Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Now I’m thinking of a new relationship that’s crumbled, and I wonder why. This is my relationship with Evan, and where do I start? I guess where I left a message asking him if he was disengaging from our friendship, because he used to call me right back but now it takes forever, even though I’d said several times that he could call anytime and leave a message -- it doesn’t stress me out if it takes us forever to reach one another in person, I just like hearing what’s going on. And then he left a message saying he sent a letter to my mailbox place, and sure enough there it was.

The letter basically said that yes, he has been disengaging, and that it’s happened because he’s become overwhelmed by my requests for help with household tasks at various times, and that “these small gestures greatly impact my ability to show up and be your friend.” The weirder part of the letter, though, said “I need our relationship to change. I would be so happy to attend your readings and to visit with you in social spaces we share.” We don’t share any social spaces, and I’m not doing any readings at least until the fall because I’m too exhausted and Evan knows both of these things. So I felt like he was saying that he wanted to end our relationship, a friendship that’s felt soft and comforting in a lot of ways, and more or less without tension, because he was feeling overwhelmed by helping me with relatively small tasks, tasks that are day-to-day activities for most people but that often become disastrous pain overload messes for me.

It’s certainly true that I’ve asked Evan to help me with these things more than I’ve asked most people, because he’s seemed interested in helping, and that’s one of the things I’ve appreciated about our relationship but of course it can change. So I called him up and said thanks for your letter, and of course I don’t want you to feel like hanging out with me is a “work-like experience,” which was the way he’d described it in the letter, so maybe we can just go through all the things that feel overwhelming and we don’t have to do any of them. So then we talked, and we went through all the various activities, and we crossed off anything that he thought was stressful -- we talked through a few items, and Evan mentioned the things he wouldn’t mind doing and it felt like we were both emotionally engaged and I even said that the end of the letter made me sad because it felt like he wanted to end our relationship and he said that yes, he had regretted that last sentence afterwards.

And we talked about taking the bus, which is one thing that he mentioned a long time ago that he never wanted to do because it stresses him out, and I acknowledged that I hadn’t really listened to that request because it’s so hard for me to imagine getting places without taking the bus, but now I certainly understand that it’s important to avoid -- the only thing to realize is that I can’t really walk anywhere with my bag, and so if we’re walking then I do need help with my bag and he said he’d thought about that, and that was something he was comfortable with -- and that he was fine with taking the bus from time to time, since often it makes the most sense and taking cabs everywhere would be a bit strange and since he rides his bike maybe we could meet at our destination more often.

We went over a few items for clarity, and I mentioned that usually when I request help with something I leave him a message ahead of time, and that the reason I do that is so that he can say no, but maybe he hasn’t realized that. And so he said that sometimes he might like to help with something, but he’ll offer and I asked if it would be okay to request help in an emergency, and he said yes, of course that would be fine. And we decided that we would talk about transportation ahead of time, so that it didn’t become something stressful when we were hanging out. And I said that these conversations don’t really stress me out, so in the future it wouldn’t bother me at all if you wanted to bring these kinds of things up -- even though it would be much better for me in person, I can do it on the phone too, but I guess a letter feels kind of distant. And he said it was hard for him to bring these kinds of things up, that sometimes it’s intimidating talking to me because I ask a lot of questions, and so a letter felt easier.

And then at the end of the conversation I asked if there was anything else that was making him feel disengaged, and he said no, there’s nothing else, and he sounded lighthearted about it like he felt an emotional lift and I felt glad too, but also strange like I was facilitating the conversation and that part is okay because it’s something that I’m good at, but what was the strange part? Oh -- like I was the one doing the work to get him to speak to me, which also feels familiar.

And then we didn’t talk for a week and a half or so but it didn’t feel strange, I mean neither of us called for whatever reason, and then I called to make plans to hang out, and he didn’t call back for a few days so I called again, and then another few days went by and I started to feel like something was strange, so I called back again but he didn’t call and I decided to wait. And then eventually he called and left a message that said, more or less: “I’m sorry, but I’m unable to be in contact with you right now. I think about you all the time, and I’m filled with love.”

The first part sounded like the language of an automated message -- no information really. I mean, why is he unable to be in contact right now? Because he’s overwhelmed with other things? Because he wasn’t able to say what he was really feeling, and he wants to wait until that’s possible? Of course my head can circle around an endless array of possibilities-- and it does, honey, it does. But really -- couldn’t Evan give me more information? Do I really care whether he thinks about me all the time, and what does it mean that he’s filled with love during this thinking process?

Then there’s the 12-step side of things, I’m trying to avoid the 12-step side but here it is hitting me over the head again. Formulaic recovery language -- certainly in the letter, but especially with this message. He’s in Al-Anon -- he grew up with alcoholic parents, then lived with his father and more or less took care of himself and kind of his father too, and I could be wrong but my understanding of Al-Anon is that it’s about breaking the pattern of trying to take care of people when they’re not taking care of you, and so then I wonder if that’s how he feels about me? And I wonder why he can’t tell me. And I wonder if that’s what the program says -- not to worry about me, I don’t matter.

I’m starting to hate these programs, even while I’m trying not to. I know a lot of people in Al-Anon, for example, and sure, from time to time I hear formulaic new-agey generalizations that sound like they come right out of the Al-Anon book, but we all make generalizations, right? Some of these people are the most grounded people I know, so I’ve tried to listen to the smart parts and ignore the rest and not make my own generalizations.

