Better to have loved and lost

I haven’t written in a few weeks. The more substantive part of the “theory of mind” post is in progress. Meanwhile I’ve been taking a break and processing as a result of writing my life story. I’d like to reflect on that process a bit.

Someone introduced me recently to the term “narrative therapy,” and suggested that I am essentially doing this with my writing. Seems true. I can say that I’ve had an awful lot of emotions and memories coming up as a result of sharing the story. While just about all the feedback I’ve gotten here and through other channels from readers has been validating and supportive, it is notable how much shame and anxiety comes up in sharing things. There is the simple aspect of disclosing that I came from dysfunctional family, or that I became a druggie as a teenager. Such things weigh on me as I wonder who may be reading and dismissing me in some way. But there’s a deeper current of feeling ashamed myself at the life I was born into, and a level of shame that tells me: why are you sharing all this? Who asked you? What makes you special, why should anyone care, do you think there is something redeeming in explaining how you became such a loser?

These voices are discouraging and scary. See, whether I share the story or not, its the story I live with, its my memories, my identity. Writing it all out can force me to really think about, am I a loser? Am I a victim? A hero? Can I even write? Where is this story going? Well, I can promise on that last point that if I can ever catch up to the present, there’s some really interesting stuff. I’m not so sure I can dissolve my ego sufficiently to tell it all, but there’s definitely a story to be told.

Then I also reflect on how, in telling the first 20 years of my life, there is an awful lot being skipped over. Some have noted how I keep my feelings out of significant parts of the telling. I will add that I barely get into friendships, never describe what my parents look like, didn’t mention falling in love and playing my first live gig and so many not minor details. I guess this is partly because I realize the full story is about 6000 pages long at least, and I’m trying to carry it forward for my gracious readers. I also sometimes am trying to describe things objectively (which I’m sure is impossible) so as to invite the reader to think about what they might have felt had it been their story. But I can’t write it all like this, surely I do need to inject myself a bit more into my own story.

And that’s another problem, maybe the reason I skipped over my first love and close friends. I don’t feel comfortable telling anyone else’s story. I can change names and obscure identifying details, but anyone who actually knew me may know the people involved, and it ain’t all pretty stuff.

This is getting boring. Which is yet another concern — even as I’ve been surprised how many have been reading and paying attention, I feel a high pressure to not get lost in the weeds too much and keep things lively and not all about me. That is, as I seek to understand and be understood, I’m seeking the universal, the commonality… No, this is still boring.

So anyway those are some of the forces hitting me as I try to hold on to the goal of writing my own story, first in a giant sprawling mess, and later condensed, refined, edited and packaged for an interested audience.

Which is a good reminder of one of the main reasons I’ve been urged by others to write my story, which is that it is a story of survival and recovery. I’ve certainly met many people who have experienced all sorts of difficult or traumatic childhoods and unexpected dramatic losses later in life, and have experienced the hope and courage that can come from hearing someone else’s struggles. The irony is that at the time of this writing I’m in just about the worst condition of my life, having had a series of massive traumatic events in recent years just about wipe me out completely. I say “almost” the worst because I have somewhat been recovering from where I was at a few years ago when the worst of it was happening. But regardless, I cannot claim at this point to be someone who has “recovered”. In fact, I hope I may be able to write about just how bad things have been. And of course I hope my future may be brighter.

I’m curious, if anyone is still reading and comments or messages me, would you like to hear more detail about the story up to this point? Or should I continue on? There’s another 25 years to go, and things only get more complex as the story unfolds.

It does feel a bit wrong not to have gone into my experiences with dating and love and sex and all that. Plus I never really delivered on the promise to write more about drinking and drugging, which has got to be entertaining stuff, right?

But so, to recap:

I was born into an immediately fractured family, highly educated parents who split as soon as they had me despite having known each other for many years, who also both moved a thousand miles away from their own families before they had me. While my father remained in my life, I was pretty much raised by my mother, who herself had no siblings and was finishing a PhD after I was born, so was forced to become a single parent. The stresses this put on her caused her to suffer depression, anxiety, and suicidality, which she unfortunately pushed onto me, scapegoating me from my earliest memories and in very traumatizing ways, telling me that I was the problem. That literally I had caused their divorce, caused her to move us around constantly, that I was the reason she could never have another partner.

