truth

No, Virginia. No!

I have an old winter jacket that I wear when I walk the dogs. I put it on at least a hundred times a year for such walks. And there is a pocket inside the jacket–a breast pocket that sits close to my heart. And inside that pocket were two envelopes containing two letters–letters that rested there for over four years. Letters to Santa.

Many a night I would feel the edges of those letters in the zippered breast pocket and think about how I held a secret close to my chest.

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A lifetime ago, when my youngest son was half his age, and my older one still looked like a little boy, I was handed these letters. I’m sure I was on my way out the door to walk the dog (we only had one at the time) when the boys forced the envelopes into my hand. And being the dutiful dad, I promised to place those ever-important letters in our mailbox, so Santa would indeed know what two little boys on his list wanted for Christmas.

Once outside, I’m sure I shoved those letters in that pocket and zipped it up tight, And there they sat, and sat, and sat. I didn’t plan on housing them in the jacket this long ( I didn’t plan on having the jacket this long, either). But you know how life is. Things have a way of just remaining in our lives, until, one day, they don’t. Things like jackets, and secrets, and Santa Claus.

As time passed, I would occasionally feel the letters inside the pocket. My hand would brush past the flattened lump, and I would think, Oh, right, the boys letters to Santa. How long have they been inside this coat…1 year, 2 years, 3 then 4? What if they discover them? Well, even if they don’t find these letters, they will one day learn the truth, and then these letters will remind me that it’s the end of__________. And that’s the part I always fumbled on. The end of what? Innocence? No. Childhood? Certainly not? The magic? Perhaps. I would settle on magic and tug my coat a little tighter–a reminder that for now the letters meant they still believed.

But Easter morning changed all that. Yes, the Easter Bunny dropped a big dose of reality in the boys’ baskets this year–the fact that he doesn’t really exist. And with that came the dreadful domino effect–no Bunny, no Tooth Fairy, and no Santa!

It was a wonderful morning. Honestly. I had just thought to myself how much I was enjoying this particular Easter Sunday. The boys let us sleep in. They bounced into our room with homemade cards. They helped each other find their eggs. The sky was even as sunny as our dispositions.

And as Owen (10) was coming back in the house from getting me the newspaper (another reason it was such a splendid morning) he got a quizzical look upon his face,

“Wait. How did you know there were 22 eggs in all if the Easter Bunny hid them?”

Pause. Parental glance.

“What?” he said, a bit panicky. “Is he not real?”

Another pause–this one more awkward. Parental glance and simultaneous nod, yes.

Tears sprung from his eyes as big as Cadbury Mini Eggs. “Nooooooooooo!”

“Does that mean there’s no Tooth Fairy?” said Hayden (8). Another affirmative nod.

“Oh, God! Is there no Santa Claus?” Two more nods. Owen was inconsolable (I just caught myself grimacing, recalling these moments while writing this post–it is so incredibly sad that THEY were so incredibly sad.)

“I guess there are no leprechauns, either?” chimes Hayden.

“No, Hayd. No leprechauns.”

“We’re sorry, guys. We thought you might already have had an idea that these things weren’t real.”

“No,” says one. “We still believed,” says the other.

The day continues in fits and starts. The boys calm down, then get weepy again. Calm. Weepy. Calm. Weepy. In talking about the various characters that have been visiting our house this past decade, we recall many memories. Pam produces two tiny jewelry boxes; each a home for the boys’ teeth. And I run to that old winter jacket and pull out their letters to Santa that I had hidden in there for four years now.

Owen opens his letter and tries to decipher his wish list to Santa.

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Hayden opens his and bursts into laughter.

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Rest assured, he got the Bat Cave that year.

WE spend the hours saying all the lines we hope will soften the blow. Things like: There really is a Santa Claus–it just happens to be mom and dad…I know it seems like we lied to you, but think of it as playing pretend–we pretended there was a Tooth Fairy…You had fun at the egg hunt yesterday, and you knew our friends hid the eggs–not the Easter Bunny…Look at how much you love Harry Potter–that whole world is made up, too. And on, and on, and on.

Pam and I try to gauge their emotions. “Are you worried that now that you know the truth, you won’t get as many presents next Christmas?” she asks the boys. “No,” Owen says, “I don’t care about the presents. I’m just sad about the magic.”

We all were sad. Pam and I got a bit teary recalling the many times we played these parts. Truth is, I’ve been wanting to live in a world without the pressures of these imaginary figures lording over me. I thought Hayden would have another year or two of believing beyond Owen, and when I told my nieces that, they said, “No. It’s good they had each other to lean on.” That made me feel better.

But when I saw them crying and even a little pained by this news, I realized what made me sad was not the fact that they know the truth–I never felt right lying to them once they were in grade school. No, what made me sad was seeing my sons hurting and knowing that they just had to suffer through this loss, the way they will when other painful things–real tragedies and the world’s harsh realities–come across their path.

That night, in the bathroom getting ready for bed, I sit on the tub’s edge as they take turns coming in to brush their teeth. I can tell they’re sad again. They are unusually quiet.

I watch Owen in the mirror and our eyes meet. “I know today was hard. I don’t really have anything to say that will make the pain go away. But I want you to know that we are a family, and we will get through this together. And each day, it will get a little easier. I promise.”

