|Publisher:||Morgan James Publishing|
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On Loneliness and Intimacy
("Dealing with it just like all the other kids"— or not)
I've always envied people who are able not only to remember the names of many of their elementary, middle and high school classmates, but who still count some of them among their closest friends. I have very few memories of my childhood and early adolescence, let alone of those outside my immediate family who shared those periods of my life with me — inside or outside the classroom. I suppose part of that is a by-product of having grown up in a home with a father whose job kept the family constantly on the move from one city to the next. Knowing that another move to a distant city was always just around the corner probably didn't have a significant impact on me in the early years, but, over time, it made it increasingly difficult to develop or even want to consider developing the kinds of close friendships that I suspect often arise between those who, year after year, are fortunate to share the experiences of growing up in a common community.
I also don't remember my mom and dad socializing much with other families who had children our age or taking other affirmative steps to help facilitate our getting acclimated to our new surroundings and making new friends. To the contrary, my recollection is that my brother, sister and I were largely on our own where relationship-making and building was concerned, and if I'm to be honest, we weren't afforded much in the way of a model as to how to make that happen or what a healthy relationship between a man and a woman, a man and a man, a woman and a woman, brothers and sisters or a parent and a child was supposed to look like. I did, however, have a very clear picture as to what healthy relationships did not look like. Simply put, there was a lot of loneliness and a lack of intimacy in my childhood home.
Initially, I tried to fill that void with activities that I knew would keep me busy and out of the house for extended periods of time and which weren't dependent on others' availability — sports like golf and bowling. Sometimes, I would spend hours hitting plastic golf balls from one sprinkler head to the next in our front yard or take a "shag bag" out to an adjacent easement, where I would pound balls between telephone poles that Florida Power & Light had conveniently placed 150 yards apart until it was too dark to find them in the seldom mown grass. As I grew older, a nearby driving range and practice facility that was lit in the evenings became my second home — my refuge. In fact, that was the place I spent what was to have been the night of my high school senior prom — a long story for another time!
Inevitably, of course, I had to come home, and when I did, I spent much of my time in my room alone, writing poetry and letters and listening to music. In fact, I spent so much time by myself that it probably appeared to others that I actually preferred to be alone, and yet the truth was that I longed for nothing more than real companionship, someone to care about and who cared about me.
Interestingly, I found myself gravitating towards female friends. For some reason, I felt a closer connection to them. They shared the way I thought and felt about things much more than my few guy friends did. They tended to be more sensitive, more introspective, more in touch with matters of the heart, and considerably less superficial. They, in turn, viewed me as different from most guys, someone they could confide in when a problem arose, a problem-solver, a friend who, in their mind, was non-threatening, so non-threatening, in fact that, more than once, I ended up being the proverbial "third wheel" on dates they had with some of my best guy friends. We were one big happy teenage family — or so they thought. Unfortunately, I often grew to want more out of those relationships, but on those few occasions when I mustered the courage to reach out and suggest that, my overtures were mostly ignored, ostensibly so as not to "ruin a perfectly good friendship."
I let it ride because I too wasn't willing to make a trade between no relationships at all and the relationships I truly wanted. The last thing I wanted was to feel even more abandoned than I already did. Nothing was worth that — or so I thought. Unbeknownst to me, however, each time it happened, I was hearing and internalizing a much different message than the messengers likely ever knowingly intended to send. It was the same message that always seemed to reverberate off the walls in my childhood home: "Don, maybe if you were just a little different, a little better, a little more productive, a little more compliant, a little more perfect, a little more or less something, you'd get the love you want and need."
The effect of that message also was always the same — I tried a little harder to be a little "better" and, at the same time, grew incrementally more insecure, more uncertain about whether I was doing enough, and more importantly, whether what I had to give would ever be good enough. And then I had children of my own, and I swore to myself that things would be different for them, that I would do everything I could to let them know how very much they were loved at home. I wanted to shield them from the incomparable hurt that comes from feeling alone and unloved, as if there were something about them that somehow made them unlovable.
Unfortunately, time and circumstances have shown me that only so much of being able to keep that promise was within my control. The rest is left to the world at large, a world that, regrettably, is growing increasingly less intimate and more impersonal by the minute, particularly where those most in need of true intimacy are concerned — our young people. What once was a neighbor's afterschool knock on the door asking if my brother, sister or I could come out and play has long since been replaced by text messages, instant messaging, "tweeting" and endless hours on social networking sites. In fact, these forms of communication have fundamentally altered the way all of us interact with each other and have become not only the principal, but the preferred means by which children, adolescents and young adults communicate with each other. They also are a common method of communicating for adults, for business people, for spouses, for friends, for next door neighbors and even, in too many instances, for parents and their children.
Along the way, words, indeed entire sentences, have been replaced by acronyms, thoughts and feelings are often reduced to what can fit in 140 characters or less, and smiley faces and other symbols have been substituted, in the name of expediency, perhaps even laziness, for the radiant in-person smile and other facial expressions of a friend or lover. Cell phones, PDAs and laptops are our new lifeline to the outside world, a world that we don't even have to leave the security of our bedrooms to explore. It's all right there at our fingertips, a few key strokes away — everything, that is, except true friendship and physical companionship, the most fundamental needs of the human heart.
It is an irrefutable reality that the Creator has known from the beginning of time: "It is not good for man to be alone." Genesis 2:18. Indeed, I believe that, in His infinite wisdom, God has been erecting living, breathing neon signs around us ever since in the hope that we would come to that same realization and react to it accordingly.
We fail to do so at considerable peril to ourselves and to those we profess to love, because if I have learned anything from listening to my heart over the past several years, as well as the wailings of hearts trapped in bodies ravaged by eating disorders and other addictions in hospitals and treatment centers around the country, it is that nothing paralyzes the soul, mind and body more profoundly or more completely than loneliness. If I'm right, then stepping away from the multiple keyboards that exist in all of our lives and allowing ourselves to be fully present in the lives of others just could make all the difference in the world.
I received the following letter when I was 34 years old. While I'd like to think it was not the first time my dad was proud of me, I'm fairly certain it was the first time he ever used words to tell me he was. I framed it:
May 20, 1992
I have almost recovered from your sterling "World Series Victory" of Saturday last. It was as the shouts of your exuberant team declared to the heavens — "AWESOME!"
The thing I need to comment on is how impressed I was with the conduct of the head coach. I couldn't help but think how lucky that collection of "All-Stars" was to have a man like you directing them.
No matter the circumstances, your every word to that team and its individual players was one of encouragement. In the darkest moments (10 runs down, for instance), you were constantly assuring one and all that collectively they had the ability not to just fight back, but to win.
Wherever the circumstances dictated despair, you instilled belief. What a marvelous gift that is — the absolute keystone in successful adult-child communication (if I sound jealous, it's because I am). The real uniqueness of your style, however, stems from your ability to convey your very special talent in such an enthusiastic, patiently positive manner. And miraculously, you manage to convey it to groups and individuals, as the situation dictates, with equal fervor and with exquisite timeliness.
The result speaks for itself. How sweet Saturday's victory was. I know much sweeter victories lie ahead.
As special as watching the comeback was for your mother and I, I am compelled to say, one more time, how very proud I was of your performance and how fortunate the youngsters are who came under your influence today, as well as those who will be touched by it in the years ahead.
On their behalf, I thank you for so generously sharing your time, your talent, your life and your love.
In fact, that letter still hangs in my office to this day. It is one of the many reasons I can't possibly tell you and your brother often enough how very proud I am of you.
With All My Love, DadCHAPTER 2
Daddy's Little Girl
(Walking unsuspectingly in our father's footsteps)
Well into our daughter's illness, which presented in an unusually acute and aggressive manner, a lifelong friend of mine who specializes in adolescent psychiatry cautioned me not to devote too much time and emotional energy searching for the "why" of her disease. She told me that I likely never would find a satisfactory answer to that question, since even those who have devoted their entire professional lives to the search have not yet reached a consensus on the myriad of genetic, physiological, sociological and emotional factors that almost certainly play some role in the disease process.
She also warned me against getting drawn into the "family blame game" that some in the eating disorder ("ED") treatment world are prone to play. The rules of the game are fairly simple. In it, the ED sufferer's parents and siblings, as well as the family unit as a whole, are painstakingly dissected, either in the parents' presence or in individual or group therapy sessions, as part of an equally misguided, real-life scavenger hunt for the root causes of the sufferer's disease, presumably so that once identified, those causes can be "repaired," or better yet, permanently removed.
Instead, my friend encouraged me to stay focused on the practical, but very critical, tasks at hand (i.e., ensuring that Ashley was medically stable and that she returned to a life-sustaining weight with competent medical supervision) so that all of us could have the physical and emotional stamina required for the difficult journey to recovery that lay ahead. Try as I might, however, I found it nearly impossible not to repeatedly scour the landscape of my then 20-year relationship with my daughter in search of a clue that might explain how all of us arrived on the doorstep of her small L.A. apartment several years ago.
Turns out, of course, my friend was right. Despite more sleepless nights than I care to think about, I have yet to find a way to make the pieces of this very complex puzzle fit together neatly, if at all. However, the exercise of reflecting on my own personal journey with my daughter hasn't been for naught. Along the way, I remembered: the day I first learned that we would be welcoming a new member into our family, the early signs that it would be a difficult pregnancy, disturbing talk of possible complications, doctors' recommendations that we consider terminating the pregnancy due to the risk that those complications could result in deformities, including a loss of limbs as she developed, our agonizing over and then rejecting that advice, confident that God's will would be done, and the months of bed-rest that followed.
