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.

Advertisements

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.

 

Dysfunction Junction, What’s Your Function?

There’s a common misconception in our society that the best way to deal with unpleasant realities is to look away and remain silent. One of the most pervasive realities in our society, which we consciously choose to ignore, is sexual abuse. I originally published this post on my husband’s blog a little over a year ago. It’s about my home town, Trinidad, Colorado, and the dirty little secret that town keeps for multiple teachers and coaches in the community who have been sexually abusing teenage girls for generations.

Trinidad School District #1 is currently under a Title IX investigation by the Federal Office for Civil Rights. That investigation is in the third and final stage of review currently. It is my sincerest hope that the findings of that investigation will be made public soon. I also hope that this story becomes known nationally because it’s time we have a national conversation about this problem. The Obama administration has focused its attention on the sexual abuse that occurs on college campuses. That’s a start, but we need to go deeper. This behavior starts in high schools and middle schools, and until we get to the root of that problem, we’re never going to solve it.

I’ll be sharing more of my own story of the sexual abuse that I endured while growing up in Trinidad along with more of the backstory of the current OCR investigation here on my own blog. The time for silence has passed. Now is the time for action. As a parent of a daughter, I want this abuse to be stopped. There’s an attitude of not my child, not my problem in our society, and I couldn’t disagree more with that attitude. My attitude is, if your child isn’t safe, my child isn’t safe. So if I have to work to protect your daughters in order to keep my own daughter safe, so be it.

Selective Compassion

I heard a great phrase today: selective compassion.

These words resonate with me for a couple of reasons. First of all, I have to admit that I’m guilty of selective compassion. I have a strong tendency to identify with those I feel are innocent victims of circumstance—children, the elderly, animals, etc. Compassion for the innocent comes easily and naturally to me. I am far less inclined to feel compassion for grown adults whose circumstances are purely the result of their personal choices, however. This is perhaps most evident in my lack of compassion for The Ex.

The second reason selective compassion resonated with me today is because my last two blog posts were met with highly irrational and verbally abusive responses from an angry reader. This reader left a long, rambling response to one of those blog posts. I moderate all initial comments from readers, and I chose not to approve this particular response for publication because I don’t feel it adds any value to the conversation. I did respond to the comment privately, however, and my reply was met with more bitterness and hatefulness. Among other things, this angry reader (who is not The Ex, in case you’re wondering) accused me of being a narcissist and a lousy parent.

Being the introspective sort, I’ve given a great deal of thought to these accusations. I’ve examined them from every angle in order to determine if there’s any truth to those remarks. Although I’m far from perfect, I am definitely not a narcissist. On the contrary, I was consistently cast in the role of Echo to many a Narcissus prior to meeting my husband, Matt. My attraction to men who couldn’t love me was actually the subject of many therapy sessions during my late 20s and early 30s. Even though I know I’m not a narcissist by any stretch of the definition, being accused as such stung nonetheless.

As for the quality of my parenting, I’ve questioned this myself in an earlier blog post. I am nowhere near perfect in that role, either. I have so much to learn, and I’ll be the first to admit that I struggle with parenting daily. It’s easy to believe that I am a “lousy parent” because I already doubt myself in that regard, but it’s much too early to make any firm conclusions about my parenting. I’ve only been a full-time parent for just over one year, after all. By all indications, however, my husband and I seem to be doing a pretty good job thus far.

Over the course of the past year, our daughter seems increasingly happier and more confident. She’s blossomed socially and makes friends more easily than ever. She went from testing a full grade below her current level in math to testing a grade and a half above her current level. She’s found an outlet for her passion for music in the cello, which is in turn helping her develop the ability to commit to goals and the work ethic to achieve them. It’s impossible to say at this point how successful my daughter will ultimately be or how much of her future success can ever be attributed to my influence. It is reasonable to conclude, however, that these are not the sort of results typically achieved with lousy parenting.

As I’ve processed these deeply personal and hateful attacks on my character, the most dominant emotion I’ve felt toward my accuser is anger. Today, though, I realized that selective compassion is what allowed that anger to take root in the first place. The moment I recognized myself as someone who doles out compassion discriminately, the anger dissipated. Likewise, the moment I recognized selective compassion in my accuser, her words lost any power to hurt me.

The next time someone tries to provoke you, ask yourself where compassion fits into the picture. Are you choosing to forgo compassion by engaging in their drama? Are they choosing to forgo compassion with their provocative words or actions? Chances are, the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. That is certainly true in my experience with the Angry Reader.

