Mental health and taking care of your emotions is so essential to everyone. It’s a great feeling to learn about yourself to the point of knowing the things that work for you and give you joy. I’m still on my journey, and have a long way to go, but here are a few things I’ve learned so far.
Second time’s the charm
I find myself saying this truism from time to time: “The second time you try something, it usually works out better.” For myself, this includes marriage.
My first wife was a test case in emotional baggage. Her past was ripe with abuse, family tragedies, and emotional self destruction. My own past couldn’t be more different: loving, stable family life, opportunity, and valuable education. Things started falling apart seven years after we got married (no kids). She started expressing unhappiness, and how I couldn’t fill her emotional needs; incidentally, a revelation that came to her after seeing a therapist herself.
We tried couples therapy for a very short time. Afterwards, I began seeking professional help for myself. I recall my first session, complaining about my wife’s neediness and anger. My therapist turned the tables on me, getting me to see my own responsibility in the relationship. This was my first lesson in cognitive behavioural therapy: introspection, and understanding what I actually had the power to do. This was not easy; it took many sessions, most of which I felt angry at my counselor for not giving me easy answers. I didn’t want to look at my own faults; it was better to put the blame elsewhere. Of course, the truth was that I was equally responsible for the downfall of my first marriage.
I grew up being on the receiving end of care, and while I wasn’t spoiled to the point of always getting my way, I was always supported by family and friends. Hers’ was a life of disappointment after disappointment, always being let down, desperate for someone to take care of her. I too, was eager to be her provider. But I wasn’t up to the task; I didn’t have the skills or the practice to be anyone’s savior. The kicker was that while I so busy trying to be her everything, I didn’t realize that the whole ordeal was making me miserable too. The fellow she cheated on me with made it clear that I wasn’t the guy for her. He’s extroverted (I’m introverted), an enthusiastic smoker and drinker (I’m neither), and party guy (which I am not). I remember talking to my brother about this; he told me flat out, “Sometimes we’re just not able to be what the other person needs.” By 2010, we were divorced.
I think it’s this fear of failure that demotivates many men from seeking emotional support and help. I’m stereotypical in this regard; I wasn’t taught how to deal with my feelings at a young age. For me, I take an intellectual approach to emotional intelligence; tracing the root causes and reasons why I feel the way I do. Where do my insecurities come from? What did being teased and bullied as a child actually do to me? Understanding is the first step toward getting past blaming myself, and getting on to making things better.
As a bit of an aside, I have a story I love to tell my friends and anyone who’s willing to listen. As I was going through my divorce, someone told me that when any significant relationship breaks down, one person ends up on the high end, and one ends up on the low. I’m convinced I’m on the high.
Sometime after I moved out, I got a message from my soon-t0-be-ex-wife that she had a box of my stuff, and our camping tent, which we agreed I could have. I asked her to please drop it off at my office, as I didn’t want to reveal my home address (petty maybe, but still my prerogative). When she finally got around to dropping my stuff off, I asked her to leave it at the reception desk, since I didn’t care much to see her either. She told me I had to come downstairs to the car, because she “has the six-month old in the back.”
I relented and went downstairs to get my box and camping tent, and sure enough, there was an occupied baby seat in the back of the car. When I got back to my desk, I had to do the math. We had been separated for about 18 months. Seems that for all the talk about having kids later, she didn’t waste any time once I was out of the picture. And if the guy she cheated on me with was the father, that’s a big minus, as he was already married with two teenage boys. The patterns of self-destruction she seemed to be so good at were reaching new heights.
By this time, I had a better understanding of myself and was acutely aware of how much happier I was to be able to let go of years worth of resentment. By this time, I had vowed to invest more time and energy in myself. I think the idea of being selfish is largely misunderstood. There are two kinds of selfish: the first is deciding to invest in your own happiness, which results in better relationships with others. The other kind of selfish is being greedy and manipulating so that you can only be happy if others around you suffer. Here’s a list of really simple things that I neglected during nine years of marriage, and I knew would make me happier. I followed through with them all:
- Live within a 30-minute bike ride to work
- Get back into songwriting and music
- Be debt-free
- Meet new people
- Get back into playing tennis
Like any good songwriter, I got a few songs out of my divorce. One hasn’t been fully recorded, although writing this article has certainly got that fire stoked. The other is a song called Brand New Door, and it’s about moving on. My friend Sunny helped me with the vocal track.
I also met my future wife, and suffice to say, I knew from the get go she was a far better fit for me. I vowed to never let resentment build up again, and we’re actually pretty good at talking out our differences. We were married in 2014, which is also the year things started to unravel for me in an unexpected and unceremonious way.
The downward spiral
In late 2013, my fiancé and I were living comfortably together in a rented house in the west end of Toronto. We got a great deal on the place, playing landlord to the upstairs apartment. In less than a year, the owner told us he needed the house back. We were homeless, and ended up moving in with my parents, north of the city. (Incidentally, our first morning at my parents was also my 40th birthday.) My 30-minute bike ride to work was now a 90-minute commute through regional transit, subway and streetcar. This didn’t irk me too much, as I got a lot reading done, and I knew it was only temporary.
In early 2014, we were set to purchase a townhome close to our west-end rental. Everything seemed to be place until, on the day of our home inspection, I lost my job. I had never been fired before. It was sudden, unexpected, and emotionally brutal. I wrote a song about it.
I had no idea why I was let go. The organization I worked for had just undergone an operational and human resource audit. I can only surmise that the consultants told management they were paying me too much for my job. My position morphed into a slightly different one, as I saw on the organization’s website, presumably for a lower salary. There’s nothing quite like quantifying your worth in dollars to take a kick at your self-esteem. Looking for new work proved to be daunting task, as I found myself in a job market where I seemed to have no place.
Eventually, I leveraged a connection I had to land a stable, well-paying permanent position. Of course, there’s a downside. While I have a full-time job, four days a week I spend working by myself at home and one day I week I commute to another city to meet with my co-workers. While working from home is ideal at times (e.g. snowstorm), there are feelings of isolation and loneliness I can’t seem to escape. I know my productivity suffers by not being around the people I’m working with. I’ve tried to find other ways to be productive, by working on personal and freelance projects during lunch breaks and during times I would otherwise be commuting in the city to get to and from an office. As much as I am an introvert, and value time by myself, it’s still a struggle spending many hours on my own.
Finding a balance
So I’ve lost only two items on my “happy” list. I can’t bike to work anymore, and I stopped playing tennis a while back due a knee injury (from playing tennis). That’s not bad. I’ve recently started playing a greater role in my physical health.
I’ve since taken on many music projects, including co-hosting a weekly radio show and podcast, and being in an indie folk-rock band. I’m also meeting great new people through Meetup.com and other venues. I wrote about this a while ago.
I’m happily married. And my mom loves my wife. And my mother-in-law loves me. What more does a guy need?
At times, the future feels very uncertain, particularly with work. I think finding a balance is important, and it varies from person to person. For myself, my hobbies are actually really important to me, and I take them seriously. For everyone, I believe it takes a lot of introspection, and knowing yourself well enough to know what works for you and what doesn’t. We tend to spend a lot of time doing things we know aren’t the best for us, but it’s important to keep everything in perspective, and find ways to ensure you’re content with whatever situation you’re in. I’m trying and I hope you are too.
As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental health, physical health, social health, and sexual health.