Mastering the Impetuous, Impulsive Id

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I grew up in an abusive home dominated by a violent alcoholic. Certain friends and family members have expressed concern (and in some cases, extreme displeasure), that I am “airing dirty laundry” here on my blog, and I get it. I understand their concern, and I respect their view. I share neither their concern nor their view, however. I believe that the only way to effectively address our darkest impulses and behaviors is to shine a light on them and examine them objectively.

I vividly recall a certain argument I once had with my (then) fiancé way back in 1995. I was just 25 years old at the time, and I’d very recently moved to Seward, Alaska to be with the man I planned to marry. The image of that argument is so clearly etched in my mind that I can literally close my eyes and watch the replay like a movie. Occasionally I’ll experience something in my present life that will bring that memory flooding back to the forefront of my mind.  I had one of those experiences yesterday, and that memory is now keeping me awake—compelling me to write about it at 3:48 AM.

We’d only been ‘home’ in Seward for three days after spending the three days prior driving from Fort Collins, CO to Alaska. The trip was extremely stressful, and I found myself continually on edge from the moment “Sam” (not his real name) arrived at Denver International Airport. We fought a lot on the drive to Alaska. We were completely out of synch with one another, and it seemed that the more we tried to get back in synch, the further out of phase we ended up. I finally resorted to sleep as a means of escape. The 3-day drive (which should really have taken more like 5-6 days) was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. So much so that I was basically reduced to a petulant toddler ready to throw a raging tantrum at the slightest provocation.

My third day as a resident of Seward, AK was gloriously sunny and clear—a rarity in that tiny coastal town. I woke up that morning determined to get back on the same page with Sam, and we got off to a really good start. I made breakfast and promised to help him do some work in the yard as soon as I tidied up the kitchen. Meanwhile, he went out and washed my Bronco, which was still caked with mud and road grime from the long drive to Alaska. We were both clearly trying, and the bright sunny day seemed like a positive sign that things were going to be okay. Almost immediately after I joined Sam outside, however, the energy between us shifted back out of phase. We were stacking some wood together when my approach to the job prompted Sam to mildly criticize my technique. He wasn’t particularly tactful with his criticism, but he wasn’t malicious about it either. Yet, the fact that he had (what I assumed was) the audacity to criticize me at all ignited the hair-triggered temper I had back then, and I flew into a rage.

We both started shouting over one other, and then he suddenly lowered his voice and asked me, “Why are you so angry?” I was stunned silent because I didn’t have an answer to his question. I racked my brain to come up with a particular slight he’d made that was at the root of my rage, but I couldn’t pinpoint anything specific. So, with all the maturity and grace of a petulant toddler, I stormed off into the house and refused to speak to him for the rest of the day.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that moment marked a major turning point in my life. It was in that moment that my quest to truly understand myself, my past, and the ways in which my upbringing influenced my behavior began. Until Sam stumped me with that very pointed question, I’d never seriously questioned my past or how it shaped me. Once the urgency to break away from my father’s tyranny had passed when I first moved 250 miles away from home, I naively assumed that I was free of my past. I later realized, of course, that I had a lot of work to do in order to shake the influence of my volatile father.

Things didn’t work out with Sam. We struggled to hold it together for about three months before we finally gave up and went our separate ways. When I reflect back on that experience, however, I’m incredibly grateful to him for asking me that crucially important question at a critical juncture in my life:

Why are you so angry?

Those words became sort of a mantra for me from that day forward. I began to monitor my moods and my behavior, and whenever I became aware that I might be overreacting to something trivial, I’d ask myself that question. Gradually I realize that the perceived slights that ignited my temper—someone cutting me off in traffic, a snarky remark from a coworker, bad service at a restaurant, etc.—were not worth the energy I gave them. Yet I still struggled to come up with an answer to that question. Why was I so angry, anyway?

