I remember the day. It was fifteen years ago. I was standing outside my father’s apartment. We were engaged in a conversation about Mary, my stepmother, who had just been diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
My dad made a vain attempt at telling me that he wasn’t bothered by my stepmother’s inability to travel. I didn’t believe him.
My dad and Mary had been an inseparable couple for over twenty years, traveling all over the country, two trips to Europe, week-end side trips, always scouring some triple A road map or triptych.
My father often told me that, after his marriage to my biological mother and eventual divorce, he had bargained with himself that he would settle for just ten years of happiness. With Mary, it was a bargain that went beyond the original asking price. They had been together over twenty years.
Life for them had been a constant adventure, a whirlwind of spontaneity, a Manhattan-with-one-cherry happy hour every night, a Babette’s-Feast dinner, and the seven o’clock Huntley-Brinkley newscast. Did I forget the glass of beer or wine during dinner?
Constancy. Life-in-the-serene lane. And now cancer. Life at a standstill. Death rattling its slice-cutting saber.
My father never handled conflict well. He was always the artful dodger, staring off into space whenever he was confronted with some major family catastrophe. Or always rushing to Arlington, Ohio to take solace in his mother’s strong company—that was the unofficial family narrative extrapolated from all the resentments of my siblings for my father’s absence from their lives.
And now the end of his second wife’s life. He was unmoored like a messageless, free-floating glass jar in the middle of the Atlantic.
“I have to go over to a friend’s house, I’ll be right back. Watch Mary, will you? It won’t take long.”
My heart was pounding. He’s having an affair. He’s seeing someone in the apartment complex. He doesn’t give a shit about his wife. He’s selfish.
Of course, I couldn’t verify a thing. But I could feel the rush of anxiety seering into my body. I was in one of my rare trust-crises, a mode of suspicion that was so visceral, not even Buddha himself would have been able to convince me otherwise. My dad was simply and unalterably placed on my list of cruel adulterers. I needed no proof. It was a done deal.
Twenty some years later, I look back at that scene and can still feel it.
But why, I now ask myself, did I pick at the scab of my suspicion for months after the incident? Why did I slip into deep existential doubt about my dad’s fidelity? Why did I lose respect for a man based solely on an intuition, a feeling in my gut that he would run from another tragedy, but this time into the secret boudoir of some raspy-voiced Delilah or a Kim Novak look-alike?
Throughout my life, I have had profound trust issues. I grew up listening to my mother’s tirades about her own suspicions of my dad’s infidelities. And when she walked out of his life and left her five children, I was well versed in abandonment.
I would walk deftly through the paths of all my relationships, consistently fearing that something dramatic would happen that would end them. And if someone didn’t walk out on me—an inevitability I placed on all of those relationships—then I would just detach and leave or create a dramatic event to prove how much I didn’t trust the person or the relationship.
There is no other way to move out of the lack-of-trust path than to make the issue completely transparent—at support groups, to a counselor, to friends, and, especially to our significant others. Otherwise, we will continue to submerge our lack of trust into a non-issue until it comes back to kick us in the butt, often over the most minor incident or event—a look, a word, a text message, an e-mail, a facebook entry.
I have also found that, over time, sharing the scary details of my lack of trust is wonderful training; it is a way of exposing the narrative, forcing it to gently decompose into the forest of all the other narratives that have pulled me into the shadows of being the victim.
Those of us trained on the battlefield of victimhood know that we can easily project onto the world all the scenarios that mirror our own hauntingly unstable childhoods. If our parents tell us, by their behaviors, that they themselves don’t trust, we will inherit that model of the world, a model that tells us to be wary, to be cautious, to suspect, not to rely on anybody because everyone, in the end, will disappoint us.
It is a long path through the journey of trust. I’m on it. It feels good. I bring all sorts of people into my life and am gradually learning to be conscious of when the lack-of-trust bug bites me. I push my awareness to the next level and call a friend or I go to my own support-group of choice.
The process is working, so far.