I don’t know how consistently or universally I can really expect to feel compassion for others, but expanding the depth and breadth of my compassion is something I plan to consciously work on now that I understand how quickly and easily compassion neutralizes drama.

You Can’t (Always) Pick Your Own Relatives

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Man From Snowy River, and one of my favorite lines from that movie comes toward the end of the film when young “Jessica” learns that she has an uncle she’s never met before. “Spur”, played by Kirk Douglas, chuckles and says, “One of life’s injustices: you can’t pick your own relatives.”

I’m not ordinarily one to remember movie dialogue, which often frustrates my husband when he drops a well-timed comedic line from a movie only to be met with a blank stare from me. Yet this one line has always stuck with me because, in a way, I’ve always felt like I somehow ended up in the wrong family. Like I never quite fit in with my own relatives.

I think most of us feel this way to some degree. Pretty much everyone I know has felt like a stranger in their own home at some point or another—usually during our teenage years when it seems that no one could possibly understand what we’re going through. For some of us, though, that feeling is more persistent. For me, it’s the main driver behind my fascination with human relationships.

Relationships are the ultimate puzzle for me. Why do some work beautifully while others are disastrous? How is it that two people, such as my husband and me, who are generally regarded as “difficult” manage to get along perfectly? What is it about certain personalities that rub others the wrong way? What is it about other personalities that draws people to them like moths to a flame?

I’ve been a student of human relationships for as far back as I can remember. I clearly recall discussing world history with my mom when I was about 8-years-old in terms of children on a playground jockeying for the uppermost position on the monkey bars until only one could shout from the top, “I am King of the Hill!” My mom thought my explanation was clever. My teacher? Not so much.

Well into my adult years—until I married my husband, really—my view of relationships didn’t change much from that early impression of kids fighting for control of the monkey bars.  I still saw relationships as primarily competitive and adversarial. More frustrating than fulfilling. Hence, hardly worth the effort to cultivate. Even with such a negative view of relationships, though, I’ve still managed to meet several people with whom I share collaborative, rewarding, and mutually beneficial relationships. I have some amazing friends, and I couldn’t possibly ask for a better partner than my husband.

After receiving a scathing response to my last blog post from my sister a female relative who shall never be mentioned again lest her identity be inadvertently revealed on my “worldwide bully pulpit”, I’ve been carefully examining why certain people relate to me so easily while others are unlikely to ever understand where I’m coming from. My conclusion? Fear.

Fear of what, is the million dollar question. Fear of vulnerability? The truth? Facing one’s demons? Fear of the unknown, perhaps? For a very, very long time, I was afraid of vulnerability. My trust was brutally betrayed by someone I loved deeply once. I was just sixteen years old at the time, and it took decades (not to mention seven years of talk therapy) for me to regain a healthy level of comfort with vulnerability, so I can at least relate to that particular fear. I’ve never been afraid of the truth, however. Lies are infinitely more destructive. As for my demons, I faced them during those seven years of talk therapy, too. They’ve since been reduced to harmless caricatures from my past. Every now and again I’ll cross paths with one of them, and I’m reminded of how ridiculous they are once exposed to light. It’s hard to believe now that any of them ever had the power to manipulate me. And the unknown? Well, I’ve always been more curious about that than afraid of it.

What is it, then, that people are afraid of when it comes to relationships? Seriously, what do we have to lose by being vulnerable with one another, or by being honest? What do we have to gain by keeping our demons securely locked in the deepest, darkest recesses in our minds? In a word, nothing. Yet, so many of the people we interact with on a daily basis would rather die a slow, painful death than reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to their friends, family, or coworkers. It’s no wonder, then, that my writing elicits such a fearful response from certain people. I am, after all, an open book.

I was born into a place of fear. I have certain memories from my childhood of being so afraid of being physically beaten that I peed my pants. It didn’t happen frequently, but it happened well into my teens. Until I was sixteen, as a matter of fact. And then someone else—my first love—wounded me emotionally so deeply and profoundly that my father’s rage and the threat of physical pain paled in comparison from that point forward.

