All I could see was red. That’s what happened when my freshman college English professor Mrs. Nesselhof handed back an essay I and my classmates had been assigned to write. In that instant, when I saw all those red marks, I felt a “Scarlet I” had been imprinted on my chest and definitely in my mind. The “I” stood for INCOMPETENT! Now I had proof. I can’t write. The grade was irrelevant, probably a C or C-, but the message was not. So, so many red marks!

Fifty years later, I have not been able to erase the red stain from my memory. It has nestled itself in the recesses of my brain. To excavate it would mean major surgery, and I’m not sure I want to go that route. I just have to deal with it.

The Fragility of a Young Mind

I share this moment because we all need to be conscious of the fragility of young people’s minds. I am sure Mrs. Nesselhof was doing her best to let me know I could write better than I did. She had high standards and wanted me to perform at that level. But all those red marks did not propel me to the higher level she aspired for all her students. Instead they sent me straight into the halls of insecurity, a place from which I have struggled to escape for lo these many years.

Going back even farther, I have a vague recollection from high school. I was one of a few chosen seniors to prepare for the English Advanced Placement test. If I tested well, I could get placed in a more advanced English class in college. For some reason, as we prepped for the test, I was dropped from the group. I was never clearly informed as to why, but obviously my writing didn’t make the grade. My writing just wasn’t good enough.

A Way Around It

In an effort to succeed, I shifted my focus from English to foreign languages. I first chose French and later Russian. I figured I might be better able to communicate in a foreign language than in my own Mother tongue. It’s convoluted, I know. To communicate in another language you have so much to deal with—the mechanics of the language, the vocabulary, and the culture. What was I thinking? The mind is a curious thing. I could somehow handle all the red marks on those papers. After all, I was in the process of learning the language. I could forgive myself for my mistakes.

After I graduated from college, my initial goal was to become a translator. Using money my grandmother left me in her will, I studied French in Geneva, Switzerland, for a year and then French and Russian in Paris, France for the next year. During the summer in between I studied Russian with a group of American college students in what was at that time called the Soviet Union. After my two years abroad, I came home and enrolled in a Masters program in Russian Language and Literature. No longer wanting to be a translator, I set my sights on becoming a professor of Russian literature. Sounds impressive, but I graduated feeling I still had much more to learn in order to be fluent in Russian and to qualify as a professor.

A Detour

After my first year in the Masters program, I got a job as a Russian analyst at the National Security Agency (NSA). It may sound cool that I secured a Top Secret clearance and was doing work using Russian, but NSA and I were not meant to be together. Alas, deciphering intercepted, always garbled, Russian telephonic messages was something I could not do day in and day out. The blinds in the office were always closed because it was believed a scruffy band of Russians might be hiding in a copse of trees not far from our building. Why? They might be targeting laser beams at our windows. With those beams they could intercept our conversations. By shutting the blinds, we could not only block their efforts but the sunshine from our daily life. Did anyone ever see those Russians? Not while I was there!

I had accepted the NSA job to help pay for my schooling. In my naiveté I must have thought using Russian in a job like that would help me cement my knowledge of the language. In hindsight I discovered it wasn’t the language I was so enamored with. It was the stories written by those 19th century authors like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and the torrid relationships they described.

Returning to English

After two years of being sequestered in a windowless room, listening to conversations that showed no signs of espionage, I resigned. That’s when I ended up writing English again. My first stop was a non-profit organization, where I wrote four- to six paged single-spaced, typewritten letters to clients. In an effort to cut corners, the boss didn’t want staff making long-distance telephone calls. This was in the mid-1970s when each minute of a long-distance call cost money. My colleague and I had to resort to writing letters.

The job entailed helping people write grants to private foundations. Since grant applications can be complex, especially when describing ideas that may only be in their formative stage, my letters had to convey creative ways that would help clients make a convincing argument for their project’s need for financial support. This meant I had to write clearly and in an organized fashion. Mrs. Nesselhof never entered my mind. If I was going to keep that job, I had to write those letters and on an IBM Selectric typewriter no less.

My next move was with a higher education association—a move that led me to working in four professional associations during the next 15 years. Each job required me to write countless agendas, meeting minutes, letters, convention programs and even a published magazine article. The writing seemed so straightforward that I never questioned my ability to write. I analyzed, synthesized and summarized issues as well as other people’s writing.

One memorable moment was when one association president called me into his office regarding a letter I had written on his behalf. The intent of the letter was to counter another association president’s opinion on the issue of higher education accreditation. I thought he was going to criticize how I worded the letter. I was shocked to discover he wanted to compliment me on how diplomatically I conveyed his perspective. My fear of his criticism showed me just how stealthily Mrs. Nesselhof lived in my psyche.

If I Had Just Listened to My Mother

Writing this blog causes me to remember the several times my mother said I ought to write. When I was a child, she instilled the notion of writing thank you letters to anyone who gave me a gift. Each letter I wrote was always personal and conversational. I would take time to think about the gift, what it meant to me, how I was going to use it, and thank the giver for his/her thoughtfulness in giving this specific gift to me. She saw something in my thank you notes that was worth encouraging.

She, of course, was my mother and what do mothers know? Once I met Mrs. Nesselhof, I concluded my mother was just plain biased. Now, 50 years later, I wish I had heeded her encouragement. Here I am writing this blog and feeling vulnerable. I’ve gained confidence over the years, but the specter of Mrs. Nesselhof shows up periodically to nudge me to higher heights and also to question how competent I am. Someday I’ll tell her to “sit on a tack,” but until I do, I guess I’ll just keep writing.

Starving and Obsessed

May 13, 2016

As a Tarot card reader, I am given the privilege of hearing people’s deepest desires, searing hurts and glorious dreams. I am honored to be privy to such intimacies.  In the searing hurts category, many come with a broken heart or one that is breaking.  More often than not I wish I could wave a magic wand and say, “You’re healed.”  But it doesn’t work that way.

Countless times people come to me stunned.  Someone they shared intimacies with has now blocked their calls and  texts. That “other person” has vanished without a goodbye or any indication they’ve chosen to recede into the annals of the past.  No discussion, no declaration that “We’re done here!”, no leaving in a huff.

This, to me, is a cowardly, despicable act, and it is so painful to the one on the receiving end.  Maybe the best way to describe the anguish my clients feel is being thrown out of a moving car and left by the side of the road—pretty much like roadkill.  The one left behind asks repeatedly, almost addictively, “What did I do? Why has this happened to me?”

The most asked question clients who’ve been through this scenario want answered is “Will I get back together with him/her?  Is there a chance?”  Some of the more wounded will bark, “That person will never find anyone as good as I am!”  Angry and bereft, they’re left starving for something they thought they had and obsessed with the disbelief they don’t.

The answer is not as simple as many would believe.  Subtleties, nuances and denial come into play.  By the time someone in this state of anguish comes to me, it’s likely it’s not the first time this has happened.  So, what transpired for this to happen again…and again?

Jumping the Gun

Perhaps it’s haste in making a judgment.  I, too, have had such experiences.  Finally with the help of a therapist I discovered I was the common denominator in each scenario.  Switching my focus from blaming the other person to taking responsibility was not a pretty picture.  You might think it was easy to flip the switch, but it wasn’t.

I had to ask myself, “What caused me to pick the wrong person time and time again?”  First, I had to accept that I PICKED the person.  How could this be?  I was always looking for that magical zing.  The zing consisted mainly of the externals.  Was he good looking?  Did he have a good job?  Was he fun to be with?  Was he nice?  When I would meet a Mr. X, the zing had to be there and pretty instantaneously.  I concluded I wasn’t the one choosing Mr. X, but rather it was just a synchronous, albeit magical, encounter.

For the longest time I couldn’t admit I was making a choice based on external factors without getting better acquainted with the internal factors, the true makeup of his character.  I would attach myself to a person I didn’t really know.  I’ve since discovered it takes time to know someone—to really know.

Patterns Set By Our Parents

Now, this is where it gets tricky.  A good therapist can help you see how patterns set by your parents play a role.  For me, my father left an indelible imprint—he died when I was 10.  As an adult I would consistently choose partners who couldn’t be there for me either emotionally or physically or both.

Subconsciously the unavailable man was attractive to me.  I told myself that if I couldn’t keep my father alive, perhaps I could keep my relationships alive with the unavailable man.  I would do this with what therapists call—manipulation.  Unbeknownst to me until I finally wised up, I used manipulation as one of tools in my arsenal to hold onto a relationship.  When I did this, I was a shocked to discover I wasn’t being true to myself.  And I was  exhausted doing this time after time.

The Big Kahuna—I Must Not Be Worthy

The biggest reveal I learned from all this was my sense of self-worth.  If asked whether I was worthy of a wonderful, loving relationship, I would respond without hesitation that I am.  All my clients are, too.  But the subconscious is a stealthy predator.  For reasons we don’t always know, our subconscious self tells us we aren’t and then keeps directing us to the choices that are the perfect fit for fulfilling our diminished sense of self-worth.  For me, that would be choosing the unavailable man time and again.

For most of us, it takes time to understand this.  As our awareness grows, the kinds of choices that didn’t work for us in the past are not worth hanging onto.  We can choose to no longer passively stand by and wait for the other person to direct the relationship.  Instead we decide for ourselves and take whatever steps are necessary to end an unhealthy relationship.  In fact, once we’ve figured it out and we are ready to engage in a healthy relationship, the available partner will show up.  Not always on our timeline, but at a time and in a way that works best for both parties.

 Why Can’t We Bypass All This?

It turns out we all come into this life with specific lessons to learn.  These painful relationships are a catalyst for us to grow physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  The sooner we get the lesson of each painful experience, we can move on.  Other lessons await us.  We progress.

Sometimes, though, we get only a piece of the lesson.  We may feel as if we are back where we started.  We aren’t.  Through each experience in intimate relationships we become more aware of our role in that situation.  We have choices at all times.  Knowing this, we are empowered to change, for the better, for ourselves.

Many people are averse to taking responsibility for what occurs in their life.  Looking within doesn’t seem to be an option.  After all, it’s got to be the other guy’s fault.  Introspection, however, is a necessary step to seeking and keeping a happy, healthy relationship.  Gaining awareness as to why we make the choices we make is essential.  A Tarot card reading can help us go within when we are in a relationship turmoil, or when we are ending or beginning one.

No Response is A Response

October 21, 2014

Have you ever written someone an e-mail message asking a question and never gotten a response?  Or left a voice mail message requesting a call-back?  I can answer a resounding “Yes!” to both.  In most cases the person I am writing to knows me.  We have been friends or had a business relationship, and he or she has never expressed dissatisfaction regarding our connection.  This kind of communication roadblock drives me crazy.

I agree we’re all bombarded by texts, e-mails and voice mail.  No matter what, I still think I merit a response.  One therapist I went to a long time ago, when I was bemoaning a man I was dating who hadn’t called me back, told me the scoundrel had answered me.  It’s called “No Response” or as Greg Berendt and Liz Tucillo so aptly titled their book He’s Just Not That Into You, The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys.  

I must be delusional, because I thought those people I wrote to or called were into me enough to write or call me back.  I thought they were into me enough to open and read the e-mail I sent, but my best friend informs me they probably deleted it before opening it.  That shocked me.  And, of course, it could have even gone into their Spam folder.  This saddens me more than I am willing to admit.

Why Be Sad?

But, why be sad?  Perhaps one reason is that I gave more meaning to a relationship than it was due.  I feel deeply enough about the interactions I have had with a person that it feels worth holding onto.  In the past I credited myself as a good judge of character.  I thought I knew when a particular relationship was worth my time and energy.  Lately, though, that’s all changing.  Relationships I considered close are not so close.  People’s interests are shifting.  Demands on our time are relentless.

