MC: “The risk dichotomy”

Before D-day, I was relatively risk averse with relationships. The clearest example was my relationship with my mother. My mother verbally harassed me, threw temper tantrums to get her way, and used lies and manufactured crises to manipulate me. She did this well into my adult years. The older I got, the less I confronted her on these conflicts. I would give in to her, to get her off my back. Or, if I really did not want to give in, I would ignore her. Or, I would pretend to concede to her but then covertly go about doing whatever it was I really wanted to do anyway.

I confronted her on one memorable occasion. At the beginning of my marriage, TL and I planned a move across country. My mother insisted my father accompany us. My mother called me daily, at home and at work, to beg, threaten, and yell to get me to concede. Several times I hung up the phone. This was before caller ID was common. Even with caller ID, I could not let the phone ring and ring at work. Once I threw the phone at the wall in anger. I did not concede. We did not speak to my parents for many, many months after that.

Aside from that confrontation with my mother, there were several incidents when my mother said something rude or nosy toward TL, poked her nose in our business regarding children or other things, or generally did something that seemed designed just to irritate TL or me. All too often, my response was too meek. I attempted to ignore what my mother was doing or to change the subject. Rarely, if ever, did I say, “Mom, that’s not appropriate.” I avoided confrontation. I avoided the risk of conflict.

Now that I think about it, I avoided certain career risks too. I avoided the risk of law school. I avoided the risk of joining the military. On at least one notable occasion I avoided the risk of pushing back on a boss who was behaving the same way my mother behaved. As an adolescent and twenty-something, I avoided risks with sports and with dating.

Against the backdrop of my risk aversion, I went to the opposite extreme in my adulterous double-life. I had unprotected sex with prostitutes in a country where HIV was prevalent. I picked up prostitutes with foolhardy confidence that I wouldn’t encounter the legal or social consequences. TL is aghast that I did those things. I’d be aghast about it too, if it were someone else. TL asks why I took such risks. I’ve had the hardest time answering that question. As I was taking those risks, I told myself, “Don’t worry about it. It [the dangerous consequence] won’t happen to me.”

The other day it hit me. Perhaps my extreme risk aversion in normal life and my complete disregard for danger in my illicit life were not paradoxical. Perhaps they were related, like two ends of the same strip of paper that can touch each other if you bend them back far enough. In fact, maybe my complete disregard for danger in my illicit life was the child part of my personality rebelling against the risk aversion that the damaged adult part of my personality imposed on me.

The adult part of my personality had subconsciously learned from my mother the habit of imposing that risk aversion. Instead of growing up and being courageous, I just kept suppressing my instinctive desire for freedom, my desire to act like a grown-up, my desire to be a man. When suppressing it so thoroughly and so long, it occasionally erupted in the most uncontrolled ways, with me doing everything I could to break free, even at the expense of reason.

The dichotomy — being a risk-averse person who occasionally lost all inhibitions regarding risk — was my struggle to prove my masculinity. My mother went to sickening lengths to undermine and discourage my development as a man and as an adult. I actually developed the habit of hiding those aspects of my personality in order to avoid conflict with her. She discouraged sports, isolated me from other children, vilified the concept of normal interest in girls, and prohibited contemporary music and culture. She used shame and guilt to discourage me from dating. She made it clear she would never approve of me marrying, except in the mathematically unlikely event that I married someone of a specific cultural background that appealed to her — a culture that actually is almost nonexistent in modern America.

Having suppressed my adulthood and my masculinity so seriously and for so long, I turned to illicit, uncontrolled, and disproportionate ways of releasing those energies. Temporarily abandoning reason and risk-aversion, as part of my illicit double life, was my imbalanced psychological system’s means of seeking equilibrium. My system was imbalanced by the intense restrictions on my thoughts and actions. At first my mother imposed those restrictions. Then, I learned to impose those restrictions on myself.
The bursts of insanity — that’s what I call my temporary abandonment of reason and risk aversion — were not subconscious reflexes. When I saw prostitutes, for example, I knew what I was doing and I arrived at that insane action through a series of conscious decisions. But, I call those events “moments of insanity” because there is no better term in our language for acts that defy a person’s otherwise established patterns of thought and behavior.

Why did I choose to take those risks? I think it was my misguided way of trying to exert control over my life. I wanted the control that an adult man ought to feel with regard to his own life. My conscious adult mind did not help me achieve that feeling. So, the child part of my personality kicked in and pursued that feeling, at any cost.
I was so extremely immature — underdeveloped as an adult and as a man — that I became jealous and resentful of TL, who was quite a bit more mature than most people our age. Even before meeting TL, I was very conscious of feeling I was not really an adult, not really a man. I often felt like a little boy compared to other people my age. I didn’t like that feeling. I resented it. I resented my mother for forcing me to remain a little boy too long. I resented myself for not mustering the willpower to overcome it.

I envied other people who seemed to have matured more than I had. They were more independent from their parents, more self-reliant, more experienced with the world, and more experienced with sex and relationships. I was insanely jealous. I developed a deeply-ingrained habit of comparing myself to others. I scored my own self-worth against other people’s, in terms of number of sexual encounters, degree of independent-mindedness, and diversity of experiences, including illicit and dangerous experiences. This was the thinking that led me to total disregard of risk in my illicit double life.  I had thought less of myself when I was risk averse. So, I tried to take risks as a way of feeling better about myself. It didn’t work.

On D-day, this double life was snuffed out. The sick thinking that enabled my double-life had to end too. The solution is to focus on healthy, transparent, and genuine ways of demonstrating my adulthood and manhood to myself. Instead of comparing myself to others, I have to find intrinsic value in myself. Instead of seeking control and the feeling of adulthood and masculinity in uncontrolled bursts, I need to feel small, regular doses of it every day. For this I look to new definitions of adulthood.

I can find these in religion, fatherhood, being a better employee, being a better leader, and viewing physical fitness in a healthier light. Since D-day, I’ve been working to be more courageous — more comfortable with myself and my priorities — at work, in appropriate social interactions, and as an example in my role as a father. My life was out of balance before D-day. My personality was out of balance. Part of the work I am doing to give TL safety as my mate is to keep my personality in balance.

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