Ambivalent Love


It’s the month of February, a month for wiping out huge inventories of red roses and setting false romantic gestures in motion. I haven’t written much about love and romance, because, with the exception of my husband, I have a long history of being quite awful at it. That’s a subject for another day. Or never.

There’s a kind of love that is harder to practice than all the rest. There are people in my life that make love a challenge, a constant renegotiation to see their positive sides, to recognize their intent versus what actually happens or is said. We all have them – friends or family that don’t make it easy to love them.

Many years ago, shortly after having my daughter, I decided to talk to a family therapist. Some issues of childhood had reared their ugly Medusa-like heads and I desperately wanted to be a good parent. I was involved in a dysfunctional volley of exchanges with someone I wanted to believe could change. I quit acquiescing and started to challenge this person’s behavior.

I come from a long history of mental illnesses and substance addictions. The easiest people to love were the ones that married into our families, but often, due to the aforementioned issues, those people came and went on a fairly regular basis. We got glimpses of normal behavior – just enough to know that normal would be an ambitious goal for anyone in our family.

I have compassion and understanding for those that suffer from mental illnesses. I’m all for social justice and a better system to identify and support people who need assistance and kindness and compassion. When it’s in my face though, infiltrating every corner of my world, exhausting me at every turn, calling me names, stealing my money and holding me hostage to drama, I can feel very hardhearted.

It’s hard to love someone who can only take. They’re so knee-deep in their own shit that they can’t see anything else. You long for them to be interested in your smart, delightful daughter or what you have written or to appreciate what a kind, decent man you have married. But it doesn’t happen. They never ask about your life during phone calls and when they do, it’s a perfunctory nod before they go into their own tales of woe.

Growing up, I was good at being a fixer, a mediator of sorts. This role followed me and even after I left home, I’d get letters letting me know everything that was going wrong, being asked to intervene on this person’s behalf or that. As a kid, I felt important and needed and valued in that role. As an adult, I was frustrated and angry and I’d swear that I wouldn’t get sucked in again. Until the next desperate phone call.

This self-importance gave me a way of positioning myself, a way of seeing how I fit into the world, a false sense of superiority over those more troubled than I. Until my troubles came. Instead of saving everyone else, I had to save myself. If they threw me bricks instead of life preservers, I shut them out. I quit a dead-end job, an off-again on-again relationship, and moved farther away. Emotionally, I might as well have been in outer space, unreachable.

I needed that time to establish my own identity. It’s a natural process as we become adults to see those boundaries. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I recognized that it was even okay to have boundaries -that it was okay not to be a dumping ground for everything wrong in one’s family.

I got married. I became a parent. And my heart softened. I again longed for connections to those people that I had loved my whole life. I longed for some sense of normalcy – family holidays, pictures of all of us in one place, children laughing and playing together, running around the dining room table. I longed for stupid Norman Rockwell. I longed for something that never existed.

Re-entry was horrible and painful and left me heartbroken. The sickening realization came over me that there would never be another family gathering, except possibly for funerals. Even then, we’d stand shoulder to shoulder, like strangers on a subway.

My daughter would likely never know many of her cousins or aunts and uncles. People had begun dying in sad, awful ways before she was born. My father committed suicide. Alcoholism had killed several others. I was left with a handful of people with whom relationships were difficult, uncomfortable and frustrating.

Romantic love, when you’re both ready and right for each other, is easy. Day-to-day love can be challenging at times, but you learn and adjust to the others’ needs. Family love inside this house is very easy. We work together, squabble on occasion, but for the most part, we have each others’ backs.

Loving people that don’t have social skills, who are so mired in their own worlds that they can’t imagine you existing outside of their universe, who only come to you when they need something – that is a tougher kind of love. Loving people that seek to lash out, to cause harm, to damage everything in their path, is nearly impossible.

While in therapy,  I ran across a passage in a book (I wish I could recall the source) that has stayed with me for many years. It referred to treating someone with mental illness like a force of nature. You wouldn’t stay in the path of a tornado, just in case it changes direction. You’d get out of the way, seek shelter and protect yourself. You can’t love a mental illness away. You can’t empathize self-destruction out of someone.

