The captain of my soul
‘I want a separation’ – the cold surge of adrenalin filled every cell in my body. I sat upright, rigid with fear and felt the panic enveloping me. The room spun and I thought my heart would surely burst from my chest as it raced preparing me for the “fight or flight” response. I couldn’t connect with my surroundings and I seemed to be in a fog of terror and confusion, I couldn’t speak or move. Wave after wave of panic engulfed me and I felt that death was certainly near. I gasped for breath like a drowning man, but my chest tightened even more with every breath. After what seemed like an eternity the panic slowly abated enough for me to focus and gather myself but still shaking uncontrollably.
I have suffered from Panic Disorder for over 20 years and was well accustomed to its devious ways of sneaking up and reducing me to a quivering wreck for no apparent reason, fearing the perceived threat that was never there. However, this was different.
Opposite me sat my wife of over 17 years and she had just spoken the words that were to change my life forever.
The boy who never grew up
I am the youngest of a family of six which included three brothers and two sisters. We were a working-class family; my father was a docker and my mother cooked and skivvied for nuns and cleaned offices at night to try to make ends meet. We were not in poverty as such, but money was always tight and if you wanted something badly enough then you saved for it. We lived in one of the new council housing estates which grew up around Limerick in the 1950s, designed to move people out of poor housing conditions in the back lanes of Limerick to a new modern suburbia.
I have very fond memories of that time when (as Mark Twain might say) every summer seemed long and hot, days were spent fishing, swimming and raiding orchards and I hadn’t a care in the world. However, I had no idea to what extent I was being insulated and protected from the reality of family life at that time. My father was clearly an alcoholic but that word wasn’t used back then; the preferred phrase was ‘a man who liked his pint’. He was frequently verbally abusive towards my mother and siblings when drunk but luckily, rarely physically abusive. He would hand up the housekeeping money on Friday nights and drink and smoke the rest. He frequently quarreled with my siblings and soon lost his job at the docks due to his alcohol addiction. This placed even more pressure on my mother to make ends meet. Even though they argued on a regular basis, she would still clean up after him and see that his needs were met. I could never understand this behavior until I was well into adulthood and then stood guilty of repeating the pattern myself.
In those days it was typical for teenagers to finish secondary school, if they even got that far, and begin working. Since there were several years between myself and my next sibling it was clear that I wasn’t planned. I had no relationship worth mentioning with my father and I envied other kids who would go to rugby matches with their fathers and drink lemonade in the pub afterwards. I sought out a father figure in my sister’s husband who had two boys younger than me. He was a kind and gentle soul who instilled a love of rugby in me and provided me with a father influence that my own father either couldn’t or didn’t want to provide. Tragically I lost that treasured man several years ago to the dreaded cancer and a part of my soul went with him. Tears well up in me at the feeling of the void in my heart that he left so prematurely and I feel his loss even more when I need the benefit of his wisdom at difficult times.
It is clear to me now that my mother was a hypochondriac and smothered me with attention even into my teenage years. Every ache and pain resulted in a visit to the doctor. She discouraged me from playing any sports for fear of injury and generally was over-bearingly protective. Subconsciously she instilled a belief in me that the world and everything in it was a dangerous place and that I was ill-prepared for it. I rebelled against this and took up karate to prove her wrong. Matters came to a head when my siblings had all married and made their own lives. I was living at home with my mother after my father died and I desperately wanted to study medicine. She put huge psychological pressure on me to stay at home which meant I could not study medicine and ended up studying engineering at the University of Limerick.
I deeply resented her for this and hated myself for giving in to her and allowing her to control my life in this way. Again, a greater understanding of this situation would come much later in life. So, I studied at the University of Limerick and lived at home with just my mother until I married in 1989 and left home for a new life. I vividly remember the night I left the house for good to move into my new marital home. I felt that I was leaving her to the wolves like an ungrateful wretch after all she had done for me. How would she survive living alone? Was that any way to treat a mother who went without so that I could go to university? Was I going to be held responsible by my siblings if anything ever happened to her? All these questions tormented my mind as I drove off to my new fancy house in the suburbs while she remained at home; the last of her brood had flown the nest.
However, little did I know that the damage was already done. Purposely or not, my mother had instilled in me a fear of the world and my ability to cope in it – the cruelest guilt trip of them all. I was a man now but with a vulnerable little boy inside who desperately needed protecting.
The end of marriage
I was married for 17 years and we have two beautiful daughters in their twenties. We both had good jobs, travelled a lot and were genuinely in love. My wife was a superb mother while I was less secure especially dealing with the girls in their early years. I thought the worst if one of them fell ill and I found it hard to face the trials of life which every marriage goes through. I threw myself into my work and for the last few years of our marriage I immersed myself in work and study. Hence, even when I was physically at home, I wasn’t mentally present for my wife and girls as I was invariably locked away studying. I knew enough then to know that this was my attempt to escape dealing with real life and connecting with my wife and my girls. I felt ill-equipped to deal with problems and felt I was still stuck in adolescence rather than having graduated to adulthood.