The strain this put on that relationship — the only consistent relationship I would have — and the strain it put on my psyche, feeling that the universe was cruel and unstable AND apparently that was because I was a bad person somehow, that no one wanted… This led to my becoming very depressed and then suicidal by my teens, when I had become a target of rampant bullying at my 6th school, which in turn led to drinking and drugs and dropping out of high school (with a straight A average). Because my parents had the means, I was able to finish high school in a private school that catered to troubled kids, and take night classes at Harvard, and also discovered a love of music and my first great love, my high school sweetheart, who though she remains another tortured memory for me, was I believe instrumental in teaching me what it could be like to be loved by someone.

After graduating at the top of my class and acing the SATs, I found myself living alone and working as a pizza delivery guy, with apparently no family anymore except for my mother, who I had a very strained relationship with. With whom… Whatever. And this led to a suicide attempt, which led to a very traumatizing experience in a mental hospital. Somewhere in this period I think it was really hitting me that I had no idea how to be in the world, no idea what path to follow, who I should be. And such pervasive, all-encompassing shame, that all I wanted to do was be invisible. I felt that my family didn’t want me, my great love S___ didn’t want me. My friends had either gone off to college or were still in town drinking and drugging and I didn’t want that myself, so I became very isolated. Seeing that I had reached a dead-end, I applied to colleges, and ended up heading to Brandeis University in the Fall of 1991.

That’s where the story so far leaves off. But perhaps I do need to write about dating, about S___, about drugs, about love, and about music. And for good measure, about working.

I fear no one will keep reading all this. And remind myself that I can keep getting new readers later as there is more story written.

The chronology of my high school years is a bit hazy. Other than mowing lawns and doing light landscaping, I think my first paycheck job was at age 14, sophomore year, working on the custodial crew at Charles River Tennis Club. Which would have been when I became close friends with the W___ brothers, I__ and A__. —

Okay, the first initial thing is really not working. It works for me, since I can keep people’s names straight. But it’s unreadable. So fine. Let’s call them the Fox brothers; Liam and Eric. Fine. Done.

Liam and Eric became friends, I think, when we worked at the tennis club, also Joe, who I had known a while longer. Joe was an incredible artist, who first got me interested in drawing. We’d sometimes hang out in his basement and draw either for biology class, drawing cells and various flora and fauna, or cartoon characters. He was and I’m sure still is light years ahead of me as an artist. I vividly remember meeting Joe’s older brother, Justin, who was hard to miss in town as he was the one spiked mohawk punk, covered in leather and shredded denim with anarchy and skulls and whatnot. He was known to be a big druggie, which was not cool in my eyes. But he also had magnetic charisma, and was an even better artist than Joe. Anyway I remember the day I met him, I was with Joe at his house, and his brother came home and was yelling across the house to their mom that he had been fired from the Little Red Store. What?! she screamed back. What did you do this time?! Oh, they caught me blowing my nose in the balogna…

Justin was quite a character.

Liam and Eric Fox lived with their father in a house right on the edge of the Needham High School grounds, and we’d go over there often after school. But not until I was 15, mid-sophomore year, which I know because it was once I started smoking pot that I really started hanging out with them. I’m getting ahead of myself here. Like I said, chronology is fuzzy.

It was also in my sophomore year that I had my first real girlfriend. I’m not including Jessie, who I had sort of successfully begged into “dating” me in the 8th grade but never even kissed. No, my first real relationship was Callie. A year younger, nice Catholic girl from a nice Catholic family. I think someone had told me she had a crush on me and I was excited and I have no recollection whatsoever how I asked her out but somehow we ended up together, would go to her house after school. It took me a couple months to get over my fear of kissing her, but she was my first kiss unless you count Chey at age 5. She was already like 6 feet tall at age 14, very cute but a bit awkward. I’m sad that the whole relationship is a bit fuzzy, as I believe it spanned the time I had never tried drugs into the time I was suddenly doing acid and smoking weed, which I probably vaguely believed I was keeping from her by simply not mentioning it, oblivious as I was to the fact that everyone talks to everyone.

