May 2021

The Intersection of Guilt and Abuse: When we fail to believe we deserve better


The Intersection of Guilt and Abuse by DkWeissWriter

When my husband died in April of 2013, I didn’t think I deserved to have a future. And that led me to fall into emotional abuse.

By the time he was diagnosed with male breast cancer, it was already at Stage Four. At least, that’s what I believe. He never told me about having any symptoms until he announced one day that he was going to the hospital for “tests.” But by then, it was too late.

As he got sicker, he fell into deep denial.

He rejected care, wouldn’t let me get involved in his treatment, and demanded that we conceal his condition from his parents. Over time, I dressed the weeping wounds the cancer had carved into his back and hoped I wasn’t killing him. I gave him his nebulizer several times a night and begged him to let me get the hospital bed and skilled nursing care he needed.

But he always refused. Finally, sleep-deprived, and covered in stress-related hives, I yelled at him, trying desperately to get him to see reality, screaming that I just couldn’t take it anymore.

Except he was the one who was dying.

When he was gone, it was as though I’d lost him twice, first to the denial that took away my husband and best friend of 32 years, and second to the cancer that claimed his body. And somehow I felt it was my fault. It would always be my fault. To this day, I don’t much care for Sundays.

After he died, I had a major case of caregiver guilt. And a bunch of memories I didn’t want to be alone with, especially after dark.

A year and a half later, after dating online for a few months, I wound up in an emotionally abusive relationshipI wound up in an emotionally abusive relationship. But back then, I didn’t see the correlation.

Looking back, I see I accepted that poison because I was lost in shame.

Initially — in fact way too early — my new boyfriend told me that he loved me. But six months later, he was whining that I sucked, was supremely selfish and never considered what he wanted. Outwardly, I railed against it. But deep down, I felt he was right. So I hung out with a guy who drove with a coffee cup of whiskey beside him, and balked when it was his turn to pay for dinner but gambled away thousands of his savings, and who threatened to kill himself because he was just that miserable.

Like so many who have been in abusive relationships, I rationalized that I could help him to change. He needed me. Having failed to save my husband, I wanted to save someone, even someone who wasn’t very nice to me.

How many of us have subconsciously fallen into toxicity because we didn’t believe we deserve better?

We wind up with someone enmeshed in their own drama who isn’t good for us, and we think, I guess that’s all I get to have in this life.

It’s not that you consciously decide that you deserve a schmuck, it’s that you settle for one. They’re a distraction from yourself. You don’t have to work on your own pain when you’re constantly mopping up after someone else’s.

And that can be a relief.

Unable to live alone with my memories, I lacked the wherewithal to get out. Nothing was that great, but being with him was somewhat better than being alone.Until it wasn’t.

To resolve my guilt, the first thing I had to do was to confess my sins.

I see now they weren’t unique or even special. Many of us feel guilt over providing flawed care to our loved ones and being overwhelmed and frightened, and even losing our tempers and saying things we regret. Which we regret even more after they’re gone.

One day while leaving a writing class, a fellow classmate asked about my weekend plans. I answered that I was going to try a walking group on meetup, but surprised myself by adding, “Whenever I meet anyone new I feel like I’m hiding something.” Isn’t it often that way, the thing we’re hiding is also the thing we want to shout out loud?

“The best way to get over shame is to talk about it, ” he said. “It’s when we hide our secrets that they fester.” I’d happened, perhaps not so unconsciously, to share my feelings with an older man who’d spent much of his life working on his own foibles.

So I started writing about it. From the responses I received, I learned I was not alone in my guilt. But I still didn’t get rid of my poisonous boyfriend.

My memories made it hard to be by myself for long periods of time. And that inability to be alone was its own kind of beast, feral and immediate, craving warmth, the feel of skin, the solidity of someone lying next to me in the dark, numbing out my shame.

I finally broke up with my boyfriend when he insisted on picking me up after a writing workshop in the city. From the start, he was restless, strung out on pain medication and whiskey. He insisted on crossing a busy intersection just as the light was changing, grabbing my wrist to drag me along with him when I refused. A speeding car almost hit us. By the time that car had screeched to a halt, other cars were coming at us too.

When we finally made it across the street, he blamed me for not trusting him. The ride home wasn’t any better. That day I finally recognized him as an abuser who wanted to take me down with him.

