Defining Marriage

The definitions of marriage have changed. But has the definition of happiness changed as well?

For a few generations, in the youths of my parents and their parents, traditional and conservative values were prioritized above all else. The man meets the woman, they court, they save themselves for marriage, she takes his last name, they move in together and he works while she bears and raises the children. It was culturally frowned upon for women to work outside the home, even as things like domestic violence were often shrugged off and overlooked. Infidelity was expected, at least at times, for men, but strictly forbidden for women. Women were property, to be dominated and owned, even as the conventions behind marriage stated that women were to be loved and cherished. Men were brought up to be strong and to seek riches and success. Women were brought up to be cultured, modest, and demure, and to seek themselves a man.

There was certainly a lot of convention. It was relatively common a few generations ago for older men in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s, to marry much younger women, even teenagers, and for them to have two or three marriages in a lifetime. It was almost unheard of for older women to marry younger men. Women were the nurturers, and men were the breadwinners, and that was simply the way of things.

And nearly anyone can recite a form of the marriage vows. “I, man, take you, woman, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, as my lawfully wedded wife, till death do us part.” It was a transaction, a legal and binding tie that was meant to last a lifetime. The kids, the assets, the money, and the bed would be shared, and everyone would live happily ever after. And of course, a lot went wrong with these institutions, but the ideal remained. Handsome young man meets beautiful young woman and they fall in love and stay in love through decades, no matter what life throws at them. Cue every Hollywood movie ever made (well, 95 per cent of them). Cue the Notebook, and Cinderella, and Sleepless in Seattle and every feel good film that leaves you feeling like love and happiness are just around the corner if you just meet the right person.

If I’m honest, though, this describes about zero per cent of the marriages I’ve seen in my life. Both sets of my grandparents remained married until they died, but from what I know, they had years of staying loyal to each other even while not liking each other very much. There was depression, and problems with kids,  and fighting, and drinking, and the sacrifice of careers. There were extreme hard times. But they stayed together, and that was the ideal, the one we keep falling back on.

But not so much in my generation. My parents divorced. Most of my siblings divorced. I divorced. It didn’t work. The world had changed. (I mean, gay marriage is legal now.) No longer does the message seem to be to just stay together no matter what. But the ideal hadn’t changed, and thus we ended up with a generation of people feeling like they had failed, like they hadn’t done it the right way. And that sense of failure stays with you, particularly when you are connected by children. Divorce is an ugly, violent process that results, frequently, in depression and pain and bankruptcy. But also liberation, a new beginning, a fresh start, a leaving of the past and a building toward the future.

I’m 40 now, and I’ve been divorced for 8 years. And I’m noticing that the trend has shifted again. What I see now is a generation of people who are not saving themselves for marriage, who are not willing to sacrifice their happiness, or their aspirations, or sometimes even their family names. I see people who expect more out of life than to just fall in love and stay there (hopefully) for a lifetime. I see people staking their own claims. They date, and they have sex, and they pursue their careers. And they might fall in and out of love. They regret the one they loved who didn’t love them back, even as they reject others who they don’t love back. And then they turn 30 and wonder what has happened, because they didn’t achieve that ideal that they were seeking for all along: that one person they hoped to love and stay with forever. That’s right, they changed the rules about how they live their lives, and then wonder why their lives didn’t turn out like their parents did, while openly admitting that that wasn’t what they were looking for in the first place.

What I’m seeing far more frequently lately, in my personal life and in my therapy office, are single people who are angst-ing at the universe about their lack of success in relationships, and people in relationships who are angst-ing about their relationships not being what they thought they would be. For those who have partners, they seem to wrestle with depression, wondering why things haven’t turned out perfectly. Why isn’t the sex happening enough, or why is their boyfriend so quiet all the time, or why isn’t the house as clean as they thought it would be? I think they make the mistakes of assuming that relationships will be easy. On paper, in theory, they state that they are ready for the hard work that relationships will bring, that the love will be enough to see them through those tough times, but in execution, it is much harder than they realize, and they aren’t sure how or if they can make things better. The grass is always greener…

So I find myself asking others, what is the kind of relationship you are looking for? The ideal one? The one where you meet someone and fall in love and stick it out no matter what, during time of stress and pain, sickness and depression, money and trust and communication issues? Or the one where you have an independent life with personal happiness, a fulfilling career, friends, and travel, and one that you share with someone who also has an independent life? And if it is the second one, are you prepared to realize that those independent lives will not always intersect? Sex, and aspirations, and travel, and career, and goals… they won’t always be in line? Are you okay with mixing these two together and creating a new definition?