To this day I can’t put my finger on it. The rage that I’d unconsciously internalized at some point in my life, and that I’d been blind to until Sam called it to my attention, couldn’t be tied to a specific person, place, or thing. The closest I ever came to identifying the root of my internal rage was acknowledging that I’d experienced more betrayals of trust than the average individual. I was betrayed by several family members in early childhood and later by friends, classmates and peers. My first boyfriend cruelly executed a malicious act of revenge against me that I think stunned even him once he realized how badly he’d wounded me. My discomfort with vulnerability can be clearly traced to that very specific event, but not my anger. So, where does the anger come from?

I don’t know. I spent years seeking a definitive answer to that question, but somewhere along the way I realized that it ultimately doesn’t matter. All that really does matter is that I’m willing and self-aware enough to ask myself that pointed question (which, to this day, I still hear in in Sam’s voice in my mind) in the heat of a moment so I can re-balance my perspective and behave accordingly.

Why are you so angry?

I’m able to recognize that the things that make me angry today aren’t big enough to allow my impetuous, impulsive id to throw a temper tantrum. And now that I’m a parent and a role model for a very perceptive preteen who grows more independent every day, I’m acutely aware that I may be influencing her through my own reactions to the perceived slights we all encounter daily on the road, at work, and in our daily interactions with random strangers.

The next time you find yourself seething with rage because someone cut in front of you in the checkout line or because they weren’t driving fast enough for you to make it through an intersection before the light turned yellow, ask yourself:

Why are you so angry?

I’ll bet you’ll learn that the answer to that question has nothing to do with the woman who cut in line or the driver who was more engaged in conversation with his passenger than he was with the act of driving at the moment you happened to be behind him. Like me, you may never be able to pinpoint a specific answer to that question, but in this instance, just asking the question is far more important than answering it.

Internalized anger is like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode at the slightest provocation. Take it from someone who survived the volatile temper of a raging alcoholic as a child and then spent a lifetime working to master her own impetuous, impulsive id as a result: get a grip on your internalized anger before it turns destructive.

Don’t allow it to hurt someone you love or to destroy your relationships. It’s just not worth it.

New Beginnings

We’ve been living in Colorado Springs for just over two weeks now, and it’s already starting to feel like home. Our little 6th grader thoroughly enjoyed her first week of middle school, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how competent and organized the school’s administration and staff have proved to be thus far. They took virtually all of the fear and anxiety out of the first day of middle school for the 6th graders by breaking them into small teams of 10-15 students and assigning an 8th grade mentor to help show them the ropes and make them feel welcome. The mentors are called WEB (Where Everyone Belongs) Kids, and they are some of the brightest, friendliest, and most polite 8th graders I’ve ever met. All this from our second choice school. And a public school at that! Not bad, Colorado Springs. Not bad at all.

Things are going to work out for us here, I think. My husband likes his job. Our daughter loves her school. As for me, I am cautiously optimistic that I’ll find my own brand of personal satisfaction and fulfillment here, too. Just as soon as I finish unpacking boxes and getting our new home in order.

Duality

My husband and I are in our second year of marriage, and this weekend we will be moving into our second apartment in the second city in which we’ve lived together. According to certain schools of thought, 2015 is the second year of a new energy on this planet. Human nature is changing. Evolving, hopefully. And the new energy consciousness is in its second year of development. The terrible twos. Duality.

As I’ve been packing up our household this week, I’ve had a lot of time to think about how the duality of this new age is manifesting in my life. I’ve heard estimates that 90,000 people are planning to move to the Denver Metro Area this year. Meanwhile, we three Reamys are happily moving out.

Denver has never been a city with which I’ve resonated. Since moving back to Colorado in 2006, many friends and relatives have tried to convince me to move to Denver. I flat out rejected that idea until Matt asked me to move to Denver with him in 2013. I didn’t even hesitate to say yes to him. I’d never consider living in Denver as a single woman, but when it comes to my husband–my heart–home is with him, wherever that may be.

