There are a lot of great metaphors for life and life balance but when I think about my own personal experience, especially when it comes to love and relationships the idea of a jenga tower comes to mind. First it starts out pretty solid as you build it up piece by piece starting with a stable foundation. You want to make sure those bottom pieces are aligned just the way they should be. You carefully place the blocks one at a time following the set pattern. Going rogue or off book will inevitably lead to a quick crash. Once you’ve finally built your tower it looks perfect, strong, stable and you have it made! Like nothing is going to take it down. But as you play the game, remove pieces and stack them back on you’re changing the game. Adding instability, danger, challenge. It’s a rush until one moves makes it all come crashing down. You instantly regret the choice but the damage is done. The tower is splayed out on the table pieces everywhere. When this happens, there’s two kinds of people. The ones who build it back up again without a thought and the ones that put it away and save it for when their head is back in it.
Which type of person is right? I guess it depends on their motivation. Are the rebuilders building it back up because they are resilient and willing to jump back in and correct what might have gone wrong the first time? Or are they blindly building doomed to make the same errors again? What about those who promptly put it away? Are they throwing in the towel too soon avoiding the chaos and the mess from happening again? Or are they taking the time to process, think of their game plan carefully before returning to it?
Which type of person am I? Both and neither really. I’ve played a dangerous game when it comes to relationships. I’ve added instability, danger, challenge. I’ve shown resiliency, and tried to correct mistakes and fix what went wrong. I’ve jumped in without thinking of the consequences and impact. I’ve avoided chaos and mess but I’ve also given myself space, time to reflect, to process and return. The problem is once I return I find myself still feeling unstable like I can’t trust that the whole thing isn’t going to crumble yet again. So I push and back away. The rest of this post is a pretty explicit account of my past relationships. It could be triggering or disappointing so this is a good place to stop if you worry about that.
For being almost 40, I haven’t actually had many relationships to base my experiences on. I started dating quite young and pretty much jumped into longer term “serious” relationships. It was a critical time when I should have focused on discovering myself and findinging what brought me happiness but instead I felt like happiness was related to a sense of pleasing someone else. It was tied to not being alone and feeling like I was part of a larger community. This would remain a constant theme throughout all of my young adult and adult years.
My first longer relationship was pretty standard in terms of a young teenage relationship. He drove, was interested in things I wasn’t but I gave up my interests for his. His family was lovely and they included me in family dinners and activities. He was also the first person I was sexually active with. I don’t want to paint the wrong impression that I was forced because it wasn’t like that. But we weren’t taught about consent and what that meant. He never asked me if I wanted to and I never said that I didn’t. I don’t actually know what the outcome would have been if we had that discussion but it makes me a little sad to know that it didn’t necessarily have to go the way it did. It did because we were uneducated that there could be another way.
Him and I broke up but not before I “cheated” on him at a party with another male that I sort of knew. I use to say it just happened but experience has taught me that things never just happen. When you partner alcohol (especially underage), low self esteem and little understanding of self this can easily happen. But even then I was already engaging in self-destructive behaviour and I wanted out of a relationship I felt stuck in so this seemed like the perfect way to make it happen. Even then the signs of emotional dysregulation and bipolar disorder were evident. I would later on return to this exact situation for the exact same reasons.
My now ex-husband and I started dating approximately 2 weeks after this relationship ended. We both jumped in with strong intensity. It was a few months before our 18th birthdays and it was a pretty serious “adult” like relationship. I was still a confused, lost young girl with no sense of self, dealing with mental health issues I had no idea were issues.
A year later we were making living arrangements because we had decided to go to the same university. At the time it was exactly what I wanted. Again his family was lovely and included me. I felt a sense of community and the loneliness had ceased. I was building a strong, secure, stable base for the life that I thought I really wanted. But I was still a child, we both were and we didn’t give ourselves space to grow into the adults we weren’t meant to be. We had personal issues neither one of understood in ourselves or each other. Mine were extreme emotional highs and lows and his were anger. The combination together was catastrophic. We kept building the tower because the dream was more important than the underlying issues. He doesn’t like me talking about him on here. He’s asked me not to and I’m torn between wanting to respect his wishes – as he is the co-parent of my children- and wanting to tell my story. He tells me he’s dealt with the things that have happened between us and moved on. I feel like he hasn’t. That he is embarrassed by it and isn’t ready to own it, to be accountable for it and say this is what I am doing to repair harm. I’m also a little envious because if he has actually moved on than what is wrong with me that I’m still so haunted by the things that transpired?
