“Mom, what does ‘in perpetuity’ mean?” I asked from the backseat as we drove by an intown San Antonio theater advertising Rocky Horror Picture Show Friday 10 pm with the unfamiliar words posted beneath.
“It means it keeps repeating, going on without end.”
“So they show that same movie every Friday? That’s dumb,” I concluded with the assurance of a know-it-all 8-year-old. “Who would want to see that?”
Me, it turns out, since once I was a senior in high school, I visited that theater more than once to watch the movie and enjoy the theatrics in the spirited audience.
I guess I didn’t know everything when I was 8.
Or even when I was a senior in high school.
Because when I was a senior in high school, I thought someone could overcome their past just by wanting it badly enough.
I saw my parents’ divorce and vowed that it would never happen to me. I felt left behind by my dad and was confident that my boyfriend (later husband) would never leave my side. I witnessed the power that worry held over my mom and swore that I would be more carefree.
My boyfriend felt the same. He looked at his father with disgust and proclaimed he would never follow in his footsteps. He was fully aware of the alcoholism in his genes and promised that he was stronger than its pull. I saw the intensity in his eyes when he renounced his childhood and swore he would chart his own path. And I believed him.
I didn’t yet understand that it takes more than intention to escape the replays of the childhood patterns. I didn’t realize that old wounds, long since buried, would spring up again with new players filling in for old roles. I wasn’t aware how many of my actions and behaviors came from past experience rather than responding to some present stimulus.
I didn’t yet comprehend that our childhoods have a tendency to play in perpetuity unless we find a way to stop the feedback loop.
And it takes more than desire to stop the pattern.
My biggest childhood wound was a fear of abandonment. I was fully aware of this fear, yet I didn’t exactly address it in the best ways. When my dad moved across the country, I convinced myself that I didn’t need a dad. I could take care of everything myself. When I had several friends die, I decided to push the others away before they could leave. In school and work, I set myself apart by always being willing to take on the extra tasks and responsibilities; I made sure I was too needed to be rejected.
But none of those really mitigated my fear of being abandoned; they just made me think they did.
In fact, the only way I got over my fear was to finally face it.
And, as it turns out, the fear of abandonment was worse than the abandonment itself.
One of the strongest memories I have of the end of my marriage is from one night shortly before he left. From what I knew, he was in Brazil on a work trip. He had been experiencing uncontrollable hypertension for months and, on a rare call from Brazil, stated that he had also come down with some gastrointestinal bug. He sounded miserable, alone and scared. Two days later, I anxiously awaited his call from the Atlanta airport, where he was supposed to arrive that morning. I tracked the flight online, noted its landing time and waited.
Hours went by.
Calls to his phone went straight to voicemail. Repeated checks of the website verified the flight time and safe landing. I paced the hallway, gripping my phone in my hand. The dogs paced with me, their nails clicking on the laminate floor. I sat down at my desk and tried to find a number to call in Brazil. I paced again when the anxiety-fueled tremors grew too strong. I had images of him alone in a hotel room, too sick to get help in a foreign country. I felt impotent. Helpless. I paced again. I finally located his out-of-state office’s number and called his boss. He sounded surprised to hear from me.
Minutes later, the phone rang. It was my husband.
“I’m so sorry you were worried, baby. My flight’s tomorrow.”
“Are you okay?” It was all I could think to ask, my legs giving out beneath me.
“I’m fine,” he chuckled,”But I need to let you go now. It’s too expensive. I can’t wait to see you tomorrow.”
I wonder where his soon-to-be other wife was when he made that call?
That afternoon was my dress rehearsal for abandonment.
I experienced the real thing two short weeks later.
With my dad by my side.
My parents working together.
And my mom putting aside her own concerns for the care of her daughter.
I realized four things in those early moments after being jettisoned from my marriage:
I was never really abandoned in my childhood.
After really being abandoned in adulthood, I was strong enough to survive.
Accepting help doesn’t make you weak; it makes you real.
And the way to protect against abandonment is by letting people in rather than by keeping them out.
After facing spousal abandonment and thriving, I’ve even been able to find some of the hidden gifts.
It’s strange how life continues to present us with lessons until we are ready to learn.
A tutorial in perpetuity until we are ready to listen.