Adventures in dating: ghosting

MobilePhoneLove

Returning to the dating scene after a ten-year absence has been enlightening. I am not altogether unfamiliar with the struggles of dating because so many of my clients are swimming laps in the dating pool. Just as often as not they are fighting to stay afloat and not drown in the deep end of the pool where the water is dark and chilly. And the lifeguards are too busy checking out the hot-bodied swimmers to notice somebody going under and hoping for compassionate rescue.

BWGhostWhich brings me to my recent adventure in dating: ghosting. For those of you unfamiliar, ghosting is when someone suddenly and inexplicably cuts off all communication. It can happen at any stage of the dating cycle, from the first date to months and months of dating and significant intimacy. This isn’t about sending a message on a dating app and getting no reply. It’s about actually meeting someone in person, usually for several dates or longer, and then they completely disappear. As if by alien abduction. Or being kidnapped by the Sandinistas…minus the ransom note. Or, given my known love of all things Harry Potter, they disapparate and never reappear.

I met a guy recently who seemed to be a good fit. We are both mental health professionals. We work within a few miles of each other. We have several real-life friends in common. We emailed and texted for hours a day, days at a time, until he couldn’t take it anymore and insisted we finally meet in person. It was a great first date with three hours of talking and laughing. There might have been some kissing. I’m too much of a gentleman to share details, but I will say there was no sex. More texting and talking later that night and the next day, and plans for a date the next night. GayCoupleOnCouchWhich he cancelled abruptly a few hours beforehand citing a head cold. In July. In Texas. Me being me, I give the benefit of the doubt based on my own experience with Texas weather and sinuses that view life here as a form of torture reserved for enemy combatants and prisoners of war. More so because he was so apologetic and hopeful for a rain check. A few more days of talking and texting about life and shared interests. And then it happened. He disappeared into the ether of the universe, never to be heard from again. Thinking perhaps he took a turn for the worse and somehow this dubious head cold might have worsened into a near-death experience I did check on him a few more times, even offering soup or a drug store run. No response at all. I think perhaps his disapparation skills are not strong and he vanished into non-being, which is to say everything according to Minerva McGonagall. He’s out there somewhere.

When a friend explained I had been ghosted I was appalled. Not just because this happened to me, a seemingly nice guy who could be considered a “catch” by some standards. No, I was appalled at this practice in general, and even more so that a fellow mental health professional that should know better chose this cowardly approach.

According to a 2014 survey, 26% of women and 33% of men have both ghosted and been ghosted. A 2012 study from the University of Kansas showed that while ghosting has become more common in the past decade, it is ultimately the worst possible way to end a relationship. This is not news. We have studies dating back forty years about avoidance (the psychological classification of ghosting) being a shameful and potentially reckless way of ending things. Most studies frame this in terms of the ghost being tracked down and confronted, creating a far more traumatic and potentially embarrassing interaction than a politely worded and appropriate ending ever would have been.

ManNoFaceI am not going to invest any effort in tracking down this person for a confrontation. What he did was inappropriate and hurtful, but having a drama queen fight in a public space is not going to change anything. And let’s be serious…do I want the last image somebody has of me, and those watching us, to be me as a screaming shrew venting my hurt and anger? I try so hard not to end up on Jerry Springer, and taking that “high road” often encouraged of us requires me to look beyond a moment that will in no way be cathartic and focus my energy on improving me.

Right about now you might wondering if we are going to delve into the psychology of ghosting to try and understand why somebody ghosts a seemingly nice person. Sure, we could talk about ghosting as a way to avoid one’s own emotional discomfort. We might conceptualize ghosting as a preemptive strike against assumed and expected rejection. We could even wax poetic about cycles of perceived and realized rejections fostering a fear of real and genuine connection that makes it impossible to avoid ghosting. But I’m not going there because quite frankly I don’t care why it happens. What I care about is how to move past it.

Banishing the Ghost

This is not about you. Yes, that is hard to accept. Our first inclination is to assume if we were better in some way we would be too irresistible to ghost. The problem with that is it puts all responsibility for a match or a mismatch on us and alleviates the responsibility and accountability of that jerk. If he/she/they does not have the courage to deal with the discomfort of a friendly “no thanks,” they are not capable of a genuine relationship and should not be swimming in our dating pool. That is on them, not you.