There’s still some truth to that statement that you can’t pick your own relatives. My father and I are unlikely to ever be friends, but he’ll always be my father. The same can be said for most of my birth family. The majority of them are still as mysterious and puzzling to me as they ever were. It’s unlikely that I’ll commit the time and energy necessary to get to truly know or understand them at this point in my life, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we’re related. Fortunately, I’ve managed to find my people along the circuitous path my life has taken—the ones who really do know and understand me.

There’s the family you’re born into, and then there’s the family you choose. If they’re one and the same (as with my husband’s family), count your blessings; but even if they’re not you’re still blessed. My chosen “relatives” are scattered from Alaska to Germany, presently, so I don’t get to see or speak to them frequently. Just knowing that they’re there and that they’ll be happy to hear from me when I do get a chance to call or write is comforting, though. And then there’s the family I chose when I married my amazing husband. They’re a fearless bunch, and I adore them all the more for their willingness to tackle the hard topics head on and hash them out around the kitchen table.

Something I’ve learned firsthand over the past several years is that the human capacity for love is ultimately defined by our willingness to confront the things that scare us. Those who are afraid to explore the depths of their own souls will never know true love because it can’t be found on the surface, or even near the surface, for that matter. You can’t fully recognize or appreciate light until you’re comfortable in the dark. And because love comes from deep within, the only way to tap into it is to dive into the deepest, darkest recesses of your mind, heart, and soul. Trust me, the truth that you’ll find there isn’t nearly as scary as you think it will be. The lies you’ve been told and the lies you’ve told yourself are infinitely worse because they keep you stuck in superficial relationships where true love doesn’t exist.

Don’t let fear keep you from knowing yourself and the ones you love. And if the ones you love can’t let go of their fear, perhaps it’s time for you to make different choices.

Change Management

The only constant any of us can really count on these days is change. We Reamys have been in a state of flux since last July when my husband’s ex-wife was suddenly struck with a serious medical condition. We had to scramble to move my stepdaughter into our home and enroll her in a new school in our local district. Virtually overnight I went from being a weekend warrior to a full-time mom.

Luckily, my stepdaughter is an easy kid to love. She’s wickedly smart and funny, just like her father. She has a sunny disposition, and as an only child, she’s mature for her age. And the icing on the cake? She’s every bit as horse crazy as I am. I truly hit the stepchild jackpot—I couldn’t ask for a better daughter. Still, it’s taken every bit of the past nine months for me to get a handle on this new parenting gig.

Being a wife is easy. Being a stepmom is perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced. When I look back on my life, though, it’s easy to see that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’ve been preparing for this role for most of my life.

None of us grow up in a perfect environment. If even a small percentage of us did, I suspect the world would be a very different place. The environment in which I was raised was volatile, to say the least. My father is a violent alcoholic with an explosive temper and a hair trigger. My mom did her best to take care of us, and against all odds, she managed surprisingly well. I am continually amazed by her determination and resilience, but even the strongest among us can’t endure sustained abuse for long without becoming permanently scarred.

My most significant advantage in life is the fact that I am the youngest member of my family. My two siblings are five and six years older than me. Our age difference gave me the opportunity to watch and learn in ways that I never fully appreciated until I became a parent. I learned to see how my family members interacted, for better or worse, and I carefully observed the choices my parents and siblings made. By witnessing the consequences of their actions, I was able to make better choices for myself. I was mostly spared the trouble of learning things the hard way, though I’ve had my share of hard knocks.

Basically, I learned to navigate the world by observing others for examples of what not to do. How not to behave. Which choices not to make. Which company not to keep. Negative examples were pretty much all I had to work with, but rather than emulating those examples, I sought out more positive alternatives. And that has made all the difference.

It’s been over two months since I’ve published a blog post. I’ve had so much to say during that hiatus, and I’ve drafted more than a few unpublished posts. You see, the biggest change we Reamys have experienced in these past few months is that my husband and I were awarded permanent custody of our daughter after what was possibly the shortest, if not the least contentious, custody battle in the history of Colorado. It took just 45 days from initial motion to signed court order, but it’s taking much longer than that to fully process my emotions. For my daughter’s sake, I’ve chosen to keep my thoughts about how all of this went down private. All she really needs to know is that she is dearly loved, safe, and secure. She’s a very perceptive child, though. I suspect she’s fully aware of so much more than that.

We’ve all been on an emotional rollercoaster for the past several weeks. I am at once elated that we won full custody of our daughter and heartbroken that we had to enter that battle in the first place. I’ve struggled to overcome my prejudices toward her mother only to learn new information that reaffirms them.

