Helplessness

I didn’t write yesterday. I didn’t go to work, either. I didn’t even get out of bed until noon, and that was only because I didn’t want to piss myself. The feeling of helplessness just overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t face the world. Today was pretty bad, too, but I went to work, where I had two anxiety attacks that no amount of grounding could prevent. I ended up going out and sitting in my car and crying for forty minutes.

This post is going to be longer, and I’m still not sure I’m going to post it publicly because if she reads it, it’s probably going to make her hurt more. I’ve written about control before, and I’m going to go into a little more detail about it now. Probably more detail than anyone needs to know, honestly, but I’m not writing for you. You’re just a passenger on this journey of self-analyzation that for some inexplicable reason I write publicly. You’ve been warned. (And if you’re reading this, the one who hurts, you may want to stop. Definitely don’t read it from work. Maybe not even on a school night.)

There’s an expression that some people use when something is really great. They’ll say it’s “better than sex.” Most people respond to this expression with an eyeroll, because what could possibly be better than sex, right? But that’s subjective, really. No one knows how much someone else likes something, or doesn’t like something. Some people really love sex, and they’re going to be skeptical that anything could be better. Some people don’t like sex at all, for whatever reason, and for them a bowl of cereal might be better than sex. I like sex, but it’s not my be-all, end-all. What could be better than sex for me? Control. I may not gush about it, but I don’t really hide the fact that my preferences in the bedroom are unorthodox. I like to be in control. Even in “vanilla” sex, I’ll exert some form of dominance over my partner, however mild, because the control aspect of it is what is driving me. I looked up antonyms for control. The first one was freedom, which is not something I’m feeling at all right now. Another one was helplessness, and that’s a very accurate description of what I feel, what I’ve felt for awhile.

The pandemic turned the world upside-down. In March of 2020, work sent me home with the instruction to “Stay healthy.” My two co-workers were rotating weeks on-site, and I was in reserve in case one of them got sick. 90% of my job requires that I be on-site, so remote work wasn’t really possible. They would call me with questions, and I’d walk them through some stuff, but for the vast majority of the time, I was spending my “work day” at home with no work to occupy my time. While that sounds great, getting paid to sit at home and goof off, it started to wear thin after a couple of weeks. I was losing my mind slowly. After three months of that, I finally told my boss that I had to switch teams. Even then, I was only allowed on-site every other week, and only for the amount of time it required for me to get my tasks done. So I’d drive out one or two times a week for a couple of hours, every other week, when work needed to get done. The problem then was that people were putting projects off because of the pandemic. So there wasn’t much call to drive in. That isolation just dug deeper. I began to feel like had no control over my environment.

My wife was there, of course, but she still had to go to work so I only saw her in the evenings and on weekends. In the beginning, it was a joke that I was being paid to stay home and play video games, but over time I felt like she began to resent me a little. That’s depression, though, painting an ordinary emotion a little darker. In September, I had to go to the doctor to have an in-office procedure, and it left me hurting to the point that I couldn’t sit at the dinner table on a hard wooden chair. I couldn’t even sit on my computer chair for very long. So we started having dinner on the couch…

Prior to that, we always had dinner at the table. I’d say this was to promote conversation, but I’m not really a talker. It’s more of a time set aside to be with each other, talking or no, and not have the television on distracting me. (I’m terrible if a television is on. My eyes always get drawn to it, and I start focusing on it and tuning out the rest of the world. Eating out is a problem if I end up sitting facing a screen.) After dinner, we would prep and pack our lunches for the following day. Once we moved to the couch, though, that little ritual sort of fell off. Part of it was that we were on the couch. Part was that I didn’t need a lunch since I wasn’t going in to work. Part of it was that I didn’t feel well. (That office procedure was followed up by a surgery in October, and another surgery in February, so I spent a few months on the couch with my laptop.) But I should have picked up helping again once I was healthy.