What if the ideal relationship in today’s times means a composite of these two worlds? What if you fall in love with someone who loves you, cuddles you, someone you find beautiful, someone independent and engaging, and you build something long-term, but then over time, those things change, and you with it? How does sex, career, money, family, aspirations, trust… how do all of those things change when you want the best of both, a happy you and a long-term consistent relationship? Is this the new ideal? Is this the recipe for happiness, someone to share life with even as you find your own happiness, even through major trials and struggles? Is that how it will be now? Can you remain happy and good in your own skin throughout the process of building something with someone else? Because that describes nearly every happy couple I know, at this point. that blend of baby-boomer and millennial, that solid ground assurance mixed with the murky and tenuous unknown.

Which is it you are looking for? If you are living like a millennial and looking for the baby-boomer definition of a relationship, frustration and angst are the likely results.

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To the One Who Was Cheated On…

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In my therapy office lately, I’ve worked with a lot of clients, both gay men and straight women, who have recently been cheated on by their partners. What follows is my words for them, gathered here in one place.

First off, although you already know this, you are beautiful. You are worthy of love. You are desirable, and worth it, and enough. And an act of betrayal by someone you love and trust does not change that.

You are not a fool for not noticing. Maybe the signs were there and you didn’t see them, or maybe you just felt safe and content. Maybe he acted like everything was normal, or maybe you could feel him pulling farther away. Or maybe you noticed the signs but you didn’t know what they meant. How could you? But whatever it was, whether it was a one time thing or something ongoing, whether it was online or while you were away, you aren’t a fool for not noticing. You found out when you did, and we can only live in this present moment now and figure out what comes next.

Only you can decide what to do now. You can demand therapy, ask to go through his phone, rage and scream, sleep in the guest room for a while, ask him to sleep in the guest room for a while, ask him to leave, or close off for a period of time. He made this choice, not you, and now you have to decide what to do and how to proceed. And that first night, when you found out and you simply lost it, well, that was justified. It was pure pain. Forgive yourself for that. You went there at first, but don’t stay there.

Given the chance, he may realize everything that he stands to lose. He was caught, and that may make him face up to what he has, and what he was willing to gamble with. Maybe he can show up now, maybe he can make all those changes you were hoping he would make. Maybe he will be all in, the way you have been for so long. Maybe he will be the man you always needed him to be. Maybe the sex will get better. Maybe he will make you feel attractive and loved again. Maybe he will hold your hand more, or cuddle you more often. Maybe you will feel safe again.

But maybe you won’t want that. Safe might feel threatening. The last time you felt safe, well, that was when he lied. And that is the biggest betrayal of all. You offered him your vulnerable self, your everything, you pledged your life to him, and these acts, these lies, they feel like a betrayal of the worst kind because he was so close to you. He isn’t your father, or your ex, he is the man you gave yourself to, and that hurts. And then you find yourself wondering if it was this way all along. Was he always cheating, always lying? Was the rest of what you had an absolute farce? Is he manipulative? Was it just this once, or was it many times? If he lied to you this time, did he lie all the others? What does this mean about him, about the man you fell in love with? And what does this mean about you? And if he is showing up now, why wasn’t he before? And is this sustainable, can he last, will the changes be permanent or only for a few weeks?

But maybe he won’t show up, too. Maybe he can’t change. Maybe he’ll yell at you, tell you it is your fault, tell you that if you had been more somehow he never would have cheated in the first place. Maybe he’ll shame your extra five pounds, your late nights at work, or your expectations. Maybe he’ll say it was you all along. And maybe that makes your decision easier.

But maybe he’s right a little bit. Maybe you could have shared how you were feeling more, and let him have more nights off with his friends, and listened a bit more often. You aren’t to blame, but maybe you have some things to work on too.

He cheated. He cheated and it hurts, on a deep level. But you have to remember that the cheating doesn’t negate everything that came before. All those other moments are real. The hot air balloon ride, the candlelight dinner, the sex in the shower, the ‘I love yous’ as the sun set, the way he looks at you over coffee, the time he swept you up in his arms and said you were his everything. Those moments, those experiences, those memories, are real. They are authentic and powerful. And you have to weigh them against the betrayal.

