Marriage

The Best Thing I learned in 2014

When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.       1 Corinthians 13: 11-13

I am not one to quote scripture. In fact, this passage is the first I’ve read all year, and it’s December 31st. Yet, the last line of this beautiful excerpt kept finding its way into my thoughts the past few months. Often read at weddings, these words resonate because they deal with the enduring power of love. And that’s what prompted me to recall them– a wedding.

The invitation arrived mid-September. Charles Trainer and Ray Giovine requested the honor of my presence at their wedding celebration. My oldest brother was getting married to the love of his life, the man he had fallen in love with over twenty years ago.

Immediately, I knew I was going. Even though it was across the country, even though it was only a few weeks away, even though I had not spoken to my brother in over a year, I was not going to miss this wedding.

For most of the time since Charlie left home, he and I have not been close. To the outside, this distance may have seemed a direct link to his being gay, but to me, and I think him as well, there was just too much space to fill the void left  by our childhood. Growing up in such a large family, everyone seems determined to exert their individuality. There is a need to be heard through all the noise, a drive to be noticed in the fray. Finding oneself can prove difficult. Gaining approval and acceptance even more so. Imagine living your life with the knowledge that what you do and say, think and believe, will be dissected and interpreted by many–not just your parents, but your many siblings as well. Such pressure can drive one away.

When I was very young, I idolized my brother–I wanted his wavy hair, his sense of style, his good looks. I thought he was so cool. When I was in college. I could see him struggling to find himself. He was in a hurry to begin his life, a life that could not be lived in the smallness of a Pennsylvania suburb. That life led him first to New York City, and then to Los Angeles, where he has lived most of his adult years.  Yet, when he left home, there was no clarification, no discussion, no closure.

If I were in charge of the world, my brother would have come out in his teens to an accepting, open-minded family. He would have felt empowered to embrace his future as a gay man; he would have been emboldened to teach others how to accept differences.  In a world that celebrates the wonder of Cam and Mitchell as the couple next door on Modern Family, in a world where the kiss between Madonna and Brittany Speers now seems passe, it is hard to remember how far we’ve come in the way of same-sex relationships. Yet, it doesn’t take much to recall the fear, the ignorance, the animosity, the struggle that so many endured to be who they were born to be.

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My sister Kristen and I boarded a plane on a Friday night at six o’clock and would spend less than 48 hours in L.A. But we traveled with the excitement of two people who had just won a trip from a local radio contest. When we arrived at LAX, Charlie met us at the gate. At fifty, he still has this boyish charm: the youthful bounce in his walk, an excitability in his voice. None of us could really believe we were here, at this point, and yet it was the moment we had all been waiting for these few decades.

My mother had arrived earlier in the day with my sister-in-law, Terry, and we made plans to meet the next morning. Charlie and Ray had already exchanged vows at the courthouse, in a private ceremony with just two of their closest friends as witnesses. The reception was to take place the following evening.

Saturday was spent driving around LA, hanging at The Grove, a trendy shopping complex, and trekking up to the HOLLYWOOD sign. This was fine, but none of us cared much for sightseeing that day–we were here for a wedding, and could not wait to celebrate with my brother and Ray.

On our way back to the hotel, we decided to stop by to see how the grooms were holding up. Now, my brother Charlie could teach Martha Stewart a thing or two. His talent rivals any on the HGTV circuit. He is a virtual MacGyver with some fabric and flowers. He and Ray are so well matched because Charlie is the host and Ray works behind the scenes. Charlie creates, Ray cleans up.

Indeed, Charlie created dozens of centerpieces for the wedding using thousands of flowers he purchased wholesale. He covered tables and chairs with fresh linens and burlap. He adorned trees and rooftops with light strings and candles. He transformed his beautiful backyard into the French countryside.

Seeing that the decorating had hit the eleventh hour, we all pitched in to help Char achieve his perfect vision. Charlie directed and we obliged. He was beyond appreciative, and we felt a sense of purpose as is the desire with family weddings.

A few hours later, we returned. The backyard was aglow in candlelight, the air sweet with the smell of peonies. Hundreds of people sipped champagne and noshed on pizzas fresh from an outside oven.

And as I moved around the spacious yard, I felt like I took on the role of witness. I did not know many people, although many made a fuss over Char’s family. But as a witness, I observed the beauty that surrounded me. Not just the flowers and twinkling lights, or the various photos and memorabilia that celebrated the life these two had already built together. Beyond all this, I observed the beauty of love.