I also vividly remembered being awakened VERY EARLY on a January morning, 6 weeks prior to her scheduled arrival date, with the news that Ashley apparently had decided not to wait (like her dad, patience has never been one of her strong suits!), watching anxiously as the fetal heart monitor fluctuated wildly for no apparent reason, and then being hurriedly escorted into a very tense operating room where doctors performed an emergency C-section and then unwrapped what seemed like several feet of umbilical cord from around our newborn daughter's neck, while she struggled to catch her breath and I held my own. I remembered how incredibly small and fragile she seemed at that indescribably beautiful moment, my taking a quick Reaganesque inventory of her limbs (just to be sure the doctors' fears had not materialized — "trust but verify"!), and the nurses whisking all 4 pounds of her off to the neo-natal intensive care unit. I remembered the unsightly plexi-glass incubator where she would spend the first 10 days of her life and the vision of her laying there, helpless, with tubes and monitors protruding from every square inch of her body. I remembered leaving the hospital without her and being scared to death that she might never come home.
I remembered the day she left the hospital and the overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude I felt simply knowing she was alive. I remembered the piercing sound and intensity of her screams at bath time, which she hated as a baby. I remembered fearing that the large tumor on her shoulder that appeared overnight just before her second birthday was malignant, only to learn days later from the surgeon who surgically removed it that it was benign. I remembered her not wanting to be held or coddled and yet how anxious she became whenever she was pried away from her mom.
I remembered her being unusually creative and bright from an early age, not to mention stubborn as the proverbial mule! I remembered a mind that seemingly never stopped working and a heart filled with boundless compassion for others and for animals, especially horses and dogs. I remembered the hours she spent playing dress-up and Pet Shop with a neighborhood friend, a voracious appetite for reading, and quiet times with mom and dad at day's end sharing bedtime stories and saying prayers.
I remembered what, on reflection, were too many beautiful spring afternoons spent at little league baseball parks, particularly to a daughter likely longing for some alone time with a dad who already spent too much time at work. I remembered getting a call en route back from an out-of-town trip and racing to a local emergency room to find her strapped to a hospital bed with a badly fractured hip from a horseback riding accident that just as easily could have fractured her neck or claimed her life. I remembered that summer spent in a body cast and, less than 6 months later, watching her get back on that horse, whom she loved deeply, and riding off into the pasture as if nothing had happened — a profound display of courage and a touching moment of forgiveness and reconciliation between two old friends. I remembered penguins nipping at her shoelaces during a father/daughter trip to Sea World, our traveling to Charlotte to see Celine Dion in concert, time spent watching local productions of Broadway plays, accompanying her to auditions, and a very special ski trip to Smuggler's Notch — and I remembered thinking there should have been more of those times.
I remembered how much I loved to hear her sing and watch her act, and listening with pride to stories brought back from Europe where she and the other members of the Miami Children's Chorus entertained appreciative audiences in each of their native tongues. I remembered summer vacations at Ocean Isle Beach, hours spent bobbing in the surf, afternoons spent carefully constructing sand castles, trips to (and down) the neighborhood water slide, outings to every mini-golf course and ice cream parlor within 20 miles of "The Wright House," long walks to the pier and hush puppies with honey butter. I also remembered wishing I had taken more vacations and spent fewer holidays away from home.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dear Ashley"
Copyright © 2012 Don Blackwell.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Graduation Note xix
Chapter 1 On Loneliness and Intimacy: ("Dealing with it just like all the other kids"-or not) 3
Chapter 2 Daddy's Little Girl: (Walking unsuspectingly in our fathers footsteps) 9
Chapter 3 Brittany: (Living in an "if you ain't first, you're last" world) 16
Chapter 4 The Girl at Detroit Metropolitan Airport (Turning a deaf ear to the sometimes silent, sometimes not-so-silent tears of those we love) 21
Chapter 5 The Gift of Imperfection: (Maybe being perfect isn't all it's cracked up to be) 25
Chapter 6 Dr. Mac: (The value of trust) 31
Chapter 7 Timothy: (The paralyzing power of fear-An overview) 39
Chapter 8 Travis: (The fear of failure) 46
Chapter 9 Junnuh: (The fear that a healthier, happier you is a distant and irretrievable memory) 54
Chapter 10 Brock: (The fear that we can't, before we've even tried) 61
Chapter 11 Courtney: (The power of our gifts and the corresponding fears of success and of disappointing others) 69
Chapter 12 The First Step: (The fear of venturing out) 75
Chapter 13 "Mr. Fix-It": (Losing the control we never really had) 83
Chapter 14 The Girl on the Park Bench: (The freedom that comes from realizing that we may not have all the answers) 89
Chapter 15 The Miners: (Contrary to popular belief, hope is not a light that awaits our arrival at the end of the proverbial tunnel) 93
Chapter 16 The Monarch: ("Just when the caterpillar thought its life was over"-A case study in patience) 98
Chapter 17 A Young Mother and Her Two Little Boys: (And other everyday acts of courage) 105
Chapter 18 Derek and Jim: (Finding joy and wonder in the uncertainty of the journey) 112
Chapter 19 The Gorilla®: (Embracing the sometimes jagged often ill-fitting pieces of the puzzles of our lives) 121
Chapter 20 Chuck: (Giving is living) 128
Chapter 21 The TPD: (Taking a closer look at the "Total Package Dad") 137
The End 149