of fats or carbs is enough to stress them into a frenzy.

I get those feelings, maybe not the triggers, and maybe not always the behavior but I know what it’s like to struggle, to not see light through your own anxious shadows, or to not have a dream of the future, that the simple idea of living causes me great anxiety. Some people are starving themselves to death, committing agonizingly slow suicide by disallowing themselves much needed nourishment. I have found myself not allowing me to be happy, to do things that I know I might enjoy because some of my buddies never got the chance to do those things and lost their lives somewhere in the desert, face down in the hot sand. Sometimes its difficult not to hold it against people for enjoying themselves knowing that they can do so because my friends sacrificed everything in the name of their freedom to live.

I think the more I sit and listen, the more I hear their stories the more I realize we have more in common than possibly either of us realize. The catalyst may be different, the means of self-medicating may be different and so may the trauma and the forms that each of our sicknesses, disorders take on. I see the sadness and the pain in their eyes, I can hear the struggle and the disparity in their voices, when they speak it’s evident their throats are straining as they wrap their own arms around their knees brought up tight against their chests. They are afraid, they are desperate, and it seems there is no one their to help them. They could be standing deep inside of a crowd of people, hundreds even and still feel absolutely and utterly alone, as though no one can see them, as though no one might ever miss them.

It is devastating to be in the room with them, I want to hold them, I want to allow them to feel safe and loved and valued. I want to help them but I don’t know how, sometimes I feel like I barely made it out alive and still some days I catch a glimpse of my shadow, its cold, dark presence looming behind me, waiting for me to fall and then it can cover me, sucking the warmth from my body and stealing my will to live. Maybe that’s meant to be, maybe it’ll always be there just waiting, waiting for me to refuse to pick up the spoon or stand up and declare power over it, like the devil, just waiting for me to give in and collapse.

When I supported my wife in starting this journey, this non profit to help all those affected by eating disorders I knew I was in over my head, but I didn’t think it would affect me in the ways it has. I know what it was like to be one of the million homeless in this country, standing curbside, having not eaten, not being able to think clearly because I haven’t slept for days and watch as people flow out from the theater and throw their popcorn and half filled fountain soda’s into the trash, not being seen by them, living in the proverbial shadows as if I was wearing the cloak of invisibility. These people are there too, marginalized by society, shamed because they are overweight or ignored by fear because their lack of weight makes people uncomfortable. I admire these people, they are soldiers, the act of fighting natures programming is no small affair. They are dreamers and lovers who can’t love themselves and some of them are barely keeping their own heads above water, their feet burdened with anxiety and shame and guilt and fear and their grip on the world secured only by their fingertips, watching as people walk by over head not seeing them, not helping them.

I feel for them, I get angry at what I determine to be the only option for many, a clinically sterile treatment center that exists only to refeed them and kick them back out, with no skills, with no hope, seemingly knowing they’ll be back again soon with their insurance companies in tow. There must be a better way, no one ever talks about anything other than their shortcomings, than their poor choices and hurting others. What about their strength, what about their desires, what about their dreams and what about empowering them to live life despite everything? There are plenty of people ready and willing to tell them all about all the bad they have done, about their expectations of failure, there doesn’t seem to be enough people ready and excited to help them live out their dreams and find their passions,  these are beautiful people, smart, strong, people whom just need a hand, one to pull them out of that frigid water and into the sunlight, to give them a chance and listen to their songs. I want to be one of those people, we all should be those people. I used to think I didn’t belong here, but this is right where I belong, I need these people because they can show me what it means to fight, I need to hear their voices, it gives me strength, strength I want to use to fight for them, because put simply, as a woman who means the very world to me once said, “They are worth it, we all are worth it”.

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The Bad Guy

There is always a bad guy and a good guy in every story, it’s the very existence of which, can make for a good read. It is possible that a single character can be both, or that the bad guy is an element or idea the Protagonist forms a front against. Like in the Never Ending Story the antagonist is the Nothing, it’s a non-existence, a lack of good that the protagonist fights against. They are elements we are taught to believe in from a very early age; as babies we aren’t born with the idea that anyone is bad, but soon thereafter we learn not to trust certain others, that our parents, in most cases are the good guys.

