Decision Tree

This is a pretty simple concept. When I was in fifth grade all of the kids in the neighborhood decided we were going to steal alcohol and cigarettes from our parents and throw a little party. Needless to say, my best friend and I were the youngest, 9 and 10, while the other kids were almost in high school. Because they were much older, the told us we should bring the beer and cigarettes. If I remember correctly, I volunteered to bring the cigarettes and my friend stated that he would bring the beer.

Later that night, we met in the middle of the cul de sac, our loot in tow. We ventured out to the woods and began to have our party. I think we might have lit one cigarette and shared a fourth of one beer before a parent found us and the party was busted.

Being the my parents had recently divorced, but continued to always parent on the same page, my mother called my father. Later that night he showed up. I don’t remember much about what happened that night but I do remember sitting on the steps in our entry way talking to my parents. Although I cried the entire time, my parents were not harsh or bitter, only asking me to be as honest as possible about the activities of the evening and who decided what was to be brought to the party.

I didn’t know it at the time, but every other kid involved lied and placed the blame of the evening on me. Apparently I was the one who came up with the idea. I was the one who volunteered to bring the beer and the cigarettes and I was the only one who drank or smoked. Funny…I didn’t remember it that way?

My parents asked me only once, “Are you sure that’s the truth?”, and I answered yes. “If you say it’s the truth, then I believe it’s the truth.” My father said. “We raised you to be honest and I believe we did our job.” There was some discussion about what I thought my punishment should be and then I was dismissed while my parents sat on the front porch and talked about the incident…while drinking a beer.

For the rest of that summer, all of the kids in the neighborhood were unable to play with me because their parents had termed me a “bad influence”. They would ride up and down the street and shout “smoker, smoker” and “drinker, drinker” at me, knowing they had been part of the party as well.

I was 10. During that same summer, my friend and I had been caught by his father dressed in drag in the front yard of my house. My mother took a picture of us, every bit the Kennedy clan in wide brimmed hats, smoking tree twigs as cigarettes. His father had been furious. My mother laughed as our neighbor hauled my friend away while tripping on his long gown.

When I was in high school I got in trouble for another drinking party. While talking to my father over dinner he brought up the incident from the summer of my tenth year. “You know, I was always very proud of you for that night.” He said. “The other kids were rewarded by their parents for lying because those parents couldn’t deal with the fact that their children could possibly engage in such behaviors. They received new hockey equipment and shoes while you were punished for your involvement. Their lies will haunt them.” He told me.

“In life, there is a decision tree. The tree grows into a trunk which supports the rest of the tree. This is the foundation of your morals and values given to you when you are young as well as any of your genetic makeup. Next, we have the branches. Each branch splits in two eventually. Each branch represents choices you make in your life. Each choice leads to two or more choices and so forth. As you grow, your decision tree grows and all of your choices compound on top of one another. I wish I could show you my decision tree, and explain all of the good and poor choices I made in my life so that you could live your life to the fullest based on my experience. Unfortunately, you have to grow your own branches. Your mother and I always understood that which is why that evening, whether you had been telling the truth or not, we knew your choice would ultimately affect mostly your life. One lie would lead to another lie and to another lie. As life moves forwards, those kids who lied that not will display similar behaviors but you will be a finer human being for telling the truth and moving through difficult choices.”

And then he patted my back and the lesson was over.

I won’t bore you by telling you I became one of the most prolific liars this century has ever seen or that I had countless arrests and addiction treatments. I won’t bore you with how I treated people horribly, felt that I was owed something from my family and blamed other people for all of my mistakes. I won’t bore you with the countless drugs I did or how much alcohol and cigarettes I used over the years. I definitely won’t bore you with details about how I didn’t care about others’ feelings for years and only, selfishly, thought about my wants and needs.

But I will tell you that because of those years, I do not behavior in any way like that today. In fact, I attempt to live such a right life by the standards I set for myself that I am completely offended when others challenge these values. About a year ago, a business associate accused Alex and I of lying about how we had witnessed an event and reported it. I won’t dredge up the past because, as I stated, I’ve learned from those behaviors and don’t react the same way today, therefore we are friends again and both apologized for hurting each others’ feelings.

Needless to say, in being called a liar I explained that I was completely offended because that challenged the foundation of my sobriety and my values. If I am a liar, then the rest of it is a scam true; my recovery, my relationships…all of it. I might be a lot of things. But I am not a liar. Those behaviors of yesteryear were my picking the wrong branches to climb. Today, I choose different branches because I’ve learned…and my dad was right. In looking at his choices and the choices of others, and learning from one another, I’ve been allowed to live a better life.

While dissecting your life, ask yourself, Am I happy? Are there things I want to change? Are there things I believe are out of my control? What would I change today that would make me happier?

Now look at your choices!