The most vivid memory I have with Callie was during the late stage of our relationship, and sums up a few things happening at that point. I was 16, had gotten into regularly getting stoned with Liam and Eric and associates, and Callie, who was pure and innocent and good and wore a Catholic school girl uniform, was attending a Friday night dance at St. Bart’s. I did not invite myself as it sounded super lame to me, so instead ended up out with the boys tripping hard on some windowpane acid bought from a classmate from Amsterdam. So while we are roaming around town, Liam suggests hey let’s crash the St. Bart’s dance, c’mon it’ll be fun! What he did not mention was that he had called Aimee, Callie’s best friend, also at the dance, and told her that I had been killed in a terrible accident. Haha! Oh Liam you vindictive sociopathic asshole! (He really was.) So cut to a bit later. I’m in a giant gymnasium with flashing color strobe lights and The Smiths or The Cure or some shit playing on the PA. I’m tripping balls, and Callie and Aimee are both crying, because, apparently, I am dead. I was extremely confused. Good times…

It was probably ultimately a good thing that I dropped out of Needham High, as it meant getting away from some of this sketchy crew I was associating with, and a chance to give a shit about school for once. I dropped out right before Winter break in my junior year, had already broken up with Callie. The crisis ended for my parents when we found a school for me to start in the Spring, half hour away. I bought a beat up old Datsun and got a job delivering pizza, which also helped limit the amount of trouble I could get into on the weekends. My father leased a house in Needham so I could get away from the volatility of the situation with my mother. And suddenly my life turned inside out. I was working, had money in my pocket, was at a much smaller school which offered more challenging classes, my home life stopped being a war zone of yelling and tears and instead was calm and quiet (but for my constant guitar playing), and I was no longer confined to walking around Needham, which was just beyond the reach of the public train system. I could travel freely to Watertown, Cambridge, Boston.

And so I decided, I’m done with drugs and drinking (I was wrong, but that’s what I decided.) I stopped hanging around my friends who were doing these things, which at this point was basically all my friends, and became a bit of a loner. I made lots of friends at my new school and night classes but in general didn’t hang out with any of them outside of school. And so it was, that Spring when I was 17, that I ran into an old friend from middle school, Dave, and asked, hey, so what are you up to these days? He told me he was going that night to a party with several of my other old 8th grade friends — the nerdy, advanced placement, Monty Python-quoting crew. I said great, maybe I’ll stop by.

Now, to me at this point, a “party” was a big, messy, inebriated affair. There would usually be cases of beer and various drugs floating around. I was a little thrown off when I showed up at Ben’s house and found that this party involved fruit punch and Fritos. It was like a time portal. People were friendly, remembered me. They played Talking Heads and such, and in his basement Ben had a good darts setup. It was there, playing darts, that I spotted Sarah (previously referred to as S___). She was sitting on the sofa between a couple people, looking at me. Absolutely stunningly gorgeous, and curious too as I had never seen her before, despite living in Needham for 4 years now.

I approached her or she approached me — don’t remember, but I do remember asking her, “Hey, do you want to go outside for a smoke?”

“Um… I don’t smoke.”

“Oh. Ha. Well.. wanna come watch me smoke?” I was a real player.

While this exchange is burned in my memory as amusingly stupid, it’s also curious to me how apparently confident I was. Sarah came outside and indeed, watched me smoke a cigarette. She told me how she had moved that year from Brookline, and hated Needham. Said it was boring and everyone seemed too young somehow. I loved this disclosure. Sarah had come to the party with her boyfriend, Pete. Somehow I managed to find Pete and inform him, “Hey, Pete, so… I’m gonna take your girlfriend home.” Haha again, the mixture of bravado and stupidity amuses me to this day. So I drove her home — turned out she lived a few blocks from my mom’s place, though I was now a mile or so away living with my dad.

