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the comeback

With my website in full swing, things were beginning to look a bit more positive for me with each passing day. It wasn’t easy for me to dig into my past to encounter and recall all of the memories of heartache and personal tragedy, but I knew that there was meaning in all of it. God had called me to the stand with the purpose of directing me towards a more wholesome life. And I was motivated by a desire to achieve peace and forgiveness by accepting responsibility and being completely honest with myself and those around me who chose to take an interest in my story. For months I had been completely lost. There seemed to be no end to the miserable, panic stricken days that had become the norm in my life…that is, until I found my purpose…

The blog gave me a reason to stand tall and continue to battle my anxiety. It forced me to confront the images of my past and make peace with them. And it helped me to channel some of my own inner strength. I quickly realized that I felt absolutely no shame in my story, but instead, I felt proud to have so much to be able to share. I was inspired by the fact that my genuine approach was honorable and that I was embarking on a journey that was somewhat shocking and unprecedented. And I didn’t worry much about the reaction of others, because my faith told me that my purpose was well conceived. I fully believed that if I was able to proceed in the direction that the Lord intended, then in time everything else would fall into place.

As I continued to write, I found that the blessings in my life appeared more and more abundant. I can’t even begin to tell you just how many people chose to reach out to me directly to offer their support of my journey. It was incredible. There were a few close friends and family members, countless acquaintances from my past, some people who knew me only through one or two conversations, and even a couple of complete strangers. I was just overwhelmed with the kindhearted nature of everyone. I began to realize what it meant to be a true friend…these were good people, the kind I wanted to surround myself with for the rest of my life. For many years I had chased relationships that only led to negative consequences, and now my new, faith directed approach was leading me towards better people and more positive outcomes. My honest, good-hearted effort was attracting more of the same in return.

I learned quickly that I was not alone in my journey. Many others had been suffering as well, and sadly in most cases they had been doing so silently. I had quite a few people contact me to me to share their own personal stories, seemingly because they felt a unique level of comfort with me. That was such an incredibly rewarding feeling…to see that others could rely on me, count on me. I no longer felt so alone. The world didn’t seem nearly as threatening. I realized that I had a bigger purpose in all of this than I had originally thought. I was no longer here solely to tell my story, but also to speak for so many others who had shared in my fight but continually found themselves feeling fearful and alone. We were a team.

Mental health issues carry a stigma in our society, and it’s very unfortunate. So many of us feel forced to mask our true identity for fear of being judged or classified as abnormal. And the societal pressure that surrounds us is often what keeps us from getting well. We’d rather suffer behind closed doors than open up and face ignorant criticism or even worse, abandonment. If we could instead learn to be accepted for who we are, we could move forward with confidence.

I wanted nothing more than to be able to start over in my life. I had taken enough painful steps in the wrong direction. I had zero left to lose. I gave up nearly everything that I ever cared for over the years…so where was the risk? Why not wipe the slate clean and take this opportunity to act on my beliefs? If in the end I’m left with only a handful of people who support me, then so be it….at least I will know that they embrace me for who I am as a person. And I will feel blessed to know that those who remain will support me wholeheartedly and stand by me through thick and thin.

Thursday July 21st, 2011 – It had been one week since my initial blog post to Setback2Comeback. I had been taking several steps in the right direction, and my life was beginning to take a turn for the better, but this particular day was very tough for me. I was dealing with a lot of work related stress, and I was reaching my breaking point. Anxiety was setting in. I started to feel pain and pressure in my chest, and my throat began to close up. I could hardly swallow. I was on the brink of a major attack. My father had stopped by my place late in the day and as he sat with me in my living room, I told him that I was feeling like I couldn’t handle it. I began to question “why is this continuing to happen to me?” I was again finding myself feeling victimized by anxiety and stress. I just couldn’t understand…I had been doing everything right, why would I need to continue to suffer? And then I stood up and looked at my Dad and said “everything has been happening for a reason…there have been so many signs that have proved that to be true”…”I have a hard time believing that God has allowed me to feel this way for no reason…like everything else, there HAS to be a plan”. And the second those words left my tongue, I was struck with complete dizziness. I could not stand, the feeling forced me to sit down immediately. It was as if a freight train had collided with my brain. I knew that it was God intervening and making me aware that he had not left my side. He was right there with me. This was a reminder to stay on track and keep faith in the process. Amazing…

For a couple of hours, my anxiety subsided. But later that night, it made its second push. I ended up calling and talking to my Dad to try to calm my nerves and prevent a follow up attack. We talked a lot about the event from earlier that evening and how it was so incredible that God was taking such an active interest in my life. There had been signs everywhere recently. For instance, I’d often find that when I’d do my daily devotion at night that the topic of the day was exactly the issue that I was wrestling with in my mind. It happened over and over again. I knew that He was there…and that kept me focused and gave me tremendous hope. If I could persevere by approaching things the way that He intended, then I would ultimately end up with the life that I had desired all along.

