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I sat there at the dinner table seething.
I had just gotten off the bus from day camp after a long and terrible day. The fact that my mother was using summer camp as an inexpensive babysitter was not lost on me. Even at 10 years old. What was, in fact, lost on me was the carefree feeling of summer vacation that most other children experienced. For me, it felt exactly like school. Even the buses were the same.
My father had just announced that he was taking his namesake, the oldest child, on a one-on-one motorcycle trip to New Hampshire. My anger stemmed from the fact that this was just another example of my parents “trickle-down” parenting style. Much like trickle-down economics, it was myopic and ineffective. One cannot shower all their affection upon one child and hope the other two catch some of the runoff.
Even at that tender age, I was able to ascertain that my dad, being an only child, was simply mimicking what he observed as he grew up. He just had no idea how painful it was to be treated as an auxiliary child.
“I don’t know what you’re getting mad about. You guys have summer camp,” he stammered.
This had much the same effect as saying, “Don’t get upset you’re not allowed to go to Disneyland. We made you an appointment for a root canal.”
The damage from an endless string of injustices like this proved out as we became adults. Ten years later, my oldest brother, the one who enjoyed endless attention from parents and grandparents alike, got married in a traditional wedding with family and friends and prime rib. Three decades on, he still lives in the same house with the same wife.
Me and the middle child developed faulty attachment styles and have never been in a relationship for longer than five years. Not to put too fine a point on it, but my five-year relationship was a total outlier and more or less resembled a fight to the finish. On average, if I make it for six months, it’s a miracle.
I have what is commonly referred to as an avoidant attachment style. While the motorcycle story may not, at first blush, seem particularly traumatizing, being incessantly and continually overlooked for any kind of bonding experience as a child certainly was. The predictable self-soothing that I needed to constantly engage in to survive laid the groundwork for my tendencies to isolate and close down the moment an intimate partner pushes me toward any kind of vulnerability.
When I think about all my relationships that have crashed and burned, much of it began with fault finding. This one was too emotional, this one wasn’t pretty enough, this one didn’t fulfill my needs. This ritual is one of the sharpest tools in the avoidant attachment toolbox. The end result is that after too much time dwelling in my head, I always come to one of two conclusions: either I believe I should look for someone better, or more often than not, I convince myself that I would be better off alone.
Ironically, this all begins with the abject fear of being alone—and alone is right where these tendencies keep me. This is simply not sustainable. Studies have shown that leading an existence without intimate relationships will inevitably lead to depression, psychosomatic illnesses, and an overall lower quality of life. It isn’t too much of a stretch to assume that longevity will be affected, as well.
A decade of 12-step recovery programmed me to hold myself solely accountable for my issues around relationships and addiction. One great therapist, however, pointed out that that just isn’t very practical advice. If we don’t take a serious look at our formative years, we’ll never know where our motivations began. Without that knowledge, healing can be elusive.
So I started the work of going back in time and I have accepted the fact that I have a long road ahead of me. My woes are fixable, though. With therapy, effort, and time, it’s possible to overcome just about anything. Even though I’m still trying to shake off a recent hurt, I’m beginning to feel a little lighter. One might even call it a renewed hope.
At the end of my appointment with my new therapist, she asked me to envision myself “fixed.”
“Okay,” she continued, “Describe to me what that looks like.”
“I want to learn to be content in my next relationship. I want to be present. And giving.”
She smiled and spoke softly.
“I think we’ll get there.”