I invited her over a few days later to my dad’s place, and we hung out in my room listening to tunes. She told me her religious views and how much she liked Aldous Huxley and maybe I played guitar. I remember she was sitting my my chair that had wheels, and I grabbed the arms and pulled her across the floor to me and kissed her. What’s most memorable about all of it was how *easy* everything felt. I do not mean that Sarah was easy. I just mean, it was the first time in my life I just felt confident in knowing that what I wanted to do was what I should do. I felt completely confident that this girl was right. (I’m also realizing I skipped over my second girlfriend, Amanda, that same year, which was not an experience that had boosted my confidence. Ah well, this storytelling is all over the place.)

Literally within a week of meeting her, I was deeply in love. Sarah was beautiful and brilliant, quirky and individual, athletic, funny. Like me, she was an only child. Unlike me, her family seemed like a TV sitcom family, shiny and cordial and hip and all loving of each other. Even her parents were very attractive. For the remainder of high school, the next year and a half, I spent a ton of time with Sarah and distanced myself from all the drugs and drinking, and from boring, immature Needham in general.

It feels wrong not to dive into the relationship in rich detail, as it was the formative relationship of my life. But it feels wrong to share too much too. And I wonder, given the haziness of those high school years, just how different my own recollection may be from Sarah’s. My recollection of how it ended, for the first time, goes like this:

As I approached graduation, my father became less around. He was traveling maybe to Georgia, as he and his wife each worked opposite seasons in different states. And subsequently I would spend some weeks at my mother’s house again. This was emotionally ungrounding. Perhaps because of this, I secretly began smoking pot again. And perhaps because of that, or despite it, I became very moody. Like I would get very sullen and withdrawn. During this same time, perhaps because of the above, perhaps not, Sarah got involved with Ben, at whose party I had first met her.

One night, I went to a keg party (an actual party party) with my old drinking drugging friends. I got into a hilarious fight with a meathead who was threatening people at the party — I kept laughing at him and his attempts to bully people, so he said let’s take this outside, and I laughed and said okay. I kept laughing even as he punched me hard in the head, before people pulled him away from me. In fact he punched me so hard I was somehow unknowingly bleeding from my head when I showed up at Sarah’s house, pretty buzzed, at 11pm, and saw Ben’s car there. I lied to Sarah and told her “I saw you with him.” (I had not.) The ruse worked and she broke down crying and said she was so sorry, she didn’t want to hurt me. It was clear she really was sorry. It was not clear what act I would have seen had I actually been looking in the window that night.

We stayed together another month or so, but I was upset and the issue would come up and she would say she was sorry and then later say why won’t I let it go and we ended up breaking up. I’m not sure if it was mutual or what. But this coincided with my having graduated, it was now summer and I no longer had a girlfriend, no longer saw any of the people I’d been going to school with but never really hanging out with outside school. And my father began taking 1-2 week trips to Europe, leaving me alone in the house I’d been living in for only 2 years. My identity was collapsing, and I was all alone.

This story, while true and dripping with emotional memories for me, is a pretty poorly told story. Sorry about that. Feedback is welcomed. But wait, there’s more to the saga of Sarah.

It was about 9 months later that I landed in the mental hospital. Sarah was the last person I tried to call before giving up completely and swallowing a bottle of pills. I had not wanted to reach out to her at all, as I felt like a burden. She incorrectly asserted that I was trying to get her back, which was not the case. I was simply scrambling to figure out who I could talk to. That trauma, the suicide attempt, encapsulated something that has been a theme of my entire life — who the hell am I supposed to turn to? My mother, you may recall, was so deeply empathic and aware that she would end up screaming at me “you’re ruining Easter!!!” as they pumped my stomach in the ER and police had to forcibly remove her. My father had left no contact info for me other than “Italy.” I wasn’t going to call old classmates I never saw any more and say, hey, I’m dying here, I’m all alone, am terribly depressed. I had called the hospitals even and said I want to be admitted, and was refused. Anyway I ended up calling Sarah. Without knowing in detail what the experience was for her, I can only assume it was traumatic.

