So, here you are. Thrust out of the womb and cast out into the world. You've been dealt a set of cards. Maybe you are gifted with loving, supportive parents. Maybe you'll be abandoned by those parents and raised by strangers. Maybe you are born into poverty, a conflict zone, or the mansion on the hill. You have no control over the hand you've been dealt and now you have to play it.
This can be frustrating, depression, overwhelming... the great "You Are Here" sign with no additional information. Life is scary. Life is hard.
We spend a good time negotiating these circumstances, whether it is convincing ourselves we deserve to be born into wealth and status or coping with far less pleasant surroundings and circumstances.
Now, try this exercise:
Think of yourself as being in the equivalent of a video game. You go through the same course over and over and at some point you get killed and you either have another life or another quarter. Each time you go through the game, you figure more things out, avoid mistakes previously made, and you get a higher score or reach victory. Now, translating this to life, imagine that you keep living this life and every time you do, you fuck it up, or at least fuck up some key part of it. Maybe you don't even know you fucked up. You might have decided against going somewhere and missed out on meeting someone. It doesn't matter. It is an exercise.
When you think of life this way, you become more aware of your decision making process. Instead of acting impulsively, we are more likely to consider the potential consequences of our actions. You don't want to think about it too much because you'll start to draw your own conclusions and you can become too logical and mechanical in the process. You have to let your emotions, wants, and needs figure into the process. What could happen if I do this and what could happen if I don't? It is part risk management, being careful not to set ourselves on fire trying to achieve something, but it also gives you the opportunity to consider more unknown quantities. Those choices that have the potential to bring us into the unknown are the scariest, and risk management would tell us to steer clear, but sometimes we do need to see what is on the other side of the barbed wire fence. We feel an unexplained desire to get to the other side, even if we are not typically the type of person to cut through a barbed wire fence out of curiosity.
Now, maybe we've never had any desire to cut through a fence or do anything like that before, but we feel this pull, this need to get on the other side. Have we gone this way before? Does some part of us know this is a good way to go? Who knows, but you can consider this along with everything else you are considering as you stare at the fence.
Sometimes I look at my life over the past 25 years as being guided by someone giving me cheat codes, coming out of my unconscious, and I imagine it is because I got really sick of always ending up dead in 1994. So many times going through the same story that something had to be done. At other times I believe I have simply become more aware of these magnetic elements we encounter in our travel. Why does this one person seem so important when I can't figure out how they could be? Why do I keep feeling pulled to eat at this restaurant even though I don't really like the food all that much? Why do certain things feel comfortable and familiar and others alien and hostile?
Maybe part of us knows, but that isn't important. Someone else's literalism is your metaphor. Your life can become a living parable if you try to live it in such a way that it provides a rough map for others to use. Your experiences, your challenges, your failures and successes, can all be parlayed into providing a model for others. And that model might be one to avoid or to follow. Either way it can be instructive.
For ourselves, we want the model to be one to follow, not to avoid. You don't want to end up as a cautionary tale. That is a fundamental component of self care and why you must not lose sight of what you need, including the feeling that you have made good choices rather than terrible ones, although mistakes can be rectified, even if it is often in indirect ways.
Most people grow up in an environment where they are given some form of modeling. Whether it comes from parents, family, or elsewhere, they are given a rough map made up of basic societal expectations as well as benefitting from the experiences of caregivers. They are usually given a very limited range of options and are asked to adhere to a system followed by those who preceded them in the family or community. These limited options, often derived from limited experiences of the caregivers, narrow one's worldview and how they interact with others. They learn a variety of prejudices and are taught that certain things are absolute, usually in line with what the caregivers believe, perpetuating the same patterns of belief and behavior with little variation outside of rebellion. If the pre-fabricated forms do not work for the individual, they feel they have failed their caregivers and their community. If that community is insulated, the chance for making changes in the pattern are less likely. There is no outside input that questions what has been learned and accepted as absolute truth, and often those models are not positive ones to follow, as you can see every day what happens when someone is trained from an early age to hate.
One has to challenge the accepted patterns or they will not change. Blind acceptance of a pre-fabricated life may work for some, but for the majority it is counterproductive. It prevents them from forging their own path, of finding their own way, and instead requires them to align their goals and desires with what is expected from those who came before.
Which is, of course, the path already travelled. If you follow that path you are repeating a pattern that may stretch back generations. Like breaking the cycle of abuse in families, without a disruption everything is normalized and considered part of the program. Accept this for this is how it is and what it is. There is no other choice.