By the time I was done with it all, I was bitter. A different person. No longer the quiet widow who was looking for love. But an angry woman who’d been abused. Yet that was better because now I cared about having a future.

If you’ve ever felt this kind of shame, you are not alone. But I also want you to know in the future you’ll be different. It might not be for months or even years, but there is a different you who wants to be alive. And the you that emerges from the crucible may very well not be the person who you were before. But that person is worth waiting for.

(Previously published in P.S. I Love You on Medium).
The Intersection of Guilt and Abuse: When we fail to believe we deserve better2021-05-20T14:35:12+00:00

December 2020

Finding Love at Middle Age: Throw Away Your List

In Carmel over Thanksgiving with my person. Opposites attract.

How a skeptic found love with an astrology believer

I’m embarrassed to admit that I used to be an aspirational dater. I had a graduate degree, so I wanted some one with one or more better degree(s). Some one with more resources than I did, who was more knowledgeable about a lot more stuff than I knew.

But really, I wanted someone whose life I could co-opt.

I needed someone with a great career because I didn’t have one of my own, and wanted to be inspired. I had so few friends after being widowed that I wanted to adopt someone else’s. And I was so adrift, I wanted someone with a rich framework of connections into which I could slot myself.

I was looking into the pond, but unlike Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection, I was obsessed with how I reflected off other people.

I followed this pattern for years, but no one I dated worked out long-term. Many of those guys with great career successes didn’t have much time for a relationship. Some were mansplainers, assuming we both knew he was the smart one and I was relegated to being the audience. Just because someone was successful didn’t mean he was caring or or considerate or less emotionally messed up than anyone else.

Then I fell for someone who was wrong for me.

He had a perfectly good job, but his passions lay outside his career. It didn’t define him. He was a natural athlete to my klutz, a professional ski instructor whereas I avoid anything where it feels the ground is rushing up to meet me. He believed in a benevolent higher power. I did not. He thought the universe did, in fact, provide. I thought it had a complicated personality bordering on hostility.

Worst of all, he believed in astrology. For the record, he’s a Scorpio, I’m a Leo, and, according to astrology sites, this creates an incredibly passionate relationship between two strong personalities…but again, I don’t believe in astrology.

When he contacted me, I thought we had no future together, but he was just so nice, texting me photos of sun rises from his morning runs with cheerful little notes to have a great day. Even though I don’t do cheerful or sunrises or runs, morning or otherwise. Not only was he nice, but he was also great-looking, which I guessed would manifest in self-absorption.

His profile said, “May you find friends and lovers and more,” which to me sounded far too optimistic. I tended to go for guys who were driven to succeed, cared little about fitness, and cultivated dark sides that they loved to talk about.

My first real date with Mr. Opposite was a day long drive around some beaches in Marin with stops at his favorite restaurants. At the start, gave me a little gift book he’d bought for himself in Santa Cruz with drawings of the beach and quotes about the ocean. I did not own anything like it, but I was charmed by his thoughtfulness. And by the way he said he wanted me to have it because he knew I liked being by the water. Most importantly, he was comfortable giving me something that was special to him without worrying whether I’d think it was silly.

I discovered he was great listener who was emotionally intuitive. He was a visual thinker with a flair for home decor. That type of smarts is often underestimated in a world run by standardized testing. I had no long-term hopes for us, but I liked him so much I kept going out with him. He always greeted me with a huge, toothy smile like he was really happy to seeing me. (Not that I had to guess, he actually told me each time how he was looking forward to seeing me).

After our dates, I felt as if I’d basked in the sun for a few hours. It just felt great to be around him. And I realized the men I’d been dating weren’t as pleasing to be around as he was. Nor did most of them have his lovely manners. Nor his innate happiness.

I had a revelation: my type of allegedly smart wasn’t any fun

No liking stuff that wasn’t intellectually stimulating or cleverly esoteric. Rejecting the power of affirmations and positive thinking out of a sense of misplaced wisdom. Not feeling like I was enough as is. (Hence the aspirational dating).

Being with him made me feel like I had so many more choices. I didn’t have to be a cynic.

blog a lot about finding love online through perseverance — find more profiles, check messages daily, meet people in real life — but the real difference was being open to someone outside my usual range. And I accomplished the almost impossible: finding a happy, not disillusioned middle -aged single person!