OnlineDatingDating is a numbers game. You will not be a good fit for every person you meet where there is unilateral or bilateral interest. Sometimes it takes spending time together to know it’s not a good fit. Otherwise we could simply fall in love with anybody and everybody. You date a lot to find a good match, and hopefully that match leads to love. And hopefully our odds are better than the lottery.

Feedback1Feedback loops are important. Remember the lifeguards too distracted by the hotties in the shallow end of the pool to notice we’re drowning in the deep end? They are not good feedback loops. The guy/gal/enby who just ghosted you is not a good feedback loop. Your friends and family are good feedback loops. They know you. They respect you. They love you. And that’s in spite of everything you see as potential shortcomings for a mate! Trust the people in your life when they tell you it’s not about you. Because they are right. You are wonderful and valid and deserving of love. Allow your friends to serve as a mirror and reflect back all that is wonderful about you. Make sure you allow yourself to see it.

Self-care is critical. Go for a 10-minute walk around the block. Get a massage. Pamper yourself with a manicure or a facial. Meet friends for happy hour. Meditate. Read a book. Take yourself on a date.

TextBreak the cycle. The point that most struck me in the 2014 was that so many people had both ghosted and been ghosted. Don’t be a jerk! Be honest. If you think you might not be able to do an in person rejection, it can be as simple as a candid text, email, or a brief phone call. You don’t have to have some boilerplate response, but being honest about a lack of long-term potential is honorable and compassionate. Even when it’s done through text it’s better than just disappearing.

Keep dating. Remember that finding love is a numbers game and you have be willing to put yourself out there. I promise that hiding out at home is not the answer. Nobody is going to randomly show up at your door asking you to fall in love….and if that happens I promise it’s not someone you want in your life! Get out there in the big wide world of possibility and allow yourself to be vulnerable and possibly even find love.

Rinse and repeat.

GayCoupleHoldingHands

Dear diary…life is hard.

Expressive Therapy

Sbux1Every morning on my way to the office I stop at the same coffee shop. One of the joys of this type of routine is seeing the same people over and over, and developing some form of bond. For sure I have a few favorite baristas, and there is one in particular where we have developed quite a flirtation. She writes love notes on my coffee cup, and sometimes not-so-loving but enticing notes that make Sbux2me smile or even blush. (Yes, I’m still gay…or mostly gay…and that’s another post for another day.) Nice way to start the day. I also see the same customers over and over. The mechanic from down the street. The nurse from the nearby clinic. The retail manager from the mall next door. It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only caffeine junkie trying to get a fix.

Lately I’ve noticed this same guy every morning. I’m intrigued by him. He sits at a table right outside the front door. He has a stack of books that truly is just over a foot tall. Various books with no clear theme. Yes, I glance at the titles each day because I’m just that nosy! He also has a notebook where he is furiously scribbling notes. Some kind of journal. I haven’t been nosy enough to stand over him and read what he’s writing. My curiosity does have appropriate boundaries most of the time. But from the open books in front of him I imagine him to be capturing his thoughts on what he’s reading. Possibly he’s researching his own book. Perhaps he’s reading for deeper meaning and making a life plan. Maybe it’s a form of bibliotherapy, which is a fancy psychobabble term for reading books that encourage us to think and heal.

harry-potter-1640525_1280I love to read. All the time. People who know me well understand I have quite the love affair with the Harry Potter series. First it was from the perspective of an adult who didn’t quite get the hoopla of a children’s book. Then I read them and enjoyed every word. Then I reread a few years later for escapism. Afterwards I started to appreciate the psychology of this magical world. Books are written about it. Classes are taught about it. Entire fandoms have sprung up around it. I revisit the entire series every few years and always find something new to think about. This year it’s quills and parchment.

