Fortress Around My Heart

After four posts the prior week and dealing with the death of my uncle, I completely missed my weekly post last week. Time to get back on the horse.

Today, I want to talk about losing perspective after a loss, and how difficult it can be to regain it. As I mentioned earlier, when we lost Benjamin I basically went about not acknowledging how deeply I was hurt. I tried to carry on and put on a good face in hopes of convincing myself that I was OK. The depth of the denial made the pain go on much too long, and it would prove to hurt much more than my recovery.

I wrote a few weeks ago that I have a tendency to build walls around my emotions to avoid being hurt. I built an extra wall when we lost Benjamin. Six years later, when The Kid was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for 10.5 weeks after his birth and my wife was in the regular ICU for a couple of days, I was in great fear of losing one or both. In my typical fashion, I built yet another wall around the feelings.

I mentioned in that same post that I’ve had a recent “How’s that working for you?” moment that called that tactic into question. But while that covered the topic in general and noted that I’m now trying to fix it, I want to talk more about the years in between building the wall and the start of the attempt to dismantle it. The walled-off years. Specifically, I want to talk about the toll that it takes. If you are in this box now, I hope that I can show you that you need to get the hell out of the box now before it causes more damage.

So The Kid had been in tough shape while in the NICU, and we were both very scared for his well-being. The NICU staff did a wonderful job, and we quickly worked ourselves into his care routine and made sure that we were well-informed about his conditions, treatments, and so forth. When he finally came home, he had to go right back in the next week for hernia surgery. My fears were reinforced. I was afraid that we’d just have problem after problem and we’d eventually lose him too.

My wife’s mothering instincts went into overdrive, and she slowly formed a kind of protective bubble around The Kid. He was her entire reason for being. My sublimated fear of loss provided enough oomph to make me back out of a co-primary role in his care, letting me become comfortable with playing the backup role, deferring to my wife on all matters of care and diagnosis, and in many ways avoiding sufficient bonding with him. Instead, I found other things to occupy my time and concentration.

Backing out may have been easy for me, but it came at a tremendous cost. Not only did I deprive myself of the full measure of enjoyment of my son, I deprived him of the full measure of my presence in his life.

While I kept saying “I’ll do that someday,” I kept putting things off until I wasn’t sure if I could still do them. For example, I was going to do a special baby book detailing all of the preemie problems that we had to conquer, and including notes to him from his NICU nurses, etc. That never happened. The short videos that I was going to record every week/month/year/whatever to tell him what I was feeling about being his dad and what was happening with us? Yeah, that didn’t happen either.

As he continued to stabilize, gain strength and mature, I continued to avoid doing things that would increase my connection with him for fear of incurring greater pain. So many missed opportunities to let my guard down and enjoy his amazing personality. I paid attention to his school work, his dancing, his musical performances and his antics around the house, but I was too detached to really make any connection over them. My comments on his actions would always be more critique than celebration. I would relate intellectually instead of emotionally. In many ways, I acted in a manner that would have integrated well with a child who was as emotionally isolated as I was as a child. I was sweeping all empathy under the rug because it came at too high a price (or so I subconsciously thought at the time).

I’m still working to rectify the deficiency and to become more emotionally a part of his life. I’m taking a more active role in managing his care, rather than just providing it. My wife tells me that I’m making a lot of progress. But I still wonder what might have been had I been able to make this leap twelve years ago. I look at all of the missed opportunities and wish that there was a way to go back in time to change my approach.

But I needed to be ready to change first. I had to really know that the walls needed to come down. It took a bit of a breakdown to come to that conclusion, but now that I’ve started I’ve become very impatient with myself when I find that I’m blocking something. I find that I’m also less patient in general with situations where nobody is making any movement toward resolving an issue.

I’m now working at tearing down my walls, and I’m glad that I finally have made that philosophical change. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get those lost moments back. No way to get back inside my head twelve years ago and retroactively record those feelings in a book. No way to take more pictures of him as he grew and changed. No way to record what he used to act like, or walk like, or talk like.

If you find yourself walling off your feelings after a loss, stop what you’re doing! First of all, it will delay your ability to move on, because hiding your feelings away prevents you from coming to terms with them. Secondly, while you’re busy not feeling anything, you will miss out on so much of your life, whether it involves new arrivals, ongoing moments with people already in your life, or just enjoying your day to day existence.

On another note, I’m glad that I was able to make this change before my uncle passed away, as I was able to better appreciate the time that I spent with him during a couple of his last days.

It’s not easy; trust me, I know that. But in hiding your emotions away, you’re depriving yourself of the ability to enjoy and take charge of your life. The first step is to admit that things aren’t OK, and that things are not as rosy as you pretend they are. Once you make that leap of faith, as it were, the rest becomes possible.

Did this post speak to how you handle feelings of loss? Does someone you know respond like this? How do you handle your feelings? Please share in the comments below.

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2 Responses to Fortress Around My Heart

  1. John Friedman says:

    Be careful to not lose what you have – many years to build those emotional connections – lamenting what you have lost – the time until you were ready. Second guessing won’t help. Taking the lessons from your regret and using them to firm your resolve for the future will not only help to lesson your remorse, but will also provide you with countless opportunities going foward.

    Life is a journey, not a destination. If you’re not learning, you’re not moving foward.

    No one expects you to be perfect (except maybe a few unreasonable people and you know who I mean). Your Loving Wife and The Kid love you for who you are. As you open up, they will love you for the changes, but also for the effort it took to make them.

    Don’t beat yourself up too badly. Take the lesson out of the experience and don’t wallow in guilt.

  2. Mark says:

    Thanks, John. As I noted early in this piece, I’m now taking steps to fix things. This story is more about what you lose by blocking yourself off, and the need to be able to move past that for your own sake as well as the sake of everyone around you. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to happen quickly, but change is happening. Thanks for your support.

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