I’ve held my tongue while enduring unsolicited advice from people who know nothing of our situation. My sister tried to shame me for suggesting that my daughter is better off with my husband and me than with her mom. She’s never even met my daughter or my husband’s ex-wife. She’s only met my husband on two very brief occasions, for that matter, but that didn’t stop her from sticking her nose into our business.

My mother-in-law, bless her heart, wants everyone to simply get along and resolve things amicably. She still thinks of The Ex as family. I don’t. Frankly, I resent the suggestion that I should embrace and befriend someone who openly and blatantly disrespects my husband. Part of the reason we sought custody in the first place is because The Ex was manipulating our daughter’s feelings about everything from her school to my husband and me in very destructive and dangerous ways. I’ve worked hard to free myself from the emotional abusers and manipulators of my past, so I’m not about to invite another one into my life, give her free rein to challenge my husband’s authority in his own household and to chip away at our daughter’s self-esteem.

All of this has put my change management skills to the ultimate test. I’ve had to scrape up every ounce of tact and diplomacy I could muster to deal with the unsolicited and unhelpful opinions of others. Empathizing with my daughter is easy because I remember clearly what it’s like to be a child with no real control or autonomy. Standing by my husband and fully supporting the decision to fight for custody was easy because it was so clearly the right choice. Figuring out how to finance that fight was another significant test of my change management skills, but I effectively pulled that off, too. Who knew that all those years of being a corporate drone would ultimately pay off in such a strange and unexpected way? A lifetime of dysfunctional family dynamics and couple of decades of experience in the business world turned out to be the perfect training ground for becoming an empathetic wife and mother.

My daughter is too young to fully understand the significance of this year, but her ability to think critically grows daily. Someday she’ll look back on this year and realize that it’s the year she reclaimed her childhood. Perhaps more importantly, I think she’ll recognize that this was the year in which she finally started getting the sort of parental support and guidance necessary to achieve her full potential. She already has bigger dreams today than she had a year ago, and I look forward to watching her dreams continue to expand and evolve.

Change is good. It’s not always easy, but nothing grows without it. The past couple of months have been both mentally and emotionally exhausting for all three of us, but I am so very grateful for this experience because it’s opened the door to some fabulous opportunities for our little family.

Change is inevitable. Embrace it. And if someone you know is going through a significant life change, allow them to embrace it–even if you can’t. Navigating change is difficult enough without some well-meaning (or perhaps not-so-well-meaning) friend or relative trying to keep you bound to a person, place, or thing from which you are ready to break free.

Change is benevolent. I haven’t always believed that to be true, but the events of this past year have convinced me, once and for all, that things really do have a way of working out for the greatest good.

Whose Reality Is It Anyway?

I had a fascinating and cathartic conversation with an old friend this morning. Joni and I met in Seward, Alaska many years ago. I’d just moved there to be with my (then) fiancé, and she was the first girlfriend I made in Alaska. We formed an instant bond because we’re both Italian girls, we’re both Leos, and (at the time) we both cared deeply for the guy I intended to marry. He and Joni had been friends for years, and I believed I was in love with him.

As it turned out, it wasn’t love. Karl and I disengaged about three months after I moved to Alaska, and my life spun off on a strange and wondrous Alaskan adventure that lasted eleven years. Joni was along for the scariest and most dangerous part of that ride—the shock of learning that the man I intended to marry was cheating on me with another woman and the immediate aftermath of the explosive breakup that followed. I had a hard time letting go because I was convinced that I loved him. An even bigger delusion, I believed he loved me.

In the years that followed, I gradually realized that I was simply afraid to let go because I didn’t believe I could survive on my own. I never learned his side of the story, and I’ve long since stopped caring to hear it. Now that I’m happily married (but dealing with a dreadful ex-wife), I am just tremendously grateful that we didn’t get married and have children. That relationship would never have worked, so had we gotten that far, my husband and I would likely be dealing with two dreadful exes today rather than one. Or worse, I may never have met my husband at all because I would have been bound to Alaska by children, just as Matt and I are bound to Colorado today. Had that relationship not ended so quickly, I might not have returned to my hometown in Colorado, which is where I met the only man I was ever truly meant to marry.

