The Last Emotional Tentacle

The Last Emotional Tentacle

When I met Tony, he was working on the sports desk at the Arizona Daily Star. His job was coding agate – the scores and stats now readily available online that you could once find only in the newspaper. The dress code, if you could call it that, was lenient – T-shirts and jeans were OK for non-reporter staff during the week, sweatpants on the weekend. Tony took the art of sloppy dressing to the greatest heights.

So it was odd to hear him say, that one afternoon we spent wandering around the World Trade Center shops the day after he drove out to the NYC area with me, that he might like to have one of those white-collar jobs that required a suit and tie. And as soon as he moved out there, he got one – all buttoned down with cufflinks and wingtips, just like the big boys. Funny thing is, while I could do without the whole torn/wrinkled/grunge aspect, a casual guy in a t-shirt and ballcap was always a lot more attractive to me than a business type in a three-piece suit.

There were so many things about Tony that made him the least likely guy for me, his 180 in apparel choices the least among them. First was his taste in music – Guns ‘N Roses, AC/DC, and Jimi Hendrix were never at the top of my playlist. The baseball was good, but not so much with the basketball. He was a Celtics fan; I thought they were an overrated team full of cheaters and crybabies. He’d done one semester at the UA before dropping out; when we met, I was getting ready to graduate with my BA. Not only wasn’t he Catholic – he was basically irreligious. He had to ask his mom whether he’d ever been baptized. She was pretty sure he had been.

And yet we flirted, and I found him mesmerizing – probably because he was a “bad boy.” But falling in love with a bad boy isn’t everything Footloose and Dirty Dancing make it out to be. Typically, they’re ill-behaved for a reason: they prefer not to be encumbered by a relationship, or encumbered just enough for regular sex, and no more. Every girl who falls for one thinks she can change him – to her peril. Most of us wind up eventually giving that old dead horse a break, even if it’s many eons down the road.

Tony and I did the constant push-pull dance cycle for years and years. Whenever he wanted distance from the relationship, he’d do his well-practiced disappearing act. Sometimes, I would hunt him down and confront him, perhaps even weasel my way back into the immediate picture. It’s kind of strange to think of myself being so needy – but that’s how our whole relationship worked. If I hadn’t been needy, he might have changed to meet me in another space, or he might not have stuck around at all. We’ll never know – unless I can somehow figure out how to jump to that alternate universe and then come back and tell myself in this here-and-now.

While I was in Tucson over the weekend for the book festival, I was telling my friend Justin – my social media guy who’s just a few years older than my son – that I avoided Tucson for pretty much the first 10 years after I moved back to Arizona. Another behavior that seems so “not me,” but it was me, at that time. The problem was that everything in Tucson reminded me of Tony – how we’d met, where we’d lived, where we’d worked, where we’d played. Although I don’t think of myself as a particularly sentimental person, I still found myself triggered by the sights, sounds, and reminders that seemed to have been cast so casually and thoughtlessly about the town where I met and began dating my son’s birthfather,

I was telling Justin about all of this – feeling rather cocky that I no longer experience the emotional roller-coaster when visiting my once-hometown. Then we found ourselves on our way to the store, and out of nowhere, a feeling of anxiety began stealing into the pit of my stomach. Minutes later, we drove past Clicks Billiards, one of those very same places where I’d gone to track Tony down all those years ago. The memory was hazy, but complete – a memory I hadn’t even know was there.

I once read that memories are the thoughts that come to us from the past – regret doesn’t arise from them. Regret comes from the thoughts on which we dwell, day to day, week to week, month to month, year after year – those thoughts that never have the chance to come to us because we’re so busy going back to them, time and time again. It would make sense that this blog is dredging up some long-hidden, perhaps still-unresolved emotions. I thought I was done – the last of the emotional tentacles unwound years ago. Looks like there might be a stray hanger-on or two. Good news is that I’m finally OK enough to just swat it down and snip it off, without worrying it will grow sibling tentacles that could come and threaten to strangle me again.

I’ve never regretted my relationship with Tony, primarily because my beautiful son came out of it. But I have, on occasion, beaten myself up for not doing things differently. So it’s good to have a loving, supportive husband, wise counsel from friends, and the self-awareness to realize that the entirety of my past paved the way to my present.

