Those two words in response to the question, “Oh yeah, what in?” elicit stunned looks and awkward silence with consistency. Depending on who I am talking to, I hesitate to varying degrees to acknowledge that I am finishing up my master’s degree.
People who know my passion for writing about and studying maladaptive coping mechanisms like alcoholism assume psychology. Others who know my wife and I are self-employed assume it’s an MBA. A master’s degree in sexual health drops jaws to the floor. Those who compose themselves always have one or both of the same two follow-up questions. “You’ve got to be the only 50-year-old heterosexual white cisgender male in the program, right?” and, “Why?” The answer to the first question is, “I am meeting a lot of people I would not otherwise encounter, and it’s great to hear different perspectives (that is a long way of saying, ‘yes.’)” The answer to the second question is so simple in my mind, but it’s a bit hard to explain.
Over the New Year’s weekend I heard David Brooks, New York Times opinion columnist and author of How to Know a Person, describe social media as performance art. I like that. It is not connection or interaction no matter how many people we can reach, how fast or how far across the globe. Social media is not about growing closer. It is about screaming our opinions into the wind and posting pictures of our best, fake selves.
I have never really interacted with social media on a personal level, and we ditched facebook, Instagram and X for promotion of our blog and podcast in mid 2023 as an experiment. Our platforms continued to grow at the same slow and steady pace. No social media had no impact.
I do watch Instagram reels in bed most nights looking for funny cat videos to send my wife. It makes her giggle, so in that way, social media does create connection in my life. A wife who giggles because I show interest in her passion is about as good as it gets.
This is the time in the annual cycle when we all vow to make profound changes in our lives. You know it is the start of a new year when some of the beer commercials during the football games are replaced with ads for exercise equipment and tax preparation websites. But change doesn’t come from gym memberships and diet plans. Change comes from pain, and a few pounds gained from eggnog and sugar cookies doesn’t hurt enough. That’s why in January, when we realize our winter sweaters are sufficient cover for our holiday indulgences, our resolutions are fleeting little traumas of unwelcomed self-restraint.
But what if you are in enough pain?
Our last Christmas as a couple was in 2020. I knew going into December that if nothing changed, this would be our last time through the holiday season together.
Nothing changed. No Christmas miracle.
Starting in 2021, I found that some traditions and memories were too sad or too hard to continue. But I like the holidays, and I didn’t want to abandon them. Here are a few things I have done, and continue to do, to help make this time of year different.
If you are wondering if your relationship is like the relationships of others, it’s probably different. If you are wondering, you are probably too afraid to ask.
If you think marriage and children will fix things, they won’t.
You can’t fix their holes that they had when they came to you. You can’t give them your family as a replacement for what they didn’t have, no matter how much you share and shower them with love and attention. It can’t fix that which never existed.
You deserve to be loved.
You deserve to be respected.
You deserve peace, joy, and security.
You deserve moments of pleasure, ecstasy, and warmth.
Our friendship has been hard lately.
I’ve watched you struggle and fall apart.
Life does not seem fair at all. It doesn’t seem fair that my wife has to recover from my disease. Or that temporary decisions (even made in ignorance) produce life-long consequences.
It doesn’t seem fair that addiction is acquired through joy and discarded through misery.
According to Yoda, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Or maybe for me: Fear leads to silence. Silence leads to pain. Pain leads to resentment.
Fear. Four simple letters. One little word. A massive amount of weight.
Fear holds me back.
There’s the fear that if I confront an issue, that makes my experience too important, and she’ll internalize it and shame herself. Shame leads to her relapse. Or the fear that I’m not important enough, and I’ll be the one hurt by being ignored.
The prince or princess always shows up, and everyone lives happily ever after. That’s how it happens in the movies or on television. We live in a society where relationships and marriages are glamorized.
People who are in love stay in love, and they love loving each other.
When my shorts outlive their socially acceptable outside-of-the-house lifespan, I still wear them at home. I am no fashionista, so to be socially unacceptable, said shorts need a hole in the crotch or an unwashable oil or paint stain. I’ve worn pants with a ripped back pocket such that I had to pair them with my nicest boxer shorts before leaving the house, so my standard for at-home-only attire is pretty low. I pair my should-really-be-discarded shorts with an equally unthinkably torn and stained sweatshirt in the winter. And I wear that combo, day after day, once my time outside of the house is over. I’m like Mr. Rogers when I get home, except instead of changing into a nice cardigan, I slide into the same sweatshirt I’ve been wearing since the furnace first kicked on in October. Gross. That’s the point.
To top off my inside outfit, I wear socks with soccer slides (think open-toed flip-flops) to keep my tootsies warm in the winter. I often have an ice bag on one or both of my knees, which is one of the reasons for shorts instead of jeans. The other reason is that jeans are ridiculously uncomfortable, and the cultural embrace they enjoy, decade after decade, generation after generation, makes about as much sense to me as drinking a toxic poison and calling that relaxation. We are a curious species, and our infatuation with bluejeans is just one indicator of how easily brainwashable we are. No jeans at home for me. My at-home attire is selected for ultimate comfort.
Which begs the question: Why was I so uncomfortable for so long in my own home?
Writing about my value and worth is much more difficult than noting what I don’t deserve. It’s easy for me to be hard on myself.
But, I can list a number of tangible things that I’m proud of: my daughter, that I bought a house at age 27, my career, a published paper, helping my sister financially through vet school and her wedding. These tangibles are the outcomes of the intangibles.
The intangibles are what is important. The intangibles are the things I want to model for my daughter.