A year later, after my stint with college, and Sarah’s graduating from Needham High, we got back together. I think we avoided the topic of my attempt and hospitalization. She told me how she had gone to a summer writing camp the previous year and ended up sleeping with her 37 year-old instructor, to the great displeasure of her parents. I also learned that her parents had gotten divorced, and she learned that her dad had been a sober alcoholic all of her life, but was now very much no longer sober. She was living with him in an apartment, and on a couple occasions I witnessed him passed out after a case of beer on the living room floor. I was utterly shocked that the TV sitcom had been canceled. It made me see Sarah in a very new light, and filled me with such deep sympathy — here she was, too, on the cusp of adulthood, supposed to leave the nest, and there’s no foundation underneath her. In retrospect, we were two lost souls finding some solace together perhaps.

The summer was heaven for me in some ways. It was some of the best times I ever had with Sarah. The only friction points were times she would tell me she was either going to see Ben, or on one occasion, the 37 year-old writing instructor. I would plead with her, what?! Why?! Why do you want to see them?

But the real killer moment was at the end of the summer. Sarah was soon to be off to college in upstate New York. We were walking together on a footbridge over the Charles near Harvard, and she said, Jason, I need to tell you something. She said, please understand, this summer has been amazing, really wonderful. Don’t think it hasn’t been. She said, I want to break up, and I also never want to know you again. She said, she was a pathological liar, and didn’t know why. I was speechless. Liar? What lies? Well, she said, like those times I said I was going to see Ben or Whatshisname? I wasn’t really seeing them. I just said that to get to you…

Wha… I had no idea what any of this meant. But she was serious. I did end up going to visit her once at her new school when she was moving in — I recall clearly how she was going to be living in an “architectural class project” of a former Bard student, and how all the interior railings were soaking wet since it had rained the night before. But we broke up and I never got closure or clarity on why she thought she was a pathological liar, or why she never wanted to see me ever again. I was devastated.

Thirteen years later, my life was again falling apart around me. I was out of work and went through a break-up and was reaching out to my father, now living in Georgia, and he was inexplicably blowing me off. It was sort of like reaching out to a friend you haven’t seen in a bit too long and discovering they have cooled to you since you didn’t maintain the friendship well enough. Except it was my father. I emotionally imploded and ended up moving back into my mother’s house — into her basement, specifically, for the real loser clichè. I called Sarah’s old number, her dad’s apartment in Needham. She was there! We had spoken every few years for emotional phone calls that never really got closure, but had not seen each other since that summer. I discovered that she had run away and joined the Big Apple Circus, somehow ended up in Prague in a relationship with, if I recall correctly, a guy with a heroin problem, and then had gone to Wellesley College where she was just now finishing, and somehow we were both back in Needham in the same dysfunctional family mess we had been in 13 years earlier. I neglected to mention to her that my father appeared to have disowned me. In fact, in general, at that point in my life and up until then, I rarely let anyone I knew know anything at all about my family.

Instead, I said, hey, would you want to maybe go, I don’t know, play mini-golf? And she said yes. And so we saw each other again after all those years and experiences. She looked exactly the same. I was now completely bald instead of prematurely balding. We laughed and caught up more. I remember at one hole she said, “You know, you are definitely the most heterosexual guy I’ve ever been with.” Curious.

We went out to dinners, saw some movies, went out drinking. We weren’t technically dating — no kissing or sex or anything. I had no intention of resurrecting anything, in part because I knew it was somehow unhealthy, at least had been for her (I guess.), but I was so so happy that we were friends. All those years I had carried so much pain, a feeling of abandonment, of being unworthy.

One day we were driving up to the Topsfield Fair — one of those awesome rickety things assembled by carnies — and as we approached the parking field, she asked me about my suicide attempt. She said, you know, I always wondered if.. that was my fault.

What?, I said. No, Sarah, definitely not. I was so alone, so depressed, couldn’t talk to my parents. It wasn’t your fault at all, in fact it saved my life that I called you.

And then we parked, got out, and walked into the carnival, never speaking another word of this. I regret this.

