Secrets, Self Medication and Happy Families

spears-happy-families-2

It wasn’t only Rupert that found it difficult to cope with time limitations.  In the early days of our relationship when Eadmund and I were still keeping it secret, it had been one of the many things that had brought me to rock bottom.

Looking back at the situation with the benefit of hindsight, I am not sure I would chose to structure the relationship differently.  I still like the idea of being limitless and of freedom.  I like that it removes guilt and insecurity from your interactions with other people and promotes openness.  Or it does if you handle it right.

What I know now is how much communication and work this sort of relationship needs.  I also know that it was a big ask of myself, inexperienced and naïve as I was then, to take this on at the same time as processing enormous amounts of guilt and then to keep the relationship a secret from kids, friends and co-workers into the bargain.

While we were extremely well matched to each other in many ways, Eadmund and I did process emotion differently.  He would react immediately, talk it through and be back on track quickly.  I would need more time.  My initial reaction would be shock, then once that was over, I would need to take my time as new thoughts and opinions became liberated and could be brought up for discussion.  If we argued, I always needed twenty four hours longer than him before I was back on an even keel emotionally.  It meant that I wasn’t able to bounce back from the cancelled wedding, the disapproval, hurting Isla.  It took time.

Time was one of the things we only had in short supply.  Not only did we need to take time to be together, but he also had to allocate time for Cloe, his children, his friends and for the business.  It needed him too.  The difference of maturity and experience showed.  Going into the relationship, he realised how much he would have to partition his time.  He had practical experience of juggling different people who all needed to spend time with him. He understood that as owner of the business, he was responsible for it, cared about it and that it absorbed his time and emotional energy.  I was hardly a clocking in-clocking out employee but, at the end of the day, I could leave the job at home.  My perspective and attachment to work, extreme though it was by most people’s standards was barely a tenth of the intensity of his.   I thought I understood all of this before going into the relationship but I only understood in theory.  When it came to the practical implications of it, I didn’t have a clue.

I needed time to do a lot of talking.  He did his best to make enough time for me but it could never have been enough.  I was using him as an unofficial counsellor.  It was too much pressure to put on a partner.  If I were to go through it again, I’d be right off to see a shrink, quick smart.  I now know that the benefit of seeing a counsellor is that they can listen without being affected emotionally by what you have to say.  They can advise, empathise and help you negotiate the minefield that is your own emotions and you never need feel a burden, not least because you are usually paying handsomely for the service.

It would also have meant that Eadmund wasn’t expected to be responsible for my mental health and emotional happiness.  I wasn’t in a place where I could take that responsibility for myself.  I had never considered emotion in that sort of way before either; that I was in control of my own happiness.  I didn’t know how to do it.  Eadmund tried his best to talk to me and teach me.  That he managed to help me learn as much as he did is impressive.  With each new day, I learned more about my own capabilities and strengths.  Sometimes these discoveries were hard won at the end of gut-wrenching weeping or catatonic depression.  At other times they came more easily.

Our early days after I left Jack, moved out of Nia and Helena’s and into a flat closer to Eadmund were a period of heightened emotion.  The highs were ecstatic.  The sun shone brighter.  The world seemed more new, exciting and beautiful than ever before.  Love had never felt more intense and all consuming.  Sex had never been so much an expression of love with every atom of my body and consequently was instinctively tantric and absolutely mind blowing.  I felt electric, alive and amazing.

But when the lows came, I had many demons to face.  When he couldn’t make time for me, the wretchedness was bottomless.  I was experiencing debilitating guilt and reassessing myself.  I thought I had been a simple, uncomplicated good girl and was now… what… a bad person?  I had hurt people.  For the first time in my life, I had really hurt people.   Sometimes I felt that life was stretching me, teaching me and that every day I was growing stronger, better, more of the sort of person I wanted to be.  Other times I wasn’t sure I liked myself anymore.  Certainly I was having trouble forgiving myself for the hurt I’d caused.