During our conversation, I referenced the fact that so many people had been reaching out to me as a result of my blog. I told my Dad how blessed it made me feel to know that there were so many kindhearted individuals out there taking an interest in my story. I felt as though I was making some really positive connections for a change…relationships that would last. I had been reading quite a bit in the Bible about “reaping what you sow”, and I mentioned to my Dad that I couldn’t help but feel as though that’s what was happening for me. The more of myself I offered, the more I was being given in return as a result. And then, remarkably, as if someone put the words to my lips, I said “that’s the comeback”. Immediately after, my mind went blank…I could not recall what we had said to each other even seconds before, and I could hardly talk. I was just left with a feeling of absolute tranquility. My pressing anxiety had vanished as if it was never there at all that evening.

What was so amazing about this was that I had been struggling for quite some time determining how I would finish my story. In fact, just that morning in the shower I was feeling lost about how I would ever conclude things. Someone had recently emailed me mentioning “I hope that your story has a happy ending” and I found myself fearful that I might never be able to provide one. I knew that I had many unique experiences to document and share, but I was now realizing that I had set out defining my site without ever having a final “comeback” in mind…

Perhaps that was the purpose all along…for me to let go of my ongoing desire to control the outcome and allow the experience and faith lead to my new life’s definition…

the awakening

My anxiety began to reach its peak towards the end of the month of May, 2011. I had just returned from a business trip to northern and southern California. Things went extremely well during that visit. I welcomed the change of scenery, and the beauty of the west coast provided the perfect sanctuary for me at a time when I needed it most. I had suffered through several ups and downs prior to boarding the initial flight to San Jose, and I left Philadelphia feeling a bit overwhelmed with apprehension about the week to follow…I wasn’t sure how my psyche would react to the trip…I was feeling very fragile. But almost immediately upon arrival, I completely pulled it together. I felt confident about my ability to stand tall in the face of adversity, and I gained strength from knowing that I was challenging my anxiety, and truly meeting it head on.

The next several days were filled with some great meetings. I started in Northern California and then moved my way south to LA and the San Diego coastal area. I felt at home and at peace, which was strange considering I was 3,000 miles away and operating within an arm’s reach of the birthplace of my disorder nearly 9 years earlier. But California just overwhelmed me with positive reinforcement. The weather was perfect – 75 degrees and barely a cloud in the sky each day. The coastline was pristine…I felt completely content. It was as if the weight of the stress from previous months had temporarily been lifted from my chest.

As the week went on, I began to feel as though this visit could truly be my turning point. Perhaps God had brought me back to California to face my demons where they first presented themselves in my life. Maybe there was a deeper meaning to this business trip altogether? I did my best to embrace every minute of it. I didn’t spend a single free evening back at the hotel…instead I went out and watched the sunset over the water. I even visited my old apartment complex in Huntington Beach – wow did that bring back memories! I was on a constant search for positives. I would not allow myself to sit around and worry…I continually forced myself to press on. Anxiety would not and could not beat me…I was on a roll. And at night when I laid in bed, I found myself having the best sleep I’d had in weeks. Everything was going so well…I didn’t want to leave.

And then on Saturday afternoon, I boarded my flight home. I began to have anxiety unexpectedly as we were descending through the clouds on our approach to Philadelphia. And as I peered out the window, I noticed that dreary, rainy weather was awaiting my arrival. My mood began to change dramatically. I found myself feeling sick about returning home.

It was about 11:30 PM when my flight reached the gate. I picked up my bag and headed out to the front of the terminal to wait for the shuttle to the long term parking lot. I waited for nearly an hour for the driver to arrive. All the while I was slowly crumbling in my mind…negative energy was setting in everywhere. The rain began to pelt my windshield as I left south Philadelphia. I called a friend on the drive, and I could hear in my voice that I sounded completely miserable and negative as I spoke to her. This was not the same person that she had talked to earlier in the week. That was “upbeat and excited about life” Matt…in a few short hours I had transformed back into “sad and defeated” Matt.

As I drove up the turnpike heading west towards Reading, I hit an extremely powerful thunderstorm. I had to end my call with my friend, because I was having trouble seeing the road altogether. It was absolutely pouring. I was actually becoming fearful of proceeding any further until the storm subsided. I couldn’t tell you the last time that I encountered something like that while on the road. It was relentless and seemingly never ending. I was thrilled when it finally passed and I made it back to my apartment.

When I got home that night, I felt overcome by feelings of uncertainty and fear. It was very strange…I had such a positive trip and I should have been excited to be back in my comfort zone. But I wasn’t. Something was wrong. I fell asleep about 2 or 3 AM, and shortly after, the demons of my vicious disorder made themselves known again. I woke up in a complete panic…another nocturnal attack. I was terrified. It was one of the worst ever. I ended up calling my father to talk me down. It was 6:30 AM until I was able to rest…only as a result sheer exhaustion. The evening that followed was not much better…I was faced again with attacks in the night and was awake until 5 AM. I was quickly deteriorating. Were the events of my return home that Saturday night a precursor to the breakdown that would soon follow? I couldn’t help but feel like it was perhaps a warning sign from God.