I have been to countless weddings at this point in my life; I have seen many happy couples pledge to be together “til death do us part”. I even know the humbling, powerful nature of taking such a vow myself. Yet, here, at this wedding somewhere in West Hollywood, I felt a sense of love stronger than I have at most weddings I’ve attended. The love in that place was palpable, the energy kinetic.

Why?

I was equally moved and confused by this. Why would I feel more love here than at other such events? How could this event capture more of a sense of love? A physical, tangible sense of love?

The answer was quite clear. I felt the love in their yard, their house, more, because that love had to endure more to flourish. Think of a pearl that begins with a gritty grain of sand; a rose bush that stems from a gnarled, scarred root. This love had to struggle more to bloom. These two adults had to fight more to be united. And beyond Ray and Charlie, the love I felt emanated from the guests. Each of the people there bore witness to the power that love has, each person wished to join these two men in honoring their union as husband and life.

The love present that night multiplied and magnified a love that took root twenty-three odd years before. A love that some people in the world–many more people when it first took shape–said NO, it must not be, it cannot be. A love that answered back– year after year, in sickness, in health, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, til death–Oh, yes we can. We must. We will.

When I hugged my brother that night, I felt our years apart evaporate. The gap between the past and the future closed, and he and I were standing in the present–the here and now. It was as if I was truly embracing him for the first time. I looked around at the many adoring friends he had–friends who were now like family–and I felt lucky to be among them, to bear witness.

And so, as we begin a new year, filled with ongoing hopes, struggles, desires and fears, let me share a reminder with you that I more fully understand, thanks to my brother, Charlie, and his husband, Ray. Something I can see now with a sharper sense of clarity: the greatest of these is love. THE GREATEST OF THESE IS LOVE.

Brothers and sister.

Sister and brother of the groom.

Family Portrait Front Row: Ray, Charlie, Teri, Kristen Back Row: Dadicus, Mom

Family Portrait
Front Row: Ray, Charlie, Terry, Kristen
Back Row: Dadicus, Mom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Garden of Weedin’

photo (22)Lately, I have found myself telling  people that my gardens finally look the way I’ve wanted them to. If it sounds like I’m boasting, it’s because I am. And it’s only taken me ten years to get them just so!

We bought our house ten years ago from a widow who had maintained her property, but her landscaping was lacking. Bordering the house was a row of yew trees and the backyard had a field of ivy by the fence. I was young and foolish and, like any new homeowner in this era, dutifully watched my share of HGTV shows like Weekend Warriors, Curb Appeal, and Yard Crashers. Armed with such gusto, I went about creating garden, after garden, after garden. I hacked away at dozens of yews. I even stood on a ladder wielding a chainsaw to destroy those bastards. It did not take me long to realize that I HATE yews–I really do. Next, I ripped up a perfectly happy bed of ivy to plant hostas and liatrope. I pulverized forty year old tree roots to establish gardens on both sides of my patio. I hacked and I hoed in the side yard, the front yard, around the house, beside the house, around the mailbox… In all, I created 10–count ’em, T-E-N gardens where there were none. Suffice to say, I was out of my f***ing mind.

Around this time of my maniacal meanderings in the yard, I remember visiting my in-laws home in the New Jersey suburbs. Their house was very pretty, but I remember feeling sorry for them because most of their yard wasphoto (24)-001 grass, and the few garden spots they had were wasted spaces of ground cover. I thought to myself, “What a shame. These gardens have such possibility.” I look back on that moment and laugh–hard. They did not have such gardens because they were smart. They enjoyed something known as the weekend, rather than spend countless hours mulching and digging. They were older, and wiser. And now, so am I. Don’t get me wrong, I love my gardens, but now I see the wisdom in the adage “Less is more.” Such a thought is counter-culture here in America, but God I wish I knew the beauty in that phrase ten years ago.

photo (23)-001Yet, just as my shrubs and perennials have grown, so have I. I find a lot of meaning in working in the garden, and it can be a great place to till the soil of one’s thoughts. Some of life’s most profound lessons can be made in one’s attempts to garden.

First off, a garden teaches one patience. I remember planting tulip bulbs one fall, annoyed that I had to wait a whole six months to enjoy them. Yet, with each passing year, my impatiens (pardon the pun) has subsided. I have planted seeds and saplings that are now flourishing shrubs and towering trees. Today, rather than feel petulant when burying  bulbs and young plants, I am comforted by the fact that all things need time to grow, just like people. Rather than be annoyed at the time I must spend waiting, I enjoy other features in the meantime. There is always something to captivate one’s eye in the garden.