Things fell into place for us so easily at first, it seemed obvious that we were on exactly the right path. We found the perfect apartment in the perfect neighborhood next to one of the best green belts in the metro area. Matt had a good job that he enjoyed. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we also managed to land in the perfect elementary school boundary for our daughter, who ended up coming to live with us less than a year after we got married. That first year was pretty near perfect. Neither of us loved Denver, but we were happy enough to think maybe things would work out for us here. Denver started to lose its shine over this past year, however.

Professionally, Matt started to feel like he was slogging through mud. Organizational issues at one company created unnecessary and frustrating barriers for him and his team, so he switched jobs. He met some top professionals and learned some useful skills at his second gig in Denver, but the corporate culture wasn’t a good fit. That, combined with a brutal commute to and from LoDo every day took a heavy toll on my poor husband.

Meanwhile, I was feeling restless and uncomfortable in my own skin while being continually surrounded by 1.2 million people. I started noticing how angry Denver drivers are, and how disconnected people are from reality. Once our daughter came to live with us, I started noticing a conspicuous lack of family friendliness. On weekends, we inevitably found ourselves getting out of town. We either went west into the mountains or south to Colorado Springs, which is where Matt lived before we got married. On one of those trips to Springs, I realized that’s where we should be living.

Every city has it’s own vibe and Denver’s energy has always felt scattered and frenetic to me. Living near a green belt helped to mitigate the effects of that energy for a while, but the longer we stayed here, the harder it’s been for me to stay centered and balanced amidst Denver’s chaos. I suggested to Matt that maybe we should consider moving to Colorado Springs, and once again we found ourselves back in a good energetic flow.

Matt landed a great job almost immediately after letting his head hunter know he was interested in finding work in Springs. We found a fabulous school for our daughter and learned that Springs has a world class youth symphony, which is something that Denver (a city more than four times the size of Springs) lacks. As I researched schools and the youth symphony, it was clear that Colorado Springs is a much more family-friendly city than Denver. Not surprisingly, it’s a conservative enclave in an increasingly liberal state.

We’re under no illusions that life in Colorado Springs is going to be perfect. It is still located, after all, in the state I like to call Middle California. Colorado’s politics is bizarre, to say the least. I’m not sure it’ll ever be a good fit for us in that regard, but it’s where we’re at for now. And living in a considerably smaller, more family-friendly, more politically conservative city will undoubtedly be more comfortable for Matt and me. More importantly, it’s a city where our amazingly talented young cellist will have access to the kinds of educational opportunities that will allow her to achieve her full potential.

Large/small, light/dark, right/left. Duality.

What living in Denver has confirmed for me (and I suspect for my husband as well) is that the choices we make in terms of community matter. The environment in which we choose to live affects us profoundly. We gave Denver a fair shot–two years of our lives, and the first two years of our marriage. As we prepare to move to Colorado Springs, though, I feel like we’re taking a giant step in the right direction. Springs may not be where we ultimately decide to settle down, but it already feels more like home than Denver.

Three Steps to a Drama-Free Life

I’m ashamed to admit that there was a time in my life when I was addicted to drama. I’d stir it up in my relationships. I’d engage in it with gossipy coworkers and friends. I’d continually find ways to get myself spinning in drama just so I could complain about how drama seemed to dominate my life. 2005 marked a major turning point for me and my relationship with drama, however. That was the year I decided it was time to break the addiction before it completely destroyed my chances of living a happy and meaningful life.

Since then, I have been systematically eliminating all sources of drama from my life. De-dramatizing your life is easier than you might think, but it does require an unwavering commitment to your own peace of mind above all else. This is perhaps the biggest challenge because, as you work through the process, you’ll have to make the painful choice to break up with certain friends and family members who have probably been with you your entire life.

Step 1: Identify the Toxic People in Your Life

You may be surprised by how many toxic people you interact with on a daily basis, and it will undoubtedly be difficult to admit that those interactions are not serving you well. This is perhaps the hardest step of the process, but it’s absolutely necessary that you examine each and every relationship you have with friends, family, and coworkers to determine its level of toxicity.