The next week was extremely difficult. I had to fight through sleepless nights and continue to maintain a level head and steady performance at work. In my personal life and in my mind I was lost and collapsing quickly. A week earlier I felt as though I was on the verge of a knockout punch with my anxiety, but since my return I had only fallen deeper into the deep abyss that was beckoning me. I was almost immediately stripped of the strength and confidence that I had worked so hard to achieve in California. My mind was weak again. And as it continued to rain for about the next 11 or 12 days straight, I realized that the beautiful light which had so gracefully presented itself only days earlier had once again quickly vanished.

I knew that I had to make an effort to do something. If I allowed myself to completely surrender, I would end up in a hospital or an institution. This was serious. I began to look at it as a life or death situation. It was time to save what was left of me…

In the midst of a horrible day with intense panic, I decided to make my way downstairs to the gym at our complex and get on the treadmill. I was so exhausted that I could not find the strength to run, so I walked two miles. It seemed simple, but the reward was tremendous. I gained a lot of confidence by taking that first step…and I felt better physically that evening. The next day, I turned that walk into a jog, two more miles…

For the next 22 days that followed, I ran every day. I began to gain back my endurance and I found myself heading on the right track. I was not free of anxiety at all, but I was fighting it, and that felt good. I faced a constant mental battle every day that I attempted to return to the treadmill, but as time passed it slowly got easier because I was winning consistently. I began to distance myself a bit from everything going on around me. I knew that I needed to zero in on myself and give this a 100% effort if I was ever going to fully recover. I was working hard to cleanse my mind, body, and spirit. Getting well needed to be my first priority.

One of the issues that I knew I had to face was my new found fear of being alone in my apartment. I wanted to be comfortable standing up to my anxiety without developing a constant reliance on others, so I almost forced myself into isolation. I didn’t want to run from the things that made me uncomfortable. I decided instead that I needed to change my perception of things so that I could take control of how they affected me in the future. I work from a remote office and I spend a lot of time alone…it’s very important for me to maintain my self reliance.

With that isolation came a bit of loneliness. I wasn’t lonely from the standpoint that I needed company…I just needed something to occupy my mind. I found that I was only learning to survive while constantly being busy or on the move fighting. When I attempted to relax, I couldn’t…my mind raced and it led me back to the darkness, back to the vulnerability.

I knew that whenever I gambled, I could lose myself in the moment completely. As I mentioned before, I used my addiction to hide from reality at times…as an escape. I had made a promise to my family about moving forward from related setbacks nearly two years earlier. Regrettably, that commitment was broken after about a year’s time. I gave in to feelings of financial pressure during the Spring of 2010 and began wagering online, hopeful that I would be able to earn more money to support a planned vacation that summer…of course that didn’t work out as planned and I was only left with a bigger hole in the end. And then in the fall, I gambled on football. By November, I owed a bookmaker a large sum of money and I cut back slowly, agreeing to pay him off over time. It was not until this Spring that I evened up with him. My ex girlfriend was aware of everything since I was always up front with her about it. I accepted the poor financial decisions of her past, and she willingly accepted mine in the present. I’m sure that it was not healthy for our relationship…it never is with gambling. It pains me to repeat this again…but I’m truly sorry to those who put their trust in me and continually found themselves affected by my poor decision making.

During a moment of weakness on a Saturday night in July, I turned back to that old “friend” for comfort…I contemplated visiting a local casino for a few hours, and then decided against it. I didn’t feel like making the hour drive. So instead I funded my online wagering account and placed a couple of bets on baseball and gambled in the casino. I wasn’t going to spend a lot of money…what could it hurt, right? At least I’d be free of my racing mind for a few hours…

Over the course of the next few days, I made about fifteen times my initial investment. I couldn’t lose. I had always been good at winning, but the problem was that I never knew when to quit. Eventually, it would all catch up to me. Initially I attempted to cash out a large sum of money, but after a loss, I canceled the withdrawal and continued to play. I knew where this was heading…I would end up losing it all. But I was too wrapped up in it now to stop, and inside I was completely aware that I’d have to see it through.

While I gambled, I continued to run and make my best effort to strive for progress with my anxiety. I continued to pray, and I even thanked the Lord for my winnings – I was such a hypocrite. I knew what I was doing was wrong. But my well being mentally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually was quickly taking a backseat to my addiction. I was contradicting the purpose of the past several weeks. I wasn’t promoting a healthier lifestyle for myself, I was throwing all of my progress into the trash and setting it on fire.