Gardens are also a great cure for perfectionism. We live in a world of Martha Stewart Madness, but if you compare yourself to these Marthas, you’ll never be happy. I can recall when I finallyphoto (25)-001 realized that my gardening was more of an obsession than a hobby. I was miserable, and I was constantly complaining to my wife. “I can’t do this alone,” I would lament. I was seriously overwhelmed and wanted her to help. I joked with her how all I was trying to do was “create a showplace” for her–I know, I’m cringing at my word choice there, too. She looked at me and said, “You’re not doing this for me.” Then, it dawned on me–I wasn’t. I had to find out why I was doing this–and so much of it. For one, we live on 3/4 of an acre. It’s a lot of property (too much really) but it allows us a buffer from a busier thoroughfare. We are the corner house on a well-traveled street. Secretly, I wanted to be the envy of others. I imagined people slowing down as they passed my house and asking themselves, “Who lives there, Martha Stewart’s younger, cuter brother?”

I was also doing it as a way to celebrate having more than I did as a child. We lived in a twin house, and seven kids did some serious damage to the plants and shrubs my father attempted to maintain–we laid in the arborvitae bushes that he took such pride in as if they were nature’s hammocks, we yanked leaves off of trees just because we wanted something to do with our hands. In short, we had no respect for what he was trying to accomplish. There was not enough space for gardens and playing areas. Eventually , he gave up. And my mother! She had a brown thumb when it came to the outdoors. Every azalea or hydrangea that she received for Mother’s Day would be dead by Memorial Day. I swear, the woman thought that watering was optional. In later years, after everyone had moved out, she remarked to me how her black-eyed Susans were thriving in the front garden. I pointed out to her that those flowers were right under her window air conditioning unit which steadily dripped water into her garden. “Oh, you think that’s why?” “Yes, mom. Watering helps things live.” “Hmph,” she replied.

photo (20)And so my gardens were well watered, and I marvelled as things grew and came back year after year. “I did this,” I’d think, “and it looks pretty amazing.” But the moments of joy were fleeting. Things would bloom and whither so quickly. Some plants would bully others out of existence. Others needed more sun, some more shade. Plant. Replant. Dig up. Replace. And then there was the issue of the weeds–those damn weeds.  I would no sooner weed a bed, then the earth would sprout more. I referred to countless articles–which were oh-so-helpful: Pull the weed at the root…Really? Thank you, Captain Obvious. Yes, weeding is indeed an exercise in futility. There is no way to see how far down the root is, and try as I may, a tip of root always remains underground. But again, life lessons can be gleaned from this: the trick to pulling a weed is to be very gentle. Ripping out weeds is the most ineffective way to attempt to get rid of them. A gentle tug is all you need. There is something very Zen about pulling a weed properly. The release from the ground is euphoric.

I have grown accustomed to weeds. I know now that try as I may, there will always be weeds, and just as one of my gardens may look weed free, there is another beckoning for some maintenance. Who cares? Not me– anymore. Like debt, or those extra few pounds, weeds are simply part of the experience-a fact of life. To rid your world of them is nothing more than hubris–our arrogance as human beings.

Once, I was involved with a  community flower garden at our high school. This garden barely looked alive. But what was surviving were the weeds.  While we were attempting to beautify the space, a friend of mine, an art teacher, remarked, “You know, a weed is just a flower without a press agent.” Her words were so profound, and they’ve served me well in the garden for years since. Whose to say this purple spiky thing can be called a “flower” but this purple spiky thing cannot.  Now, when I look at “weeds” I try to see the beauty in the “ugly”.  Also, when I admire a garden, I try not to search for weeds or other flaws, but to see past them at the aspects that are pastoral and pleasing. I bring this attitude into more of my daily life. Look for the beauty and it will surface.

photo (21)I am a much happier gardener these days. I’m not out there toiling every day, and even when I am, it is not for hours on end. I set more realistic goals–weed for fifteen minutes a night, water while the kids are running through the hose. I even shut down a few gardens because I had too little time. Ahh, the power of grass seed. I’ve also had the opportunity to watch a number of young couples, newly married homeowners, move in to our neighborhood and begin to hack away at their American Dream. I see myself in their attempts at doing it all. I smile knowingly, and I nod in agreement–yes, I recognize you.

Gardening has taught me so much: what is beauty, how to enjoy it, what I want in a hobby, and that if I am not feeling happy doing it, then don’t. My jobs in the garden will never be finished. There are weeds sprouting up as I write this. Some I will pull, many I will miss, and none of it matters in the end. Such are life’s reminders one can find while working in the garden–if only you’re willing to dig deep enough.

