Reality Check

This morning it was seventy-nine degrees at nine o’clock. Perfect for a swim. Forty lengths of the pool kept me whole. David trudged along beside me for most of it.

My neighbor–about ten years my senior–strides through the fluid to stay strong. He has difficulty walking but can do it more easily in the water.

The buoyancy provides the resistance and support he needs to keep going. Whenever I see him there, we smile, and exchange “good mornings” and I admire his tenacity.

Age and vulnerability have been swirling through my mind lately. Part of it is simply the frightening world we live in. The other component is the knowledge that I will turn sixty-five in July.

Tom and I have already enrolled in Medicare. Our cards came in the mail last week. We will meet with a broker in the next few weeks. She’ll help us select a Medicare supplement plan.

I feel a weird combination of relief–for having made it this far–and anxiety knowing what tomorrow will bring. I imagine some of you who read this will understand that both feelings can coexist on a daily basis.

The crapshoot of advancing age affords us a degree of wisdom to spread around if we choose to … and the accelerating sensation that we are riding on a runaway wagon traveling downhill. We had better make the most of the wild highs and bumpy lows on the journey.

I’ve always considered myself a relatively patient and understanding person. An active listener too. Sometimes I lean too far out over the tips of my skis (no, I’m not a skier, but humor me with this metaphor) and push too far outside my comfort zone. Soon after, I realize I’ve extended beyond my emotional limits. That’s when I become brittle and abrupt.

I am more this way now than I was as a younger man. I don’t know why, but as I write this sentence, I remember seeing this quality more prominently in my mother as she aged.

I had a boss thirty years ago who liked me more whenever I revealed this cut-to-the-chase attribute. She came to me whenever she needed a “reality check.”

Melba enjoyed knowing that I was willing to bend to make things work. But she could count on me to tell her when all of us on her team were about to break or that the latest corporate flavor-of-the-month boondoggle sucked.

However, others who experience this trait are surprised by my forthrightness. Think of it as kindness turned callousness if you push me too far, especially if it involves someone I love.

Something sudden like that happened on Saturday. Tom and I were at the gym, doing our regular hour-long routines of ellipticals, weights, and treadmills. An acquaintance there, someone we see frequently, approached my husband. Tom was in the middle of his workout.

This individual (I’ll call him Gabe) has an odd-and-unsettling habit of telling Tom that he doesn’t like him. It started out as sort of a running joke between them. But over time the joke Gabe recycles has worn thin. Tom wasn’t in the mood for it Saturday. He told Gabe so.

A short while later, Gabe approached me. He knows Tom and I are a couple. Sheepishly, he leaned in to admit he thought he’d pissed off Tom. As my discomfort intensified, I continued to plod along on the elliptical. I tried to switch the subject with Gabe. I asked how he was.

I need to digress. Probably every time I’ve talked with Gabe (in the four years I’ve known him) he has bent my ear and told me his life is a shambles. He’s dealing with lots of significant issues I won’t go into here.

I feel compassion for him, so I’ve listened figuring things would one day get better. But they haven’t. In all of that time, I can’t remember him asking me about my life.

Anyway, Gabe left, but circled back later to tell me–again–how miserable his life is. In a flash, my patience vanished. I felt used. Disrespected. I took a breath. I knew I was way out over my skis. I needed to find a way to rescue myself. I was not the therapist he needs.

It was time for a verbal reality check between Gabe and me. Especially after what I had seen transpire between Gabe and Tom out of the corner of my eye fifteen minutes before.

The words that flew out of my mouth were something like “You’re not the only one with problems. Look around. Every person in this gym (I pointed around me) is dealing with shit.”

Gabe was dumbfounded. He told me to stay away from him. That won’t be a problem.

***

It’s been difficult for me to let go of this experience. I know that I was angry with Gabe for his behavior with Tom. On some level, I was defending my husband. But I also feel guilty for being so brusque with him. Clearly, he needs professional help.

At any rate, I need to own my part in it. I was tired of being a doormat for his bipolar banter. I felt I had to save myself.