The final wager that I placed was on the FIFA Women’s World Cup Semi Finals. I parlayed two matches, the US over France and Sweden over Japan. I remember checking the score and seeing that Japan was leading Sweden. The US had already won their match…Japan was going to break it for me. Immediately my mind started producing horribly negative thoughts. I was angry and frustrated and I reflected on seeing the Japanese team compete and in my head I chuckled to myself, thinking they resembled something from Planet of the Apes. It was a cruel and vicious observation. Somehow it made me feel better to put them down in my head when I should have only been disgusted with myself and my own actions.

That evening I went to Best Buy to pick up a new a personal laptop. I had ruined the two previous ones I owned over the past four years when I smacked their screens in anger while wagering. Pretty sad to throw an investment of that value away as a result of addiction. Now I found myself back at the store picking up another with the intention of continuing down the same dark path of my past. I was very anxious as I waited in line for the clerk to ring up my purchase. It was in that moment that I realized what my habit had been doing to me. I was beginning to feel like a wreck physically and mentally. My body felt as though it was trembling inside.

When I headed out to the parking lot, I noticed an older Asian man getting out of his car. He had parked next to me. As he walked from his vehicle he stared at me, so I continued to look right back at him, and I sort of laughed to myself. What was he staring at? And then, something truly extraordinary and unthinkable happened…He first said “is there a problem sir?” to which I replied “No, not at all, you’ve been staring at me…” Then he got very angry and said “Do I look funny to you!? Do I look like a monkey!?” I was completely caught off guard. I just said “what?? no…” and then got in my car and drove away.

At first, I was angered and a bit panicked by the situation. What was his problem? Why had he reacted that way? And then I reflected about my thoughts on the Japanese women’s soccer team, and it all hit me like a ton of bricks. This was God speaking to me. It had to be…there was no logical explanation for the man’s explosion.

I went home, turned on my new laptop, and proceeded to lose the rest of my winnings in the online casino . But I didn’t find myself feeling distressed about it at all. Instead I remained very calm…as if it needed to happen…it was supposed to happen.

I got in the shower and I thought back to the events of that day and my experience at Best Buy. Something was happening. The Lord had decided to present himself in my life. It was time for me to listen. And as I stood with the hot water beating against my back, it all became clear to me. I wanted to be forgiven and I wanted peace and comfort in my life…I wanted to be freed of my demons. I fully believed in everything that I was reading in the Bible, but I needed to act on it. I was 100% a believer but only 50% a do-er. It was time to put it all together. That was the secret…I had found the truth.

I remember feeling overwhelmed with joy in that moment. It was like being given a map to all of life’s treasures. I couldn’t wait to take action. And I knew the first thing that I needed to do was to find a way to acknowledge and take responsibility for my actions. I understood that I had a very painful and somewhat tragic story to tell, but I needed to accept my role in its development and refrain from placing the blame solely on external factors or on others. The one constant had always been me.

The next evening after my run, I joined WordPress, created my site, and began writing my first blog. Thanks to God, I had found my calling…

nothing’s “thicker than blood”

My body carries with it several reminders of a past life…one that was not nearly as hard, one that was filled with positive experiences and memories that were worth holding onto.  Sometimes in the midst of a persistent battle with anxiety, I’ll find myself reflecting on scars that I acquired as a child.  I find comfort in that.  When you’re completely overwhelmed with fear, it’s hard to remember that there were times in your life when you were free from such mental turmoil.  It feels good to be able to escape to a memory of a time that was far less complicated.  It gives me hope.  I haven’t always been afflicted with this disorder.  I once was a kid without a care or worry in the world.  I was inspired…I embraced life.  Perhaps my future will embody a similar sense of peace and innocence?  I can only continue to pray that it will.

Along with the scars of my past I also carry with me six different tattoos.  I remember the day that I asked my parent’s about getting my first one.  I was 17 years old, and we were at the beach on a family vacation.  I wanted to get my ears pierced, but my father was not having it…no chance.  So jokingly, he said, “why don’t you get a tattoo if you want to do something?”  Of course I immediately ran to my Mom with his offering and shortly after convinced her to allow me to do it, too.  Later that summer, I had the Chinese characters for “strength, love, & prosperity” inked onto my left arm.  Those words carried weight and promise.

But I didn’t stop there.  Later that year after I turned 18 and could make my own decisions, I had three more done.  Inked on my right arm was a tribal looking sun, then a cross with the word “faith” written beneath it on my left shoulder blade, and a fire breathing dragon on the right side of my chest.  It’s interesting, because although they seem to be of completely random selection, they all tell a bit of a story.  The sun was meant to mimic the arm of a Division 1 athlete that I had been following…his figure embodied the dream that I was chasing myself during my senior year of high school.  The cross reinforced my connection with God…at that time in my life, I needed a reminder – in all honesty, I wasn’t always following the teachings of Lord.  And the dragon I had done one afternoon after an argument with my high school girlfriend…that was a sign of the person I turned into when love turned its back on me…my dark side – one susceptible to volatile decision making and addiction.