You can leave. You can walk away, and hurt, and take your things with you, and start again, and everyone would understand. You’ll heal. You’ll hurt, and grieve, and then you’ll move on. The ocean is full of fish, as they say.

But maybe you’ll stay. And if you’ve chosen to stay, well, that’s hard too, because everything feels just like it did before, all of the wonderful and all of the problems, but now you feel like a crazy person. You want to pepper him with questions about the night it happened, who was it, how was it, how often, what specifically, and what not, and was he thinking of you during or after, and was the other person better than you, and did he think about what he stood to lose? You want to call him names. You want to go cheat on him back, so he can know how it feels.  You want to check his phone, put a tracker on it, and follow him to work or the doctor or the gym to see if he’s telling the truth. You wonder if he’ll do it again when he leaves early or comes home late, and every time he leaves to run errands, or every time you are late or gone for a day, you wonder if he is going to do it again, and if so, will you catch him, and do you even want to or would you rather not know, and if he does it again will you be able to give him yet another chance. And you hate it, because you don’t want to be that person who is constantly suspicious and on high alert. The questions and wonderings exhaust you, and they make you sad, and they make him sad, and you know he feels bad and you don’t want to keep making me feel bad, but goddamn it, you were hurt.

You were hurt.

And so, whatever comes next, face it with grace. Be kind. Be consistent. Share your feelings in safe places. Keep your boundaries. Take it one week, one day, one hour at a time. You miss him, you need him, you want him, you want to want him and need you, and you want him to hold you, and you’re wary of being hurt again, and you’re not sure what comes next, and all of those things are okay. Create space for them. You are human, you are organic, and you are not in a hurry.

And although you already know this, you are beautiful. You are worthy of love. You are desirable, and worth it, and enough. And an act of betrayal by someone you love and trust does not change that.

Dark Valentine

valentine

I hate Valentines Day. Everyone hates Valentines Day.

Valentines Day is the darkest day of the year.

In fact, Valentines Day is the worst.

IF you are in a loving supportive relationship, Valentines Day sucks. You find yourself in a weird sort of competition with other couples to prove who has the most love as expressed through exchanged overly priced gifts.

“My husband got me roses and chocolates and had rose petals laid out on the bed after we got home from our steak dinner, and we have plans to rent a chalet on the ski mountain this weekend with a Jacuzzi. I’m so lucky!” she says, while her coworkers think of ways to top her story. But really they are all feeling either jealous, annoyed, or both as they think of their lack of Valentine or measure up how that Valentine stacks against the one exchanged in their relationship.

OR you find yourself in competition WITHIN your own relationship, wondering who loves who as demonstrated through exchanged overly priced gifts.

Sheri bought her wife Heather a dozen roses and wrote her a love poem while Heather made Sheri a romantic dinner and cleaned the entire apartment, and both of them are thinking, “My gift was better than/worse than hers” and plot ways to use that against each other later.

OR maybe you’ll even be pissed off about why your own relationship is going so poorly and everyone around you thinks you are happy, but you have to stomach another Valentine’s Day with the person you don’t really love anymore. But at least your Facebook status update will make things sound lovely between the two of you.

And IF you are single on Valentines Day, you will either spend it moping about the fact that you aren’t in a relationship, OR moping about your failed relationship (you know, the one you aren’t quite over yet), OR you will spend it with other single friends complaining (either out loud or silently) about not being in a relationship or your last failed relationship. Maybe you’ll get cute and call it Single Awareness Day, but really that’s just another way of lamenting that you think people who are in relationships are happier than you are.

Some advice for those of you who are in relationships: celebrate the day after Valentines Day. All of the over priced flowers and stuffed animals and food drop in price by fifty per cent. And then celebrate a few weeks later with some kind of normally priced (not overly priced) weekend or evening away. Exchange genuine, meaningful gifts, not kitschy expensive things that will never be used again. Show your love in your own way and on your own time, and make it special. And don’t, please, make others drown in your relationship status by flaunting how in love you are. “He bought me a necklace! He really does love me!”