I think many daters make the same mistake that I did: limiting our criteria to people like us. (“Must love atheistic existentialism, the films of the nouvelle vague, and early but not later Haruki Murakami.”)

Or we seek out the super successful because we think they’ll provide better lives for us. I had to figure out my own career and connection issues, and limit my search to finding love instead of a course in self-improvement. But I also realized I wanted more, more sweetness, more respect, and more availability, with a hell of a lot less superiority. Love became a lot easier once it was just love.

We can throw away our lists without abandoning our values.

We reject people with different philosophies when, in reality, do we really want someone who thinks the same way we do? Isn’t it more interesting to learn new ways of being? For me, being with a positive thinker is wonderfully cheering, even if it isn’t something I’ve yet to adopt. It’s lovely to sit by the water and just be with it, like he does, instead of checking my step count every five minutes.

Sure, we can still want someone loyal and smart and compassionate and not super self-involved, but that might not look the way we thought it would. They might have a different kind of job or income or personal style than we initially required. And that gives us a far greater pool of prospects while, at the same time, allowing us to find people with the core values we wanted in the first place.

Your person might very well be out there, they just have a different job or a different wardrobe than you expected. They might have a different view of the world. And that might be all to the good.

May you find friends and lovers and more.

Finding Love at Middle Age: Throw Away Your List2021-01-08T18:39:29+00:00

November 2020

When You Think Everyone Else is Doing a Better Job of Widowing

On the beach and unconcerned about my widowing skills. (Photo by my boyfriend Randal who’s a great photographer)

Are you feeling judged? 

When I was widowed, I couldn’t stop thinking I was doing it wrong. Sure, I could get the paperwork done, and get recalcitrant bank employees to change the accounts, and even remodel the bathroom.

But deep down, I kept thinking I was missing something. Otherwise I wouldn’t feel so awful, so completely alone. It wasn’t that I didn’t function, it was that I felt so terrible.

I was just so used to being part of a marriage, acting as half of a pair. Almost everything I did, I was used to running by George. And if I messed something up, he was there to tell me I hadn’t really, and in any event it would all turn out okay.

He kept the self-loathing monster at bay. Maybe your spouse did too. But now we have to do that for ourselves.

I was alone the evening of the 2016 election. I went to a yoga class, then then went to a healing service at a local house of worship. But what I really wanted was George. I wandered what he would have thought of it all, what he would have made for dinner, if we would have stayed up late talking about it. I got through that night, but wondered where I’d failed to be so alone.

Acting on my own, from picking new bathroom fixtures to going out alone at night, felt unreal. It was all so much less than my life used to be, even though it took much more effort.

I worried life would always feel this anemic, and for that, I blamed myself.

If only I had more friends, more ideas of what I wanted to do, and more energy to make it happen (whatever that mysterious “it” was). But I stopped practicing law back in 2001. Aside from taking the odd writing class, I didn’t do much after that beyond fitness, and home stuff, and being with George. After he died, none it was good enough any more. 

Where was that dazzling career that needed me, or network of girlfriends taking me out for spa respites? I blamed myself for never having had children though I’d never missed them when George was around.

Getty Images. This widow probably made that wine and makes a fortune selling it online.

Then there were the photos of widows I saw online. The widows who were laughing with girlfriends, and hosting adorable little dinners garnished with large bouquets of lavender from their own gardens. They were all finding sparkly new lives while I was failing to accomplish much of anything. 

That feeling has persisted throughout my almost seven years of widowhood. I still feel it to this day.

I’m Pretty Sure My Kitchen Despises Me.

The kitchen was George’s domain, he was the gourmet cook. When he died, it became the emptiest room in the house, full of the equipment he used, and his fancy olive oils, with no one to use them any more. His over-sized mandoline slicer looked like it wanted to bite off a finger. Not to mention huge cauldrons I would never be filling, a turkey roaster for gatherings I’d never be hosting, and a sukiyaki maker when I never, ever wanted to make sukiyaki for one. 

Over the years, I tried to reconcile with the kitchen, giving it a remodel, cleaning out all that smug professional-grade equipment, even getting a produce boxed delivered so it would know I thought of it. But I myself am not professional-grade.