This step also involves a considerable amount of introspection, so be prepared to discover the ways in which you either stir up the drama in your relationships or react when the toxic people in your life push your buttons. It’s not a pleasant process, I know, but it’s absolutely necessary if you hope to break free of this addiction.

Once you’ve identified the toxic relationships in your life, you’re ready to move on to the next step.

Step 2: Pick Your Poison

This step requires a tremendous amount of fortitude, but it’s absolutely crucial to your success. Once you’ve identified the toxic people in your life, it’s time to start sorting and prioritizing those relationships. You can do this any way you like, but I’m all about efficiency. As soon as I realized that I wanted–needed, actually–to break my addiction to drama, I sorted my relationships into two categories: salvageable and unsalvageable.

Harsh, you say? Absolutely, but this is serious business. Drama eats away at your soul. It distracts you from what’s really important, and it keeps you from achieving your full potential. It’s also the primary means through which cycles of abuse are perpetuated from one generation to the next. You owe it to yourself and especially to your children to break those cycles so you can be free to build healthier and happier home environments.

Step 3: Prune and Shape The Branches of Your Life

If you’re a gardener you no doubt understand the necessity of pruning and shaping if you want your garden to flourish. Your personal relationships create an environment not unlike a garden, so the analogy of pruning and shaping is a good one to apply here. It’s time to cut away the deadwood. For me, that means cutting my ties to those relationships in the unsalvageable category.

Pruning relationships with toxic acquaintances and those on the fringes of your inner circle is as easy as removing them from your contacts list or unfollowing them on Facebook. When it comes to your inner circle, however, you’ll have to make some very difficult choices. Some of those choices will be painful. Some may temporarily set you back professionally, but every toxic relationship you prune away will make space in the garden of your life for healthier and more fulfilling relationships to grow and flourish.

I’ve quit jobs where the management was unsupportive, ineffective, or oppressive. I’ve broken up with life-long friends as soon as I realized that our relationships were out of balance. In one case, it became plainly evident that an old high school “friend” never truly respected me or valued my friendship. In another case (and this one broke my heart) one of my oldest and dearest childhood friends mercilessly harassed and bullied a mutual acquaintance who came forward with allegations of sexual assault against one of our former teachers. I can’t tolerate bullies under any circumstances, but this situation was particularly intolerable because the bully knows the allegations are true, as do I.

Relatives, of course, can be particularly tricky to prune as these relationships are old growth. They’ve been a part of your life since birth, but the question you need to ask yourself is do they contribute to your wellbeing, or do they just bring stress and drama into your life?

My husband and I are approaching our two-year anniversary this fall, and these past two years have been perhaps the most enlightening years of my life. The remarkably healthy and fulfilling relationship I have with my husband and his family has forced me to critically examine the unhealthy and dysfunctional dynamics of my own family. And now that I am a parent, I’ve been forced to acknowledge that certain members of my family simply can not be trusted around my daughter.

In a perfect world, no relationship would be unsalvageable, but in the real world, you can only control one side of any relationship, and that’s your side. You can’t control the way that others behave, and if they’re determined to bully and abuse you, your only real choice is to cut the cord. This is essentially what I have been doing for the past two years. I’d already pruned most of the toxic friends and coworkers from my life when I started dating my husband in 2013, but it wasn’t until I became a parent that I found the strength to prune my familial relationships. There are two particularly angry and bitter bullies in my family with whom I had to cut off all contact for my own sake as well as for my daughter’s sake. One of those two is stubbornly resistant to letting go, but when her attempts to provoke me continue to be ignored, she’ll eventually move on to bullying more reactive members of our family.

Life it too short for drama. It’s one thing to heal or repair salvageable relationships, but there’s no honor in maintaining toxic relationships. There’s nothing to be gained by allowing yourself to be the target for someone’s bitterness or repressed rage. Your children don’t stand to gain anything from witnessing abusive family dynamics, or worse, by being targeted by abusive family members. Sometimes choosing to walk away is the healthiest choice you can make. And for all their howling and righteous indignation, even those you choose to walk away from recognize that truth.

Shape and prune the garden of your life, and watch it flourish.