I clearly remember the day, in eighth grade, that Mary Beth H. broke up with me. I was crushed, truly devastated … or, at the very least, my ego got hammered. This meant I would no longer be seen in the hallways of McGee Junior High School holding hands with Mary Beth as I walked her to class. This meant we would no longer plan secret rendezvous in the stairwells where we could “make out,” and, as often as not, be discovered by someone like my basketball coach, Mr. G., who would later rib me about my breathless moments with Mary Beth in front of the entire squad, a ribbing which, he may or may not have known, brought me great pride because Mary Beth was undoubtedly the most sought after hand to hold in the entire school. This meant we would not talk for hours on the phone at night, mostly about nothing and until our parents told us to hang up but not before we would promise to meet somewhere in town over the weekend. Two full days apart was, of course, more than any young couple should have to endure.
Mary Beth and I had been “going steady” for well over two weeks the day she dumped me and, in my mind, reduced me to a hapless loser, a status only reinforced by the fact that she was dumping me for my cousin, David H., a veritable Fonz at McGee since he was very handsome and very cool and could grow a full mustache—no surprise since, as we all knew, he would turn sixteen in the ninth grade and have a car before anyone else.
I did everything you’d expect an eighth-grade boy to do once I’d been dealt the hellish blow—I spoke at length to her friends and mine about why, about what I could do or should have done differently, about the possibility that this was a mistake and what were the chances we’d “get back together” sometime soon. I cried openly, I hoped privately, and eventually I hated venomously with all my heart. I worshiped her very being and spat venom at the thought of her freckled face in the same breath and always behind her back.
Losing Mary Beth was not the most tragic event I’d experienced up to that point in my life, and I’ve experienced many others since that are far more tragic, but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt emotional pain as deeply and purely as I did that day.
I did unwittingly learn a few lessons about pain management in the hours and days that followed. My mother allowed me my share of tears and a week-long period of mourning (i.e. lots of moping around), but she would not allow me to miss school the next day so I could avoid Mary Beth and the shame of seeing her walk the halls with my cousin. My father, too, consoled me as only a father who was a union foreman could: “Ah, you’ll go through a hundred Mary Beth’s before you’re twenty.” But he would not allow me to skip basketball practice that day or the next, even though my cousin David would be there to flaunt his victory … on and off the court. They were insistent I wake up each day and “trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.” Ultimately, my mother would say the one thing that would stick with me throughout my life: “Why would you want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you anyway?”
In the eleven years since I returned to AA, I’ve watched a lot of recovering men face this type of rejection and even helped a few walk through the emotional pain that goes with it. Recently I watched a man I sponsor grieve so torturously over the end of a relationship I honestly thought we might lose him, not to alcohol but more likely to a bullet. At one point, however, I reminded him that if he didn’t hurt so badly, if he refused to open himself to the seeming agony, it would only mean that he didn’t care—not only about her, but more so about the mysteriously wonderful phenomenon of loving and being loved. I begged him (as so much spiritual literature often instructs) to embrace the pain and become one with it, not as a form of punishment or self degradation, but as an act of hope.
It’s been my experience that emotional pain is often just that, a sign of hope, hope that we will one day experience the joy and sheer bliss of loving and being loved unconditionally again—if not by the person breaking our heart, then by someone else. The pain shows we still care.
Loss of love is painful mainly because IT, the loving, once seemed so pure and unconditional. That lingering pain that follows the end of a relationship mostly represents the desire to have IT back—not necessarily the person, but the experience of IT, which, in the aftermath of a failed relationship, is falsely associated with the person who has usually long since stopped loving us in a pure and unconditional fashion. Again, my mother: “Why would you want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you anyway?”
In the handful of suicides I’ve known intimately this past decade (all of them “alcoholic” suicides), hope of ever again loving someone else in a pure and unconditional fashion seemed lost. These suicides had lost loved ones, family members, friends and more with extreme apathy—not because they didn’t care about and love those people purely and unconditionally at one time, but because they had completely and utterly lost hope that they would ever regain the ability to love and be loved in that way. Why they had lost that ability, why they seemed to fall victim to an extreme state of anomie,* is not for me to conjecture. I simply witnessed that they had, by their own admission in every case, completely and utterly lost hope. As one of these dear friends attested before his death, there was no pain, nor was there an absence of pain. There was simply a complete absence of hope and therefore nothing to prompt or prevent any kind of emotional pain. No hope, no pain. No pain, no gain … emotionally or otherwise.
As my current marriage inches closer and closer to its own end, I hope to draw some valuable lessons from the losses I’ve both experienced and witnessed these past 50 years. First and foremost, I hope to wake each morning with a firm commitment to “trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.” If past experience has taught me anything, it’s that a failure to rise up and DO is a sure-fire prescription for emotional suicide. I continue to wake each morning at 5 so I have time to meditate and hit the gym before I leave for work at 8. I endeavor each day to leave my emotional issues at home to the best of my ability and commit my focus to work while I’m there. I continue to play, read, laugh, and work with my kids in all the ways they’ve come to expect—as much for my sanity as their protection. And, I hope, to the best of my ability, I continue to respect, and maintain an appropriate level of civility with, my wife, whom I still count as a great friend. None of these efforts is perfect nor do I perform them in absence of that often gut-wrenching pain that accompanies impending loss. I’m not always fun, and I’m not always patient. But I force myself to try to be when I recognize I’m not. I’m far from perfectly civil or perfectly respectful; I’m just as capable of anger and resentment as ever. But any time anger wells up, I try like hell to squelch it (or call my sponsor), knowing full well if I indulge it, I’m the only one who is likely to suffer. I am way beyond those days when I could unleash my own wrath and enjoy it or walk away from it without consequence. Another sign of hope, I think.
It’s also my position that emotional pain is not only a sign that we still hope to experience love in our lives—with or without the person we perceive to be the cause of our pain—but a prompt to redouble our efforts to love those who remain faithfully connected to us. Ironically, I pity those who have not loved or cared deeply enough to have experienced extreme and debilitating emotional pain. For me, not having suffered that level of loss at least once would represent a life unlived. The key is to recognize the pain for what it is (a sign of hope), embrace it, and ultimately unearth a solution from it that will propel us into yet another not-so-well-lit dimension of human experience.
* social instability resulting from abreakdown of standards and values; also : personal unrest, alienation, and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals