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I used to never say “Enough.”

I’d bend over backwards to avoid saying “Enough.” I didn’t know what would happen if I ever did, and I was afraid to find out. Coming from a background in which I was harshly punished for ever expressing inconvenient needs, the idea of saying “Enough” was nigh unthinkable.

Saying “Enough” would mean acknowledging something bad was happening. Something hurtful enough that such a response was warranted.

The first time I really said “Enough” started out small. It was almost accidental. I felt so hurt and so awful I could no longer pretend everything was okay. I gave a tiny weak “Enough.” I hoped it would give me a few weeks of breathing room and recovery time before I had to go back to pretending.

That’s not what ended up happening though. My tiny weak “Enough” got push-back, and I needed that recovery time so desperately, I actually held the line. No one was more surprised about this than me. And every time my “Enough” got pushed on, it got a little bigger. And a little bigger. And it was all so stressful I broke my tooth from clenching my jaw so hard.

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

The hardest part of saying “Enough” is that it forces things into the light. The light is revealing. And you might learn that things aren’t going to change, and yet the light shows that things are intolerable. And you see that all the effort you’ve put in, all the years of swallowing your feelings and smoothing things over and bucking up and keeping a stiff upper lip and hoping for the best and thinking this time things will be different, all of this is the mental equivalent of a dog chasing its tail.

Saying “Enough” is also saying “Please stop hurting me,” and sometimes the answer you will receive is “No.” And with the bullshit stripped away, you then have to respond to this situation.

I wish I could tell you that this first experience with “Enough” taught me how to do it again, but it didn’t. It was just a beginning.

But it did teach me that “Enough” was a possibility.

Anyway, I faffed around for a couple of years, still not able to say “Enough” even when it needed to be said, which was unfortunate on many levels. And little by little I improved, and little by little my courage for speaking up for myself grew. And at the same time I did my best to change my life so I wouldn’t have to say “Enough” so often in the first place.

Last month I had to say “Enough” twice. What I’ve learned is, while it is important to be able to say “Enough” when you need to, if you reach that point, things have already gone a little bit off the rails. So twice in one month is not ideal. For one thing, it is pretty exhausting. For another, it means I was making some less-than-ideal choices, which is never fun to have to acknowledge.

But I can also tell that my choices overall have improved, because one person responded to my “Enough” with a genuine and heartfelt apology and respect for the boundaries I’d requested. This hardly ever happens, in my experience at least, and it is the best possible outcome to a not-so-great situation.

I used to never say “Enough.” But I’m really glad I learned how.

Sometimes dating can be an exhausting endeavor.

Photo Credit: Introppia via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Introppia via Compfight cc

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I joined Coffee and Bagel for two reasons: you (theoretically) only get one match a day, solving the “Who the hell has time to online date?” question; and I thought I could probably blog about it later.

I embarked on a text conversation with a guy, and I thought, “Oh look, we’re already having a back-and-forth conversation. This is good!” But then he told me how video games are the future and did I ever think about writing for games, with the heavy implication that novels were…I’m not sure what exactly, but definitely not all that. And then I was done.

The highlight of my first month on Coffee and Bagel was a week-long stint of texting a guy who was sick (so we couldn’t meet in person), culminating in a random text he sent after midnight, apropos of absolutely nothing, that simply stated, “anger.”

Oh, dating. You can’t make this stuff up. And I’m sure it will shock no one to learn that we never did meet.

*

I hesitated to write this blog post. We are all so fond of being presented with the positive spin, and talking about how tiring dating can be dodges this requirement.

Buck up, I am told, there are many fishes in that metaphorical sea. I have met a lot of those fishes. I know there are a lot of them because occasionally they swarm, and you have to graciously say no to one or more people while never letting on that you have recently been in tears over another.

It’s all part of the game, right? At least until you put your foot down and refuse to play by other people’s rules.

*

It’s interesting to date as a recovering people pleaser. I still overwork. I still forget sometimes that my needs are important. I still tend to be a bit too nice, a bit too ready to extend the benefit of the doubt.

But I reach the point of recognition much more quickly. The “oh wait, this is complete bullshit” moment. The “huh, no matter how I spin this, there is something uncool going on right now” moment.

And my friends keep me honest. Once I have the moment, I make myself tell them about it. Not because I actually think I will waver, but just to be safe. And because they will usually be kinder to me than I would be to myself, and I think that helps to balance things.

*

One of the problems of changing old patterns is that they feel familiar. They feel right. They are what you are used to. It is sometimes hard to even consider the possibility of them being different. Imagination can fail when what you’re attempting to picture is so foreign to your model of how the world works.

One of the amazing things about having a support system is that I have surrounded myself by people who treat me well. For quite some time I was nonplussed by this notion. It seemed weird. Uncomfortable. Stressful, even, like I’d have to figure out ways to live up to it. Or like it might be taken away again at a moment’s notice.

And then I began to settle in. I began to become used to being treated well. I began to think I deserved it. I began to be able to be more authentically me, to allow myself to express more affection and more emotion in general.

I even began to demand it.

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When I experience an “oh, this is bullshit” moment in dating, it can be more exhausting than it might be for a person not trying to change old patterns. My body kicks into fight or flight mode. It sometimes feels like my survival is at stake. I have to remind myself that things are different now because suddenly they don’t feel so very different.

This is why I prefer not to be alone at such times. Having a friend there, whether in person or on the phone, is a tangible reminder that yes, things really are different. That yes, the support system really exists and there are people out there who care about me and will treat me well. I hate needing this reassurance. I hate the vulnerability of it. And I am so grateful to receive it.

*

Here, then, is a dilemma with dating. It takes time and effort. It can definitely be absurd enough to make me laugh. Sometimes it also makes me very tired. And in the meantime, I am surrounded by people who love me. I threw myself into making my life as awesome as possible, and it worked better than I thought it would.

What this means is that a lot of dating simply doesn’t measure up to what I already have. Believe it or not, this is actually a good thing. Because what I want is the dating that does measure up.

Let’s hope I know it when I see it.

Five years ago today, I published this blog’s first post.

Five years. FIVE YEARS.

And this is my 516th post. Can you imagine? I have sat here typing like this 515 times before this time.

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Let’s think about this blog for a minute. Why do I do it? Why have I sat down every Monday and Wednesday for the past five years of my life and written a post?

It’s not a wildly successful blog, after all. I don’t get thousands upon thousands of hits. This is no Whatever, no Bloggess, no MarkManson.com. I don’t get nominated for awards for my work here. Sometimes I write what I believe to be an important post, and it sinks to the bottom of the pond without leaving a single visible ripple in its wake.

I make no money from the blog. I don’t run ads that give me a kick-back. I don’t participate in marketing schemes. I don’t even have an affiliate Amazon link.

And yet. Five years. For five years I have shown up.

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The blog is not always easy on a personal level either.

Occasionally, people believe it is okay to discuss personal and private issues they have with me in the public comments section of a public blog. (Note: This is not okay.)

Occasionally, I use an anecdote to help illustrate my point, and people I care about get worried they might have inadvertently hurt my feelings. (Note: I probably wouldn’t have chosen that anecdote were that the case.)

Occasionally, people in my personal life read a post of mine and think I am talking about them when I am not. Or they think I am talking specifically TO them, and I am not. Or they make a personal choice I may or may not agree with, and say, well, I did it because of what you said on your blog. And I look down at my open hands, and I think, I don’t want that kind of power. I want to make you think, yes, but then the decision is yours.

Occasionally, people misunderstand me. Sometimes this is because of projection. Sometimes this is because I didn’t do a very good job writing my post. Sometimes it is both.

Sometimes I don’t know where the line is. I don’t know what to write about and what not to write about. I don’t know what to tell you and what not to tell you. Sometimes this confusion ends up leaving you confused too.

Five years.

*

So then, why? Why am I sitting here struggling over these sentences?

Part of it is that I believe in creating for creating’s sake, and art for art’s sake.

But perhaps more of it is because I believe in my One Reader.

My One Reader reads my post and has an Aha! moment.

My One Reader reads my post and feels less alone.

My One Reader reads my post and decides to go on fighting another day.

My One Reader reads my post and loves herself a little bit more than she did before.

My One Reader reads my post and thinks about something in a new way.

My One Reader reads my post and feels a little lighter.

My One Reader reads my post and thinks, I thought that was just me! And a little bit of the guilt or shame or self-disparagement dissipates.

My One Reader reads my post and later on when he is lost, he remembers it and he comes back and reads it again, and it is a small light in what might have otherwise been complete darkness.

My One Reader gets a kick out of seeing yet another Nala photo.

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My One Reader reads my post and a connection is created, and maybe we see each other a little more than we did before.

I don’t know who my One Reader is on any given day. But I believe he or she is out there. And I believe he or she matters.

*

Five years. Here’s to you, One Reader. And here’s to the Practical Free Spirit.

Last year at this time, I was feeling uncomfortable about my age.

Am I 5 or 50? Hmm....

Am I 5 or 50? Hmm….

One reason I was feeling uncomfortable about my age was that I was dating someone who was some years younger than me. Six, to be precise. I had my moment of discomfort, and then I caught myself and said, “No, this is not going to be what I’m doing. I am fine with myself at exactly the age I am.”

But after this, he managed to bring up my age several more times in the short time we were dating. This sucked. I felt uncomfortable. And then I felt frustrated with myself about feeling uncomfortable about something over which I had precisely zero control. We can’t pick how old we are. We can’t pick when we were born.

My birthday is on Saturday, and this year I’m feeling fine with the age I’m turning. Occasionally I feel the ghost of this age discomfort. But if someone has a problem with my age, there is absolutely zero I can do about it. So I’ve mostly stopped caring.

No, this year I’ve been feeling uncomfortable about different things.

But what I’ve realized is that this discomfort doesn’t stem from where I thought it did. I’m okay with who I am. In fact, I’m happy about it. I’m okay with where I’ve come from. I’m okay with my emotions. I’m okay with me. All this discomfort is actually coming from one place. True to my empathetic, people pleaser roots, I am still worrying about what other people will think of me. I am still worrying about smoothing things over. I’m still worrying about keeping things from becoming awkward.

Just as I felt uncomfortable about my age even though I’m actually perfectly happy being the age I am, and always have been.

That’s it. That’s all it is.

Of course, now that I’ve recognized this, I have a choice. I can remain bogged down in the discomfort, and instead of accidentally giving “people” this power over me, I can continue to give it to them consciously. Or….

Instead I can say, “Actually, this is very silly.” This is where I come from. This is how I feel. This is what I want. This is what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel a little uncomfortable about some of these things, and that is just another part of how I’m feeling.

I can remember that I don’t really care what people think of my past, or what I’m doing with my life, or how I feel. That what they think doesn’t change anything, doesn’t steal away any validity or value or inherent truth.

I can think about how vulnerability is not about the response I receive. It’s about accepting who I am and where I am, and about sharing these things when I choose. It’s about having a choice in the first place.

Well then.

Actually, this is very silly.

How’s that for a birthday epiphany?

That’s great you have a support system, Amy, but how did you get here?

I’m going to write about how I built up my support system in the last three or so years, but I need to begin with a caveat: Your mileage will vary. A lot of factors can affect building a support system: personality traits, geographic location, age, whether or not you have kids, financial/work situation, etc. What I’m going to talk about is what worked for me.

Begin with what you’ve got. I didn’t begin completely from scratch. When I realized things were really bad, and I’d need a support system to weather the storm, I sat down and took stock of what I had. The answer was: Nala, a loose sprinkling of local acquaintances from the last ten or so years, the writing community, game night, one non-local friend I had opened up with, two local friends I thought I could bear to open up with, a couple of professionals. This is what I had to build from. It wasn’t great, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

Friendship.

Friendship.

Find your professional supports, if possible. These are the people who form part of support systems professionally. Often you will pay them, Sometimes you will not. These are your therapists, body workers, teachers, coaches, ministers/priests, trainers, sponsors if you’re doing AA-related stuff, doctors, hospice workers, etc.

The great thing about these people is that providing a certain type of support is their job (be it paid or volunteer). This simplifies the relationship in some ways. The downside is that not all professionals are created equal, and it can be a fair amount of work to find the ones that work the best for you.

Up your self care and communication skills. This way you’ll have a much better idea of what you need. And then you can ask clearly for what you need, which gives you a lot better chance of receiving it.

Okay, now we’re going to move to the life mountain metaphor, which I love and first talked about here. Summary: Each of us stands on the peak of our own mountain. Our closest friends are on the top of the mountain with us, then our friends, then our kind of friends, with our acquaintances at the bottom. Got it?

More is better on the mountain. Why is this true? Well, when you’re building a support system, you ideally want a lot of layers and fail-safes built in. After all, you want your support system to hold some load. You want more people because: 1. you can spread the load out over more people, 2. if life happens to some of your key support people, you have other options, and 3. when change happens (as it inevitably will), you can potentially move some of the people who are lower down the mountain up.

But it should be a good more, not a desperate more. If people are repeatedly treating you badly or if you just don’t get along well with them, they probably shouldn’t be on your mountain at all, or else be at the very bottom.

It takes time. And when I say time, I mean both time to spend with these people who populate your mountain, and a longer timeframe to develop these relationships with strong foundations of mutual respect and trust. You can’t build a support system overnight.

(Exception: If you participate in an intense experience that is specifically organized to bond people, then you can become very close very fast. I tend to be slightly suspicious of this though because you’re away from your regular life and often a lot of possibly important information and context is omitted. Not that I don’t think this can’t work, but I’d use caution.)

Learn to be okay with rejection. Learn to walk away. Not all people you invite to various tiers of your mountain will want to be there. Usually these people won’t reject you outright; they’re more likely to be vague and/or very busy and/or noncommittal. Let them go. Some people will want to be there, and it will turn out they’re really not good for you. Let them go too. Sometimes you will want certain people to be higher up on your mountain, but no matter what you try, they never rise above a certain tier. Let them stay where they are. Find different people to bring higher. (Which, yes, takes even more time.) Do whatever you need to do to learn to be okay with all of this.

Find hubs and communities. This does speed up the meeting process a bit. Hubs are people who seem to know “everyone” and enjoy connecting people. They are often hard to get close to themselves, but they are gold to know. Communities tend to have regularly recurring events, which makes forming friendships easier. And communities often provide a form of support in and of themselves.

“Friend” everyone you meet. Especially local people. I’m a big believer in weak ties. You never know which ones might turn into actual friends. You can use Facebook to communicate with them and potentially develop the friendship. And you will receive a lot more invitations this way, and you can meet more potential friends at these events. (Yes, this is all also great for dating.)

Say yes. The more you participate, the more friends you’ll meet, the more populated your mountain will become. Say yes when you can. Say yes even if it’s a little outside your comfort zone. (Say no too, of course, for self care.)

Learn to stay in touch. A little can go a long way. The random text message. A short IM chat. A tweet, Facebook comment, or even a like. An invitation to a party or event. A bit of extra effort made for friends you like who are visiting from out-of-town, if possible. Or even (cough) a blog, so people feel they have some idea what’s going on with you.

You have to be the one to reach out first. Yeah, I know, this is totally unfair, but also the most effective. People are busy and used to their own routines. You have to be the one to show interest, to extend that first invitation, to check in. Once the friendship is more established, this will balance out to a more equal distribution of effort (not always, but often). When it doesn’t balance out, what tends to happen is that as you fill your mountain with other people who do balance the effort, the friends who don’t will naturally move further down the mountain.

When I started, it was really hard for me to issue that first invitation. Now it seems like a completely normal thing to do. Practice pays off. It also gets easier to…

Find the “excuse” to hang out. Yes, it should be something you’d like to do, but you have to have something you’re inviting a potential new friend to do. Usually this will revolve around either participating in a common interest or talking about that interest. If it’s going to be primarily talking, it also commonly revolves around food and/or drink. I have friends that started as writing friends, theater friends, dancing friends, board game friends, movie friends, foodie friends (which can simply mean that you both love pie), etc. Over time, this might expand to encompass all kinds of subjects and activities (and might even eventually not have anything to do with how you first bonded), but at the beginning, you just need that first excuse.

For example, one of my closest friends and I met at game night. So we had board games in common. One game night he mentioned Japanese curry was one of his favorite foods. I had never had Japanese curry. He mentioned it one or two more times, and then I asked him if he’d like to go to curry with me so I could try it. And that was that: the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Open up trial and error. At some point in the friendship, in order to move a friend up the mountain, you have to open up to them. This can be terrifying, and it’s not all in your head. It is an actual risk, and you must take it. And sometimes it will end badly. Sometimes you will realize you cannot discuss a certain subject with a certain person. Sometimes you will realize you cannot discuss anything sensitive with a certain person. Sometimes people will judge you harshly. Sometimes people will give you really obviously bad advice, very sincerely. Sometimes people will be unkind. Some of these people should not be allowed to progress to the top of the mountain.

With practice, much of this can be weeded out ahead of time. But you can never know for sure until you’ve done it. It gets a bit easier when you have other friends you trust. But when you’re starting out, well, it’s like jumping from a plane.

Recently when I did this, here is what I said: “So…we’re about to either become better friends or have an awkward moment. You game?”

He was game. We are now much better friends.

Learn what kind of support you can successfully ask for from different friends. Friends have different strengths and weaknesses. Ideally when asking for support you can play to their strengths. Some friends are great for when you’re in tears. Some friends give great romantic advice, others give great career advice. Some friends are perfect for giving you a distraction. Some friends excel at connecting you to other people. Some friends are great listeners. Some friends get you out of the house. Some friends are great for logistical issues. Some friends make great soup when you’re sick. Asking people for what they’re good at giving makes both of you happy and brings you closer together.