I heard the story a number of years ago about a therapist who worked in the mental ward of a prison. He made a practice of meditating/praying over each patient’s file, using a mantra that went something like, “I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I thank you.” Within a year’s time, every one of those patients who’d previously been diagnosed as criminally insane had been returned to the general population, and the mental ward at that prison was closed. It could be a wives’ tale for all I know – although you can google the man’s name (Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len, Ph.D) and find lots of alleged proof.

The point is the lesson under the message: We actually need to forgive others a lot less, sometimes, than we need to forgive ourselves. I’m not using this mantra with any regularity – though perhaps it would be a positive thing to do. But when I get stuck, when any sense of regret or not-enoughness starts to occasionally invade my thoughts, it’s a good tool to have at my disposal. Including those invading thoughts of the “Why did you put up with him so long?” variety.

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Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.

On Regret

On Regret

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about guilt recently. A related – but different – emotion is regret. Wishing you’d done things differently. I think I may have experienced more regret over my adoption decision than guilt – but even that waned after one of my coaches encouraged me to perform a mental exercise.

“See it,” she said, “the whole situation, again, in your mind’s eye. Now, replay all of the possible outcomes, without judging any of them. What might have happened if you’d taken this road instead of that one? How could it have been different?”

Note – her question was not “How WOULD it have been different?” but “How COULD it have been different?”

So I thought back to my adoption decision, and what exactly went into it. The thing that most stays with me is that I was trying to solve what I perceived as an enormous problem for all of us with one decision. My goal was to make the best choice I could for my son, his birthfather, and myself. If one thing has changed since that time, it’s that I’ve become much more adapted to living in the present. At the time I was 27, though, all I could see was the giant expanse of all of our futures hanging in the balance before me, and I needed to come up with the one best solution for all of us.

I was terrified at the thought of being a single mother. I didn’t know how I’d do it to feed, clothe, and care for an infant son while working full-time. My family was back in Phoenix and I was in New Jersey/New York, so who would help with babysitting and errand running, especially since I didn’t have a car at the time? How would I possibly afford the great education my son deserved? Or braces? Or sports equipment? These were the questions that pummeled me, and I felt I had to have an answer to all of them immediately. Had I had the presence of mind to simply take each day as it unfolded (those AA people have one thing right, with their “One Day at a Time” mantra), I probably would have made a different choice.

But I did the best I could with the information I had at the moment.

So, as I performed Vickie’s thought exercise and tried to see the situation with alternate outcomes, I realized that the outcome that occurred was really the only outcome I was capable of at the time. And that helped dispel a lot of the regret.

The only time it really came up in a big wave of emotion was when Eric was maybe 3 years old. It was the only year I remember them doing it, but the Investment Banking Division at Lehman Brothers held a Christmas party for the kids of the employees – and I was on the planning committee. We hired a Santa and some people to dress as the Teletubbies characters. We decorated one of the giant meeting rooms and wrapped hundreds of gifts for some of the most privileged kids in the Tri-State Area. (I still wonder how one more toy truck could have mattered to the child of a millionaire when so many other children really would have appreciated those toys.) We strung lights and hung decorations. This was a PARTY! And then the kids started to arrive. That’s when it hit me. Had Eric been with me instead of with Kathy and Bruce, he would have been at that Christmas party, tearing into a talking Buzz Lightyear.

talking Buzz Lightyear

The overwhelming feelings of sadness were, thankfully, brief. But I’m really glad I experienced them. They reminded me that I had made a conscious choice – the best one I could. They made me grateful for Eric’s family. And they actually reinforced my decision, because I realized that as much as I loved my son, I’m not sure I would have loved being a mom. Not the way Kathy did. Not the way he needed his mom to love being his mom.

I think I’ve actually been blessed to have the best of both worlds: a connection to a kid who is absolutely amazing, along with the knowledge that he had the best parents I could ever have hoped for. I did a good job mothering him for the better part of the first year of his life. Then I handed him over to the people who did the bulk of the work. But it took all of us to get there.