Life is funny. We make a million choices (most of them seemingly inconsequential), and we often don’t realize until many years later how those choices affected us or our friends and family. Sometimes we never really know the consequences of our choices, but today Joni and I had the opportunity to see the impact we had on one another. She remembered certain events that I’d forgotten, and I had the opportunity to view those tumultuous years from her perspective and see them in an entirely new light. It was at once painful and heartwarming. We both cried. We both shared secrets from our past that shed more light on certain events and our respective reactions to them. Most importantly, we came away from that conversation with a renewed appreciation for one another and a stronger friendship.

We all talk about reality as if it’s a singular thing. As if there’s only one reality that we share collectively. The truth, though, is that no two people can possibly share the same reality because our individual perceptions are shaped by past experiences, our family and cultural backgrounds, and our own unique personalities. No two people share the exact same past or the same upbringing—not even siblings raised in the same household. Although cultural influence and personality types can be categorized to some degree, no two of those are exactly alike either. So, whose reality are we ever really talking about anyway? It’s a wonder we humans manage to communicate at all, given how wide the gulf can be between your reality and mine.

The lesson I came away with today is that sometimes the only way to fully understand our own past is to review it from the unique perspectives of those who were there to witness it.

Thank you, Joni. I’m so glad we had that talk, and I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate your friendship—both then and now.

Stepping Up to Step-parenting

I suck at parenting. I admit it, I’m a bad mom. I could make a million excuses for my failure. After all, I didn’t give birth to my daughter. She came into my life as a bright and bubbly 9-year-old fourth grader with a fully formed personality and a real mom to whom she is profoundly attached.

I always wanted to be a mom, and because I like kids, I always believed I’d be good at it. Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized that I suck at parenting. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, depending on the way you look at it), I’m not alone. The truth of the matter is that most parents suck at parenting. I know very few parents who are actually good at it. Most of us are just winging it.

We manage to feed and clothe our kiddos, and we try to make good choices in terms of their education. When it comes to the hard stuff, though, we all pretty much stumble around blindly. What separates those of us with the potential to become good parents from those who will perpetually suck at parenting is our ability to accept that our children are unique individuals, separate from us, with their own lives to live. They’re not extensions of us. Our own identities should not be inextricably tied to our kids, yet I see that in so many parents. I see it in my daughter’s mother.

I’ve often joked that my past reads more as a cautionary tale than a fairy tale. My recent foray into parenting is proving to be no exception in that regard. I read a wonderful blog post recently, An Open Letter to My Daughter’s Stepmom, that made me realize how far my daughter’s mother and I are from being a good co-parenting team. Unlike the Mom/Stepmom pair in that letter, our relationship was adversarial from the beginning, and it’s grown progressively worse in the months since our daughter came to live with her dad and me.

I don’t want to be the enemy. I don’t want to be the demon who has stolen a mother’s daughter. All I want—all I’ve ever wanted—is what’s best for a bright little girl who was unfairly dealt a bad hand. If that makes me the enemy, so be it. If teaching our daughter to be independent and to think critically about the things that people (including those she loves most) say and do makes me a demon, so be it. If the fact that our daughter has thrived in the months she’s lived under our roof makes me the source of all evil, I can accept that.

I may very well suck at parenting. But if my willingness to put an innocent little girl’s needs above my own and my ability to distinguish between her identity and mine are any indication, at least I can take comfort in the fact that I have the potential to become a good parent. Someday.

New Year; New Resolve

WP_20150102_002I stopped making New Year resolutions in 1998. That was the year that my home was burglarized and vandalized by a ring of teen-age thugs roaming the streets of Anchorage, AK. You can’t know the violation of that sort of thing unless you’ve experienced it personally.

I arrived home from work one day and realized immediately that something was wrong. My apartment smelled like bleach, and although nothing registered as being obviously out of place, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. As I looked around, the first thing I noticed missing was my saxophone, which I kept on a stand near the hearth of my fireplace. The moment I realized that someone had been in my apartment, I went to the hiding spot where I kept my gun. It, too, was gone. At that point, panic set in, and I called 911.

After reporting the burglary, which the dispatcher took with an almost bored demeanor, I started to take stock of what was missing. My home hadn’t been ransacked, exactly, but a lot was stolen—all of my jewelry, all of my lingerie, my leather jacket, my saxophone, my entire CD collection. My gun, ammo, and all of my target shooting gear, from paper targets to shooting glasses and earmuffs. Yet, to a stranger walking in my door, nothing appeared out of place.