On top of that, I felt too immature to prove a good partner.  Maybe Eadmund should have chosen Isla after all.  I didn’t always notice when he needed to be alone with his kids.  I didn’t spot the signs.  With tension over this already heightened because of the way Rupert behaved, I felt under intense scrutiny and intense pressure to be the perfect and understanding supportive role to Eadmund and to the children.  Some of this pressure came from Eadmund driven sometimes to distraction by frustration at the way Cloe couldn’t reign Rupert in and the way it was hurting his daughter.  Most of it came from myself.  I loved this man.  I thought he was amazing.  I wanted to be perfect.  I wanted to lighten his load not add to it.  I wanted to make his children happy that I had come to stay for the weekend, not want me out of the way so they could spend time with Dad.  But I didn’t know his children as well as he did.  Sometimes, because they were polite and well brought up and kindly, it seemed to me that they were happy I was there.  I desperately wanted them to like me.  They didn’t know I was their dad’s girlfriend yet but I had already fallen in love with them too.

‘But don’t you think,’ he asked, ‘That maybe even though they like you, they would prefer to be on their own with me sometimes?  Of course they aren’t going to come out with it.  They’re only eight and twelve.  You need to be one step ahead of them.  You’re the adult.’

I was confused.  I thought things had been going well.  I hadn’t thought one step ahead.  He was already thinking about the week ahead, preparing them for school and the need for them to have a quiet Sunday afternoon relaxing before the week started.  I was just thinking that I had enjoyed spending Saturday night and Sunday morning with them so far and wondering what we might all do next.  His youngest son had just asked me to make lunch with him.  We liked cooking together.  Last time, we’d come up with a particularly tasty take on potato salad involving yoghurt and Indian green coriander relish.  The time before we’d re-invented spaghetti carbonara by adding ricotta in place of cream and letting the sauce sit in the pan picking up all the tasty caramelised bits on the bottom of the pan after frying the bacon slowly to perfect cripsness.  The sauce ended up being a funny brown colour but it tasted great.

‘It’s not that they don’t enjoy you being here,’ he carried on, ‘but the dynamic is different when you are around.  It isn’t their normal family dynamic and they need that.  I wish you would see that more.  I wish I didn’t always have to bring it up.  It makes me into the aggressor and it makes me always having to force a confrontation, they you are upset.  I hate feeling like this.’

I packed my overnight bag wordlessly and got ready to leave.  I couldn’t manage a cheery goodbye to the kids so I was hoping to slope off quietly and he could explain to them I’d had to get home.  But my fellow lunch-maker, Kester, caught me in the hall just as I was leaving,

‘But we’re going to make lunch!  You can’t go!  We always make great lunches!’

My heart practically broke on the spot.  I was going, although I didn’t want to, because his father thought it was better for the kids that I did, yet here was the youngest, asking me to stay and disappointed in me because I was leaving.  I just about managed to raise a jolly tone and promise we’d cook again next weekend.  I think I made some excuse about having to get home and do some shopping to get ready for a busy week at work, when what I wanted was to howl,

‘It’s not my fault!  Your dad wants me to go! I want me to stay and make lunch too!’

I gave him the best smile I could muster and promised we’d see each other again soon.  Then, with him happy again, I left the house and wept openly and without stopping the entire way home.  It was London, a sunny Sunday and a moneyed residential area.  There were people and families all around who could see me and I didn’t care one iota.  It being London, of course, they all looked the other way and pretended they hadn’t noticed.

It was wretchedly painful for me, when this happened, but it also made Eadmund feel like a murderer each time he had to point out that perhaps I should leave them alone.  He was in a quandary.  The naturalness and ease with which I connected to him emotionally was one of the fundamental reasons he loved me and yet I hadn’t learned to control it.  It overspilled into family time, work time, time that he needed to spend with Cloe.  Not even remotely to the extent that Rupert did, but we were all supersensitive to the dynamic because he was so extreme.  Eadmund was overly paranoid about upsetting the kids (who after all still had not been told we were a couple).  I was overly paranoid about being compared to Rupert the effect of whose behaviour, I had witnessed first hand.