I Know Why the Jaybird Sings

It’s one of the first signs of warm weather where we live. The jaybirds dance on our lawn. Naked, as the saying goes. And by jaybirds, you know I really mean my sons, right? Well, they do. They love to dance “naked as jaybirds.” It happened yesterday, earlier than usual, but the weather was an unseasonably high 86 degrees and that meant water fights.

I am out front doing some yard work–I seem to manage fifteen minute intervals of weeding and whacking these days. And there I am, trimming back some shrubs, when the boys sneak up and attack me with their water pistols. I scream with genuine surprise then delight, and they are pleased with their subterfuge. At this point, they are wearing bathing suits. I give them my usual five-minute warning, this time regarding homework: “Homework in five minutes!” “Okay.”

As they gallop back to the hose, I can’t help but smile. I am thrilled that they took it upon themselves to come out and enjoy the beautiful sun. I left them inside with the babysitter (the television) because I REALLY photo (27)need to trim these shrubs. Watching them at the hose, I become nostalgic. Yes, a form of nostalgia I feel now as a parent that makes me sad for the fleeting memory while I am witnessing it. The kind that makes me thankful to be experiencing this event, but already sad knowing it will be over too soon. The moment quickly fades into a memory on my lawn, to be joined by the previous memories of sprinklers, and slip-n-slides, and kiddy pools of seasons past. I think about how sweet and innocent this time in their life still is, and how just a hose, some water guns, a bucket (and an unsuspecting dad) are all they need to thrill them.

While I continue in the garden, they squeal with laughter, as the cold spray of water shocks their lanky bodies. When I finish, the boys are a bit miffed that I do not want to get soaking wet. “But we wanted to attack you some more.” “Sorry, we have to do homework.” “Can you at least dump this bucket on us?”Owen asks. “Sure!” I say. What a consolation. “But I’ll only do it if you turn around. It’s more fun if you don’t see it coming.” Both boys sit in the driveway with their backs to me, and I proceed to drench them with a five gallon bucket of ice-cold water. This time, they scream with surprise then delight. “Okay, now homework!”

The boys dutifully listen to me. They strip out of their bathing suits, grab their towels and then their book bags. They settle down at the table on our patio and begin their homework–naked! I am taken aback by this and can’t find the words to tell them to dress. It’s as if they do their homework naked every night. They sit sans clothes through reading, spelling and math. I even serve them drinks and snacks. And once again, here I am confronting a situation as a parent that I did not see coming:  At what point does it become not cute or okay for my boys to be running around “naked as a couple of jaybirds”?

photo (17)Naked babies are adorable, naked toddlers are funny, but a naked first and second grader? Weird? Awkward? Unfortunately, they are growing up so fast, but in many ways they are so similar to the boys they were 1,2,3 years ago. Yesterday was the first time I was thinking, “this can’t continue much longer, right?” Yet, what I loved about the entire event was how comfortable the boys were with their natural state. It is a goal of mine for them to be proud and aware of their bodies. I know it is, in  part, my rebuttal to my Catholic roots, in which at my sons’ ages I was already obsessing about the different types of sin (mortal or venial), and where I remember being told to get my hand out of my pants because it was “dirty.”  Well, that set me back a couple of decades. And please don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to raise little nudist or run a commune. But I love that there is a sense of innocence and acceptance that my sons convey in these situations.

After homework, they begin to chase each other around the backyard. “Okay. Enough. Go inside and get clothes on.” Their two full moons run past me as they giggle their way into the house. A few minutes later, they are at the kitchen counter. Baseball season has started, which means dinner at 5. As I make their meals, Owen says, “Dad, I learned how to write H, E, and L in cursive. So, guess what word I can spell–in cursive!?” “Owen!” I say, acting shocked. “Yep, I can spell the H word in cursive now.” “Well, did you?” I ask. “NO! But I could.” “He accidentally said it twice today,” pipes in his younger brother, Hayden. “You said it yesterday, too.” he continues. “It’s not an accident if you keep saying it,” I tell him. “I’m sorry, but I think I really love curse words,” he confesses. ME, TOO! I think, but I say, “Curse words make you look dumb. There’s always a better word to use than a curse word.” But these words will never make you feel as good as a bleeping curse word will! I think. Boy, this has turned in to quite a day. Doing homework naked. Cursing at the kitchen counter. Should I let them try a beer with dinner?