If you’ve read any of my books, you know why. My father was a loose cannon. More aptly, he had intense mood swings and unresolved traumas from his WWII experience.

Around 1970, Dad was diagnosed as bipolar. This came after years of trial-and-error treatments, shock therapy, and prescription medications. Our family lived with his emotional illness for decades without answers or relief. At times, it was devastating. It was our dark reality.

As a child, I felt trapped in the same house with Dad whenever his outbursts would appear. He was intensely unhappy, and it spread to my mother, sister and me.

Frequently, Dad resorted to verbal abuse. Less often, physical violence. Throwing shoes at me. Punching his fist through a bedroom door. I was scared, but–at the same time–I loved my father.

Sometimes, even as an adult, these old issues reappear. Writing about it helps (and remembering the counsel of my own therapist) but maybe I will never entirely get over the feelings of anxiety from my earliest years. Maybe I will always live in fear of crash landing in a snow drift with my skis tangled and limbs broken.

Bottom line: it is my worst nightmare to be near someone volatile. Someone who has no boundaries. As uncomfortable as I feel about my exchange with Gabe, I had reached my limits with him.

In a world of sadness and pain, I couldn’t remain silent any longer. I had to speak my truth and restore my power. I think that’s what survivors do.

***

Here’s my reality check.

It’s 3 p.m. on April 19, 2022. The heat is on in Scottsdale, Arizona; it’s now ninety-seven degrees.

I’ll never snow ski; I’m too afraid of speed and broken bones.

Dad’s been gone nearly thirty years.

Gabe’s problems are his to untangle or not.

I have my own life to maintain and manage.

I am living in the Sonoran Desert with my kind husband.

We are the new recipients of Medicare cards.

Together we’ll see what the future brings.

6 thoughts on “Reality Check

  1. Dear Mark,

    Thanks for sharing this deeply personal and painful experience. I have felt, since reading your books, that your courageous for having done the counseling to see through the pain of your childhood–and to come out the other end, able to see the good and to love your father and, of course, yourself. Your kindness and caring for others, esp. your dear husband, is such a beautiful part of you. And defending Tom and yourself is admirable!

    65–you youngsters! I had read years before I was 64, that 64 was the end of middle age. I recall *not looking forward to 65*. Having just turned 79, I now look forward to being 80. At 80 I will forgive myself all oversights/outbursts and wild, crazy behavior–just because I will be 80.

    Love and hugs, Carol

    On Tue, Apr 19, 2022 at 3:35 PM Mark Johnson Stories wrote:

    > Mark Johnson posted: ” This morning it was seventy-nine degrees at nine > o’clock. Perfect for a swim. Forty lengths of the pool kept me whole. David > trudged along beside me for most of it. My neighbor–about ten years my > senior–strides through the fluid to stay strong. He h” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kindness and wisdom, Carol. This is one of the rawest pieces I’ve written. I almost didn’t press publish, but I have vowed to stay true to my reality … the ups and downs … and figure reading this may help others too. Take care, my friend. Tom and I will see you again soon. Oh, your age insights really helped!

      Like

  2. Hmm, this is interesting. I don’t need to deal with the Gabes of the world because my closed off demeanor keeps everybody away. It makes me wonder if it’s better to open up and get stuck with Gabe now and then or stay closed and talk to no one. I’ve been thinking a bit about this recently, When Wednesday spin class last week ended, everybody began talking to each other as they cleaned their sweat off their bike. A woman asked me how I was doing and I gave her a polite ‘fine.’ As I was walking to my car, it occurred to me that if I engaged her with a conversation, I probably would have enjoyed it. Food for thought, but your Gabe story definitely gives me pause. I don’t want a Gabe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t want the Gabe experience to close me off to the world, so I’m going to force myself to reengage with other, less treacherous types. I understand your dilemma Jeff. Maybe it’s best to pick your spots and gradually reach out to a few folks who feel like safer bets.

      Like

  3. Mark,
    I like the arc of your story. I especially appreciate how you summed it up in your concluding sentences.

    I know this incident at the gym has been weighing on you. I also think you’re on the right path toward letting it go.

    Liked by 1 person

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