I became self-conscious, unsure of how to behave or who I was anymore.  It felt as though, if I wanted to be with him, I had to become something else.  We connected to each other so instinctively, so effortlessly and so joyously when we were alone together with no pressures on our behaviour, no one else to worry about and no secrets to keep.  If felt fundamentally wrong and unbelievably unnatural to try and behave in any other way.  And I didn’t monopolise his attention.  I didn’t take over the conversatons so no one else could get a word in.  I wasn’t nervously intense.  I was quiet.  I listened.  I let him and his children talk and offered my opinions at what I felt were appropriate intervals.  I was calm and happy because I was with him and by being so, I helped him create a relaxing and homely environment for everyone.  Or at least my instincts told me I did.

Alone together, on our mid week ‘date nights’ when he stayed at my flat, we related as happily and uncomplicatedly as ever.  Left on my own, when he went back to the family and I wasn’t invited, I was at the mercy of the tornado that was my own whirling thoughts, guilt, grief and self doubts.  The skies darkened.

In the final months of our relationship, Jack and I had both started drinking more.  Drinking to forget, to find it easier to talk to each other, for courage to face up to the things we were avoiding.  Now, when I was alone, I carried on.  Having had insomniac episodes before, I was afraid that the fear, guilt and insecurity would mean endless, tortured, sleepless nights.  Drinking to pass out was one way to make sure this didn’t happen.

Alcohol, of course, is a depressant.  Self-medicating with it would only ever be effective in the short term.  In the long run, it made the dark emotions worse.  At moments of heightened distress, I began to cut myself; somewhere that people wouldn’t see of course and never all that deep but with long red scratched wheals down my upper arms or stomach inflicted with the end of a pair of scissors or a kitchen knife.  The shock of sudden physical pain cleared the emotional pain and restored a moment of calm.  I knew it was fucked up, but it helped.

Commuting in and out of work, I began to experience panic attacks on a crowded tube.  Claustrophobia, the walls caving in, needing to shrink away from people, I could feel myself receding down a dark tunnel into the back of my head, the sounds of the outside world dimming as all I could hear were the blood rushing in my ears and my own shuddering breaths, as my field of vision narrowed to two small circles in front of me and spots swam before my eyes.

I had wanted a challenge and an adventure, but so much had changed in so short a space of time, I was falling, falling like Alice down the rabbit hole and I didn’t know when I would land.

As it turned out, my landing was Eadmund’s affair.  For all that was wrong about the way he went about it, it was the catalyst that made us finally admit to the children that we were together.  All of a sudden, the whole situation was less pressured.

In the family home, of course Anne would be round at weekends.  The children didn’t need to wonder why Dad’s new friend got to sleep over (in a different room) and what this might mean – they knew.  With the clarity of knowing we were in a relationship, they didn’t need to wonder if Dad was ok now that Mum had a boyfriend.  Ironically, considering the fears on their behalf that had lead to us keeping it secret, it also took away some of the fear that the parents might divorce.  Mum had a boyfriend and Dad had a girlfriend and yet neither of them had left home.  Perhaps it would all be ok after all.

For me, while I had to deal with hurt,betrayal and with rebuilding trust and this was no small matter at the same time I was also acknowledged and validated.  I wasn’t a dirty secret any more,  I was officially part of the extended family and accepted.  Keeping it secret had added stress, judgement, erosion of self esteem and self image, feelings of abandonment and inadequacy to what was already a complicated situation: integrating myself into a family group without alienating or trying to compete with the children’s mother.

There were still seven of us whose feelings and emotions needed to be managed and catered for as we steered our way through the somewhat choppy waters of life in our extended family and seemingly without a map to guide us but, at least, now, we all knew we were an extended family.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  Secrecy corrodes.

It’s not an Open Relationship When it’s Cheating

cheating

If we had no hold on each other, if we were together by choice and free to love other people too, why, after Eadmund admitted to his fling, was I feeling so betrayed and angry?  He seemed to feel it was entirely permissable under the terms of what we had agreed but it didn’t feel right to me.

At the time and with no other ideas of how to conduct a relationship, I just assumed the whole open thing wasn’t for me, that I’d agreed to something I couldn’t fulfill and that I had no right to be feeling the way I did.  Now, I think differently.

The sort of relationship Eadmund described, the sort I agreed to, would not, if we had managed to communicate, have unfolded like this.  He would have met someone, sure.  He would have felt an attraction.  He might even have wanted to take it to a sexual relationship.  But he would have told me at every stage how he felt, what he wanted.  We would have had the chance to talk.  If it was going to hurt me and hurt us, we would have acted accordingly, leaving me feeling part of the discussion and not presented with a fait accompli.