The moments come often. They are reminders that their innocence is a fleeting phenomenon. Have you been on a playground lately? If so, then you’ve probably heard some six-year-old  singing about sexy ladies a la Gangam Style, or one of Kesha’s latest ditties about playing with your junk. And my sons are right there singing along to some of these choruses. Yet, I am amazed that they don’t know more! I am relieved that they’re only spelling Hell (in cursive). And I want to continue to be a part of the conversation. Not as their friend, but as their father. If I can at least help them understand why something is offensive, then maybe they will think twice before saying or doing it.

Baseball practice is hot. The fields are dusty with dry dirt, and all the boys want to kick it up like it’s their job. On the way home, I inform Owen and Hayden that they have to get a quick shower. They hate showers. We’re lucky if they get one every other night. The whining starts. Hayden begins to cry. “Look, you’re dirty. You smell. You have to get a shower,” I holler to them in the back seat. More protests. As I pull into the driveway, I notice the hose still out from their afternoon frolic. “Fine. You can get a shower OR I can hose you off.” “Hose! Hose!” they insist. They jump out of the car, put their baseball equipment away, and strip down. Dammit, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that they would be naked out here, again. And now many neighbors are home from work and enjoying the spring night. What the hell is wrong with me?

I turn the hose on. The boys are tired. The water is cold. It does not have the same thrill it did this afternoon. In fact, it seems torturous. I regret it the moment the water slaps their skin. I feel stupid. Embarrassed. Pam comes outside and sees this display. The boys are yelling for their towels. I put the hose down, and fetch the ones still drying on the fence from earlier today. We quickly wrap them in the cottony warmth. They head inside. “Honey,” Pam says, “they can’t be naked like that. You know…” “I know,” I say. “I know.” And now I do.

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The poet Maya Angelou once said, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Clearly, I do not have all the answers when it comes to the conundrums that parenting puts upon us. And now, I head into this new season more aware that my jaybirds are becoming fully fledged. But I think of their laughter, their squeals of delight while playing around the yard, and I can’t seem to silence the song just yet. Their nakedness is part of that freedom, that joy.  They are still singing the song of childhood, and I want that chorus to last for a few more years. But I can promise you one thing–no more hose baths at night.

A dad has to start somewhere.

Therapy

About a year ago, a friend of mine at work was telling me how he had an appointment with an acupuncturist after school to see if this would help his breathing issue. Bill suffers from a lung disease, and the acupuncturist may be the answer he needed to assist him in breathing better. I thought, Cool. It’s amazing what different areas of medicine can do to heal a person—even something as unconventional as acupuncture. As I left school that day, I recalled Bill’s casual mention of seeing a non-traditional practitioner of medicine.  See, I was on my way to therapy after school, yet I would never have mentioned this in the work room to one of my colleagues. In fact, I’d say fewer than five people knew I was in therapy back then. That day, I fantasized about how refreshing it would be to talk about seeing a psychologist as casually as mentioning the dentist or the chiropractor. Sadly, we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where any mention of therapy is often met with fear and ignorance. Even those bold enough to mention it in discussion do so warily and with trepidation. And even then, these professionals are looked at with speculation: My shrink tells me that… To this day, on the rare occasion where someone does mention going to counseling in public, even I tend to think he/she is making a joke.

Yet, if you’ve been following my blog, you have heard me mention that I have been in therapy. I have seen a total of four counselors over the past ten years, and I am a changed man as a result. However, until now, only a handful of people knew I was in counseling. And, I must say, it feels amazing to just put it out there. It is nothing to be embarrassed about, yet I have lied on many occasions about my fifty minute hour with said therapists: I have to stay late after school, My son has a doctor’s appointment, I have to get a cavity filled—it seems I am happy with any other type of obligation except for Mental Health. Think about that expression: MENTAL HEALTH. Why are we so afraid of talking about the other form of health that inhabits our body? Is it because we can’t see it? We can’t see air, but none of us doubts its imperative nature in our lives. So why back away from health of the mind? If your ankle was swollen, you would see a podiatrist. If you had a skin outbreak, you would go to a dermatologist. If your cholesterol test came back high, you might start to take a supplement.  But I would guess that the majority of us would not be quick to make that call to fix our mindset.  This saddens me.

My counselors were as varied as the hang-ups living inside my mind. Therapist number one, Dr. Bob, was a warm, grandfatherly type. He was in his sixties and had an affable demeanor. At my first appointment, I was so stifled emotionally that I left the part of the questionnaire that said “Why have you sought counseling?” blank. I was too embarrassed, too ashamed to write anything. As we sat there that first visit, he immediately went to that unanswered question. Calmly, he inquired, “You are here for a reason. I cannot help you if I don’t know why.” I looked at him for a long time, realized I hadn’t been breathing, exhaled, and began to speak. By the end of our first session, I had shared more intimate things about my life with him then I did with any other person in my life, including my spouse.