For example, I am horrible at being asked for rides. There are a few exceptions, but really, I’m often just no good at this. And I’m not great at non-emergency last-minute practical favors either. But I’m good in an emergency, and I’m good at listening, and I’m okay at distracting.

Finally, know this is not easy. It takes lots of time and effort. There may be setbacks, sometimes major ones. There may be discouraging days. There may be times when you need large chunks of alone time. There is nothing wrong with you if it feels like an uphill climb.

It certainly felt like an uphill climb to me. And I’m sure there will continue to be bumps and obstacles. All I can tell you is what I told myself: Yeah, maybe you’ve failed. Maybe you’ll fail again. But keep trying anyway. Take a break if you need to, but never completely give up.

This is how I got to where I am right now.

I remember wishing for a support system.

I don’t remember exactly when this was. It couldn’t have been high school because I didn’t aspire to anything as lofty as a support system in those years. So it must have been college, when my mom was dying. I needed a support system while she was sick, and I knew I’d need one just as much after she died. I remember writing lists, plotting out how I could create this support system that I so desperately needed.

I failed. I couldn’t find a support group. I couldn’t figure out the mental health services on campus. I found very few peers with whom I could speak openly. My mom had two wonderful volunteers who came to visit her while she was sick and then helped us organize the memorial after she was gone. But then they went back to their regular lives. I desperately wanted my relationship with the rest of my family to be close, but it was not close, and I could not force it to become close, however much I tried.

I didn’t get what I needed.

I tried a few more times later on to create this support system I’d been so convinced was a good idea. Each time I failed. Each time I became less convinced it was even possible. I never completely gave up, but my efforts became more and more half-hearted as time went by.

It occurs to me now, writing this, that when you’re chronically not getting what you need–when, in other words, you are starving–then you’re in no position to set strong boundaries. You’re in no position to set many boundaries at all.

I’ve been thinking about support systems again because the last couple weeks have been on the rocky side, and in the breaks between bumps, I’ve been watching how I handle it.

When I think of the Me of ten years ago, or even three years ago, I don’t recognize myself.

Part of the difference is that I’m now an expert in Amy care. And the rest of the difference? It’s that support system I always wanted. I have it now, and I don’t hesitate to use it. Within a few hours of my first awareness that I wasn’t exactly a happy camper about some things that were going on, I was on the phone with one of my best friends. And every step of the way through the following days, I’ve felt supported, in several different ways, by a wide variety of people and communities (and little dogs).

Granted, these have been relatively little bumps I’ve been experiencing. But I know if they had been bigger, those same people and communities would have been there for me.

I am getting what I need.

Here, then, is a message to Past Me: Your idea about support systems is as good as you think it is. I’m so sorry you don’t already have one, and I know it’s really hard to put one together, but hang in there and keep trying. You’ll eventually figure it out.

You’ll eventually get what you need.

And here is a message to those of you who are part of my support system now:

Thank you for feeding my heart.

Photo Credit: sullen_snowflakes via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: sullen_snowflakes via Compfight cc

Today Nala and I are celebrating our sixth anniversary of living together and being best friends.

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Doubtless everyone who reads this blog already knows how much I love this little dog. And how much she loves me.

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Someone asked me this year, “Amy, what would you be doing with your life right now if you didn’t have Nala?”

My answer was, I’d be traveling. I’d be nomadic. I’d put all my stuff in storage, and I’d go around the world with my laptop, writing as I went.

And then I said, “And after several months I’d be incredibly lonely.”

As romantic as it sounds, I’m glad that’s not what I’m doing with my life right now. And I’m grateful to Nala for providing me with the grounding that has encouraged me to stay in one place and learn to make the connections with my friends and communities that are so important to me.

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Nala and I share so many little moments of joy. Our daily walk. The twice-a-day celebration of her receiving her dog food. The wagging inspired by homecoming. The leap into the lap when I am feeling sad or stressed or otherwise upset. The careless flop onto the back, revealing the belly. The ridiculous way she runs up the stairs for absolutely no reason.

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I think of the list of things about my life that make me happy: my friends, writing, singing, dancing, reading, my apartment, delicious foods, travel, learning new things. It’s a great list. And Nala is at the very top of it.

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For me, Nala is home.

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