I had more leeway in my life for drama before having my own family. I’m at a time of life when things are the busiest – a young child at home, aging relatives to care for, juggling career goals with family goals, trying to accept that it’s okay to be happy, even when those people that I love are not. But the longing never goes away, no matter how much I intellectualize things.

I love them and I miss them. I’ve helped all I could manage. I’ve listened for as long as I can listen. I will rally myself for another round. I don’t want to enable or to judge. I recognize that their lives can be painful and difficult and I do feel compassion. It’s a hard kind of love.


From Chicken to Merely Insufferable

I quit smoking over a decade ago after 2 or 30 attempts, depending on how you count them and I’m seeking to eliminate another addiction: meat – also delicious when smoked. I want to become a vegetarian. The decision to give up my carnivorous ways has evolved over the last few years. My mother has been a vegan since her mid-50s and my daughter, who never really liked the taste of meat, announced that she was a vegetarian at the ripe old age of 4. She learned that meat was from animals and that was it. So grandma, stop sending her vegetarian propaganda – you’re preaching to the choir.

I was raised eating meals where meat was the jewel in the crown. My cooking experience is all about matching side dishes to a meat. I love the smell of grilled pork chops, the spiciness in chicken fajitas and on occasion, a big juicy burger when my body screams for a little iron….sigh. There are a lot of reasons for me to make this change, but foremost is that I want to align my actions with my values. The deliberate raising and killing of other creatures for my benefit doesn’t fit with my belief that I should be a steward and not just a consumer of the planet. It’s hard to think about that when you’re hungry, though.

Since having a child, I’ve made many changes to my eating lifestyle. No more fast food runs or meals without vegetables. And a lot of conversations about what mom and dad are eating. The pleasure of eating meat is ruined when your child grills you about what animal it comes from and how it was killed. Sometimes the simple wisdom of children makes you want to snarf down your meal in the garage.

I grew up in small towns in Iowa. I’ve seen hogs and chickens killed and it felt like watching a horror show – until it lay nicely sliced on my dinner plate. It’s a dichotomy reinforced by the fact that now we get our meat mid-process from the grocery store. It no longer looks like an animal – until my daughter chimes in, “did it want to die?” Her natural curiosity reminds me that I need to make choices that are aligned with my heart, emotionally and artery-wise.

The problem with giving up any addiction is that you pick up other, more awful habits: self-righteousness and talking about your choice ad nauseam. I suspect if it’s anything like giving up cigarettes, I’ll be trailing behind servers at restaurants trying to get a whiff of grilled burgers and salivating while watching someone else eat. Once I feel confident that I’ve kicked the habit, I will become virulently anti-meat eating, making “harrumph” sounds whenever a friend orders it for a meal and announcing loudly that I haven’t had meat in a year. In short, I’ll be a real dick about it.

I’ll admit that I’m anti-smoking. I’ve worked in environments where people lived for the next smoke break or where people were so anti-smoking, I didn’t want them to know I had ever smoked, lest they think less of me. I feel strongly about it because it is a profitable addiction that benefits entities other than the actual smoker.   I knew it was bad for me and I still did it, both for the addictive relaxation and for the fact that it isolated me with other self-destructive outsiders. Or as I usually refer to them, my friends.

It takes a lot of self-perception and respect not to impinge upon other people’s choices when it comes to breaking my own habits and addictions. It takes so much effort to make a change that my thinking becomes one-tracked. It’s all I can think about day and night. Before I know it, I’m licking bacon grease from a McMuffin wrapper in the neighbor’s garbage. Change is hard. Explaining to your neighbor why you are licking their garbage, even harder.

I am hoping that my attempts to convert to a vegetarian lifestyle aren’t as numerous as when I quit smoking. All I can do is try, try again until the smell of Chipotle doesn’t give me the DTs. Then I can ride my high horse – just as long as I don’t eat it.