I was with Bob for about two years. It was a time of self-discovery. I began to tear down a lot of the walls I had built up emotionally. It all seems so hokey until you put it into practice. Before therapy, I would often joke about loving oneself, or someone having daddy issues. But once under a doctor’s care, I began to see all of the cheap defenses we hide behind—laughter being a huge one for me.  He and I talked about the importance of loving oneself (I know, stupid, right?). Yet, how many of us do check in with ourselves? How many of us do look out for our own well-being? One of the coolest things he and I discussed was the importance of being self-CENTERED. Previously, in my world, if you were trying to do what was best for you (but not necessarily those around you) you were accused of being selfish. “What does selfish mean?” he would implore. “You know, like, self-centered.” “And shouldn’t one be centered? Centered in the self? Shouldn’t one be balanced, and aware of one’s limitations?” LIGHTBULB! It was as if I was seeing for the first time. “So, it’s good to be self-centered?” I asked, hesitantly.  “How can you be available to others if you are not available to yourself?” WHOA! It was a turning point in my life. How often do we ignore our own needs, give to the other people in our lives, and then end up resenting them for what we chose to give? For the past ten years, I have become much more selfish, and it has allowed me to have more meaningful experiences with all those I am lucky to surround myself with.

After my time with Dr. Bob, I took about a year off. In the meantime, Pam and I had our first child, and then a lot of my resentment of the past started to rear its ugly head. I went to a female therapist, Carol. She and I did not mesh well. I often found her aloof, sort of phoning it in during our sessions. Instead of paying her, I should have just stood in front of a mirror and repeated my statements as questions.  Me: I’m not sure I should say anything about this to my sister? Carol: Do you want to say anything about this to your sister?  Me: I’m not sure I want to have more than one child. Carol: Do you think it’s a good idea to have more than one child? I think Carol went to the Goddess of Echo School of Psychiatry.  One night, I ended up leaving Carol’s office, somewhat heatedly, and I never returned.

Next, there was Marie. Marie was well read, had a lot of education, and a lot of hang-ups of her own.  I felt sorry for Marie, and as a result, I never wanted to burden her with my problems. Aside from a few good parenting books, Marie offered little in the way of therapeutic assistance.

My final therapist was a man.  I do think in my case, because a lot of my issues are with my dad, that a man suits me better in therapy. This guy was relentless. He never talked about his own life (married or single, father or childless, Catholic or Jew, gay or straight, I’ll never know). Beyond that, he was very analytical in the Freudian sense. And he was very good at deciphering dreams and finding connections in my life that I was unaware of. I recall one time, I was telling him how I had started to feel panicky whenever running races. I have run long distances since my mid-twenties, and had recently become more competitive with trail races. “Why now? Why would I have anxiety when I’ve been racing for years?” “Because now you care more about being competitive and you don’t want to look like a loser. Because now you feel like a man.” Ouch. That hurt. But I was glad to know the reason, and I believe he was right. Such discoveries opened my eyes in ways I would have never seen without therapy.

But the most fascinating thing about seeing Dr. Doug was his assessment that I had a lot of anger issues. “I’m not angry,” I protested. He stared straight into my eyes, unyielding. “I’m not,” I mustered up in response. “Am I?” I whimpered.  When I got home that night, I told Pam about my session: “The doctor thinks I have a lot of anger.” I have never seen Pam’s eyes grow wider. It was if her eyeballs were nodding emphatically. “You think so, too?” I asked. “Yes!” she said resoundingly. And here I was, eight years of on and off therapy, four therapists, and finally the crux of my issues—I was angry and I needed to work on it. And I did. I saw Dr. Doug weekly—that’s once a week!!!—for over a year.  I was with him for over two years.  And now I finally have some perspective on my past, I am aware of my anger, and I have spent a lot of time healing.

I have been out of therapy for over a year, and I feel great—for the most part. I still get angry. The point is to not avoid anger, but be aware of its presence and your triggers.  I can tell you this, though, most of the time, when I do get angry, it has very little to do with the thing I yell about.  But I realize that this is all a process, that I continue to grow as a person—a husband, a father, a teacher, a friend…  Looking back on the past ten years, I can tell you this about my experiences:

Therapy is like dating cancer. You go to meet this entity (your psyche) each week; you bare your soul and are more intimate with this being which represents all of these issues that could have destroyed you. You are the host to this vile, caustic thing, and you need to spend time with IT—whatever issue you are confronting—and recognize how potent it is in your life. If you ignore it, it will continue to feed on you until it has consumed you. Okay, maybe this isn’t dating, maybe it’s stalking. But you get the gist. She is a bitch, but you will keep seeing her until you break up on YOUR terms. Who is stalking whom?