You have many choices. The fact is not that you don’t have choices. The fact is that you don’t like where your choices lead. Many of us don’t like our choices, but sometimes choices we didn’t want to take led us in the right direction. I had no intention of staying in treatment on December 17, 1994 but by going I’ve been allowed to have the most amazing life possible. While working in treatment, I was adamant I was not going to participate in a new family group therapy program that had been designed, but after making the choice to participate rather than be fired, I learned I loved working with families. I was also forced to do an internship in an inner city elementary school. I begged and pleaded with my dean to let me do another internship, but due to my lack of planning, it was all that was left. During that internship, I met my mentor and had some of the best life change experiences ever!

It is easier to let go than to resist.

That branch was my most important.

My parents were very wise. They knew how to raise me with enough liberty to become the person I was meant to become while guided enough to have the values and morals they had learned would further me the most in this life. They were wise because they never allowed me to see them argue, with the exception of a few occasions, and they never spoke poorly of each other. They never made parenting decision without consulting one another. They did this because they loved me. They were the best parents any kid could wish for in life.

My mother was very, very wise. She never threw anything away in fear of possibly needing it again someday. Downstairs in our basement, right on top of her old Smith-Corona typewriter, sits a gorgeous photograph of the Kennedy sisters, both draped in beautiful dresses, wide-brimmed floppy hats shading their faces as they drink lemonade and smoke cigarette tree branch twigs.

I might post that picture someday…hell, we’re on borrowed time as it is!

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The Love Bus…Finding and Saving Love

When I was a little kid I used to sleep over at my Grandma’s house on Saturday nights. Date nights or lady’s nights for my mom, I guess. My grandma would make me an apple pie and serve me little bottles of Coke. I remember how she always smelled like Charlie perfume, Juicy Fruit and Salem Lights. I loved her apartment because it was small and I could hear the sounds of her neighbors thundering over us as we watched television, usually Lawrence Welk or Hee-Haw. Sometimes we’d sit at her small dinner table and she’d teach me how to play Honeymoon Bridge and I’d sit, mesmerized as she flipped the cards back and forth across her fingers like a Vegas blackjack dealer. My grandma had perfect hands decorated with perfectly painted nails. At the end of the night, she’d put on her light blue nightie and hairnet and take her “cough syrup”. We’d crawl into her twin beds in complete darkness until she flipped on her nightstand table and I’d fall asleep while she quietly read her Harlequin novels.

My grandma had a bookshelf filled with these romance novels. Every cover tantalized me and made me secretly wonder what those couples felt as they looked dreamily into each others’ eyes. Sometimes I’d ask my grandma why she loved these books so much and she’d simply say that I was too young that I wouldn’t understand.

I’ve thought a lot about those books over the years. I’ll even admit I’ve read a few of them. They’re not bad and some of the authors have written hundreds a books; a feat notable for even the smallest of writers. And maybe people read them and write them because they’re looking for a little bit of romance in their lives. But romance is hard to come by and I think sometimes it’s something that we have to work at to have be present in our relationships and even our daily lives.

Recently though, I’ve been surrounded by friends who seem to be having serious relationship issues. Since I’m a therapist, they often tell me about their situations and even ask for advice. Sometimes it’s easier to give advice to strangers or clients who I know through my professional life. And when I look at my friend’s relationships, I’m not really sure what happened. Was it a lack of romance or passion? A lapse in communication or an unwillingness to work through problems which sometimes just requires negotiation and a reminder of what brought you together in the first place. Or maybe, a combination of all of the above.

Why is so hard for us to remember those first few minutes we met the person we fell in love with and what brought us together in the beginning. I’d love to say I have the perfect relationship and we never fight or argue, but that’s just not the case. In fact, we argue quite a bit, but we try to sit down and have adult conversations and reach some kind of negotiation so both our needs are met. The reality is, we are very different people with very different expectations and we don’t always agree. Our goals are not always the same and our interests are as different as the person sitting next to you on the bus. But that doesn’t mean that love can’t be found on the bus, as we both struggle in the heat of the small compartment waiting for our stop. Sometimes, love is found and exists in the most difficult situations because it is our common bonds with each other that gets us through everything. Love endures all.

Why is that so hard to remember?

When I work with couples in relationship therapy, the first thing I typically tell them is that reunification and resolving problems in a relationship is much easier than separation and divorce. Having been through a “divorce” of a nine year relationship, let me be the first to say that separating and dissolving a relationship is miserable, sad and in essence, the end of the magic. In my last relationship, I truly believe if we had sought therapy years before, when the problems arose, we might have been able to save the relationship. But the problems continued and persisted, tension grew and the magic died. And sadly, it couldn’t be saved.

Happily, we’re both in relationship which, I believe, are making us both happy today. But that doesn’t happen for a lot of people. Some people stay in miserable relationships for years without trying to make it better. Or dissolve a relationship never to find love again. And that’s probably, to some degree, why my grandma read those books, night after night. Maybe, she was seeking just a little bit of romance she couldn’t find anywhere else in her life.

As much as I love to read, obsessively at times, there is no book that compares to the comfort of a wink, a hug or a kiss. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll buy one of those old romance novels and remember my grandma Ethel a little bit while reading it. But tonight, I’ll close my eyes and smile, listening to my boyfriend breathe softly as he falls asleep, because that is love. And we should love and hold onto love while we can…because we’re on borrowed time as it is!