Drawers were shut, closet doors were closed. Nothing, besides the lock on my front door, appeared to have been damaged. It was only upon closer inspection that I began to discover the malicious acts of vandalism that accompanied the theft. I couldn’t figure out where the smell of bleach was coming from until I opened my closet door to look for my ammunition. It was then I discovered that someone had poured Clorox all over the clothes hanging in my closet and then carefully put the empty bottle of bleach back in the laundry closet where it belonged. Every stitch of clothing in my closet was ruined.

I thought it was strange that they didn’t steal my computer. Later, I discovered they tried to destroy it instead by pouring milk all over the keyboard and tower. They put the empty carton of milk back in the refrigerator. I had a Bowflex at the time, and they partially cut all of the cables on that machine. Either they weren’t strong enough to cut the cables entirely, or they hoped I wouldn’t notice the cuts and the cables would snap while I worked out. The final act of spite I discovered is that the burglars took the piece of paper on which I’d written my resolutions for that year and placed it carefully, face up, in my toilet. I haven’t put any New Year resolutions in writing since that year.

When an officer finally showed up to take my statement (hours after I’d called 911), the second assault came when he looked at me accusingly and asked what I did to make someone hate me so much to so maliciously attack my home. I hardly knew anyone in Anchorage at that time. I’d been living there for less than two years, and all I ever did was work. I didn’t know anyone outside of my coworkers, and I knew very few of them well. I realized in that moment that I would get no help at all from the police. I never felt more alone.

About two years later, the police splashed the nightly news with reports that they’d busted a ring of teen-aged burglars who had been wreaking havoc in South Anchorage for over a year. I called and spoke with the lead investigator to tell him I believed that I was probably one of their first victims. He said he’d look into it, but of course I never heard from him again. I don’t doubt that some of the things stolen from me were recovered in that bust, but they never bothered to match the goods they recovered with the traceable items I’d reported stolen. My tax dollars at work…

That burglary was a turning point for me in many ways. I became even more isolated and withdrawn. More distrustful; more cynical. I refused to become more fearful, however, so I did three things with the settlement I got from my insurance company: I immediately replaced my gun, I adopted a 3-year-old 100-pound Giant Schnauzer named ‘Ricky’ who would be my constant companion and protector for the next eight years, and I used the remainder of the insurance settlement to make a down payment on a house so I could get out of that apartment (and out of south Anchorage, which was plagued with gangs).

Life went on. I lived in Anchorage for seven more years after that incident. Happily, for the most part; but I never did make many friends there, and it never really felt like home. Were it not for Ricky (that’s him, pictured above, enjoying a dip in his favorite creek at his favorite dog park in Anchorage) and my job, I’d have been an almost total recluse in those years. Although I still set certain goals for myself, I never wrote them down again because the image of my New Year resolutions from 1998 staring up at me from the toilet is permanently etched in my mind.

WP_20150102_003One goal I set in 2004 was to move back to Colorado in 2006. I achieved that goal, and I’ve resided in Colorado ever since. Ricky was almost eleven years old by then, and suffering from terminal cancer. He died May 26, 2007 and left an irreparable hole in my heart. Our feline friend and companion, Jade, died suddenly and unexpectedly six months later. I’ve often wondered if her sudden death was partly because she missed Ricky. It is my sincerest wish that he’ll come back to me someday soon in a fresh, healthy body, brimming with the thrill for adventure for which he was so well known. I see much of Jade’s sweet spirit in Rose, so if Ricky returns again, our little triad of entangled souls will be complete once again.

I’m not starting 2015 with any specific resolutions, but I have resolved to be happier and healthier than ever this year. My life has been on a sharp upward trend for the past two years. I married my best friend in 2013, and I gained a beautiful stepdaughter and a wonderful extended family in the process. My husband’s career is flourishing, which has in turn given me the space and freedom to reinvent myself professionally. I don’t know yet exactly what that’s going to look like, but I am confident that this is the year my new profession will begin to take shape.

My dearest girlfriend just got engaged to the love of her life on Christmas Eve. Jenn and I have been through a lot together in the seven plus years that we’ve been friends, so I couldn’t be happier that we’ve found our happily-ever-afters at essentially the same time. Her first date with her fiancee, Austin, was just three days after Matt and I got married. Interestingly, Austin grew up in Alaska. It’s funny how life plays out and how small this world that we live in really is…

Happy New Year, friends and followers. May 2015 be a wonderful year for all.