If you’ve been following my blog from the beginning, you’re aware that after high school I left for California.  And a year and a half later I returned to Pennsylvania with a devastating anxiety disorder that had completely taken over control of my life.  When I got back on my feet, I found myself lost in the whirlwind of freedoms that a second chance was offering me.  I began making decisions that were not characteristic of the person I had always been.  I cheated on the woman that stood by me through thick and thin, and I lied to those who cared for me the most.  I lost track of who I was…

During that experimental time in my life, I spent a lot of time with my friends heading out to clubs and burning the midnight oil.  One of those friends was a guy who had been a best friend to me for many years.  He and I began our relationship one day in 8th grade…and shortly after we were inseparable.  It was only a few weeks later that he was headed on vacation with us as just another member of the family.  We would spend countless days and nights together in the years that followed.  He became a bit of a second son to my Mom and Dad.  And we truly were like brothers…we would do anything for each other.  We experienced many of the ups and downs of life together.  In fact, he was there with me the very night that my anxiety disorder made itself known to me in California.  We lived through it all….together.

So one morning during the summer of 2002, after an evening of drinking and poor decision making with the girl that I was having an affair with in Philadelphia, he and I chose to go have a tattoo done together.  We wanted to get something that would  truly proclaim the strength and depth of our friendship.  I came up with the phrase “thicker than blood”, and he liked it, so it was settled.  The tattoo would sit on our right shoulder blades.  “Blood is thicker than water” but we were “thicker than blood”.

For the next several years that followed our relationship took a strange turn.  I left for North Carolina, I loved and lost, and loved again.  And I grew up.  I got my degree and started my first job.  And then I got engaged and I bought a house.  I was following the script.  He was doing anything but that.  In fact, the person I began to see on visits home was someone that I would often barely recognize.  He had been running with the wrong crowd, and was involved with his own personal addictions.  It was difficult for us to be close.  I was willing to accept the shortcomings his past, but he knew that I wanted to encourage and direct him towards a straighter path and a more fulfilling life, and I believe he resented me for that.  He began to look at me as more of a father figure than a friend.

But in spite of those challenges, we still had our moments.  He was still a good person inside, and when he had his head on straight, he could be a really good friend.  We both seemed to always turn to each other during tough times.  Any time he or I came out of a relationship we found mutual comfort in our friendship.  We’d get together, play a round of golf, talk it out, and then head out for drinks to ease the pain.  And for the next few months, we’d attempt to lose ourselves in the night and in each other…just like old times.

About a year and a half ago, he found himself engaged.  He asked me to be the best man in his wedding, and of course I said I would.  But I wasn’t sure that he was making a good decision with his bride-to-be…in fact, I was certain he wasn’t. And one night, after he blew off a get-together at my place, out of anger I told him how I felt.  I didn’t approach it the right way, but I was being honest in my attempt to look out for his best interest.  Shortly after, he told me he no longer wanted me to be there by his side at the wedding, and mentioned that he felt I probably shouldn’t even bother to attend at all.

Heartache was apparently not limited to the actions women in my life…my best friend had now offered up his own share.  I felt completely alienated.  And then about 6 months later, I received his call.  His fiance had done him wrong…very wrong.  I was “right all along”.  He “should have listened” to me.  I accepted his apology, and I made my best effort at giving him a second chance.  But that summer he again made an important commitment to me and then completely blew it off.  I found myself repeatedly taking a backseat to his destructive personal life.  So I decided to let him go.  It was obvious by his actions that he did not value our friendship.

When my girlfriend left me this Winter, I found myself feeling very in need of companionship and understanding.  I had been putting all of my efforts into her for months, and as a result had been sacrificing a lot of my time with friends.  I didn’t have many available that I could turn to at the time.  And no one ever seemed to fill that void like my old best friend…

And then I heard from him.  He made an effort to reach out to me because he had recently learned of what had happened with my relationship.  Shortly after our initial conversation, we got together at my place.  I was very grateful – it appeared that he was really coming through this time.  Perhaps he had realized his mistakes of the past…this seemed real.  We began to spend a lot of time together again, “thicker than blood.”

A couple of weeks after we reunited, I decided to have a couple people over at my place to watch the UNC and Duke basketball game.  Everyone was having a good time, but my buddy was quickly getting a bit out of control.  He had not only been drinking too much, but he had been abusing other substances as well.  I didn’t agree with that at all, nor would I ever knowingly tolerate it in my place.  But when I confronted him, he was honest about it, so I kept my cool and just asked him politely to tone it down and not let it happen again.  He seemed to understand…

Later that evening he made the comment that he would be driving home that night.  I told him that I was not going to let him leave, and he objected.  And then I said “c’mon man you haven’t done anything else for me tonight, please at least do me this.”  Almost immediately, he jumped out of the chair where he was sitting, and proceeded to lash out at me in a fit of rage.  In seconds, he was attempting to fight me.  My friend had to escort him out, but he found a way to return and then attempted to start another verbal and physical altercation.  It was unbelievable.  I was at a loss for words.