In the HP canon, Harry attends school at a time when computers are establishing dominance in educational settings and ballpoint pens have been around for a century. And still Hogwarts relies on quills and parchment for schoolwork, and the wizarding world hand writes letters for delivery by owl. Surely email is faster for keeping up with family and other wizards around the globe. Carrying quills and ink every where you go? Geez. Seems like a pen in the pocket or purse would be more practical. But is practicality really the best measure of an experience?

fountain-pens-1828646_1280I don’t use a quill and have never seen actual parchment. I collect fountain pens. Right now I own just under a dozen. I’ve recently started journaling in a lovely Moleskine notebook I carry everywhere. I’ve also started writing letters and cards on a daily basis. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time finding reasons to break out one of my pens and hand write something. Anything at all. Which is really a big deal for me because I have the most atrocious handwriting. I hate it. It’s the reason I’ve avoiding hand writing anything I could for the past twenty years. And now all of the sudden I cannot put down the pen. What happened to me?

notepadI discovered a new connection between my mind and the paper when I use an actual writing implement. For me it is the fountain pen. For Harry it is the quill. Writing something out by hand requires deliberate thought. It is an active process. When I see the stranger at the coffee shop writing in his notebook, he is truly thinking about what he wants to record because there is no backspace. There is a reason so many authors and poets and speechwriters compose in longhand. JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel in longhand. Quentin Tarantino. Joyce Carol Oats. Neil Gaiman. They all write longhand.

As I said I have taken to journaling. Every day. Sometimes more than once a day. It’s a form of expressive therapy that focuses on my internal experiences, thoughts, and feelings. It’s an attempt to make sense of the past and the present so I can better see the future. Journaling helps me process what is going on in my head so that I’m more active in my own therapy sessions. It has allowed me to uncover themes to the events in my life, and my role in those events. I can revisit something that I know has a meaning even if it hasn’t become clear yet. Sometimes my journal is like Dumbledore’s pensieve…a place to record excess thoughts and examine them later to spot patterns and links.

travelers-notebook-2245970_1280Sure, I could keep a digital diary on my computer or my iPhone or iPad or whatever device non-Apple users prefer. But I’ve found true joy in putting pen to paper and what it means for me to transfer my thoughts through a physical act. Deliberate thoughts where introspection leads to a new insight or just the release of pressure from clearing my mind. Sometimes I write a paragraph, and sometimes I write several double-sided pages. Maybe it’s all one topic, and maybe it’s a bit more jumbled steam of consciousness writing to just “clear the cache.” Certainly a blog like this is a journal, but what I write here for public consumption is not nearly as deep or personal as what’s in my little black book.

What have I learned so far? For a long time I have really hated myself. My thoughts and words and actions have been centered on so much self-loathing and self-sabotage that I marvel at how I’ve gotten out of bed some days. My view of myself has been so harshly negative for so long. Some of it dates back to childhood hurts related to being bullied in school and my family of origin. Trauma has played a role. Some of it is tied to failed relationships and rejection. And most of it is simply tied to daily life events that affect us all, but that my distorted view allowed to spiral out of control in a repeating cycle of self-destruction.

Brain KeyMost of all I learned that I’m far more culpable than I wanted to admit. I am usually the architect of my own unhappiness. I have been one of the worst for taking care of myself despite what I advise clients. I learned that I have a creative side that wants to burst free and see the world. That I love deeply and passionately and have much to give others. That my view of the world, sometimes healthy and sometimes not, is perfectly valid so long as I use it to shape my life into something meaningful. That I am actually a fairly interesting person who deserves happiness and joy. And that I alone am responsible for making that happen.

Some of this was a bit tough to accept. After all, who wants to learn that no matter what happens in life we are ultimately responsible for our happiness or lack thereof? Getting over trauma requires an investment to be healthy again, and fair or not we have to do it. Moving past a failed relationship requires owning my part in the failure. Acknowledging positive qualities and traits is healthy and realistic, and good for me even when I want to discount myself. Seeing all the potential in life helps me set and achieve goals alone and with others. Yes, it’s been quite a journey and there is no end in sight. As long as my hand can hold a pen, I will be journaling to better understand myself.