When my children were small I propagated that myself; I taught them that if they ever were lost to look for someone in a uniform like a police officer, because they are the “good guys”. I taught them never to trust someone they did not know, strangers are bad guys, right away they learned to fear what they did not know, and strangers are bad because you don’t know them or anything about them. It may be an unfortunate lesson but one I believed would serve them better than simply trusting everyone. And sometimes we as people may go so far as to convince them of that truth by making things up that aren’t or haven’t exactly been proven, or by lumping them in with others who’ve wrong us.

An author may work so hard trying to convince the reader that a certain character is the very antagonist that they take away the opportunity for the reader to make up their own minds, based on the strength of character of that person in the story, by demonizing the person they want so badly to portray as the antagonist they can put less energy into proving why the protagonist is the good guy. It seems to me we see this daily in politics, and in social media; by making someone else look so bad it can make me look better, it seems to be the basis of every campaign strategy.

As the audience or reader we are left with the daunting task of trying to filter through all of it to try and form our own unadulterated opinion, that’s not always an easy task, and for children it can be even harder, who do I believe, who must be the bad guy, maybe it’s the one I know less about, if even what I think I know about the other person is solely what they’ve told me. The quickest way to proving one is the good guy is by portraying them as a victim, suddenly as the victim the strength of their character is no longer a major consideration; a victim must always be protected and supported.

During my previous marriage I learned that even men can become a victim of abuse, even if it is just verbal abuse and I don’t mean to say that anyone whom suffers under verbal abuse is hurt any less than someone who may suffer physical abuse, it is all relative and it can all be just as abusive and destructive. For years I never saw it, I may have felt it but I was reared not to complain, as a man I was taught to suffer through things or I might be considered a wimp, a pussy. It wasn’t until late in my marriage when I realized that if I had witnessed one of my daughters in a relationship with someone who verbally abused them or neglected them I would have most certainly stepped in, I would have attempted to save them from such abuse. Then I thought about my son and wondered if I would do the same for him. Then I looked at myself in a mirror one day, and in the lines in my face, in the shadows in my eyes I saw someone I might save if he were not a guy. How sexist of me.

In many abuse cases the abuser, the antagonist usually treats only their partner or child abusively. I had a cousin who was verbally abused intensely; her spouse treated his extended family respectfully, but would tease my cousin, his wife from time to time in front of them, it grew til he constantly teased and degraded her in front of their friends and then their children. Then he began getting her drugs, and in what I can only assume was an attempt to soften the proverbial blow she began taking them. Once she was hooked he would tell people and this made her look, to her friends, family and children that she was bad because she was a drug addict. By making her look like a bad mother and friend it made it easier for him to portray her as the bad guy and him as the victim; the poor guy who had to take care of their kids all alone. That worked of course until she committed suicide, then the lines between antagonist and protagonist became blurred, who is the victim now, the kids? Was it her or could it be him? He may also be considered the savior for their children; it makes for a complex dilemma for the reader to sort through.

My marriage had essentially ended a year or two before the divorce, I wanted to renew our vows but she did not, she said she would never do that. I had known for some time that the marriage had failed, we had tried for so many years despite our growing in different directions, we had gone to counseling and with each one at some point my wife made the decision that that counselor was the wrong one for us. The verbal abuse had grown too, it was at the point where whenever we would join our friends for dinner and my wife would drink, she began to tease me, and it would start out with her poking fun at my strange sense of humor, that it didn’t make sense. By the end of dinner she was making derogatory remarks about my political views or how I would tear up at the start of the national anthem but not when each of my kids was born, finally joking about my inability to perform sexually. When we argued she would get into my face, yelling, cursing and even threatening me. This all may sound like I can’t handle myself, like I may just be complaining, as though I might need to “grow a pair”, but for someone whose never been in this situation to this extent, woman or man, it can grow and fester like a disease, I was already suffering from PTSD and this compounded my issues, emotionally and mentally it was destructive.

Eventually this would take place in other social situations, in front of her family and in front of our own children. She constantly spoke down to me in front of the kids and blamed any discrepancy in communication on my apparent inability to communicate successfully; mind you, my job, my career is centered around my teaching folks how to navigate complex programs and communicating with employees’ throughout the world from Japan to Mexico and here in the US. I am good at it and have been for over twenty years. I am a project manager and an Engineering Coordinator. Then she decided to quit having sex with me altogether, she said she just couldn’t do it and wouldn’t until we were in a better place and that went on for over a year.

