I took a bath last night. (brag) I rarely take baths because they require sitting still and relaxing with one's thoughts, and that's just not a game I like to play. Leave that to the beatniks, I say. But last night I had a crushing headache that was so intense I felt like my brain was being passed around at an out-of-hand bachelor party, and I needed to clear it away to get some work done, so I determined a bath was the only decent, holistic solution to my immediate problem.
[ladies, this is the part where i get all nakeded up. commence lighting scented candles now. i recommend "banana nut bread" from the yankee candle company.]
The bath was very hot, but once I got over my very real fear of disfiguring my scrotum in the steaming depths the still water slowly ameliorated my headache. Unfortunately, after I exhausted all of the baking soda in my bathtub submarine I was left alone in the dark, and this sort of forced me to think.
I was thinking about how, on top of the many other partner-specific problems I've had with relationships over the last several years, one of my most consisten problems is rooted in my difficulty with administering or accepting sweet compliments. If you are my friend, you know how deftly I will bat down any compliment making its way toward me. And it's not that I don't see the good in others. In fact, it would be very easy for me to make a blushing list of qualities I've appreciated, or even found myself awed by, for just about every single woman I've ever dated or friend I've known. My belief in others has probably forced me to hold on to many people even after the relationship has ended, much longer than might be considered healthy.
I think I've already digressed. Bath. Bubbles. Thinking. Compliments. Yes. Anyway, I am pretty sure I know the source of this compliment giving-and-taking problem. This is a very therapy-style revelation, but growing up with a parent who was maybe not a fully formed adult when she got married might be partially responsible for some of this undesirable behavior. My mother is stuck in an arrested state of adolescence, I think. As a result, she demands constant positive attention. She also asks me to drive her to the mall all the time, and makes me park 50 feet away from the entrance because she is too embarrassed to be seen with me. And I'm too ashamed to talk about all the strange teenage boys she brought home, or the time I had to drop her off at the free clinic. (yes, crabs.)
Compliments and positive reinforcement have always been extracted like molars from my siblings and me. Maintaining an endless stream of accolades was never requested; it was required. We've had to tell her how great her new permanent looked, how nicely her Weight Watchers program was paying off (my mother, though she'd never believe this herself, was never in need of a weight loss program. she's been trim as long as i can remember, but that's just not what she sees.), or what a nice figure she cut in her Shop-Rite "Scrunchy the Bear" sweatshirt and stirrup pants. It is exhausting.
This compulsive need for affirmation for everyone around her works in other ways, too. Rue the day that you are sick in my home because, within 12 hours of your diagnosis, my mother will inevitably become afflicted with something more grave, or at least more noisy. I can remember being a child, lying in bed with a chest cold, the Vicks Vap-O-Rub wobbling the atmosphere around me, when my mother made her entrance, usually carrying a laundry basket. (a pretense for invading my privacy.) She would then go about her business, while producing the kinds of dramatic lung-rattling sounds you'd expect to hear from a Dickens character moments before his well-composed last words. In order to make the horrible noises stop, I had to acknowledge them.
"Mom, are you all right?" I'd sigh, turning my head away from her to hide my eyes, which were performing sardonic rolls in their sockets.
"Oh, me? I think I might have come down with a touch of what you've got. I feel - "
This is where my mother would collapse to the floor in a heap, stricken by "the vapors".
When I was very young, these fainting spells were alarming. I would cry out to my father, who was specially trained for moments like this. Instead of administering medical care, he would slowly rub circles into my mother's back and offer to finish sorting the laundry for her so she could get off her feet and into bed. My father was well-trained at ignoring the obvious text, and tending to the subtext, which is why my mother loves him. And because my mother loves him, he loves her back, unconditionally.
My brother, sister, and I never had my father's patience. I grew frustrated by my mother's attempts to undermine everyone else's troubles with her hysterical needs. If you had a cold, she had bronchitis. If you had a flu, she had cholera. If you had mono, she had duo. If you had herpes simplex 1, she had herpes simplex 3 with a side of chilblains. There was no end to it.
Eventually, I toughened up and taught myself to ignore her fainting spells and blackouts, as a lesson in apathy. I would leave her on the floor for several minutes, pretending I hadn't noticed her curled up beneath an upturned basket full of dirty clothes. I ignored her when she clutched her chest from an imagined stroke, brought on by ending up on the losing side of a quarrel. I ignored her coughs, her tears, her loud, wet, sobbing pleas for attention. I became a shitty, detached teenager, not out of being shitty and detached, but out of some kind of imagined necessity.
Soon, platitudes of any kind, directed anywhere, made me feel uncomfortable. After spending so much time having them wrung out of me, I started to regard certain verbal acts of positive reinforcement as phony, or commodified. They seemed formalized to the point of being inherently disingenuous. I was less willing to give, and to receive. In short, I became a 75 year-old Eastern European widower. Stoic, withholding, unsentimental on the surface, and tubercular. (stoic and witholding, anyway)
That meant a lot of people got emotionally ripped off by me, including my own mother, whose attention-getting techniques were sort of a product of her own upbringing, anyway. (she had a stoic, withholding father. psychology is a rich medium!) This year, I finally resolved that it's OK - even necessary - to tell people who much I like them, and it's OK to listen to people who tell me they like me. It's not necessarily enough to presume someone knows how I feel just because I squeeze her hand really hard while we're watching television, or because I write "nice haircut" backwards on his forehead when he's passed out, drunk.
Now I feel like a 95 year-old Eastern European widower. Reflective and sentimental to a fault. I guess I wish I could go back and remind some people how impressed I was by them but I can't do that. The only thing worse than being regretful is being undesirably apologetic. I'll try to stay on top of it going forward, though. Let me begin by reminding you that you look very cute when you're reading. That little squiggly valley that snits its way into in your brow when you're concentrating quietly? - I wish I could sleep there tonight.