Journaling just for me requires a level of honesty I was not ready to accept at first. I had to strip away the pretense of what I imagined a journal to be. This is not “Dear Diary, today Johnny called me a fag and everybody laughed at me. Still I think he’s the cutest boy in school.” This is real. It is deep. It is meaningful. It has helped me see the world and my place in it in a far more realistic way. I love that. And now I’m off the journal some more…

books-690219_1280

A Therapist Comes Out

ComingOutNo, I’m not coming out as gay. I already did that some 20 years ago. And yes, I realize Pride was last month. But still I’ve decided to come out of another deeply personal closet. This one might actually be a bit harder than when I thought I was going to shock my parents about sexuality … though they were not the least bit shocked and if anything were a bit underwhelmed by the revelation. I am coming out of the therapy closet. I am a therapist who sees a therapist for my own mental health and well-being.

DepressionIt would seem like a therapist should have no trouble admitting that he sometimes needs help just like anybody else. In my mind, I can easily accept that at some point in their lives nearly two-thirds of American’s will qualify for a mental health diagnosis like anxiety or depression or ADHD. I encourage people to live genuine and open lives where shame and pretense are cast aside. And now it’s time for me to do the same.

Years ago I was diagnosed with a depressive disorder. Like many people, I tried medication with limited success. I wasn’t ready to work on the “real” issues and thought taking a magic pill would solve all my problems. It did help to an extent, but since I avoided dealing with the root causes of my depression it was bound to relapse. And it did. Several times in my adult life. Recently I started a course of psychotherapy to unpack the longstanding issues that fuel my depressive states. I want to better understand myself and the things that have happened in my life so I can make lasting changes. I want to cast off the chains of depression and emotional oppression so I can be the happiest and healthiest version of me. I deserve that.

Depressed WomanMy fear in coming out as a working professional with a depressive condition is that clients would think I was unfit to do my job. After all, who in their right mind would go to a depressed therapist? Well to be clear, I have periods of depression that are cyclical in nature. They are not so debilitating that they prevent me from attending to my daily needs, going to work and doing a good job, socializing with my friends, and enjoying many aspects of my life. Does that sound at all familiar? A “mild” depression where you are living life, just not your best life?

I was fascinated with the notion that mental health professionals are supposed to be these perfect creatures living blessed lives of flawless grandeur. And when my clients ask, sometimes jokingly and sometimes not, how therapists get through their day without having somebody to talk to, I would give a standard answer about “being trained to compartmentalize and maintain boundaries.” That is a true answer. We are well trained to compartmentalize the things we hear and to maintain a professional distance to avoid a vicarious traumatic reaction to the struggles and stresses of our clients’ lives. But come on! We’re still people! We have feelings too!

So here I am, coming out of the therapeutic closet and seeing the world from the eyes of my clients. When I attended my first session with a counselor who specializes in treating mental health professionals, I was quickly assured that I am not alone or some anomaly. In fact, he said something that gave me pause for several minutes: “the best therapists have their own therapists, and it makes them better at their jobs.” I’m pretty sure I’ve said things that caught my clients off guard and helped them see themselves and their struggle in a different light. Or at least I hope so. With that one sentence I knew I was doing the right thing.

Why come out of this closet at all? Why take the risk of alienating current or potential clients by admitting that I also seek help? Because mental illness in America has been far too stigmatized for far too long. How can I in good conscience encourage people to accept mental illness as a variation of the human experience and be ashamed of my own struggles? I care not for hypocrisy, so it seems to me that if I want to encourage a shift in how we view those seeking help I need to change the way I view my own need for help.

Therapy 5What have I learned so far? Nothing groundbreaking. Nothing that I didn’t already know from my own professional training. And yet I’m learning more about me than I could imaging because I wasn’t open to the possibility before. I’m solidifying goals for my life. I’m unpacking a lot of hurts that impact my self-esteem. I’m learning to better care for myself and reach out when I need support. I’m discovering just how passionately I care about some issues and how I can help make my world and the world around me a better place. I’m learning to see the best in myself so I can be the best version of myself. All the same things I do with my clients, I’m ENJOYING for myself.

And I feel great! I’m no longer scared to say that I have a therapist. He helps me care for myself and better myself. I am living a healthier and happier life, and working towards being the best me that I can be. And I know that I am a better therapist for it. Not just because I have a better understanding of what it’s like to be “on the couch.” But because I have a better understanding of the change that happens when you take care of you.

LifeIsGood