And some advice for those of you who are single: celebrate yourself on Valentines Day. With friends or without, don’t lament on your relationship or lack thereof. Treat yourself to a nice meal, a fancy dinner, an evening away, a glass of wine and an old movie, whatever it is you enjoy. Don’t let a calendar date dictate the success of your live, just live your life and live it well.

This Valentines Day, I’ll be celebrating my children. I wrote them cards and bought them toys they like, and we will engage in family activities and talk about things we are grateful for. Last year, I was on my own on Valentines Day, and I spent the day off of social media before driving to a mountain town and treating myself to a nice dinner with a beautiful view of the mountains.

Don’t waste a minute being miserable today. Valentines Day is dumb.

St. Valentine himself is an old Saint who no one knows much about except that he was imprisoned and later killed for doing nice things and believing in his religion.

cupid

Cupid is a mythical old man baby who shoots iron tipped arrows that force people to fall in love against their will. He’s definitely rapey.

Candy hearts are disgusting. Flowers die. Chocolates make you fat.

And hearts can be full and pink and full of love, or they can be cracked down the middle and broken.

Whatever yours is, celebrate that heart, that it beats miraculously within you and gives you glorious life. Make today about YOU. And don’t worry about the THEM you are so jealous of. Don’t waste one moment of today moping about what you don’t have or what you did have, instead celebrate what you DO have: a beautiful day ahead that you can spend however you desire.

If you’re with someone, be with that person you love. But whether you are with someone or not, make sure you love yourself first.

the power of Jealousy

jealousy

This morning I yawned widely, waking up at five am and, like most Americans, I grabbed my phone and checked Facebook status updates. The first image to pop up was of a close friend announcing his new relationship status, making he and his boyfriend “Facebook Official”. I had a moment of pure joy for them, good people who fought the odds and found each other. And then I had one brief stabbing moment of bitter jealousy.

I had the same experience yesterday having coffee with a good friend, as I was genuinely happy for him telling stories of skiing with his boyfriend and preparing for an upcoming epic vacation, yet I had that bitter flavor in my mouth again, envious at the good things in his life.

Every human gets jealous of other humans, it’s the way of things. Jealousy is a complex emotion rooted, a complicated mix of shame, fear, and sadness. When we experience jealousy, we are feeling our own shame at not having the thing we want in conjunction with worrying we aren’t good enough to have that thing, while we are at the same time sad about not having it and scared we won’t ever have it.

Jealousy isn’t necessarily an unhealthy emotion–it is rooted in the idea of human want and need, and we always have things we want and need. Jealousy can become ugly when it dictates thoughts and interactions. Jealousy can complicate human relationships and can facilitate setbacks that can last for years, and jealousy is almost always accompanied by deep internal pain.

At its essence, jealousy is always understandable.

My mother has a stomach condition that prohibits her from eating most foods. And she loves eating. So our family gathers for meals in a restaurant and we order fresh fruits and deep fried cheeses and crunchy breads, and she eats saltine crackers.

One of my sisters tried for years to get pregnant, and was unsuccessful, while the sister closest to her in age had six successful pregnancies and deliveries during the same time frame.

A dear friend of mine lost his father when he was young and has spent his entire life grieving him, and he’s married to a woman who has a close relationship with her father, constantly causing him internal pain.

Jealousy is often accompanied by being genuinely happy for someone at the same time.

Sometimes jealousy is irrational as well, as people envy what they see in others but refuse to work on in themselves. John is obese and is jealous of Sam being fit but John doesn’t want to eat right or exercise; Sally hates her job and is jealous of Jane’s great job but Sally doesn’t want to spend four years in college.

Like any human, I grow jealous of other humans frequently. And like any human, others grow jealous of me. I frequently have friends say they are jealous of my relationship with my children, my recent travels, or my self-employment. I don’t like hearing this information, and I sometimes feel the need to justify and explain away why they shouldn’t be jealous by emphasizing how expensive the kids are, how unsteady self-employment can be, or how long I had to wait in my life to be able to travel. But instead of growing frustrated, I focus on the positive. When someone says I’m lucky to have children, I nod and agree that I am lucky, for indeed I am.

When I grow jealous, I do my best to break it apart into smaller emotions. What am I experiencing shame over? What am I sad about? And what am I scared of? I let myself feel the feelings and then process them (the same kind of work I would do with a client, I do with myself).