Something about the story of them meeting on the buying trip bugged me.  The shock, anger and rejection died down in the main.  Life moved on.  The happiness and relief that we were at last being open about our relationship in front of his children and therefore in front of everyone was more than enough compensation.  But something still didn’t seem right and I was really struggling to make sense of it.  How could he meet someone and in so short a time be ready to sleep with them?  He had taken so long to make love to me.  He had been so cautious about approaching it.  It seemed out of character.  It made her seem as if she must be some superbeing, irresistible.  Yet he told me that he found me more attractive.  He didn’t love her.  He said he enjoyed my company more. He didn’t intend to carry on any relationship with her from now on.  Did she have an amazingly strong and individual personality that had transfixed him?  Not really.

Something didn’t add up.

One day before I set off for work, I noticed his computer was still on.  His email programme was open.  I didn’t have to leave straight away and there was no one else in the house.  Curiosity overcame me and with a sense of shame at the fact I was prying through personal things, I clicked on his email archive.  It wasn’t at all hard to find the emails.  He kept all correspondence neatly filed with a folder labelled with the sender’s name.  I found the folder for their correspondence and opened it.

As I read the emails, the story unfolded.  They had met months before at a fair in Italy.  They felt a connection at the time and kept in touch.  The emails carried on for five months, their tone becoming longing, romantic.  I recognised phrases he had used to me in the beginning.

‘I know we’re apart but you feel so close to me tonight, it’s almost as if I can smell you.’

Numbly, I read on.  I was distantly aware of a strange sound.  Whimpering.  Animal.  In pain.  It took a few seconds to realise the sound was me.

It was another visceral sensation of pain but at least it made sense now.  Yes, if I’d imagined him having a relationship with someone else, there would be a meeting, a courting period, consummation.

I admitted, later, to having read his emails.  I confronted him with what I’d found out.  On this occasion, he crumpled, ashamed.  He had meant to be brave, to talk to me if he found himself attracted to someone else.  He had meant to be open, to be honest, to be free.

‘Instead, I reverted to old habits.  I went back to sneaking around and being dishonest like I used to.  I talked this big talk about freedom and honesty and then I didn’t live up to it.’

At the time, I was relieved to have things out in the open.  We weren’t trying to keep a secret any more.  We were more open, we were happier with each other, communication was better again.  Finding the emails when I did was a huge step in being able to move on and rebuild trust with him.

But there, if you press me to it, is the difference between non monogamy and cheating.  An open relationship should be just that, open.  It should respect the needs of both people.  It shouldn’t be about compartmentalising love and hiding it away in boxes.  During the better moments of the Anne, Eadmund, Isla triangle, I had had a glimpse of how things could work.  When we all talked, we understood each other, we were close, we supported each other, we looked out for each other.  It’s not that ego and competition didn’t intrude, it certainly did.  We weren’t open enough to try and confront and deal with that.  He didn’t categorise either as an actual relationship although frankly he was kidding himself.  I was hurt from not knowing about their relationship until too late and it put me in the role of victim which made me fight back.  Isla was hurt about finding out about mine with him when her own with him had just been re-kindled.  She fought back too.  Again there had been lies, secrecy, hiding things.  But Isla and I did talk.  We supported each other.  The three of us talked less, but we did do so.  When we did, when we understood each other and when we were open with each other, there was a nurturing sense of love, support and community.

It wasn’t a successfully open relationship with honest open communication but new, strange and scary as it was at the time, this was where I first got a glimpse of how it could work.  Including other people doesn’t have to mean deceit, betrayal, pain.  It doesn’t have to have a victim who gets hurt.  It can also create a close knit group and increase the love, caring and support.

Cheating is a whole lot different.

Interlude: Secrecy

secrecy

Here and now, in the present, I am giving internet dating yet another go.  It doesn’t always click with me.  If you are used to going with your gut instinct, to suddenly choose someone based on a load of facts figures and a theoretical percentage compatibility feels a bit like doing your monthly supermarket delivery order.  I’d like one male, open-minded, sexually adventurous but not into pain thanks or blindfolds, who likes to talk about issues, politics and ideas and doesn’t end his messages with lol.  Pick up in aisle 3.