Spending my evenings on the couch was also a big change. Normally, I’d sit at my computer in the ‘office’ room, with her on her computer behind me. This allowed for small talk between us, comments on an article one of us was reading, or a complaint about a video game. Just little things, but we were together. Spending months on the couch, day and night, took that together-time away, and all of these little things began to pile on and I began to feel less and less in control over anything. I’d lost confidence in myself.

When they found the spot in her breast, it was an even greater level of helplessness. ACTUAL helplessness, and not just perceived. I couldn’t make it not be cancer. I could just sit and watch as things developed, as test results trickled in, as her anxiety spiraled higher and higher. I wanted to be supportive, I wanted to make it better for her, but I think I failed at both. It was like a constant barrage of my brain telling me what an asshole I was being and how I should just hold her and talk to her, but for some reason not having the strength to follow through.

Rather than talk to her about it, though, I went to the Internet. A place where I could be anonymous and talk about my problems without fear of having someone judge me, without having to look in someone’s eyes and wonder what they were thinking about what I said. It was easy and, as it turns out, lots of people on the Internet feel like they’re lonely and helpless to fix it. Being a part of a larger group of lonely and helpless people didn’t give me any sense of control, though. That’s when the other woman showed up, saying the right things and slipping past my filters. I’d had other women approach me, flirt with me, be more-direct-than-flirting with me, but I always blew them off politely. I’d flirt back, because the flirting did give me a little confidence, but that was still probably a step too far. That one got through, though,… and things definitely progressed too far. (Things are about to get more gross)

I’ve already confessed to having the online equivalent of phone-sex with her, but the mental picture that paints for some people is probably more than what actually happened. She’d masturbate, yes… but I wouldn’t. (I told her I was, because I didn’t want her to freak out. I told her a lot of things that weren’t true, partly not to freak her out, partly because it would keep me from ever being able to meet her) I wasn’t after sexual gratification. I wanted control. Control is better than sex to me, remember? I wanted to feel powerful again. It’s sick, I know. My wife would have supplied me with that feeling if I’d have only talked to her, I know. Hindsight is 20/20, and, in the moment, I didn’t feel like she would have. I don’t know why I didn’t. Maybe it was depression. Maybe I felt too isolated from her. The price of those brief moments of control was my marriage, and I did not know these depths of helplessness existed.

I can’t blame this all on betrayal though. That was just the final blow. The marriage was already in trouble, primarily because I felt like I couldn’t talk to her. I tried a few times, but always indirectly. I had mentioned Bo Burnham’s Netflix special Inside, and how it was his expression of how the pandemic isolation had affected his mental health. I’d hoped it would turn into a full conversation about how it had affected me, but she didn’t seem interested in it, and I didn’t push the subject further. I would sometimes ask if she was still happy to be married to me, and not push when she answered yes. I lack the communication tools to be effective in a relationship, but I also lacked the confidence that she would accept me no matter how messed up I was, no matter how terribly I phrased my worries, no matter how awkward the conversations would have been.

Having written all that out, I want to be clear before I wrap up. I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m not looking to blame all of this on some external force. This is the culmination of my thoughts over the past few weeks, the result of searching myself to see where I went wrong. This is a confession of my mistakes, my choices, that led me to the shit-hole of a life I’m living now. If there’s nothing left for me but this misery and helplessness, at the very least I hope that someone out there reads this one day, someone in a similar situation that’s speeding towards a failed relationship. I hope they can see their own mistakes in mine, and learn from them before it’s too late. I hope they can find the strength, the courage, to talk about their feelings with their partner and not hold anything back. I do believe that if I had been willing to talk, to suggest we see a counselor together, to open up and be vulnerable, I could have saved this before it went too far, before I effectively killed it.

I will never be able to apologize to you enough, Rachel, but know that I would do it every hour of the day for the rest of my life if you needed that.

Now, I’m going out to the garage to smoke a cigarette. After that I’m going to throw the rest of the pack away. I’ve wanted a cigarette every day since I quit, some more than others. After smoking again, though, it made me realize that I hate the way my hands smell afterwards, hate the aftertaste, and that no amount of nicotine is going to ease this pain.

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