“Perseverating” is a word I was unfamiliar with until after six decades of life. It means, in my words, to focus intensely and uncontrollably on past wrongs, embarrassments, and disappointments I not only experienced, but feel I caused as if something still could be done to fix, avoid, or flip the experiences into happy moments.
I perseverate and do so almost daily. Doing so could consume minutes during my day or even an hour or two. I relive very painful moments in my life. Something triggers the memory of that painful moment, regardless of circumstances during the day, and I am off to the races. For instance, I could lose ten minutes of a business meeting due to perseveration.
While reflecting on past painful experiences might be a very human thing to do, thinking I might alter those experiences in the present somehow is irrational. I have been to therapy for it.
I remember EVERY embarrassing moment in my life. I could list them for you. I could write them down here. I am not quite sure why I can do that, nor am I altogether uncertain that many people could do the same thing. But I do not perseverate over all of my embarrassments. Likewise, I have done many wrong things in my life, not just gross mistakes but actual wrong things, and yet I do not perseverate over all of those wrongs. And I have been painfully wronged — very vivid recurring memories — but do not perseverate over them. In fact, I can forgive even if I cannot seem to forget.
To explain what I mean by perseverating — and to arrive at the purpose of this post — I will share three personal experiences of perseveration. The first two examples are wholly irrational, yet nonetheless disturbingly ever-present. The third example is one with which you might understand why I do, but my life since that moment put my perseverance on heightened display.
As I mentioned, I have been through therapy for this curse (I call it a mental illness). No doubt you will be tempted to play armchair psychiatrist. I get it. But there is nothing you could say to me that would resolve the matter, or make me say, “Oh, now I get it. Thank you for solving my problem” — like telling a depressed person to simply cheer up and expecting a rational response.
The First One. In the summer of 1974, I was 16 years old. My dad and stepmother owned a beach place in Ocean City, Maryland. I owned a car and would often pack in some high school friends and head for the beach. During one trip, a group of girls from the same high school were there at the same time. We visited with them. I talked with one girl in particular — a dear friend to this day, a friend who was a bridesmaid in our civil wedding. But there was another girl who seemed more interested in me at the time. More flirty, if you will, but quiet. Her “good night” was the last word spoken as we departed. I did not even know her name.
But when school started in the fall, my senior year, that girl tracked me down and asked me to a Sadie Hawkins dance. I was flattered and said yes. It would be my first real date.
I won’t get into details but suffice it to say she really liked me — and for whatever reasons, it made me peculiarly uncomfortable for a teenage boy who would normally welcome her attention. I took her home very early — and then I “ghosted” her. I was ashamed of how I treated her. She was a wonderful person who did not deserve to be treated that way.
That shame haunts me from time to time to this day. I perseverate over it. I imagine over and over how that experience could have become a positive one for both of us. A silly youthful mistake? Of course! Blame it on a “first date” experience? Of course! But I know I hurt her and that hurts me. The present me is very ashamed of the young me.
The Second One. My second experience was more painful and an experience upon which perseverating rarely vanishes too far from sight. I wrote extensively about this experience in my book, Unworthy: An Autobiography of the Imposter, so I will not go into detail. Similar to my first example, it is about a girl, not many months during my senior year after the first one. We hung out and had a real date, but for a variety of personal dysfunctions, I ghosted this girl emotionally. She thought I didn’t like her.
She remains a dear friend to this day and will remind me that it was no big deal — it was high school and shit happens.
The Third One. Vastly more serious than the first two experiences, this third experience stays on my mind constantly and relentlessly. I also wrote about this experience in great and painful detail in Unworthy. Before my first wedding anniversary to Sally, I cheated on her. The experience is difficult emotionally to write about even here, let alone a memory upon which to perseverate.
For context, if you don’t know, Sally and I have been married for 47 years. She forgave me long ago even if I still have not forgiven myself. The pain I caused her sticks with me. I have to try hard to dismiss the memory. But I more than not fail. I’m even ashamed of how I treated the young woman with whom I cheated. She, too, is a person and, very relevant circumstances aside, I hurt her too. I hurt a lot of people. But I broke Sally’s heart, my love. Painful.
While she will never forget that pain, she had the ability to move on. I did not. She constantly, almost exhaustively, tells me to forget it. Focus on the 46 years after the experience, she tells me. Focus on our six children and 22 grandchildren. Focus on the present.
There is a theme within all three experiences which is the subject of this posting: abandonment. I perseverate over issues of abandonment. I am deeply ashamed I behaved that way. So ashamed, in fact, that I also irrationally overvalue the other side of the abandonment coin: loyalty. I lose my shit over disloyalty.
So here is the answer in its Freudian nutshell: my mother emotionally abandoned me and literally abandoned my disabled older sister, Leslie, throughout our lives. The divorce decree between her and my father reads, “abandonment.” And that is what she did in her coup-de-gras. As I wrote in Unworthy, her final words to me were, “I am so disappointed in you,” even as Sally and I cared for her in our own home in her old age and even as I sat with her alone in her hospital room as she died. Even with me present, she died alone. Nobody else was there and nobody else really cared.
Sally and I have cared for my sister, me as her legal guardian despite my parents being alive for a long stretch, nearly all of our married life. I/we will not abandon her. I am hyper-loyal to her despite the severe disruptions in our lives.
Abandonment and hyper-loyalty — both irrational. The former is something to perseverate over. The latter is just something characteristically weird but related. I feel the former in those past experiences and I have felt the latter many times throughout a 40-year career and a lifetime of personal relationships.
And yet Sally, our children, extended family, and dear friends show me grace every day. And perhaps that is the real lesson here: Show people grace. You have no clue what they have been or are dealing with.