We had a blast at the carnival. Sarah shares my love of topsy turvy roller coasters and such. We were having out a lot that summer. It was almost disorienting. She’d go home to her dad, I’d go home to my mom. Neither of us was working. But we were in our early 30s. Though it seemed implicit, let’s never date again, she got more and more beautiful when we’d go out. There were strange silences where we’d just be looking at each other silently over dinner, smiling.

But also, as 13 years earlier, I was an emotional train wreck. I would burst into tears at odd times. I think there were two big factors going on. One was, after so many years feeling she must have hated me, it was cathartic to be spending all this time together, realizing that she did not hate me. A lot of backed up stuff was coming out sideways. The other thing was, while she was recounting to me how her mom had remarried and moved to Arizona and her dad was all in AA cult world now (her words, though I don’t disagree), I for whatever reason was too ashamed to ever tell her, oh, yeah, by the way, my dad very recently stopped speaking to me entirely, much the same way you did 13 years ago, no explanation… So I was a mess.

So one day, we’re driving together to go see a movie, and Sarah hands me this book, “Do What You Are”. A popular self-helpy book about finding one’s career path. I held the book for a second, dropped it on the floor of the car, said “Oh, yeah, I have this book,” and continued prattling on about whatever. Oblivious to how rude this was, apparently oblivious to how thoughtful the gift was. She didn’t comment. We went and saw The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, surreally enough. About two lovers erasing each other from their brains — great movie. (Earlier we had also gone to see Lost in Translation…) After the movie, we went outside to have a smoke. Sarah said, “I never really realized how cool Jim Carrey is.” “Yeah, he’s a smart guy.” When she finished her smoke, she said ok, bye, and walked to her car.

The next day I called her a few times, and no one picked up, no voice mail. I called in the evening and Sarah picked up, answered with an angry tone, “What part of I don’t want to talk to you do you not understand?” “What?!…” “You’ve called here like 4 times today!! Do you get that I’m not wanting to talk to you?” “Um.. You don’t have voice mail, I just figured no one was home… What happened?”

She hung up on me. That’s the last I ever spoke to or saw Sarah. The first great love of my life. Devastating, again. Inexplicable, again. Was it my rudeness with the gift book? Was it that I was an emotional mess all summer? Was she leaving to go to college again somehow, and just wanting a clean break with her own life? I will probably never know. Facebook came along a couple years later, and in 2016, eleven years since we saw each other, I reached out to her through the social network, sent a private message saying probably way too many things. That I was sorry for whatever I had done, that I knew I had been rude that day, did not know if that was the thing. That my parents had both died and my wife had left me, and I was completely lost in life. That I’d seen her picture on Facebook, with her wife and three kids, that she looked ecstatically happy in that picture, and I hoped that she was. She blocked me on Facebook and never responded.

It’s interesting to me that having experienced some truly nasty behavior in partners (and probably vice versa, in fairness), and had my heart broken and beaten a few times, and given that Sarah’s inexplicable never explain abandonments were nothing less than devastating, AND given that allegedly she is a pathological liar — I’ve never once felt even a hint of bitterness towards her, never felt angry at these things. I don’t even believe she’s a liar! She remains in my mind and my heart one of my favorite people I’ve ever known. Besides being just a cool person (sorry Sarah for maybe not conveying that in all this storytelling), she literally showed me what love can be. What it can be like to be loved by someone who isn’t also threatening and belittling me. What it is like to deeply love someone. These things carried forward and helped me in many ways navigate the labyrinth that has been my life. I really do hope she is happy — it seemed to me she had succeeded in building a family of her own.

That said, my own abandonment issues, this feeling that there is something so terribly bad and wrong with me that people need not even explain themselves to me when abandoning… This is a core issue of my complex PTSD, for which I’m currently on government disability. Sarah was by no means the origin of that issue, but she didn’t help. I’ve had to tell myself, leaving is what she does. Maybe not good at navigating conflict. Maybe she has her own abandonment issues. I don’t know. It’s weird carrying guilt and remorse, which I do, without being able to attribute it to any actual actions. I only know, I was bad and wrong and not worth keeping, even as a friend.

So… that was a cheery story. Thanks for reading.