I keep thinking there’s more to it.  When people don’t respond to e-mail messages I send just to them, I start questioning the nature of the relationship.  Somewhere along the way a judgment was made and I wasn’t in on it.  The other person has moved onto other things more tantalizing, fulfilling, and worthwhile, or new demands, even a crisis, may have usurped their time.  He or she no longer sees the need to pump energy into our relationship.  Here’s what’s so disconcerting:  The decision probably wasn’t conscious or arbitrary.

It reminds me of a buffet.  The buffet’s first course has been well picked over and now a second, more delectable course replaces it.  Those people I wanted to hear back from have gotten up to get the second course.  Meanwhile, I’m still eating the servings I loaded on my plate from the first.  I’m not ready to return to the buffet table for the second course.  Or worse, the helpings I took when the first course was served were just too big.  If I had taken smaller portions, I could have gone back for the second round when the others did.

Decision by Others

What troubles me the most is other people’s decision to move on without some sort of closure, without informing me things are changing and what we have will be different from what we had.  This makes me remember the day I came home from school (I was ten) and learned my father had left our house on a stretcher by ambulance.  A neighborhood friend, someone I wasn’t even that close with, told me she had witnessed his departure.  No one told me this would happen.  How could someone else I didn’t even know that well see what I should have seen?

My father hadn’t been feeling well all summer and couldn’t join me for Father’s Day at day-camp.  He was beginning to spend a lot of time in bed away from his medical practice as an obstetrician/gynecologist.  Unbeknownst to me, he was diagnosed with cancer and it was progressing.  Occasionally other doctors would come to the house to see him.  Since I knew these doctors as my parents’ friends, I thought the visits were meant to give support, not to diagnose the progress of his disease.

Things started changing.  Out of the ordinary gestures became routine.  Instead of my mother driving us to school, one of my brother’s classmates picked us up each morning.  People brought casseroles to the house.  Friends stopped by for no apparent reason.  Relatives started showing up.  I thought I heard people whispering, but no audible sounds were heard.  Something was being said, and I knew deep-down it wasn’t good.

Time to Move On

My mother made decisions that affected my two brothers and me.  She took us twice to visit my father during the four weeks of his hospital stay.  The second and last visit was the most disturbing.  One part of his hospital bed was tilted so he appeared sitting up.  An oxygen tent–something I had never seen before I walked into his room–encased him.  I remember he was lucid and carried on a normal conversation, but nothing about the visit was normal.  I couldn’t hug him, kiss him or snuggle up to him.  He was untouchable.  I didn’t understand it.  I was ten, unable to ask questions or figure out what was going on.

On October 13, 1958, my father died.  I knew my father was ill, but I didn’t know he was dying.  No one informed me his situation was so dire.  How could this have happened?  What happened?  If only I had known, perhaps I could have done something about it.  I would have written him letters that might have consoled him.  Or I would have asked to visit him more.  Perhaps I could have been a participant, rather than a side-lined child.  More importantly, perhaps I could have prepared myself for a loss that has colored my entire life.

Those same feelings of being a side-lined child surface today when people don’t answer my e-mails, calls or letters.  I am aware something is no longer as it was, but no one told me what that is.  People are so busy.  Finding the time to let me know that a situation or a level of relationship has changed is not their priority.  I can ask.  I can keep sending e-mails or make repeated calls, but when the answer is “No Response,” I must remember what my therapist said long ago, “No Response is A Response.”  I must somehow come to terms with the silence, accept what is, and let it go.  I know it’s time to move on and be open to what presents itself to me now.

Communication Subtleties

November 26, 2013

I sent my long-time friend a book I thought she would like. She had moved away more than a year ago. Six weeks passed and I hadn’t heard from her. I finally sent her an e-mail asking if she got it. Yes, yes, she did. She thought she had written me. No, no e-mail was sent. It stung.

I sent another friend the DVDs from the final two seasons of a mini-series I had introduced her to. I had been waiting until we got together, so I could hand them off to her. The get-together never happened, so I sent them to her. It turns out she watched the remaining two seasons on Netflix and thought she had told me. No, no she didn’t. It stung.