We had begun counseling once again, we were attending our own sessions but then we would also attend a group session with an additional marriage counselor as well, two counselors and my wife and I. In these sessions my wife would begin being verbally confrontational and outright abusive. The counselors would address that behavior and suggest she change it, speak more appropriately. This began to happen in each session and be carried through in our home again. By this time I felt as though I couldn’t do it any longer. I had reached the end of my patience, I knew that we each had our own issues from the past, our own skeletons and demons to fight; mine stemmed from physical and sexual abuse as a child, Post-Traumatic Stress Dysfunction from the military when I was overseas too. She had her own but always made it a point to state outright how I was the issue; the thing that needed fixing, that she was not the problem.

In many successful stories the author recognizes the value of arguing for and against what makes the antagonist and protagonist exactly that, why is he/she bad, why should you, the reader consider whether or not the bad guy is such or whether or not the good guy really is a good guy.  What is it that makes them such; the author may go so far as to leave some ambiguity in those roles so as to leave it up to the reader to make those distinctions themselves, this lends to a much more intriguing and entertaining read. And the writer becomes less of a preacher per say and more of an objective story teller.

Finally one day I wrote a letter to my wife, I stated that I could no longer take her verbal abuse, that I thought it was not only inappropriate in front of our children but also down right damaging to the relationship I had with them and that if she were to promise to quit treating me in that manner, to stop being verbally abusive that I would stick around for a year to see if we can make things work. Her immediate and only response to that letter was…”how dare you call me abusive!” She never, at that time or any thereafter asked me why I would say such a thing, why was it I felt that way? She never addressed that situation but instead turned it around to me and accused me of calling her something she was not, that I was “a horrible person for having said such a thing” about her.

Later, when I finally stated, during a counselling session after my then wife ranted in a verbally abusive manner, and after the counselors’ having had to stop and correct her, that I had decided to be done, that I no longer could deal with her abuse, that for my own mental and emotional well-being and that of the relationship between me and our children, knowing very well that I may be the bad guy for doing so, I could not stay married to her and decided then and there to seek a divorce. It scared the hell out of me, saying those words, we had been married for over twenty years and I had just made that decision and truth be told, even after that in a corner of my mind up until standing in front of the judge, I still held out some measure of hope that things would suddenly change, if for no other reason than to save months if not years of emotional distraught from affecting my kids.  It was the single most difficult thing I had ever done; I had entered villages ruled by hordes of people whom hated me and whose mission it was to kill me on sight when I was overs seas with less fear than I had in the counselors office that day.

At that moment I was both the antagonist and protagonist; the bad guy and the victim, don’t get me wrong, I was not the only victim and in this situation there are always many victims. My sisters and I were children during my own parents’ divorce, in fact as a child I lived through three divorces. So my kids, my young daughters and my son would be trying to figure out how to feel, whom they ought to side with after all its only natural to assume roles on both parents, as children we taught them right and wrong, good and bad and now they are faced with a situation in where someone must be a victim, someone must be the bad guy.

This is something we as readers all end up doing near the end of the story, we simply cannot close the book without a clear thought as to whom filled those roles, we may struggle and we may even feel bad for the antagonist, we may judge the protagonist harshly but we need to, more times than not draw a clear line, assume those roles so that we can better understand how we feel about the characters, it makes it easier to accept how things are, we can figure out how to move on more easily. It’s the basis for our judicial system, how many times have you heard of a case where at the end the judge stands and says…”so here is the deal you are both wrong, there are no victims and there are no hero’s here, so let’s call it a draw and move on.” Instead, someone must pay; someone must have the finger pointed at them. Suddenly on social media my ex-wife was the victim, she was raising her children all alone, as a single mother.

I found a place where I felt safe, a friend from a writing group where I found solace in troubled times, a space I could spew out all that hurt me, that caused my greatest pain, my secrets and my haunts to no judgement from those I shared my experiences with. So when I needed someone to listen, to bounce my troubles off of, my friend was there without discrimination, she was there for me. That relationship turned quickly into something more involved after my divorce, I was not looking to get involved in another relationship and at the time I had actually swore to myself I would not get into a serious relationship or married again. Hell, I had nothing to offer anyone anyhow, financially since I had been married for twenty years the state decrees that my ex-wife would get a percentage of my income. And let me make things clear, I argued to stay with the kids in the house and let her leave to pursue her own desires, after all, she had stated a couple years before the divorce how much she missed dating since we had married so young and how much she regrets doing things the way she did, she regrets “wasting so many years.” Her response was to state that “a mother never leaves her children”. So I left, I had nowhere to go, couldn’t afford anywhere else and moved in with my friend.