What it does do, though, is get you to think about who you’re well matched with.  What bits of your personality do you want to be able to develop and share.  What things are you just not prepared to accept.  Luckily, I’m pretty open minded and liberal myself but today I had a message from someone that did make me stop and think.

‘Hi

Write back if you feel you can.

Ax’

I’m intrigued, not least because we apparently share an initial.  It’s the little things that make you decide to write to somone in an impersonal setting like the internet.  He hasn’t uploaded a photo but I check out his profile to see what he’s like.  Apparently based on having answered many many questions on sex, morality, religion, love and other issues besides, we’re compatible.  I read the paragraph everyone writes as a summary of themselves:

‘Naughty…adventurous,,,no inhibitions,’ He begins.  And then

‘OK, I am married and being secretive so any ethical minded creatures should probably report me somewhere…’

He concludes that he’s looking for someone open minded and casual.

And there’s the deal breaker.  No, not because, after previous experience I’ve decided never to get involved with a married man again.  If it’s ok by his wife again then I’d never say never.  The deal breaker is secrecy.

After my own experiences of being secretive or uncomfortable about a relationship, I have made a promise to myself that I am never doing that again.  Eadmund’s affair actually ended up being a catalyst for change, but on balance I would far rather the change had happened in a way that didn’t involve me being lied to.  It was the state of mind I managed to get myself into by trying to keep the relationship a badly kept secret that I will never put myself through again.

I’m a terrible liar.  I hate doing it.  I’m not very believable.  I recently read a quote from Mark Twain that said

‘If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.’

I couldn’t put it better myself.  So as the person trying to keep a secret, you not only have to behave in a way that feels deeply unnatural and seems to negate yourself and your presence, you are also always under the stress of remembering who you’ve told what to.  It’s exhausting and unneccessary.  In contrast to the freedom of relationship we were trying to achieve, we had created ourselves another prison far worse than the claustrophobia of my impending marriage to Jack. I wanted to feel limitless and on occasions I still did, when we were alone together and could stop looking over our shoulders.  But most of the time, when we were at work, or at his home those moments were snatched and furtive.  The walls were closing in again on us both.

I also found that by keeping the secret and having to behave as if the whole company didn’t know I was in a relationship with Eadmund, I cut myself off from my friends.  I couldn’t talk to them and because they were aware there was a big area of my life that was off limits, they avoided socialising with me or talking to me.  It was very lonely and it wasn’t until later, when things were out in the open that one of my colleagues finally said to me

‘As long as you’re happy we don’t care what you’re doing and who with.  It makes people uneasy if you won’t talk about it though.  We don’t want to say the wrong thing.’

Then a few years later, ironically as I split up from Eadmund, my sister got involved with someone who she had met through work.  They too decided to keep their relationship a secret.

‘It’s not like it’s a big secret,’ she told me when I asked her why we needed to pretend they weren’t together, ‘I just don’t want to be gossipped about.  It’s none of their business.’

Again, not something you’d think would be a big deal, just being discreet so that the workplace rumour mill doesn’t take off but from a different viewpoint, this time, I observed how corrosive secrecy is.  It starts as a little act of being discreet and then through the stress of not telling it how it is, openly and honestly, you create relationship problems for yourself, you argue and can’t admit to anyone that you know why your eyes are puffy, red and swollen.  People around you withdraw because they don’t know what to say or what to do.  They don’t understand, when as far as they can see it’s a good thing that you are in a relationship with the guy, why they can’t admit to people that they know about it.  Just as people pulled away from me, I found myself avoiding Gia and her boyfriend because I didn’t want the hassle and stress of their secret.  The early years of their relationship were a bit tortured.  He’s a great guy but he’s not easy to be with.  He’s force of energy which when he’s good is very. very good and when he’s bad is horrid.  She could have done with more support before she hit her rock bottom.  If she’d had it, hitting rock bottom could have been avoided.  But the secrecy made us not know how to act or what to say.  It made me keep my own counsel and keep away from her.  I wasn’t the only one.  I’d run into one of their mutual friends around the Food Market on occasions and we’d let out some of the tension of the situation by royally taking the piss.  It was a huge relief to be able to just laugh about it.