Breaking up is hard to do. When you commit to seeing a therapist, the two of you establish a rapport, and it is hard to know when to say goodbye. I was with the same person for several years, but how long should one stay? It’s an individual choice, but a necessary one.  I have the utmost respect for my last therapist (Doug), but he was not getting the hint when I kept telling him I needed a break—I was tired, I felt drained, and I needed to apply some of this knowledge to my daily life. Finally, I resorted to writing him a Dear John letter while he was on vacation—it’s not you, it’s me, I just need my space. He wrote me a very caustic reply, saying he would not be able to see me again if and when I ever decided to come back. So long, Doug… As for the others, the first ended when he moved away, the second in a nasty fight, and the third I just never called back when she reached out to get back together again. Such is the life of dating—I mean therapy.

Everyone could benefit from therapy! Everyone. Think of how cool it would be to confide in a person in the strictest of confidences? Who could not benefit from understanding why they react the way they do, from a non-judgmental professional who has an adept understanding of the way humans behave? Not sure why you can’t stand your sister-in-law? Wondering why you can’t relax in museums? Noticing a pattern with your unsuccessful dating life? Resentful of your kids for no good reason? Your answers are closer than you imagine. (The above scenarios are all hypotheticals, of course.)

There are affordable options.  Laws are changing to ensure that mental health coverage is commensurate to other health care coverage (Parity Law). Moreover, under the Affordable Care Act, more people have access to mental health treatment than ever before. If I did not have insurance, I could not have afforded to see a therapist weekly. But the co-pay was money well spent, even if it was a considerable expense in my weekly budget. When money was tighter, I went less often, but I still had access. There are also services through churches and synagogues (many of which are non-denominational), and many therapists will work on a sliding scale.

Don’t stay in a bad relationship. Finding the right therapist is work. Most health care websites have a database of practitioners in your area. It may take a few different ones before you feel the right fit. I did not have luck in this area. I knew I did not feel right with either female therapist, yet I stayed because I felt bad. That’s my issue. But if you are brave enough to seek counseling, do yourself a favor and find a good match.

Be open to the idea that you may find yourself in therapy again. I have been in and out of treatment several times. Right now, I am applying what I’ve learned in how I live my life. But I know that someday, I will probably need to seek help from a therapist again. And I hope I am aware enough now to know when that day arrives. Who knows, maybe, as I continue to grow, I won’t be ashamed to tell a friend where I am going after school?

Finally, the words of the song “What Do You Hear in These Sounds”, by Dar Williams, always resonate with me when I think about my tumultuous ride with therapy:

I don’t go to therapy to find out if I’m a freak
I go and I find the one and only answer every week
And it’s just me and all the memories to follow
Down any course that fits within a fifty minute hour …

And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think
That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink
But oh how I loved everybody else
When I finally got to talk so much about myself…

Her words sum up so much about my experience. I am no more a freak than you—okay, I did just laugh—but we’re all freaks in our own way. And, when you are given the right, the encouragement to talk about all of the things
that may be blocking you on life’s path, you find you are so much more open to others outside of therapy because you have dealt with your own issues in such a meaningful way.

Anger 2.0

The awakening began when I met my wife, Pam. She is a beautiful person, with all of the traits that I needed in order to find peace.  Pam is patient, reserved, tactful, kind, understanding.  We are complete opposites, but we are complete. Pam and I found each other at the right time.  Meeting at thirty, we both knew more of what we wanted in a partner.  I had been quite successful at playing the role of “happy” with a “healthy” existence.  I was a teacher, I went to church more than not, I led a decent life, I tried to be on good terms with everyone in my family. When I married her, I was not prepared for the emotional turmoil it would dredge up for me.  I had successfully stuffed all of my anger tightly inside.  It took the serenity of marrying normal to bring it spewing forth.

I recall one night in early spring when I sat on the front porch of our new house. I had just finished a full day’s work of planting and mulching, and sat down to enjoy the peace and calm of a cool April night. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of pride–I was a man working the land, enjoying a well deserved beer after a hard day of work.  But there it was, that voice inside me, reminding me that all of this was a sham.  “Who are you kidding? This can’t be yours? Don’t forget where you came from. You’ll never escape that.”