Towards the end of our marriage I could feel my wife and I drifting apart both physically and emotionally. I found it hard to express myself and we rarely talked about the problem. By the time she decided to end our marriage I’m sure she felt like a single mother carrying our dysfunctional marriage, our girls, a responsible job and me on her back; too much for any reasonable person to bear. I thought that most people usually broke up because of infidelity, addictions, violence, abuse etc. None of these were present in our marriage except one form of abuse….my total self-interest in my needs alone and my lack of maturity. We quite simply fell out of love and it was very definitely my fault.
Life after marriage
I found myself in a deep depression after my marriage ended in 2007. I was living alone and miserable. I blamed my wife for taking away the safety and security of a family life and was burning inside with resentment. I lost all self-esteem and threw myself into my work to distract myself. After some two years I began to date again but genuinely didn’t have the interest or emotional strength to form a lasting relationship.
I became very involved with my siblings and their lives as I had few genuine male friends. This involvement developed very quickly to the extent that they would turn to me whenever anything went wrong, when they needed something or even to arbitrate on rows. This stressed me greatly, but it gave me some sense of being wanted or at least good for something. I hated living alone and allowed my health to deteriorate and I had practically no social life, I had lost all sense of “fun” in life and found it hard to enjoy my time with my daughters because I was always miserable. I desperately needed to halt this life of misery while I had the resources to do so. I had to strike, and strike quickly, but I needed the direction and wisdom of others to help me. I did a self-development course in search of ways to see my mistakes and to take control of my life again. It was to be an illuminating and incredible journey.
The search for insight
I decided to approach the course with an open mind and over the months I took strength as the group-bond formed and as I listened to other people tell their stories. I was amazed at what others had been through and while I would listen in awe at their stories, I grasped at nuggets of wisdom which would help me and my problems.
So, what did I learn that I would need in order to set a new course in life? The following are some learning experiences that have brought a new sense of clarity to my mind.
- The crazy relationship between my parents was one of classic co-dependency, each had their roles and they were mutually dependent even though it resulted in much hurt and resentment. There was nothing I could do to change this at that time.
- My mother’s over-protection of me was all about her needs and not my needs. She needed a child to love and thus smothered me with attention however unwanted it was by me. She had no idea that she was damaging my self-esteem or thwarting my adulthood confidence.
- She unknowingly damaged my adult life skills in the process but only because I allowed it and I could have sought help at an earlier stage to repair this damage. I allowed it to fester.
- A lack of awareness on my part of the problems in my marriage was the primary reason for my wife wanting to end it. All the signals were there but I was in the fog and too tied up with my own selfish needs. I failed completely in connecting with her and the girls’ needs and abandoned them emotionally.
- Active listening might have saved my marriage, in fact my wife was silently screaming at me but I wasn’t listening on the same frequency. I could have made greater attempts to express myself and listen carefully and respectfully to what she was trying to tell me. In the end she simply gave up and I can’t blame her.
- Avoidance was why I became absorbed in the lives and problems of my siblings. By always being there to help them it meant that I could avoid dealing with my own issues and sorting out my own life. It was easier to solve other people’s problems than deal with the pain of my own, escapism pure and simple. The mantra often repeated on the course was ‘that is their stuff’, I never saw it that way but now I do!
- Emotional Reasoning, because I felt that if I couldn’t take on the challenges of life, then that must suggest some defect in me. As the old saying goes – ‘if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail.’
Naturally all the above are so obvious that any intelligent adult must know about them. However, this comes with the benefit of hindsight and these simple truths only become obvious when explained and discussed in a safe and non-judgmental way. Had they been obvious to me over the years I can see how I might have done things differently. However, human beings are fragile things and we will always try to protect our feelings first even at the expense of hurting somebody else.
The course provided me with rich life-learning truths and helped me to make sense of a lot of behaviours in my life. That is not to say that I won’t repeat any of my mistakes but if I stop and think first and switch on my ‘awareness’ antennae, at least I will have a fighting chance of making more appropriate and less hurtful choices. At the end of the day, I am the only one responsible for me and my happiness.
The journey ahead
Having arrived at the end of the course, I have decided what I want from my life and I am going to use all the personal development tools I have gathered to achieve these objectives:
- To be free from emotional suffering and to achieve a state of calm and contentment
- To be fully present for my daughters as they make their way through their own lives
- To regain good health and to feel invigorated and energetic again
- To find a soulmate and to grow old within the company of someone who loves me
- To finally start having FUN again!!
I realise that this will take commitment, effort and great change on my part and there will be good and bad times ahead, but I am determined to get there. There is an old Chinese proverb which says that ‘Man cannot direct the wind, but he can adjust his sails.’ I will have to persevere and change tack when life throws curved balls at me.
There is a little-known poem called “Invictus” (Latin for unconquered) written by W.E. Henley in 1888 which was thought to be Nelson Mandela’s favorite poem while in captivity. My mind is drawn particularly to the last verse:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
If I am to embark on this journey then I will indeed need to be the ‘Captain of My Soul’.
The author is a practicing mechanical engineer with a keen interest in psychology and personal development.
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