I'm on fire today, kids. Strap in.
When I was a senior in college, I qualified as a finalist for one of the most prestigious student journalism award programs in the country, the Hearst Awards. It's a year-long competition, encompassing the entire country, which results in some pretty large cash awards (to a student) and a nice line or two on the start-up resume. From a pool of thousands, I was selected as one of 10 finalists in my category chosen to compete in a weekend-long live competition in San Francisco.
It was intense. Stressful, but in an adrenaline-fueled way. Each day, we were up early, given a topic, and sent into The City to find a story, which had to be written and turned in by 6 p.m. We were then treated to some of San Francisco's finest restaurants as a group--we numbered 80, ten in each of 8 categories from photojournalism to television journalism. Believe me when I tell you we all got pleasantly ripped each and every night, the wine serving as the perfect salve for the intensity.
The last night was the awards ceremony on a boat that trolled the Bay. In addition, each of us had an audience with the judging panel, who critiqued our work, not just what we did over the weekend, but the dozens of pieces which got us there in the first place. It was very helpful, but also a little intimidating.
Later, at the hotel bar, I began to talk with one of my competitors (the event had brought us all pretty close together) and she was very upset at some of the criticisms aimed at her during her one-on-one with the judges. We talked quite a while, examining this and that. I tried to soothe her hurt, pointing out the positive, comparing notes and experience. Finally, she looked at me and said, "Why are you doing this?"
Because, see, she won the competition. And I finished third.
I likely missed my calling in life. I'm a problem-solver, a shoulder to cry on, a healer. I've had many wonderful friends in life and most of them have come to me with problems of varying degrees. Because they know I'll listen. They know I'll have some sort of perspective. I may not always have a solution, but I'm willing to work (talk, feel) towards one as long as it takes, regardless of the issue's impact (or lack thereof) on me. I'd be a fantastic counselor. My brain works that way, attacking a problem from as many angles as I can find and usually, somewhere in all that nonsense, is a nugget of truth. I'm tenacious about it. I won't let it go until we've come to a satisfactory conclusion.
A few years ago, I fell into an online community of like-minded folks. Like this poker group, a common theme brought us together and a few of us became friends. Due to my nature, it was the perfect place for me, not only because I could pontificate on our shared interest (when nobody in "real" life gave a crap about the subject), but because I was a good deal older (10 years give or take) than most of the rest. And, on many occasions, we found ourselves talking on a more personal level, when I imparted the lessons learned in my youth to those struggling with similar issues.
Last week, after my cathartic purge in this space, I got an e-mail from one of those guys. He and I have met a handful of times and we've remained in touch over the years, even if that community no longer exists in the form it once did. He told me that my post resonated with him as a young married and that he saw some similar short-comings in his own husband role. He said he printed out my words and thanked me for the reminder.
He also said that wasn't the first time he's done such a thing. For a while, he carried around a print-out of something I wrote to him several years ago. I remember the night he's referencing. I had a keen sense he was in a bad way that night and I stayed up late and took special care with what I said to him. I went to bed that night wondering if I got through, if I talked him down. But I didn't know how serious it was. The e-mail he sent me this week said that around that time, he'd been incredibly depressed, neglecting his schoolwork and drinking heavily. And he'd bought a gun.
My words played a part in him getting himself out of that hole. I can't tell you how that makes me feel.
Considering all that, it's been especially frustrating for me the past month as I continually try to reach my wife. She's unavailable to me right now, either unwilling or unable to feel what I have to offer. My words and emotions fall off her like arrows into a castle fortress.
But that hasn't deterred me from continuing my assault (and I think she'd probably find that term perfect). Somewhere in my head, I've known that I was missing something, some essential truth that's at the bottom of this. I've focused on the guy. I've focused on my own short-comings. But the very heart of the matter is that this situation is about nobody but my wife. So what exactly is it that has caused her to take this step? To be sure, she has found something to fill her emotional needs, but it's not the guy that's doing this. Other people don't give us our feelings. It's our assessment of situations that inspire feelings.
I've quite literally talked reams of nonsense trying to get at her, to get her to open up, to help me find that nugget of understanding.
My goal, of course, is to heal our marriage, rehabilitate our relationship. And that's been my focus. Our relationship. But it's not about that. If she was unhappy in our relationship, then leaving it would not be a solution. It is avoidance, it is running away from your problems. So that couldn't be it. It had to be about her, something inside her that is eating her raw, something she can't fix, so she covers it up, tries to file it away and what she's currently feeling fits the bill perfectly. It's why she says to me, "I've already moved on." She's got a quick fix and the emotions she's feeling right now hide the source of her unhappiness.
There's no way I can heal our marriage on my own. My commitment is strong and unwavering. My desire to improve myself will continue regardless of the outcome of this. But if she's unwilling or unable to recognize the reasons for her role in our distance (we didn't drift apart just because of me; it takes two to tango) then we have no shot. It's about her. The only chance to save our marriage is to heal what ails the dear and patient wife. And I still had no clue what that was.
Last night, she told me something. The missing piece. A flaw in her conduct toward our marriage (and throughout her adult life) that, combined with my flaws compounded the distance between us. It's the source (along with a related and no less serious issue) of her unhappiness. Not with me. Not with our marriage. But with her and her alone. And no matter what she does in life, leave me, stay with me, join the circus, she will never be truly happy anywhere until she confronts her shame at allowing this trait to fester.
Shame is different from guilt. Guilt is feeling bad about what we do or do not do. Shame is feeling bad about who we are, about our very being. It's a deep wound, shame. It's why people turn to drugs or violence. Or infidelity.
I want to make it perfectly clear I am not faulting my wife for this. Nobody is perfect. And it's exceptionally difficult to talk about your greatest fears, especially when they concern your own conduct. But I do know this, she will never be happy, truly happy, unless she challenges her behavior. And despite all the shit she has put me through, the hurt, the betrayal, the lies, I'm willing to be the one to hold her hand through this necessary process. I can only pray she'll let me in.
Because I'm a healer.