Tuesday, May 30, 2017

It Is Through Pain That We Grow

Every week on Monday or Tuesday I seem to have a crisis. Something occurred to me or happened over the weekend and by Monday or Tuesday I have sorted out my emotions and the situation enough to determine what the problem is.

And each time, I experience pain. And each time, the pain is less. And each time, after the pain, comes insight and tremendous personal growth. I realize something shocking and helpful. Sometimes it's even life-altering.

Yesterday I had one of those.

My kids were Skyping with their dad. My son is now fully aware of his Dad, that he lives far away and that he's going to see him soon. He talks about him all the time. He asks for him a lot. He cries when he sees pictures. Just a few short months ago he was uninterested in Skype. Now, he looks forward to it and even asks for Daddy, getting upset when I take him away for any reason.

Sometimes the Skyping is active and engaged. We have tried various strategies: listening to audiobooks together, playing games together, asking questions, various times of day, etc. The things that seem to be most successful are regular times and established activities. Less successful is unstructured time. I know it bothers my kids when they don't know what to say or do to engage with their dad, so I often facilitate when they start disengaging or wandering off, which happens at least 10 times per hour of Skyping.

Yesterday, I noticed that while they were listening to an audiobook, their Dad was playing video games. I could tell because he was turned slightly away with his gaze slightly to the side of the screen. Later, I attempted to clue him in to how I take care of the youngest (who has changed dramatically since he last saw him), in an attempt to understand what he needs. But I noticed he was playing video games then, too.

I haven't honestly noticed this before. For a moment, it struck me as odd. "Well, that's weird," I thought.

And then it hit me. This used to be my normal. He liked video games. I never thought of it as an issue. When it seemed like it was getting in the way of life, he was mostly respectful about turning them off or compromising. At least, I thought so. He'd always played them. They were a little annoying at first, which is normal--everyone always has something that you don't love that you learn to live with, I thought. When we moved to CA we lived in a very small 1 bedroom apartment and he would play shooting and war games in the living room. I started to wonder why I felt anxious all the time. I learned it was from all the war noises in my living room. The sound effects are good. Too good.

When we moved, we designated a room for playing video games. He put on his headset and played XBox Live with his brothers. It never really bothered me because he had a separate room and he made the very good point, I thought, that he didn't have many (or any) friends in the area and this was his way to socialize by connecting with his brothers who were playing, even though they were far away. I saw no issue, really. Except, once we moved to California, and then to the 2 bedroom apartment, he very slowly, almost unnoticeably, stopped doing many other things as often. He was tired after work, he'd say. He unwound by watching TV and playing video games. If I wanted to see him or hang out with him, I had to do that with him. I didn't play the video games, so when he did that many nights (while I would go out and take classes or do my hobbies in the other room), I was all alone. We didn't want to spend money so we didn't go out too much. But, after a time I started to feel a bit... neglected... ignored. That's when I almost had an affair.

I said almost. I talked to a wise friend about it who said that if you feel like having an affair it usually means there is something wrong in your relationship. So I looked at it and determined that I wasn't getting enough attention. Whether I communicated this to him explicitly or not, I'm not sure. But I definitely made an effort to convince him to get out and do more things with me--to build our relationship. It was one-sided, but it worked, for awhile.

Eventually we had a kid and moved to Oakland. In our house he played video games every night on the big TV in our living room. If I wanted to hang out with him, I had to be where he was. So I watched TV on the computer while he played video games on the big screen. Eventually, my neck started to hurt from turning to look at the small screen. And, of course, I wanted to spend time with my husband who, by now, pretty much ignored me all the time, except to criticize me.

After some conflicts around the video games being "too flashy" (which, let's face it, they can be bright, flashy, and unsettling, even when you aren't looking) before I went to bed, we finally compromised by getting a smaller, separate TV in the living room. He would play on it while "hanging out with the family," listening to audiobooks with our daughter, and while we "watched" TV together. He would tell our daughter to stop looking at the video game sometimes. But other times, he'd try to involve her. I don't know that it was always clear to her which time was which, which caused issues. But, when I would tell him to please stop since we were around, he would comply. And I thought it was ok.

Eventually, he wanted me to tell him things while he kept playing video games. "I can still pay attention to you," he'd say. But, it was clear he couldn't or didn't. Because he didn't always hear me.

I'm 90% sure this contributed to the destruction of our relationship. Eventually he felt he had no friends and all he did was sit alone and play video games. If my daughter wanted to see him, she had to go sit with him up in the bedroom and play quietly while he played video games.

He said he was anxious and this was his coping mechanism. But I'm starting to wonder if playing too many video games made him more anxious. It certainly prevented him from leaving the house and being social. Which probably fueled his anxiety. I don't know which came first or made what worse, but when I told a few people this story, the result was total shock. And I still don't feel the shock. To me, it was life. It was compromise. It doesn't seem all that weird to me, still, to think about having 2 separate TVs. He had good reasons, I thought. And, I was desperate to spend time with him, even if he was distracted. Maybe I knew that this was the only chance we had at building our relationship or strengthening it and connecting. But eventually it overtook that...