Unfortunately it didn’t stop there.  He texted me for the next several hours completely tearing me apart, threatening me, and telling me he’d “see me in afterlife”.  There were repeated calls to my cell phone…I never answered.  In the morning, I listened to six of his voicemails, each one more disturbing than the previous.  He sounded possessed.  It was as if the devil himself was on the other end of the phone, and that is no exaggeration.  I hope that he found whatever he indulged in that night to be worthwhile…because he lost his only real “brother” as a result of his actions.

His malicious behavior that evening was the last thing that I could handle.  I was already beginning to suffocate under a mountain of stress and anxiety as a result of my girlfriend leaving, and this was just one more thing serving to push me over the edge.  Even though I didn’t believe a word of what he said, I found myself internalizing it a bit.  It shook me up.  My psyche was already fragile.  And the negative energy that he left with me was very detrimental to my well being.

I won’t ever accept him as a part of my life again…that door is closed.  I did however do my best to make my peace with the situation.  After connecting with the Lord, I decided in time to forgive him for his actions and pray for his well being.  That was not easy, but it was the right thing to do.  And I’ve felt better about everything since letting go of my anger and resentment towards him.

I’ve learned now that there is nothing “thicker than blood.”  In the face of adversity, nothing stands firmer than family.  So cherish them, tell them you love them, and acknowledge how much you appreciate their support.  Because as seemingly lifelong friendships disappear in time, your blood will always remain loyal and strong.  Good friends will stand tall and provide strength and guidance to you when you need it most.  If you are fortunate to have people like that in your life, keep them close to your heart.  I’ve found that they are few and far between.

My tattoos help to tell a story…a story that isn’t always easy to share.  And while I won’t always be proud of all of the ink that graces my skin, I am thankful for a few things…I will always adorn the cross and my faith, I can still remember to pray for “strength, love, and prosperity” and I can look down at my sixth and final tattoo resting just above my heart and be reminded that “for those who I love I will sacrifice”.

the view from my knees

After all that I had been through with relationships, it was hard for me to even begin to dream up a scenario that could match the heartache that I had suffered through in my past.   But this sure was close.  My girlfriend had just left me on the most romantic day of the year.  I really loved her.  There were definitely problems developing in our relationship, but they could have all been easily overcome with honest, genuine communication.  But that didn’t appear to be an option for her.  It seemed to me that she was beginning to feel as though she had already disclosed too much in our relationship.  She was finding herself vulnerable, and she could no longer mask reality.  It was time to run before the truth was fully revealed.  She was about to break.

Initially, I found myself very hurt and angered by the situation.  I waited for her to decide that her actions were completely off base and take a bit of responsibility for things.  I didn’t need for her to say that she was completely to blame, but it would have been nice for her to acknowledge that not everything was my fault.  Instead, she proceeded to take a bullying attitude.  She had no interest in working on things until I proved to her that I understood her position.  She’d continually say, “you just don’t get it.”  And the sad part in all of it was that I don’t think that she really wanted to leave at all.  It was almost as if she just wanted to teach me a lesson.  She had hoped to seize power and take control of things so that I would no longer ask any questions.  I would just accept all the blame, trust wholeheartedly in every word that came out of her mouth (even if I knew it to be a lie), and allow her to manipulate my mind so that she would never need to take a closer look at what was going on inside herself.

As days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, I spent more and more time thinking about our breakup.  One minute I’d find myself filled with empathy and wanting her back, and the next I’d be loaded with resentment.  I did go through a period of intense anger towards her after learning about and acknowledging the vicious nature of her actions.  In that stage, I emailed and texted her a less than friendly goodbye and I handed her a box filled with all of the things that she had ever given me.  I wanted her out of my world completely…out of my mind…she disgusted me.  I was ashamed that I had allowed her to fool me for as long as she did.

And then, I found myself facing some of the worst anxiety and stress that I had ever encountered in my life.  In fact, it was without a doubt the worst that I had ever experienced.  I was having a hard time getting through each day, desperately seeking to maintain my focus at work and live a normal life.  But I began to once again find that panic was terrorizing my world.  And I was filled with physical symptoms of stress and anxiety that sent me further down into the hole that was beckoning me.  I experienced a little bit of everything: chest pains, tingling and numb hands and feet, headaches/migraines, heart palpitations, severe body aches, ongoing muscle spasms, numbness, lightheadedness, hyperventilation, a persistent lump in the throat feeling, stomach cramps, bloodshot eyes, sinus congestion – you name it, and I had it.