What happened to common courtesy?

Both relationships have held a lot of meaning for me. I’ve known my long-time friend for more than 40 years, the other for seven. In both cases, we’ve shared intimate details of our lives. I know their families, and I felt close to both of them. I thought they considered me a close friend as well. They probably still do.

Fine Points Worth Noting

My initial reaction was to stop initiating and pull back. I had to think about it more. After all, I am the common element in both equations.

My gestures of sending both the book and DVDs were well-intentioned. To my long-time friend I sent a brief note, saying I hoped she would enjoy the book. We had talked about the author, and she expressed interest in her work. But, here’s the fine point: I never asked her if she would let me know when she got it or, in fact, how she liked it once she read it. In hindsight, I guess no request for a response requires no response. I just expected she would let me know.

With my other friend, we had talked about the mini-series and how much she enjoyed Season 1. When we last spoke she was moving slowly through the episodes of Season 2. I had given her Season 3 and expected to hear from her when she completed it in anticipation of my giving her Seasons 4 and 5. No word ever came. I went ahead and sent her the remaining two seasons.

I looked forward to sharing our impressions of the characters, story, and acting. That sharing never happened. In fact, it seemed like a double-slight to learn that she had watched the remaining seasons on Netflix, when I said I would lend her them when she was ready. Here’s the fine point: I never requested she let me know her impressions or how she was progressing through the series. Again, I just expected she would share.

Healthy Interpretations

I wanted something from each friend—acknowledgement and appreciation. Only after I prompted them did a response come. The fact that these two incidents occurred in fairly close succession gave me pause. I started asking myself: Did they hold me as close as I was holding them? Probably not. Were they on to other things? Had these friendships lost a few degrees of intimacy? Probably yes, on both counts.

Even though both friendships still exist, their hue does not shine as bright for me. I felt a loss. Although no one has left anyone, I felt like I was the one left behind. Both women are married, rich in friends, interests and activities. One has moved far away, and the other doesn’t live all that close to me. Could proximity be another reason things changed? I wasn’t sure.

I’ve given serious thought to all of this and came to a few conclusions. All things, especially friendships, have a season. People come into our lives for a reason. When the reason has been fulfilled, the season has been completed. That’s just the way it is. The key for me is to see each friendship for what it was and is. When it no longer mutually serves both parties, it’s time to let it go where it needs to go—onto the back burner of my life. That doesn’t mean we don’t connect anymore. The connections become less frequent, less intimate, a few less fingers touch the pulse of the other person’s life.

In the past I would feel the loss and stew in the rancor of my perception of being left behind, wondering what happened and feeling pained by absent responses. Now I understand the purposelessness of wallowing in these emotions. It’s up to me to acknowledge the change, grieve the loss and open myself to life’s offerings and opportunities.

Contrast

Right about the same time I sent the previously mentioned items to my two friends, I sent a gift to another friend, who lives several hours away from my home. The package was intended as a surprise. Upon receiving it, she wrote me a quick e-mail to tell me she got it and how much she loved it! Her response was a sharp contrast to the ones I’ve already mentioned. Her enthusiasm was palpable even in a short e-mail message. Apparently proximity doesn’t have anything to do with friendship. If someone cares about you, s/he will let you know.

Where does that leave me? Moving on…where the energy is flowing, where it feels good and where the relationship is mutually beneficial. One of my favorite authors Eric Butterworth clarified the whole situation when he wrote, “Sometimes the best way to get along with people is to get along without them. Let go…and walk on.” After writing this blog, I am ready to walk forward and that feels good.

I was recounting my tale of woe to a friend at lunch. My weekly “bread-and-butter” client decided she no longer needed my services. Suffering from dementia at age 86, she had been declining for several months. After six-and-a-half years of working together, the situation had gone toxic.

I knew our time together was winding down. You may be familiar with a similar scenario. You know you should make alternative plans, but what those plans are are clouded over by dealing with the present situation. Then a step is taken. And that’s what happened. A step was taken but not by me. The story I relayed to my friend was laced with concern. How was I going to find new business to replace what she provided?

