Ironically, the person who cared the most was also the only woman to break my heart.
She was the first individual I ever wanted to truly love and the one who taught me I had no idea how to love. If I’m being honest – and I am – there are many great things that Rachel, my first wife, did for me for which she deserves credit – including making me a better man, teaching me the meaning of love and showing me the joys of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Little Wing and Chitlins Con Carne.
Actually, she is one of the reasons I have a story at all because she planted the seeds of my solution. She taught me the necessity of forgiving my daughter’s mom, Betty, and acting in a self-less manner when making choices about my daughter. She taught me there is no shame in failure.
To this fact, I am eternally grateful to her. Truthfully, the pain I felt over these years was essential to growing up.
Now if you can relate to any of this, perhaps even living in the middle of this, here is the reality: you don’t have to live with this insanity. All of this happened over fifteen years ago and today I am grateful for all of it – mostly. I still have moments of regret but I see the truth that I cannot change the past but can change the future by taking responsibility for my choices and attitude. In the face of all the consequences, I have a good life and I have become a better man because of it.
As I said, I still face the consequences of my actions when trying to buy a car or pay my back support but the difference today is I know I’m a good man, regardless of what others think. Recovering from a steep and sudden slide down the scale leads to a long, steep and laborious climb back out of the hole. It takes more character and willingness then many people are readily willing to acknowledge; it is simpler for some to believe leopards never change their spots. I think this allows them the comfort of their own sins.
A few people never make a mistake and always use good judgement. I was not one of those people. The coping skills used to survive in a home cursed by generational alcoholism, physical and sexual abuse and blessed with blue-collar values and Appalachian roots are of little value outside the drawn curtains of my youth. Whereas many lessons of my youth were about survival, others learned about success.
Clearly two different skill sets.
I’m not telling you this to gain pity or earn forgiveness. The approval or forgiveness of others means little in the grand scheme of things. I know I earned every judgmental glance and self-righteous lecture. The truth is, eventually we are all held accountable to a higher power – everything in the meantime is simply wind whistling through the eaves.
“Selfishness,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” I asked a great deal of my wife, my daughter’s mother, my family, my friends and sometimes even strangers in order to live my dishonest life. Tragically, it was the people closest to me that paid the price for my selfishness.
Some may scoff at my attitude about redemption which is fine. I’m not writing this for their approval. I am writing this for the many of us who seek to atone for our choices and feel alone. The truth is I am a better man because on a daily basis I’m doing the “best” I know how to do at that moment as opposed to the “easiest”. I know it is better because I can look everyone in the eyes when I talk to them. I can look in the mirror. On most days the shame, remorse, fear, loneliness and morbid reflection are gone. On most days the anxiety and depression is lifted and I can function in the world.
So when Rachel and I returned home from Chicago on our one year wedding anniversary (and my near suicide), I followed Rachel’s lead and started the slow process of rebuilding a life worth living. I started by being honest and making amends to those I had harmed. Not an easy task for someone whose life was built on dishonesty – my amends list was long. It has been a slow journey full of pain and heartache. It has also been a journey full of beauty and redemption.
However, there could be no forgiveness, or love or redemption, until I began changing my actions – although I’ve learned some amends are simpler than others. For example, if you take money that isn’t yours, that’s called stealing. You make amends by paying it back. If you tell someone something that isn’t true, that is lying. You make amends by admitting you lied and then tell the truth.
Doesn’t that sound straightforward?
The difficulty is the human ego and pride sometimes conspire to minimize and rationalize the pain and justify procrastination. It’s the same reason people avoid a colonoscopy: we know we are full of crap but we don’t want someone to catch it on camera. Making amends for the things we may – or may not – have gotten away with takes more courage then most people have. We don’t really want people to know the truth about our imperfections.
The issue becomes even more muddy when making amends for abusing someone’s life. Where do you start when your behavior changes someone else’s life? I was an insensitive, self-centered, immature, and dishonest clod. My behavior often aroused bitterness, suspicion and jealousy in the people closest to me.
Certainly, admitting you are wrong is a start. You then stop the behavior. Again, sounds simple enough.
Combine the misplaced pride and the ego’s bravado with the knowledge that you were not there for your daughter’s mother. Where do you start making amends when she isn’t speaking to you? How does it end? Does it ever?
Truthfully, twenty-two years later I’m still working it out. All I can do is to keep trying to do the best I can and allow her the freedom to hate me. In a pure black-and-white, right-and-wrong world, I earned it. I know not everyone is going to like me, and Betty may never give me the benefit of the doubt and forgive me. That is the burden of my consequences but tragically, at this point it harms her far more than it harms me. I wish I could free Betty from the burden but at this point forgiveness is her choice.
This I know, part of my amends has been to patiently carry the burden of my daughter’s loss without blame and without complaint…