So now I’ve seen it from the point of view of someone keeping the secret and from the point of view of the friend forced into secrecy and not really understanding why it is neccessary.  I’m not going there again.  I feel it very strongly that whatever relationship I go into next, absolute honesty and openness has to be the cornerstone.

My reply to A was easy to write:

‘Hi

Thanks for your message and what a conundrum you present.  You sound like a fun guy to get to know and I’ve been in an open relationship before and been in one with a married man so there are no judgements here but the need for secrecy is a deal breaker.  If your wife agreed to it and it was all above board, I’d probably be interested but I’ve been someone’s secret before and it did bad things to my psyche.  Sorry and Good luck.’

 

Rock Bottom

‘I don’t want the kids to know about us,’ Eadmund explained, ‘they’re already upset and unsure about how Mum having a boyfriend affects their family and their world.  I can’t spring something else on them.’

I wasn’t a parent but my instinct was that it was absolutely right to put the kids’ happiness first.  I believed in it as passionately as a religious devotee.  Of course, if that was what was best for them, we would have to keep our relationship secret from them.  Their family was changing fast.  Of course we should introduce it gradually.

It didn’t seem such a big thing, keeping it under wraps for the sake of the kids, but I hadn’t appreciated how one secret in one area of your life spreads.  We couldn’t be affectionate in public in case someone saw.  We couldn’t be affectionate at work because it was unprofessional and also because everyone at work also knew his kids.  I couldn’t openly talk about our relationship at work because although everyone knew, in order to keep the secret for the kids sake, it had to remain unspoken as to exactly what was going on.  I could spend time getting to know his kids at his house and, in theory, this was time that I was spending with him, but we had to behave in a way that would just make them think we were friends.

There was already a lot of secret keeping in my life as it was.  My friends and family didn’t know we were in an open relationship.  They didn’t know I’d hurt a good friend over a man.  I hadn’t told them how much I was struggling to hold it together.  They didn’t know about solitary binge drinking or panic attacks or the cutting.  I don’t for one minute think I am a good enough actress to have convinced them that everything was perfect all the time but that’s not really the issue.  The thing about keeping a secret is how it makes you feel, the insecurity and shame, not whether you’ve actually convinced anyone.

Although in theory we were only keeping our relationship from the kids, we ended up not admitting publically to most of the people we interacted with.  There wasn’t an area in my life that wasn’t complicated.  I couldn’t talk to people at work, I was keeping secrets from my friends and family.  I needed the reassurance of physical contact but I had to keep my hands firmly by my sides when his family were there.

Implosion

Basically, I imploded.

I was a millstone around Eadmund’s neck.  The situation wasn’t easy for him either: balancing his time, trying to be there for everyone who needed him, knowing he was failing.  Cloe’s nervously intense boyfriend was rocking the boat at home and upsetting the kids with the addictive nature of his attraction to her.  Eadmund couldn’t keep the kids happy and now he couldn’t keep me happy either.   He started to look for a way out.  There was a winter of obsessive computer game playing by way of withdrawing from the family and from me and then following that a bombshell on his return from a buying trip to Ireland.

‘While I was away, I had a short affair with a cheesemaker I met.’

I crumpled.  As usual with me, the first emotion was shock, the by now familiar sense of the blood draining from my head as I ran through the usual questions.  Who was she?  When had they met?  When did they sleep together?  This was followed by hopelessness, anger and rejection so visceral it was like a white hot knife tearing through my torso.  Through it all he was kind, gentle, patient.  He apologised for not having told me before it happened but he didn’t feel any guilt.  We didn’t have any hold on each other after all.  We were free.   Hours later, with no tears left and anger spent, I reached out to pull him to me.

‘I didn’t think you’d want me to touch you.’

I couldn’t talk.  I don’t think I replied.  I needed contact, a tangible reminder that he loved me.

The following day, watching tv with his children and sitting on the sofa, he put his arms around me.  In public, without shame, he made the first move to acknowledging to them that he loved me.  That night, for the first time, I slept in his bed with him.  The secret was out.