This morning, for example, seeing two people celebrate their relationship on Facebook, I processed silently to myself. What am I experiencing shame over? Well, I date and I haven’t found a lasting healthy relationship, and though I’m very happy being single, I still have the idea somewhere deep down that being in a relationship is the desired thing, and it is something that I want. What am I sad about? I’m happy for them, and sad that my own efforts haven’t resulted in a happy and lasting relationship. And I sometimes find myself lonely. And what am I scared of? I’m scared that I won’t find that.

There, jealousy dissected. I can then focus on the happiness I feel toward the other person and go about my day.

Like all complex human feelings, jealousy is one of the feelings in recent years that I have learned to be grateful for, it is a powerful and rich emotion that comes to the surface when my heart has a message that my brain needs to hear. I can be jealous of and happy for someone all at the same time, and I can be secure in my own life and still want more.

the Deep End

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I hurt someone recently.

It wasn’t intentional. I just wasn’t ready for something that he was ready for. Relationships are complicated, and, given my work as a therapist, I am sometimes a bit too therapeutic for my own good.

I take things in careful measure, careful balance. When things feel out of balance, for me they feel unsafe. I spend a lot of time helping my clients get their lives in balance, so for me to be out of balance, well, not only does it feel unsafe, it feels hypocritical, like a person teaching others how not to smoke while he has a bad drinking habit, or a preacher espousing family values from the pulpit while cheating on his wife on the side.

I’ve referenced this in my writing before, but I have come up with a rubric for helping clients measure satisfaction in their primary romantic relationships. I will have clients take a close look at their satisfaction levels in relationships in six different categories. I’ll have them take a look at the present, not the past or future, not how things could be or how they used to be, but how they are right now (a key component to living for today, something I strive to do). I’ll have them rank each category with an A+ down to an F-, a standard grading scale. An A+ indicates that things are perfect for today, they couldn’t possibly get any better. An F- means things are so bad they couldn’t possibly get any worse. A C indicates an average grade, something securely in the middle.

Here are the six categories, with a brief description after each:

COMMUNICATION: feeling heard and validated, able to talk about difficult issues, able to resolve conflicts successfully without extreme measures (silent treatments, yelling, violence, storming out)

BEST FRIENDS: enjoy each other’s company, lots of mutual interests, ability to spend time together laughing and having fun and dating on a regular basis

INTIMACY: high levels of attraction on both sides, sexual compatibility and diversity and interest, emotional attraction and safety

CO-PARENTING (if applicable): mutual goals and good communication regarding raising, rearing, and discipline of children

FINANCES: adequate money to cover needs, compatibility in spending and budgeting

and, last, FUTURE PLANNING: moving in the same direction in life, compatible plans for big life plans (schooling, job, location, home-buying, family planning, retirement, etc)

While the individual applications for couples are unique to each situation, there are common trends for many couples. Joe and Sally have incredible sex and love spending time together, but money is causing so much stress that they can’t stop fighting. Mark and John have good sexual chemistry and really love each other, but their careers are taking them in different directions. Jan and Susan are best friends who feel secure together, but they are having sex less and less and are growing distant. Amy and Adam have good attraction and communication, but he really doesn’t want children and now they fight a lot.

Relationships are complicated. It can be so easy to fall into a space where one compromises parts of self in order to make something work. And I see it happen over and over again in human experiences, where we quiet parts of ourselves in an effort to be happy even while we deny ourselves happiness. Ultimately, this proves to be one of the greatest errors that humans make. We make excuses for ourselves, compromise ourselves, and then spend years wondering what happened.

Simply put, we all deserve happiness. We all deserve the right to have high grades in all six of the categories. Sex shouldn’t be sacrificed for financial security, laughter shouldn’t be compromised for good communication, a desire for children shouldn’t be set aside for emotional safety.

We all need love and fulfillment in not just some of the areas, but in all of them. We all need to love and be loved in ways that are ultimate for us.

This person that I hurt, he was in the deep end of the pool, treading water to the point of exhaustion, hoping that I would jump in and join him. Yet I stood on the steps of the pool, getting my toes wet and warm, then my ankles, then my knees. The water felt tenuous, confusing, out of balance. When I asked for patience and time, he hoped that I would be able to just dive in.

