Lessons of a Thirty-something

by Bill Brenner on July 20, 2010

The author is reflecting a lot on things that happened in his 30s.

Mood music: “Lunchbox” by Marylin Manson:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5Fo57AXW3w&hl=en_US&fs=1]

Since my 40th birthday is next month, I’m thinking a lot about the last decade. In many ways, I’m not the same guy I was when I was staring at my 30th birthday. This has been a decade of healing, with a lot of broken scabs along the way.

At the start of my 30s, I started to come undone. The symptoms of what would eventually become an OCD diagnosis suddenly grew in intensity. The binge eating addiction entered a new era of viciousness. Some relationships imploded while others were renewed.

In my early 30s, the OCD manifested itself in some insidious ways. I was obsessed with pleasing people, especially my bosses at The Eagle-Tribune, and my mother. I was also obsessed with keeping my weight down in the face of the binging. So I exercised like a madman. In the process, I was just masking a physical decline.

At 31, I was busy being something I’m not good at — a hard-ass. My bosses demanded it. I would get wound so tight that I became impossible to work with. I was also busy trying to keep my mother and step-father happy, which was almost always impossible, especially when it came to their personalities clashing with that of my wife, who had given birth to Sean a year before.

I celebrated my 31st birthday with my mother, stepfather, in-laws and Erin at the Legal Seafood in the Peabody mall. I didn’t want a cake. My mother went nuts about it, because on someone’s birthday you give them cake. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t want it. She was going to ask the waitress to bring me a cake anyway, but Erin put her foot down, because, as I said, I didn’t want a cake.

The next day, my mother called:

Ma: “I just wanted to apologize for not having a cake for you.”

Me: “But I didn’t want cake.”

Ma: “I tried to get you one, but YOUR WIFE wouldn’t let me.”

It always came back to Erin. She was always the scapegoat for decisions I made that my mother didn’t like. And yet, I pressed on, trying to make everyone happy.

By 2006 I was long gone from The Eagle-Tribune, but was still obsessed with pleasing the masters at TechTarget. And I was still trying to please my mother. It was getting a lot harder to do, since I was two years into therapy, newly diagnosed with OCD and spending a lot of time digging back into an abusive past for clues on how I got the way I did. A lot of it came back to her. And so in the summer of 2006 that relationship broke apart.

Why go on about these things? Because some important lessons emerged from the experiences that were instrumental in my healing.

First, I realized that no matter how hard you try, keeping people pleased is impossible.

Second, I realized that the only way to achieve mental health is to be true to oneself. For me, that meant surrendering to a higher power and dealing head-on with the addictions. It also meant being honest about my limited ability to control OCD without medication.

And while some relationships fell apart, others that were damaged in my 20s started to heal in my 30s, especially in the last year.

To that end, I think of Joy, Sean Marley‘s widow. She’s remarried with kids and has done a remarkable job of pushing on with her life. She dropped out of my world for nearly 14 years — right after Sean’s death — until recently. The contents of our exchange are private, but this much I can tell you: I was wrong all these years when I assumed  she hated my guts and wanted nothing more to do with me.

I have to be careful with this last reconnection. I still have a lot of questions about Sean’s final years and the OCD in me wants to know everything now. If I’m lucky, some answers will come in time. But I’m not going to push. I have no right to.

Besides, simply being reconnected is, as Joe Biden might say, “A big fucking deal.”

I used the Marilyn Manson song above as my mood music today because I think of “Lunchbox” whenever I get angry about my limitations. By the time the song is over, I usually feel a lot better.

But while the kid in the song has his metal lunchbox and is “armed real well,” I got my tools of recovery. So you could say I’m armed much better than that kid.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne July 20, 2010 at 3:40 am

You’ve learned some big lessons much sooner than many others, who are still trying to figure it all out in their 60s or 70s — if they make it to that point.

Martha July 20, 2010 at 9:24 am

I feel guilty sometimes about severing the relationship with my mother but my recovery can not handle her in my life trying to take control of my life.
I can relate to the mother blaming the wife… do you remember the story of Sharon tossing My mother from our house? This is how Sharon was accepted by my father and elevated to rank of” only person to ever stand up to Andrea”.
Erin deserves a metal for standing up to your mother on your behalf !we are lucky to have wives who love us so much!

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