It’s strange, because Evan has been one of the most supportive people about Derek, who cut off our 16-year relationship because I told him that he was the most important person in my life, and that I felt totally confident about our intimacy and trust and the longevity of our relationship, but I never felt secure, because of the five year period when he was a disastrous alcoholic and lied about everything -- and then he cut me off, just like that, and without even telling me really. Of course, Derek is in AA and I’ve asked Evan if that behavior feels like program behavior -- it triggers Derek that I tell him whatever, and so he can just throw me in the trash, as long as he stays sober. And Evan has said yes, that is a possible interpretation, but not the appropriate response. And, more importantly, Evan has supported me in my feelings that here was a relationship based on a system of values and norms centering around accountability, negotiation, and mutuality, and now it kind of feels like Evan is throwing me away too. I mean I don’t know --maybe I’m being melodramatic -- maybe Evan is just saying he wants some time away to think through his thoughts, but if that’s true I wish he would tell me. Do I want to be friends with someone who refuses to tell me what’s going on? I left him a message saying that I would love more clarity; I didn’t necessarily expect him to reply, and he hasn’t yet.

Of course, my relationship with Evan is entirely different than the one I had with Derek. This is a recent relationship, although I guess it’s lasted at least three years, so maybe it’s not as recent as I was thinking. It’s always been intimate, but also casual. That’s part of the reason I asked him if he was disengaging -- it felt like he was backing away, and I wanted to know if we were going to get closer. We never talked about what our friendship meant, and maybe we should have. But it felt sweet and supportive -- sure, maybe there were times when I pushed him to help me with some task when I could tell he was tired, because sometimes I start to feel a bit desperate about the things I can’t do. Sure, there were times when I felt like he was asking an endless array of questions and I wasn’t even sure he was listening to the answers. There were times when there was such a gap between the ways we experience the world that it was almost hard to translate -- sometimes I felt like a challenge, but not really a problem. And sure, I didn’t totally listen when he said he didn’t want to take the bus. But I also gave a lot -- intellectually, emotionally, in terms of time and energy and openness. In certain situations -- like giving advice about relationships -- I definitely sensed that my feedback meant a great deal. I felt like we were both taking risks in certain ways -- risks with physical intimacy, listening, supporting each one another on the other’s terms and that felt loving. I guess I assumed we were operating under some model based around accountability and trust and negotiation, but now I’m not so sure.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that when people first start various 12 Step programs there is the "re-programming" period and it can take a while (years maybe) to step out of the evangelization phase.

On the other hand some groups and sponsors have major control issues. A friend of mine's AA sponsor is also her financial planner and married to her husband's sponsor...TERRIFYING! They call it "honesty" and "structure."

Sorry to hear about your friendship troubles. Somehow, I can't interact with you and "I am filled with love" don't seem very connected to one another.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Wow, I want that financial planner I mean husband I mean structure...

Thanks for the support!!!!!

Love --

davka said...

this is definitely connected to "recovery." It has been my experience that people in "recovery" are taught that it's ok to be very cowardly and to live in a fight or flight mindframe where everyone is defined by what you can and cannot handle. the sad thing is I think this cannot handle fucking run behaviour is always the beginning of the cycle of relapse.

and yes, the most important thing is their sobriety- it doesn't matter who they shit on.

argh. i will come back and re-read this again and try to be less cynical.

your writing about this and your communication skills and openness are beautiful and clear and sane and inspiring.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Davka, I love your description of "cannot handle fucking run behaviour" -- so true!

Al-Anon confuses me in this way, because the "sobriety" isn't the avoidance of liquor, drugs, etc., but the avoidance of a certain kind of relationship...

And no need to be less cynical :)

And thank you for your beautiful and direct and intimate engagement!

Love --

Anonymous said...

From your last post:

"What is the point of creating a chosen family if it always falls apart? What is the point of creating friendships if there’s no commitment to process when issues come up?"

Sorry to hear about Evan, Mattilda. I too have apparently just lost another member of my chosen family- he's been my brother for over 15 years. Unlike Evan, he hasn't had the courage (or the kindness) to respond when I tell him I sense he's pulling away. He just says, "What are you talking about? Everything's fine, I just need a few days." Then he doesn't contact me again. After the 3rd iteration of that particular interaction, I decided to allow myself to grieve the loss of another member of my chosen family.

What's the point indeed.

This one really threw me for a loop, because we didn't have an official "falling out". I guess we "grew apart" as people say although to me that doesn't sound like growth. This is a person I thought I could always count on to just...be there. Even though we've lived in different cities for years, all it ever took was a single phone call and I would be by his side if he needed me, and vice versa. And now the coward doesn't even have the decency to tell me "I'm just not that into you".

Part of me wants to MAKE him say it because I know he just wants me to fade away. But I don't want to let him off that easy. Not after 15 years. He can at least feel uncomfortable for the few moments it takes to tell me that the last 15 years were plenty, thank you, but he needs to move on to greener pastures. But really, what's the point? I love the guy, so I won't do that.

Is it naive to believe in family of choice? I'm starting to think so. Maybe we should call it something else that doesn't involve the word "family". Families suck, so maybe that's what's jinxing it.

Sending hugs to you from a distant place.


mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Elian, that's how I feel about Derek -- we never had a falling out, and he never even told me he wasn't speaking to me, he just wasn't!

Oh, these people...

And I entirely agree about the word "family" -- families are horrible, I've stopped using the phrase "chosen family" for the most part, although I still hope for something, whatever it is...

And yes, hugs hugs hugs from the distance, up close!

Love --