When “Keep it Simple” Gets Complicated
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When “Keep it Simple” Gets Complicated


This post was originally published on December 1, 2014.

Like many people in recovery, my life revolves around self-care. I don’t drink, I don’t go out very often and I don’t spend a lot of time with people who don’t “get it,” preferring to stick by friends and coworkers that I trust. I give myself tons of alone time, as well as time to create. In the morning, I have about an hour-long daily practice that involves journaling, finding gratitude and meditation. I eat healthfully and take care of my body, a body I once felt estranged from.

I believe that it’s a result of my lifestyle that I feel good. And yet, as a consequence—one might even say reward—of “keeping it simple,” lately I’ve noticed that life is getting more complicated.

For starters, today I’m in a relationship that’s more rewarding but also more demanding than my last. We’re talking about him moving in, our saving money together and even someday, maybe, having kids. All good stuff, but sometimes it feels overwhelming.

I’ve written before about how being in a relationship means having to love, having to communicate and be emotionally available, having to care, having to empathize and having to recognize someone’s needs other than your own. Being in relationships, I have righteously written, means having to be trusted and be respectful—recognizing your partner has boundaries and considering that person’s feelings as much as your own.

Being in a relationship requires all this—unless, of course, you keep yourself in relationships with people suffering from mental handicaps more crippling than your own. In those cases, you can always blame the lack of intimacy in that relationship on the other person, and let yourself off the hook.

For a long time, when I was unable to give what a relationship demands and didn’t want to be alone, this was the strategy I relied on. I tried to partner with people who were unwilling or unable to be a partner back. Now for the first time in sobriety, I’m in a relationship with someone who’s “normal’”—as in healthy, well adjusted, emotionally available, the works. It’s wonderful; the love, concern, affection and attention my partner gives me is what I’ve always wanted. At the same time, it’s humbling to admit how difficult it is to give this in return.

Having only really begun practicing basic life skills at the age of 27, and having spent the last couple years in particular focusing only on myself, today I find even the bare minimum requirements of being in a relationship to be immensely taxing.

I know that a true partnership requires reciprocity and so, every day, with a varying degree of success, I try and ante up. Some days, it’s not so easy. We haven’t even moved in yet and already I’m irritated by sharing my space. His contact lens solution left out on the kitchen table. His socks on the living room floor. He’s there many mornings and so, instead of my routine, I’m engaged in conversation.

“What are you thinking?” he’ll ask pleasantly.

I’m thinking how I want to go to the gym and would that be rude, to ditch you for a couple of hours and just be alone?

Instead of this, I give an appropriate answer. If he wasn’t there, I’d have my usual bran cereal—but he’s having bacon and eggs.

I know that I could have my cereal anyway—that I could go in the other room and do my daily practice, that I could go to the gym or take all morning alone, doing my thing—but I also know my need for space can come off as rejecting. His bids for my attention are normal. And besides, the bacon smells good.

Being in a relationship means knowing that someone has expectations of you and accepting the fact that you’ll sometimes be needed. It means letting yourself be relied upon, making an effort and having to think. My being in a relationship means that when I got an assignment the night before my boyfriend’s birthday, the assignment didn’t get done until the day after. By that time, the news peg had expired and so I killed the piece, along with my chances of ever writing for that publication.

Instead of thinking of me, that day I spent about $100 I didn’t have on a gift that I feared wasn’t good enough, and an evening out with him and his friends—people I’m not necessarily comfortable around who literally laughed out loud when he ordered a Coke instead of an alcoholic drink. I sat for most of the night in silence, exhausted.

As an alcoholic with “issues,” I’ve been put and have put myself into so many hostile environments in my lifetime; it is only in the last two years or so that I’ve felt safe and relatively secure, and so I sometimes feel torn. Some days I find myself wishing all I had to do was not drink and go to meetings. But I did that, I remind myself. For years. If life’s going to continue to get even bigger and better, I need to think less of myself and more of others. I have to be generous. I’m afraid to give up the security of the life I’ve built but I know that in order to grow, I need to take risks.

Right or wrong, the pressure of my advancing relationship has led to me turn it up at work. In the last three years, I’ve been focused on my career, and have grown accustomed to achieving satisfaction and security from professional success. Thanks to “keeping it simple,” I’m on the verge of accomplishing certain “now or never” goals. Earlier this week, I turned my first book proposal over to an agent. Just having an agent is a dream come true, and I suppose I should’ve felt some sense of accomplishment—and I suppose I did, a little—but I also felt a sense of loss, and grief.

It felt strangely similar to finding myself, finally, in a functional relationship. Instead of relief for having finally done it, or a feeling of reward for taking the next step, or better yet, a feeling of gratitude—it felt like more pressure. Now what? I thought just as soon as I hit send on the proposal. What’s next?

What’s next, if I’m lucky, is a book deal much more modest than I ever anticipated in any alcoholic haze. If I’m unlucky, what’s next might be no book deal at all. Either way, at seven-plus years sober, what’s next is letting go of fantasy and embracing reality, and accepting life on life’s terms.

As life gets bigger and I get better, I’m realizing that old coping mechanisms—even seemingly healthy or “productive” ones—no longer work. Some days, I feel afraid. I think of my goal of some day becoming a parent (something I didn’t even want before recovery). I begin to think of what kind of mother I’ll make, and worry that I’ll make a bad one. I think, How can I be a mom if I need heaps of free time? If I’m so focused on my work and need do to things my way or else feel scattered, can I show up for anything else? I get stressed out at the thought of sharing my apartment, let alone my uterus. Maybe, I sometimes worry, I’m too selfish to have kids.

When keeping it simple becomes complicated, perhaps the solution is to…keep it simple. Keep it simple, but don’t hinder what’s possible. And anything’s possible. I remind myself I have a choice. Today, I choose to trust. Sometimes, to let life happen, you have to let go.

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About Author

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.