In a funny way, it reminds me of the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”:

You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife …You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

Indeed, I asked myself, How did I get HERE? I truly felt I didn’t deserve to be in that house. Perhaps it was my Irish Catholic guilt, but I was burdened with the idea that I was living in a single home on a beautiful corner lot. A far cry from the twin I grew up in–the small house I shared with nine others, the bedroom where 5 boys slept, the one shower. Rather than feel I had achieved a goal of having more than I did as a kid, I felt guilty. Why me? What’s so special about me that I can have a better life now? And with the guilt came the pressure. How can I live a normal life? How can I have a happy home? I don’t know how to be happy. And, as I went through the motions, I knew that I had a lot to reconcile before I could ever feel deserving of this new life.

About six months into our marriage, I had a panic attack. I didn’t see it coming. Emotionally, I had stuffed so much shit inside my mind, that it was literally on overload. Naively, I thought marriage would be a chance for me to reinvent who I was. I had married a normal woman, and was therefore beginning my life in my normal family. It doesn’t work that way–I still had all the flaws and hang-ups as a married man that I did when I was single.

It was a dreary day in February. A Monday. We had just spent the weekend in Punxsutawney, PA to witness the groundhog seeing its shadow. It was on my bucket list since I saw the movie with Bill Murray. There I was, in a classroom, telling a story to my students about something funny from the weekend’s festivities. I love telling stories, and students always oblige me with their attention. But that day was different.  I felt their eyes staring through me, I could hear them blinking… Laughter was always my method.  And I had made people laugh for so long that it became my refuge, my way of deflecting, my way of poking fun at the world. Even the twisted stories of my youth are all ensconced in humor–and in many ways I find comfort in that, even still. But that day, the laughter turned on me. I found myself too conscientious to care about the laughs. I was exhausted–tired of pretending I could just move beyond all the pain of the past by simply ignoring it. If you’ve never had a panic attack, I can tell you it is exhausting–you feel like you’re running a marathon and having a heart attack at the same time.  It seems to block out all the noise except the muffled beating of your heart. All of the saliva from your mouth seems to drain into your palms. Amazingly, I held it together. I wanted to just run out of the room, but I managed to stay. The story came to an awkward end, and then I quickly assigned the reading of the day to be done silently. The kids were unaware of what had just happened, but I was forever changed.

When I got home, I was very quiet– emotionally and physically exhausted. It was as if three decades of pain climbed onto my back and refused to leave until I acknowledged they were there. At dinner, when I told Pam, I could see the fear in her eyes. I tried to assuage her concerns, but I was fearful myself. The following few weeks were a fog. I continued to teach, and waited for the next attack to come. Pam was so sweet, offering encouragement, leaving me cards, even investigating possible causes. I remember her telling me how she read that artificial sweetener can be a cause of anxiety, knowing I used many packs of Equal in my coffee each day. But I knew the toxin–it wasn’t saccharin– it was years of suppressed anger and pain.

After that initial attack, I do not remember having any other full-blown episodes. There were times when I would get nervous, and feel the symptoms starting, but I was able to keep them in check with breathing deeply (don’t knock it til you try it) and positive thinking (talking oneself off the ledge). Yet, from that initial anxiety attack, I slumped into a terrible depression. I was so removed from any daily connection. I felt exhausted all the time. I felt sad. I felt hollow. For so long, I tried to be optimistic. I tried to pretend the past wasn’t as bad as I remembered, that everyone has their “cross in life”. But now my body refused to let me pretend anymore. It was shutting down, saying, YOU BETTER WORK THIS OUT OR I WILL. Before this, I often wondered how one would know if he was depressed–I mean clinically depressed. Trust me, you’d know.

I can remember confiding in a few friends about my situation, but unless you have experienced something similar, you really can’t understand. In one conversation, with a very close friend, I tried to convey how sad I was.”Really? You seem the same. I don’t notice anything different about you.” How could I be completely different and seem the same to those around me? I guess it’s the power of the facade we put up for others. At home, Pam and I were tentative with each other. I didn’t want her to think I felt as bad as I did, and she didn’t want me to think she was as worried as she was. Yet, what fueled my anger, and my depression even more so, was the fear, the threat, that I was recreating a dynamic that I had grown up with– a distant father, a man who closed himself off from the world; a husband and wife who could never find equal footing; a home where unspoken angers and fears were as present as the people who occupied the rooms. It made me question everything.  Should I have kids? Could I ask Pam to stay in this marriage if I was no longer the person she thought she married?  How was I going to ever get beyond these feelings of emptiness and sadness?

I knew I it was time to see a therapist (finally). I made an appointment and waited for my life to begin again.

These paintings are the work of M. Drake. You can purchase his work at http://www.gallerydirect.com/art/artists/m-drake