And there is nothing wrong with a leap of faith, a compromise, a grand move toward happiness. And there is nothing wrong with slow and careful measures, a strong sense of self and taking time. Ultimately both of us deserve happiness and love and fulfillment in not one, but all categories. All of us deserve these things. To feel desirable, to be cherished, to have laughter and light and love.

The best relationships, in my therapeutic and personal opinion, come from two separate individuals who are both on firm solid balanced ground, with brilliant foundations, who then choose to join those foundations together. Relationships can never be used to fill a void in self, to stave off loneliness, or to give a sense of security, not when there wasn’t a strong foundation to begin with.

And so these final words are for anyone reading this, for anyone I care about, for the man I hurt, and for myself:

I hope you can love yourself, can measure out the places that need love and attention and time and balance, that you can find happiness and security and love inwardly and then outwardly. Life must be lived day by day, in the present, with peace and strength, and it must begin within before we can ever find it without.

To every one who has ever broken a heart or who has had their heart broken, may you be able to take the plunge into the deep end of the pool. But dive in for yourself before you begin to look for others there. Once you are used to the water, then you may find someone who is there to swim at your side.

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Enough

Enough

I have a serious hate relationship with the word ENOUGH.

When will I be good enough, smart enough, penitent enough, strong enough, fit enough, loved enough, rich enough.

We humans take the very experience of existence, a waxing and waning of needs being met and unmet (hungry/full, tired/slept, lonely/tired of people, hot/cold) and measure our worth in accordance to our experience with the word Enough. We create these picture perfect ideas of what it is that will make us happy, what will finally bring contentment.

But here’s the thing: we are never content. It will never be enough.

Make your million, then struggle with sadness because you are lonely. Find the love of your life, then realize you are bored at your job. Find the perfect job, then realize you hate the city you live in. Get in that perfect shape, then realize you are poor.

This is humanity. A constant state of searching and exploring and needing and wanting.

It will never be enough. You will never be enough.

Except that you are. In the very act of needing and wanting, in the very act of being human, in the very act of being a work in progress, you are indeed enough, not based on what you have or acquire or complete, not in a measure of anything except in being at peace with your very humanity.

And because we are so uncomfortable looking inward, we look outward. We see others who have things that we want, and then we measure ourselves against them. She has more sex, he has more money, she has more love, he is in better shape, her children love her more, he has more friends, he has his own company, she owns her own home. We look at all the ways people are better/more than we are.

And then we turn it around, we start measuring the ways in which we are better/more than others. I finished college, I work harder, I am in better shape, I am a better communicator, I am a better lover/cook/friend/parent.

I spent a lot of years measuring myself. Humans constructed a God that I was raised to believe in, one who wrote a list of rules for me to follow: the more rules I followed, the more righteous I was, the more I didn’t, the bigger a sinner I was. Judgment lied at the end: heaven or hell, the ultimate measure of worth.

It is only in the last few years where I have found peace with my own humanity, my own process of being a person with changes and needs and wants, with head and heart and gut, with spirit and intellect and feeling and form, all in careful measure. I am me. I like me. I am no better than or worse than any other, yet my only experiences are mine.

This peace within self, it is integrity. It is authenticity. It is strength.

Sometimes others who aren’t at peace with themselves, at least in my eyes, measure my worth against theirs. “I love you more than you love me.” “I work harder than you do.” “I care more about others than you do.” “I’m sicker, I’ve been through more, I feel more.” And ultimately, the message, “I need you to be different than you are so I can be more comfortable within myself.”

The very idea of this rankles me. It’s been a difficult quest to find peace. And yet, here I type about this experience, perhaps not as at peace as I had hoped I was, perhaps measuring my own authenticity against theirs and growing angry at the comparison.

And yet this is all I have, this control and centering over myself. Careful measures, open heart, balanced spirit, willing to change and grow and adapt over time, but not willing to be criticized for the person I am. Slow change over time.

Someone told me recently that I have walls up and I can’t let them go. And upon self-reflection, walls are things we put in place to protect things. And I have a wall or two that refuse to let me be actively dissatisfied with the person that I am, to be made to feel less, to be more or less than what I am now in order to find worth.

It will never be enough.

And in that, I am enough.

Enough is enough.

This me, the one that exists now in the here, this is what I have. And that’s enough.