About two minutes into my tale, my friend decided to steer the conversation into a more positive direction. “Let’s look at the positive side of things. There’s a lot to be grateful for.” Whoa! Wait a minute! I hadn’t finished my story. Her comments brought me up short. I still needed to explain how I felt and what I was going through. My friend’s effort to change the focus made it clear she didn’t want to hear any more of that side of the story. This made me wonder, “Was I complaining?” or “Was I working it out?”

Conversation is an exchange. The good listener has as much responsibility for the conversation as the speaker. If both want a worthwhile exchange, it means both walk away feeling they have been heard by the other. This means each must be allowed to speak her piece and not only listen to her partner but hear the whole message being conveyed. Sometimes what is not said is the real message. All the cues, both verbal and nonverbal, must be communicated and interpreted accurately. So, questions, feedback and mirroring are necessary tools for good communication.

In the days that followed the lunch I thought more about the incident. This is what I came up with:

I need time to dissect a situation, especially a painful one. I do most of my dissecting when I discuss a situation with a close friend. Close friends tell the truth and want the best for me. Our conversations allow me to articulate out loud (not in my head) how I interpret a situation. My close friends listen carefully to what I say and how I say it. They question me when I need to be questioned and support me when I need support. Through these conversations I gain clarity and self-confidence that I am handling or have handled a situation to the best of my ability—or that perhaps I could have handled it better.

Dissecting a situation may take several iterations. Close friends hang in there. They catch the nuances of change—whether I’ve moved forward or back or whether the situation has been altered. From my perspective, these iterations do not constitute complaining. Instead, it’s a working-out of the situation. How can I take the best care of myself? How can I handle a dicey situation with the highest level of professionalism? compassion? diplomacy? How can I assert myself when I haven’t been up to now? These are the kinds of questions I try to answer while “writhing,” or at least that’s how it feels, in a painful or difficult situation.

I had to make a judgment. Something I said triggered my friend’s discomfort. Why did she stop me midway in my story? She took control of the conversation and steered it to a more palatable topic—“look at the positive side of things.” I was caught off-guard. Should I have called her on it or let it go? I hadn’t finished what I wanted to say, yet if I bucked her and continued with my story, I thought it would sound as if I were complaining. She had shifted the focus and was ready to solve the problem. But what was the problem? For me, the problem was grappling with my fears. Would I find enough new business to sustain me? I knew she couldn’t solve that one.

A whole series of questions flooded the back of my mind: Was she a close enough friend to tell her how I really felt? Up to this point I had thought so. How do I expose my feelings without being adversarial or confrontative? Did I really want to regurgitate this story to someone who didn’t want to hear it? Would letting her know how I interpreted this exchange be worth the effort?

In the end I let it lie. It didn’t seem worth it. Instead I simply noted an unsatisfactory exchange between my friend and me. Maybe she was consumed with her own concerns and didn’t feel comfortable sharing them with me. Maybe something in her subconscious reared its ugly head and blocked our discussion. Maybe she was tired of hearing another iteration of my story. It’s all second-guessing, and that’s a waste of time.

What I gleaned from this exchange was clarity. Was I complaining or venting? My friend may have heard my laments as complaining, and complaining can be tiring, especially to the listener. The dictionary defines complaining as expressing grief, pain or discontent. According to Webster, I was complaining; however, I see my laments as the first step on the continuum of change. I had to vent my concerns. I needed a witness to listen as I worked my way through the muck of a painful situation. It was imperative for me to grieve a six-and-a-half year business relationship before I pick myself up and move on. For me, talking about it means grieving it.

You ask, “How long do you continue to complain or vent before moving on?” Probably not until the pain subsides. However, talking about it forever and ever is not going to help me either, but talking about it to grieve the pain and clarify my next steps seems valuable. Choosing the friends who can hang in there with me while I work it out is important, too. In the end, it’s a process.

Bev Hitchins © 2012