When the tower fell, it fell hard! My ex husband didn’t know (he does now) but I was having an affair and i’ve talked about this before on my blog. I don’t even pretend that it “just happened” because again experience has taught me that nothing just happens. This “relationship” was was with someone I was friends with. He was one half a couple friend. The four of us were close but hindsight shows me that we didn’t actually know each other well, just versions of what we wanted one another to be. I knew the affair was wrong, I can tell you that the communication between us very early on hinted at being inappropriate. A little too flirty, a little too often. I can tell you the exact moment when the interaction definitely crossed the line. It was April. I was out with girlfriends for an overnight trip in Toronto and I posted a photo on my social media where I was wearing red lipstick and felt pretty. A feeling that I didn’t often have about myself. I didn’t exactly know where things would go between us but I did know I was willing to completely let it go wherever it was going to. It was also an adrenaline rush which now I understand was tied to bipolar mania. Again he gave sense strong sense of community. His family was lovely, they included me in activities. We had mutual friends and I felt like those friendship were my whole world. His attention made me feel like I was loved and belonged. But it was still linked to my low self esteem, little understanding of self and mental health issues I didn’t see. I also think it is important to mention that I would tell this person imaginative stories about illicit, sexual relationships I had engaged in with others. But imaginative was the key. They didn’t happen but I realized he wanted me to be the kind of person who did. So again I sacrificed my interests for his.
My tower blew up. It didn’t just collapse but it scattered into thousands of pieces like the small glass cubes when a window shatters. While on vacation with our friends and our respective families my ex would walk into a sexualy compromising situation on the beach between myself and our friends. This collapsed his tower too and his anger response took over and he hit me in the face and when I got out of the ocean he continued and I hit him back this likely caused me to break my hand. I remember falling to the ground hard asking for help and watching the person I thought cared a lot for me walk away with his partner. Once again in that moment I felt very a strong wave of loneliness and I wished the ocean could have swallowed me up to release me from that feeling.
I wish I could say the affair ended at this moment but it didn’t. It would continue for another year or so. It was definitely an imbalance of power and while it didn’t cause my mental health struggles or eventual breakdown it was certainly one of the key pieces.
I use to think that in all of these relationships I lost myself. But the truth is I never actually knew who I was. I was able to shape myself and become who the people I was around needed me to be. That was all.
I’ve been doing a lot of work to build my tower back up again. The process is slow and it certainly isn’t linear. I may build a few pieces, knock some or all down. I repeat the process and learn why it didn’t work that time. I’m learning a lot about myself, my challenges but also my strengths. I have a strong sense of empathy. I see things from all angles and shades. I have a gift for creativity and making my space functional but beautiful. I have a strong motherhood instinct and I’ve created a loving, supportive home for my children. I advocate for their needs and I’ve become confident in the parenting decisions I make. I have a talent for baking and cooking and it’s been trial and error with a lot of of error but that makes me want to do it even more. I have a gift for writing and I’m not afraid to share my story even if it makes people uncomfortable. I say “I refuse to stay quiet so you can stay comfortable.” I’m an advocate for mental health and social justice and I have no space in my life for bigoted and close minded thinking. I’m creating a life that is authentic and at the moment I don’t want surface friendships. There’s a time and a place for that but right now isn’t the time for me.
All of this does have an impact on what it means for me moving forward with a new relationship. I’ve tried dating on and off again and it goes the same way. I sign up or start. I have some interesting interactions and some pleasant. The pleasant ones make me the most uncomfortable so I push back and abandon them. I’m not sure I’m in a place where I can trust that someone isn’t going to inevitably hurt me. Or I’m not going to shape myself into someone I think they want me to be. How do I bring up my past struggles and my mental health. I’ve tried immediately bringing it up but then I’m left feeling too vulnerable. I’ve tried not saying anything but then I feel the weight of a crushing secret. So I don’t actually have an answer at this time. But maybe that’s ok too.