Some swing the other way and become reactionary contrarians. If a belief is commonly held, they must attack it, challenge it, belittle it, just for the sake of doing so and not for any productive reason. In the middle ground you find the path that is yours, the one leading between the two poles, because everyone is somewhere in between. There is no black and white, only varying shades of gray.
In the first five years of my post-suicide journey, certain things about me seemed completely inverted. For one, I had been a shy wallflower who couldn't hold onto a girlfriend, and who women generally avoided, and then I was being fought over by women who wanted to be with me. It was absolutely absurd, which was why I just stood there and stared. "Is this really happening?" Part of this was restoration of my pride and ego, which my depression and suicide choice had devastated, but while I would eventually go on to work with people in crisis who had no one else, in those years I seemed to have a very specific calling. Gorgeous women with low self-esteem and no confidence who generally got by on looks alone because no one took them seriously and everyone interpreted their insecurities as bitchiness. My narrative in the late 90s is filled with them.
Tina, amongst others, fit this category, but she was the standard bearer, and as the woman from my dreams who demanded I find her, it had to mean something. It had something to do with judging a book by its cover, but instead of showing me suffering people who were not gifted with good luck or good looks or a pot to piss in, this was my calling. I believe now it was to show me that "You can't judge judging a book by its cover," meaning, you can't claim to understand that concept without understanding all the aspects. Everyone assumed these women had it all because of their beauty. Men must buy them everything. They must get any job they want. They can do anything they want to and get away with it.
I was the former wallflower who was terrified of beautiful women because they would most certainly reject me and laugh at me if I dared try to talk to them, and now those same women were calling to me and showing me, "It ain't all what you think it is, boyfriend."
What I came to realize was that people seamlessly assume that gorgeous women just need to fuck someone to get everything they want, and very few people question this. It is the same kind of prejudice that takes other forms. It is a prejudgment based on a person's appearance. My first lesson was that what I used to call the One Queens, those I felt I was not good enough to even talk to, suffered just as much, in different ways, as everyone else. Like so many, I assumed they needed nothing and had it all.
There was a point in my interaction with Tina where she became distant, avoided talking, and seemed to be avoiding talking to me. I was concerned that I had overstepped my bounds and was trying to figure out how to deal with this when one of the female servers came over to me.
"She's afraid she'll offend you and you won't come back again," the server told me.
In 2000, after various periods of trying to figure out what was going on and if I was completely insane, Tina went completely out of character and gave me a speech that I still wonder if it really happened. She told me my appearance was a miracle and that what happened as a result made her believe in God because she had no other way to come to terms with it. She told me I'd changed her life and helped her achieve her goals and she couldn't have done it without me.
I'm no saint. My reaction was to say, to myself, "Well, I did it. Now I am free."
There was so much yet to be learned.
When you are working with a roughly drawn map, landing in the middle of nowhere with nothing but that and a sketchy compass, you have to find your way out of the brush and back onto the road. The map isn't always reliable and you can't always read it right, but if you go to the gas station and buy the commercial map you're just going to go the same route as everyone else.
Being goal oriented can be a valuable tool, but too much focus on specific goals runs the risk of tunnel vision. You lose sight of everything else and you often lose sight of the ends not justifying the means. For me, there was a singular goal between 1997 and 1999, and that was to figure out why the hell this woman was appearing in my dreams, where she insisted I find her so she could give me "the answer." I wanted this resolved so I could sleep. The persistent insomnia had, at times, driven me to near mania. What made the dreams allow me to sleep was weekly trips to that Chili's that I now call my church, to listen to Tina and try to figure out what I was supposed to do. In doing so, I pushed away many others who asked for my time and attention. They were a distraction from the goal.
That singular focus would lead to the tragic tale of my relationship with Tammy, who I pushed away consistently even as she was the one to always come to my aid during the difficulties I faced in the summer of 1999. It was a distraction, Tina would think I was flighty, and I denied her importance to me until the last moment, at which point she told me I was too late.
The tragedy of the tale is that it was, in the end, the perfect execution of the pattern that trapped me in a cycle of misery. I had a goal. The goal became difficult and challenging and so I would settle for an easy goal, which would leave me unfulfilled, but I'd hang on as long as I could trying to prove it was what I wanted after all. This would make such a mess that I wouldn't even see that there was an alternative. Personified, while I struggled to understand Tina and what this was all about, I'd connect with Christina because of our shared experiences with death, try to convince myself for a while that was what it was all about, realize it wasn't, turn back to the original goal and never see that there was this beautiful person who had strong feelings for me who was holding my hand and helping me through it all. In trying to beat the pattern, I repeated it, not even realizing that was what I'd done until almost two decades later.