The kitchen and I have since reached a detente but it took time. I still don’t really cook in it on nights my boyfriend isn’t around, but it’s finally stopped taunting for my culinary inadequacies. (Then again, anyone who thinks they have a talking kitchen probably has problems).

”You never make homemade soup. You could do that if you hadn’t tossed George’s Cuisinart,” it says softly but reproachfully as I heat up another Doordash feast which includes, I confess, a delicious cream of cauliflower soup from my local bistro. 

”Shut the fuck up,” I say under my breath. “I had you remodeled. Can’t you just look pretty and be quiet?”

This is obviously an image I do not relate to.

Ah, but that talented #cookingwidow with her wildly successful blog makes her own soup. Hell, she’d be making it for her six dinner party guests and spooning it into a Meissen terrine #whenlifegivesyoulemons.

I spoon my own cauliflower soup into a black stoneware bowl, a step up from the takeout container, and settle in alone to watch something young adult and escapist on Hulu. Ah, another night of pretending I’m a college student replete with unbridled hormones, a sense of premise, and an inexplicably nice apartment.

That widow I follow on Facebook would be finding comfort in exquisite homemade succulent gardens and lavender balms. #yougottaloveyourself. The lavender plants I planted in my own window boxes are oddly brown and scraggly. And who started the rumor lavender works as some sort of anxiety panacea anyway? Martinis, I get. Chocolate torte, I need. Even ill-chosen sex I comprehend even though it never worked for me. I’ve bought lavender lotions and shower gels, and…yup, still anxious!

The Instagram widows put me to shame. Homemade coffee table with husband’s face lovingly depicted in mosaic? Check. Teeny Lycra workout gear showing off abs from workout program named after husband? Check. Taking said program public with large IPO? Yup, and it only took six months to find an angel investor!

Here’s the Problem: You’re Probably Going to Feel Inadequate Some of the Time

Oft-repeated words from a favorite yoga teacher

There are so many reasons why. First, you no longer have your beloved to cheer you on and rebuild you when you feel you’ve failed. You have to be your own cheerleader. Which I don’t think we’re trained to do when we’re younger. We’re used to pushing ourselves, and wanting more, and setting goals. Feeling okay isn’t on that list, even though sometimes it’s the most we can do. 

Second, change comes with pain. My career coach says we change not because we have some amazing epiphany wherein the heavens open up to reveal our chosen path, but because it becomes harder not to change. Yes, I am seeing a career coach to find my own sense of promise again.

But that widow with all the Medium followers would already be a career coach, or be supporting herself selling digital remembrance journals (whatever that is), or marketing her own strain of lavender infused with cannabis (called “Lana-bliss”) for de-stressing that actually works. 

We’re feeling inadequate because we’re on a journey. The old selves aren’t working for us anymore and we’re waiting for the new selves we’re going to become. In the meantime, we’re not too crazy about our lives even though change takes courage, and in that way we are growing, even when we don’t realize it. 

We Make It Even Harder When We Judge Ourselves

When I was newly widowed, I wanted to be an entirely different person. One with a support network in place instead of having spent years isolated in my marriage. One who was better at making friends and who knew what to do with her life. One who had lots of connections on LinkedIn (although I couldn’t figure out exactly what I did to get them).  At the very least, one who took comfort in her kitchen, and wasn’t quibbling with it. 

But we can only be who we are. 

There is no one looking over your shoulder judging you except yourself. I hike with a wonderful, accomplished friend. He does so much every day, hiking, writing a book, caring for his grandkids. But he never thinks he’s done enough. He’ll drive five hours to visit with his granddaughter, then be mad at himself when he comes home too tired to write a new piece.

His scheduler, who coincidentally happens to be the same guy, is always dissatisfied with him. He accomplishes plenty, he just needs to fire his scheduler.

Change will come, but not all at once. Could we accept ourselves with the compassion we’d offer a friend (or acquaintance, or anyone other than ourselves). For me, it would have removed a whole extra layer of pain. Instead of telling myself I wasn’t doing the right things, I would have congratulated myself for trying. And I wouldn’t have been angry at myself when I spent a few days on the couch with a book.

So, let’s not judge ourselves. We are getting through this. Often, particularly in these disturbing times, surviving is all we can do.

When You Think Everyone Else is Doing a Better Job of Widowing2021-01-08T18:40:05+00:00
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