Occasionally in a story the writer can rely on cultural expectations or assumptions to deliver a message or feeling about a character, this may depend on the writer’s chosen audience, if the content is political the writer can suggest that a character belongs to a certain party in order to guide the reader to a specific assumption. Sometimes it doesn’t hinder on the audience, if a character has a history of serving time in prison, even without knowing the basis for his or her conviction that person must be a bad person, at least initially, it puts the burden on the reader to determine at some point if that is really the case. And it is a given that in most places one only has to mention that a man whose left the home of his family and is involved with a younger woman after that, that he must be a bad guy and was tired of his older ex-wife, people might assume that the ex-wife was innocent and he is a jerk.

After my ex-wife and I divorced, people we had befriended through our children’s school suddenly turned away from me at school functions when I attempted to say hi. Assumptions had been made, whether through social media or other means, despite the fact that I still supported my ex-wife and my children by paying more than the state suggested for both child support and spousal support, covered my kids health insurance, having put additional funds away to cover co-pays and other extra costs for medications and all medical fees, cover the kid’s car insurance outright and even decided to sign over my half of our home to my ex-wife to ensure that the kids were able to remain there and have some sort of normality by retaining the safe place where they had all grown up. I still seemed to come off as the jerk. In the end, more than a third of my income went to the support of my ex-wife and my children, half of my 401K was written over to her and I had to find another place to live and get a second job to support myself and have my children over every other weekend.

Never mind that I no longer got to have breakfast with my kids before work and school, be home when they got there to talk about the tough times and the struggles, if they didn’t already assume I did something wrong and chose to leave them and their mother behind they seemed to struggle with whom to rally around, for them, their mother would appear to play the victim card and set a scene wherein she was wronged. It is difficult for others to accept that from time to time there are no clear lines, that everyone loses in some cases, that there is no clear or obvious person to blame. That is not an easy place for folks to be in, it is uncomfortable and emotionally taxing, and especially for children so sides must be chosen to better deal with the situation. It might not seem fair and it most certainly is not, for anyone, and as my mother use to tell me as a kid…”life isn’t fair kid, get over it”.

I told my counselor when I decided that I no longer could remain married to my ex-wife, that her and my relationship had gone sour and I grew bitter and angry as time went on, and the only way I saw to save my relationship with my children was to leave my ex-wife that I could accept being the bad guy. I knew my kids would hold it against me; I had been there myself as a kid and blamed my father for many years even though I knew my mother had cheated on him. My father must have done something wrong I thought.  So I would leave my ex-wife and pray that I could save my relationship with my son and daughters. There is a saying that reads “if I knew then what I know now”, I hate that saying now, and I writhe at the sound of it when someone repeats it. If I knew then what it would feel like to wake up in the morning without my children asleep in my home, without being able to hold them when they have a bad day, without the opportunity to be there when my son’s heart is broken by his first major crush, I am afraid I would not have made the decision I did, that’s a hard thought to swallow.

I am no longer an angry person, I have moved on and married my friend from the writing group, and I love her as I have never loved anyone. I feel like I am part of a team, a partner entirely. I still miss my children terribly; it’s all I can do when I see them to not beg for their forgiveness, when I see the misguided mistrust in their young eyes, and feel the absence of safety when I hug them. I am suspicious of what their mother tells them when they go back home, or what my ex-best friend says to them as he sits at the table and eats dinner with them and desert, but that’s none of my business. I must trust that one day they will understand or at the very least give me the benefit of doubt. And I have had to learn to live with that constant, emotional pain that comes along with thinking of my kids, and wishing I could have somehow kept them from living through this situation, hoping that they don’t see me as society might write me off as. That I am still the man that helped rear them, that still loves every aspect of their different, beautiful ways.

Every now and again there is a story we might read, one wherein we might categorize the characters and walk away feeling quite strongly about them and the roles we placed them in, but then as we live, as we go about our lives, day by day we might remember that story and for some reason we suddenly feel different about the characters we remembered, and it changes how we feel about them today. To that I can only hope, and for now, I suppose I’ll remain the bad guy.