Those mistakes provided a map. It was a map of the pattern, my cycle of misery and disappointment and despair, and for a while I thought I'd done "real good" with that whole matter because Tina gained confidence, finished nursing school, and overcame some crippling fears, but when Christina died at the end of 2002, it made me suddenly realize that I'd let everyone down except Tina and the answer was in my mistake. When years later someone pointed out to me, "You know, when you told the story about your death and coming back to find this woman, all those women chasing you wanted to be her. You were a walking, talking romance novel looking for its female lead.
At my church in the late 90s, at least three different women working there told me, in essence, "If I were Tina, I'd jump you without even thinking about it."
These days that seems like a major "duh" moment, but at that time I'd had three occasions where women physically brawled with each other fighting over which one was going home with me. It was completely absurd, but it also created a mindset where I had become so used to women falling over me that I took it for granted when Tammy did. She told me multiple times that all she wanted was to be the reason I came back and came to Orlando, at one point almost breaking down in tears. In retrospect, those were probably the result of her frustration in getting me to even pay attention to her.
Once something is in the past, there is nothing you can do about it, other than attempts at reconciling errors and making this right between yourself and another person. You can look at it metaphorically, through the mythological lens, and translate it into a parable that serves as a map so that the next time you are in the same woods you know the paths better and know not to fall into the quarry.
Years of working in behavioral health led me to fully realize the nature of my pattern, and of patterns in general, once I saw they were behavioral patterns. We repeat the same behaviors even if they have failed us every time in the past. We do this because we're not aware of why we're doing it or even that we are doing it. I'd done this same sort of thing, following the same pattern, and making a mess of things, and it permeated my entire life, not just relationships with women. That was the personification of the pattern that made it much clearer since people involved feelings, whereas this approach to jobs, college, what car I drove, that only resulted in my eventual disappointment and feeling like I was a fool.
The pattern would not be fully personified again until 2016, nineteen years after I met Tina. The three queens I call the Resolution Queens had something very special about them that Tina, Christina, and Tammy didn't. There was no sexual or romantic tension. This set was young enough to be my daughters. Two of them are gay. Once that sexual tension was removed, it became much clearer. The Elf Queen had such striking similarities to Tina that after I met her I was trying to figure out what that was all about because I had no desire to romance or sleep with her. She fascinated me because she was so real and genuine and fighting to be her true self. The Youngest Queen would be hurt by my efforts to boost the confidence of another woman I worked with, who I kept saying was "the best we have." I had literally treated her like second best, with her right there in the room when I told the other woman she was the best person on my staff. And, as my illness made it more and more difficult to keep working, it was Second Veronica who helped me through the shift and had my back every night. This time, I didn't turn my back on her. When I had to stop working, I made sure we remained in contact and we've become best friends.
This pattern had haunted me for a long time, most significantly in 1986 when I met my first fiancee. We would be together for three and a half years and it would end very badly. At the very root of our relationship was a big problem that I tried to shrug off. I'd seen this woman in the parking lot of my apartment complex and I was smitten with her from afar, but I didn't think she'd give me the time of day. I thought about it and thought about it, and then saw another woman in the parking lot who also intrigued me, but who seemed more approachable and more likely to be open to my advances. The problem was that the first woman turned out to be the second's roommate and we basically all lived together for two years. I'd never been fully satisfied in the relationship because I had a constant, daily reminder that, even though I learned I was right about the first woman, that she would never have dated me, I was with my second choice. My "first choice" was sitting next to me on the couch eating popcorn and wearing just a sleep shirt and underwear. I pretended this didn't torture me.
On the plus side, we did use the Three's Company theme song as the outgoing message on our phone, back when people did that sort of thing, although Jack sleeping with Janet kind of threw off that dynamic. Throw into the mix that Chrissy sensed Jack's desire for her and enjoyed torturing him, to the point where just before she moved away and Jack and Janet got their own place, Chrissy casually told me, after three years of sexual tension, "Maybe we ought to fuck and get it over with." I get trapped in the weirdest love triangles.