Worst of all, I was suffering from insomnia because I was continually having nocturnal panic attacks.  I feared falling asleep, because many nights I’d wake up in the middle of a battle with anxiety and I’d have to fight for my life for the next few minutes in an effort to calm myself and the symptoms that were accompanying the attack.  I can’t tell you how often I woke up fearing that this was truly going to be the night that my life ended.  The attacks were completely devastating…there is no other way to describe them.  And some nights they’d present themselves as many as three to four times.  So often I’d find myself lying awake at 4, 5, or 6 in the morning as I attempted to take control the situation…if I didn’t fall asleep, they couldn’t affect me.  But I was wearing thin.  I couldn’t continue to function properly on such limited sleep.

I attempted to use some of the coping techniques and strategies that had proven affective for me during my time in California at the peak point of my last major battle with anxiety over 8 years earlier.  But unfortunately, they were no match for what I was facing now.  They would help momentarily, but shortly after I’d find myself facing another setback.  I tried a couple of herbal supplements, but their efforts were futile.  I was in serious trouble this time.

And then, on my knees and having exhausted all other options, I began turning to my faith in God.  I prayed every night for His strength and wisdom.  I asked Him to watch over me and carry me through the adversity that had grown to be too much for me to handle.  I began reading the Bible on a regular basis, and in it I found everything that I could have ever wanted.  There were stories of hardship and suffering, perseverance, miracles and salvation, and the promise of everlasting life for those who served the Lord.  And beyond all else, there was hope.  My faith became my saving grace.  On those nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d lay the Bible on my chest while I rested in bed.  It gave me a sense of comfort that nothing else could provide.  I knew that the Lord had a plan for me, and that he would protect me while I lay vulnerable at night.

I’m not going to tell you that my faith immediately led to the disappearance of my disorder, but it did give me direction in my fight.  And it led me to a more positive outlook on things, and that was critical for a successful recovery.  It also helped me to come to grips with myself and my priorities in life.  It opened my eyes to the detrimental effects of the negative decisions of my past, guiding me to acknowledge and take responsibility for them.

But there was one thing that just wasn’t right.  As I prayed, I felt like a bit of a hypocrite.  I was finding myself contradicting my faith by holding onto anger and resentment towards my ex girlfriend.  The Lord was speaking to me and telling me that it was time to forgive and move on.  So that’s exactly what I chose to do.  About a month after my outburst of anger towards her, I chose to send an email to her and be a man about the situation.  I told her that I was sorry for the way that I had acted previously, and that I truly did love her and wished her all the best in life.  And I still to this day pray for her strength and peace every night.

As I continued to talk to God and battle my horrific anxiety, I learned a lot about myself and my latest relationship.  I began to understand wholeheartedly everything that my ex girlfriend was feeling as she attempted to battle her own inner demons.  She had always mentioned that she felt so much pressure from me.  In the past, I had always thought that I was only simply asking her to be a reasonable, “normal” human being.  But as the weight of the world set in on me during my struggles, I began to recognize and take on that pressure myself.  And I felt very regretful for not being more understanding of her specific needs throughout the course of our relationship.  I was asking her to be something that she could not, and I was making life very difficult on her.  I wish that she had made me aware of what was going on, instead of allowing me to draw my own conclusions.  If she had been upfront with me about her issues, I could have been more receptive and understanding.  But instead of communicating, she made every effort to hide who she was…she lied…she denied…and she blamed the world for her problems.  She was afraid of confronting her issues…so she ran from them.

When I would take a step back from my personal situation and reflect on my life and where it had landed me as a result of my anxiety, I learned that she and I were far more alike than I could have ever imagined.  It was as if God wanted me to recognize that you should never judge or criticize anyone for their faults, because you may embody those same characteristics inside of yourself…it could just be that they have not yet made themselves fully known.

I was now able to feel for everything that she suffered with in silence, because I was experiencing it all first hand.  We were very much one in the same…nearly mirror images of each other…

I became fearful of the night…it was hard for me to sleep as I mentioned previously, and I agonized over going to bed.  I was constantly out of rest, and my sleep patterns became critical to me being able to maintain normal function in my life.  I needed to make it a priority.  So I did my best to retire to bed at a decent hour and avoid any and all foods (particularly those with sugar) for several hours prior to going to sleep.  I also eliminated caffeine and alcohol completely.

I recognized the necessity of routine in my life.  I tried to maintain a regular schedule of waking/sleeping, eating meals, exercising, and my prioritizing my personal time.  I felt far more in control when I held to my daily routine, and it functioned to keep me in a better place with my disorder.

And, I became a bit fearful of leaving my comfort zone, so I maintained a limited range of travel whenever possible.  I was apprehensive about change and I avoided events that would disrupt the balance that I had become accustomed to in my approach with battling anxiety.  And I remained close to and in daily contact with my family because they kept me grounded and provided the support that I needed.

All of the things that had previously upset, frustrated, or irritated me about her lifestyle were now the things serving as the glue that was holding me together.  My internal struggle was requiring me to adapt to a new way of living, at least temporarily…I was in preservation mode.  I was surviving the situation.  And it pains me to know that during the course of our time together, she was doing the same.  Had I known this and had she been willing to talk to me, I could have helped her push through it.