Lost

How could she say no, he loved her and that’s why he gave her the pills, like he told her, if he didn’t care he wouldn’t spend his own hard earned money to buy her what she needs to get through her day. Now all she has to do is cook him and his kids, their kids’ dinner. He works so hard ya know, he was dealt a bad hand so he didn’t get a job making what he’s worth, but he found other ways to make money, and he couldn’t go to school because he wouldn’t be able to work and buy her pills. So when he came home from the bar and she questioned him about where he’d been and he lost his temper again and hit her, well it was her fault for being unfair and making him mad. That’s what she told the police anyway when they questioned her, and that’s when she turned to go to her room and ran into the edge of the door cutting her cheek.

So each day she washed his clothes, the kids clothes, cleaned the house, tried to study but after a while she knew it was unfair for her to take so much time away from his kids to study for some class he said she’d never be able to pass anyway, she wasn’t smart enough but he would take care of her…and like he said, he loved her.

There were parts of her day when she started to crash that she questioned whether or not she doing the right thing, there was a part of her that was struggling, a part somewhere inside of her that opposed him but that scared her and she kept it tucked away. That was dangerous thinking. And after a few years her relationship became one more recognizable as a caretaker than as a mother, she couldn’t play with them because she had to make them dinner, what kind of mother would deny her man and his kids dinner?

When the kids were fed and she’d washed the dishes he gave her what she needed, she swallowed them with some warm Pepsi and went off to her bedroom and sat, she waited with her eyes closed as her body began to slump and feel warmer, then her mind drifted off and she lay back on her bed and floated away to some place better. Some place where the sun shone upon her face, where the wind was sweet and she was free. Some place she could wander off to as he came in and stripped her clothes from her, used her, took advantage of her and then left her by herself afterwards to curl up in the corner and hold herself against the torment that came like a slow burning fire day after day. Night after night, and so on, and so on.

Eventually she was lost touch with the outside world, her support structure had been severed, she was manipulated and abused and her soul was in dire straits. When she saw or interacted with others it was through a sort of mask or body suit she wore that no one could see through to feel sorry for her. They didn’t know what was happening inside the dark, dangerous walls of her home, they didn’t know the rot that had infiltrated her body, her mind. Soon no one saw her and she knew it, she became lonely, not lonely like most people feel when they everyone leaves after the party but lonely like there is no one that knows how you feel, like no one understands the pain you feel, like when you find yourself inside of a nightmare and you try to scream aloud but nothing comes out, you have regressed inside of your own mind and lost your way.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon an aunt and uncle leaving the family cabin happened to pass her as she rolled up the driveway, they saw her, she looked into their eyes and smiled and they smiled back and waved as they drove on, they had someplace to be and couldn’t really stop to visit just then. They thought how she didn’t have the kids with her and she was alone but they’d get hold of her later on and check in with her then. So they continued on their way.

Three days later they called her husband because she wasn’t answering her cellphone. He told them how he was upset with her for just up and leaving her kids at home alone with no dinner, how he’d not heard from her either. They didn’t say anything then, not to him but they wondered about the cabin, maybe she finally ran away, no one in the family liked him, they all suspected that he wasn’t a good man. That was all, they were adults and could handle their own affairs.

So they drove to the cabin, there in the driveway was her car. It was cold and the keys were still in the ignition. They checked the cabin but it was empty, in fact the door was still locked from when they’d left, nothing had been disturbed, it appeared as though no one had even stepped inside. He stepped outside and called out to her, she stayed inside and made a few sandwiches, she probably went for a walk, and she’d be hungry when she came back. He began wandering around the cabin, there were a few trails off from the driveway and he thought he’d just wander a bit and see if he found any trace of her.

In a small clearing underneath a tall Poplar, he saw her from behind, she sat in the leaves, and he called to her. He stated that they’d been looking for her, that people were worried. He paused a few yards behind her because he felt sick in his stomach, he didn’t know why but he knew something was wrong. Then he saw her left hand, it lay palm up on the ground next to her hip, he didn’t need to go any further, next to her hand, in the grass, on top of some leaves was a gun. He saw the other side of her head and her hair was matted and darkened with blood.

What happens to a person when they get so lost, so lonely that there is no way out, that their lifeline cannot reach beyond the place within themselves, that dark place that becomes their only safe place? In what world does God allow a mother to go so adrift so as to go missing within themselves, to drown in such sadness that there is absolutely no other way out. And how do those around them not see her?

To my cousin, may she rest free.