I feel good about this, so I repeat these words to Hayden when it’s his turn to brush. Both boys seem comforted by my message, but as I sit in the hall and listen to them settling in to sleep, I hear heavy sighs and a few stifled cries.

They’ll just have to be sad for a time, I think. But then I recall my words, and I repeat them in my mind. “…We are a family, and we will get through this together.” There is such power in words, and these words helped my boys realize that when we share the pain, it doesn’t hurt as much.

And now, that’s what I’ve been carrying close to my heart since that day–and I have to admit, there’s a little magic in such thinking.

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Here are Owen and Hayden’s cards from Easter morning. The last thing they created as true believers. After the cold hard reality set in, their drawings took a dark turn for me. I kept imagining Owen’s #1 fingers as middle fingers, and Hayden’s bunny brandishing a gun instead of a carrot.

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Writing My Wrongs

Javier PachecoA few weekends ago, a friend of mine, a guy I’ve known for most of my life, was talking to me about my blog. He likes it. He thinks it’s been a good platform for me.  “I think you found your new therapist,” he said. I think he’s right. Writing is very therapeutic. It is a great outlet, a way for one to process  thoughts, ideas, fears and fantasies. Writing this blog has allowed me to do that.

I’ve been blogging now for three months. Recently, I’ve been sitting on a piece that was hard for me to write. And it got me thinking about why I do this…Should I do this?? And the answer I keep coming back to is “Yes!” This blog has been a wonderful experience for me. It has reinvigorated some old friendships; it has brought me many new perspectives; it has connected me with people across the globe and right in my own backyard. If you have been reading it, I want to thank you. Thank you for letting me in, for letting me rant and reveal, pontificate and pester. Thank you for visiting with me—if only for a few moments in your week.

A lot of people claim to like the format of my blog. How I write about an incident that happened with the boys just moments ago, and then throw in a piece from my past. To some, it may seem random, but this blend is purposeful. My past makes up my present. When I see my sons, when I look at the man I am in front of them, I am a father, but I am also a husband, brother, son, friend, student, teacher, neighbor. All of who I am is represented when I parent.  I am the sum of my parts, as you are, too. And I am constantly seeking a better understanding of that. Bringing in the past allows me to do that more, and, hopefully, better.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I have been brutally honest about my upbringing and my experiences in my family—both current and past. In talking to another friend, she cautioned me to not forget the good stuff in the past. That is an important reminder, and I thank her for that. I did not start this blog with an axe to grind or out of anger. I am saddened by some of the topics I cover, but they are what resonate with me.  I am not trying to play the blame game or point fingers, I am merely trying to write about my experiences. These are the memories and the relationships I have struggled with.

One of those relationships is with my mother. When I was young, I thought my mother was a living saint. Married so young (21) and 7 kids by thirty. With little means, she made the most of it. She gave us each a spark of her personality. She taught us how to have a big heart and she loved us all the best she could. I was hesitant to show her my blog because I thought it may offend her. However, I did not want to do this behind her back. Around my birthday, she stopped by to drop off a cake for me. We visited for a while, and then I asked her to sit and read the blog. I was so nervous  I went for a run while she perused each entry. When I got back, I was relieved (and surprised) that she loved it. I asked her how she felt about the entries where she may have looked bad. She exclaimed, “Well, it’s all true. How could I be mad?” What a great moment for mother and son. Permission to tell the truth. I recently came across a quote that speaks to this very theme: “The truth hurts for a little while, but a lie hurts forever.” This blog is my truth.

My father also did his best. He lived during a difficult time for men to be alive— they were taught not to show their emotions. My dad was a boy during The Great Depression; he never went to college, yet he was very smart; he never made it passed middle management in the insurance business. He was a staunch Catholic with a strong moral code. He had some bad breaks in his life, like a heart-attack at age 44, and he never truly found peace on this Earth. My father has been deceased for more than a decade and a half. There is some guilt in me for writing about him when he no longer has a voice. I feel bad that he is not here to speak with me about these words I write, but sadly, I think if he was here, and he read what I wrote, he would not speak to me. Perhaps it would be different. Perhaps.

These are my parents, and they are flawed—as we all are. And it is through their flaws that my identity was formed, and that of my six brothers and sisters. And I cannot stop what I have started. I believe in the power of writing and its ability to bring us to a greater understanding. If I ever come across as whiny or petulant, please call me out on it. And please understand that the writing you find on these pages has been developing in my mind for years, decades even. I do not write about the past without having given it much consideration and deliberation.

Finally, some thoughts from the teacher in me. When I talk to my high school students about writing, I inform them that the word essay means an attempt; to try. These essays I write are my attempts. Like all attempts, some will be more successful than others.  Which brings me to my second teacher point. When I discuss the art of argument with students, I explain to them the old adage “Everything’s an argument.”  I tell them that what we are trying to do when arguing is “enter the conversation.” My blog is my attempt to enter the conversation. I have something to say, and I am glad I am finding a way to say it. I have started a conversation and I would love it if you would join me.

What do you have to say? Tell me your thoughts. Let me know what topics you would like me to cover more. If you blog, what scares you about writing? Please let me know what you are thinking. It matters.

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.