In 2005, I met someone who was much like Chrissy in that story. I was with someone else, and Erica and her were friends. There was this sexual tension between us that I dealt with by just announcing it out loud t everyone. Get the elephant out of the room. It became a point of amusement over the following year, with Erica purposely dressing in ways she knew would cloud my brain, and me then complaining about it but saying, "Don't stop though, I look forward to you coming over dressed like that." It had no impact on what was a very doomed relationship, and for her part, my then girlfriend would say, "I like it when you come over like that as well. Keith gets wilder in bed after you leave." Erica would become one of my Queens when she later came to my rescue multiple times. Without her help and her faith in me, which led her to choose me over her friend, I would never have escaped the hell I went through in New Hampshire in 2007. There was a map and I used it, quite consciously. I've been this way before, this time I will try to do it differently.
"Sometimes, you know, just knowing a person has that kind of desire for them, expressed in the right way, can help someone's ego in ways you don't expect."
It was the same reason I'd had the effect I did on Tina. Even as she kept me at a safe distance, what I believe really helped her achieve what she said I helped her achieve was the fact that not only did I come with this story, I came in every week for three years to show her I wasn't giving up. It wasn't that I wasn't giving up on us being some kind of ideal couple, it was that I wasn't giving up on believing I was there for her. No one else in her life had any faith in her.
The map drawn from my experiences in the late 90s showed me how to do it, and then the sexual component was removed, which was generally what clouded my mind. It wasn't about the romance. It wasn't about who was my "true love" or anything like that. It was about how I treated people and how I approached life. Seek the goal, give up on the goal, settle for less, make it clear I'm settling for less, then try to overcompensate by telling myself that was what I wanted all along, and then when someone tries to help me out of my mess I thank them and then push them out of the way.
I needed a map for that because I never really saw it until 2016. Tina had given me "the answer," but neither of us realized that she did. "Maybe you're not here for me, maybe you're here for someone else." In part, she may have said this as she kept me at a safe distance and several of her co-workers fawned over me, but it was the answer. The full answer being that I wasn't there specifically for her. She was there to show me in vivid, epic form, that I could have a positive impact on other people by being in their lives and that I had value, which was all part of invalidating my suicide thesis.
It can be dangerous, and I've fallen into the trap before, to allow reflecting on past experiences to become emotional exercises. This is why converting it to a narrative and studying it on a broader, metaphorical level, can be useful. You look at the past as a story you've already read and which had been read by many. The study becomes almost academic. "Why did I do that? How could I be so stupid or blind? How did I always miss that turn? What the hell was wrong with me?"
The study of our mistakes and regrets puts them into perspective. I purposely carry only one wound with me, but I do so on purpose. It reminds me of what I lost sight of when I lost my way in 1999. It mirrors the many stories of various mythologies of the unhealed wound. It has a lesson to teach. It has purpose. I came to think I was invincible. Tammy reminded me that I am human. I am not invincible and I don't have magical superpowers. I am flawed and human, but I don't want to keep repeating the mistakes of the past. Therefore, when you boil them down to the pattern, to the bone structure, you see the map of your erratic and backwards ass path. You aren't overcome with emotion and sentimentality, which blocks our ability to see clearly. We cannot wear rose-tinted glasses or color everything in darkness. You study it like you study history, or a novel you are writing a paper on. Why does Doofus do stupid thing on page 131? What are the motivations, the antecedents, and how does this reflect her character in the story? Should Cathy just tell Heathcliff to fuck off for once?
The map is like reading a story you enjoy and saying, "I would have written a different ending." I used to write terrible sequels, old school fan fiction, when I was a kid and I didn't like the way a story turned out. I'd write a follow up story so it ended the way I wanted it to.
The other thing you realize when you study your maps is how often you are too hard on yourself and how often you are being too sure of yourself. Maybe what happened wasn't all that bad because you are only looking at it from one perspective. You've only seen one or two angles.
We get a manual at an early age that tells us, "Here are the things required to become successful in this life." So, you focus on those goals so you will not only be considered successful, you will receive praise and acceptance from others. If you go off script, you risk losing that praise and acceptance. This keeps many people following the manual they were given. It is the thirst for acceptance and love and the fear of rejection and scorn.
The map is not a straight line. It doesn't simply go from point A to point B with some obstacles and challenges along the way, which is how I was still seeing it in 1999. The map is actually a multi-dimensional freeform sketch that you haven't finished because you have to go out there and find the pathways. Like a video game, you can follow the set mission the game provides, but it is more interesting sometimes to go off the script. For many, especially those who are creatively minded, following the set mission is a recipe for ennui. Eventually, you just get so bored you say "fuck it."
The manual has the basic map for meeting societal expectations, but the map is otherwise not yet drawn. All it has is that one well traveled path showing you, "You are here and you need to get there." The rest of the map is up to you.