We really could have had a beautiful thing together.  Because we’ve shared in many of the same sufferings, we  certainly could have achieved a far more intimate connection than most couples ever reach.  But she chose to forfeit that in order to maintain the disguise that she had worked so hard to develop over the years.  I only hope that someday she can make peace with the person inside and learn that she doesn’t need to be afraid of confronting her demons.  It’s easy to love someone who is genuinely vulnerable and honest.

Today, I count this setback as a true blessing.  While our breakup led to a devastating run of anxiety and suffering, it also directed me closer to God who in turn provided me with guidance on my own personal journey to self discovery.  So to my ex, if you happen to be listening, please allow me to thank you.  I would have never reached this point without you.  I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to understand your situation better while we were together.  Don’t be afraid of who you are, embrace it…there are people who will love you for it.  And those who won’t, consider ignorant and insignificant.

I pray that the Lord’s light shines upon you, and I leave you with this…

“May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And the rains fall soft upon your fields,
And, until we meet again
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.”

God Bless.

enamored with my reflection

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

October 15, 2009 – It was my 27th birthday. I had been settled in my new apartment in Wyomissing for nearly three weeks. The Phillies were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of the NLCS that evening, so I decided to invite a group of people down to my place to watch the game and celebrate my birthday. About 20 or so of my friends showed up…it was a great time. And adding to it, the Phillies took down the Dodgers 8-6 en route to a 2-0 series lead.

A week or so prior to my birthday, a good friend of mine mentioned that she thought that I should get to know her friend…she seemed to be my type, perhaps we could date? I was definitely open to the idea, so I told my friend that she should bring her over to my place for my birthday get-together.

I remember every detail about her from that evening. When we introduced ourselves for the first time in the parking lot outside of my building, she gave me a hug, and I immediately found myself with that feeling…you know it…the butterflies in the stomach “there is something special about this one” feeling. I did my best to entertain everyone else that night, but I was having a hard time taking my eyes off of her. It reminded me of that day from orientation at UNC in 2003 when I caught the first glance of my future fiance. I hadn’t found myself with this feeling in years.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to speak to each other very much that evening. I was nervous about approaching her, and quite honestly she hadn’t been showing a lot of interest in me, so I thought that perhaps I didn’t have much of a chance. But a a day or two after the party we connected on Facebook and messaged each other a couple of times. We exchanged numbers and shortly after we were planning our first dinner date. I was so anxious to see her and get to know her better.

Our first date went really well. We had a good conversation, and I really felt like there was a strong mutual attraction between us. At least I know there was from my end. I was completely falling from her from the moment that I saw her that night. I can’t necessarily even describe what it was exactly…it was a lot of things. She was just so adorable to me. Beautiful, sweet, soft spoken, and seemingly innocent and somewhat sheltered. Everything that she embodied made me want her more – I felt like I had so much to offer her…I couldn’t believe that she was single…I felt like the luckiest man in the world. And later that night when we first kissed, it was perfect. I was going to be in deep with this one. I knew it immediately.

The next six months were filled with some of the best times that I had spent with anyone in a long, long time. We did a lot together. I knew that there were lots of things that she hadn’t experienced in previous relationships, and I wanted to give her everything. I intended to make every effort sweep her completely off of her feet and show her a love that she never knew or even thought was possible. For Christmas, I planned a “12 days of” theme which resulted in a unique gift every day coupled with a question/answer aspect that allowed me to get to know her better, ultimately determining her preferences for a final gift. She really seemed to enjoy it. It helped to make the holidays fun…it was as if we were kids again. And that’s how it felt for me in my heart as well. I was young and innocent again…I felt alive. And I was pretty sure that I had surrendered the ability to feel that way several years prior. But she fueled all of my desires. We traveled, and we did lots of romantic things with one another. I couldn’t see myself living without her. I was completely in love.

She was not without flaws, but let’s be honest, neither was I. If you’ve spent any time at all reading this blog than that’s one statement that you know to be the absolute truth. I loved her for her flaws. In a way, they made me feel more comfortable about being myself in the relationship. They made me feel stronger, and they made made want to hold her tighter. And with that being the case, much of my own personal anxiety and panic remained completely dormant during the early part of our time with one another.

I did have questions about her personal living situation and her ability to be independent. Those were legit concerns. She had been living at home since graduating college and she acted somewhat ignorant about real world responsibilities at times. It appeared to me that she seemed to have a very difficult time being on her own. And there were other things, but those aren’t really important…my purpose is not to put her down at all. In fact, I’m regretful now that I gave her so much grief about those things. I pressured her to be something that she wasn’t capable of or ready for, and that was not fair of me.

Due largely in part to my persistence, she eventually agreed that she wanted to try to take the next step in our relationship. So in late August of 2010, about 10 months after we began dating, we moved her things to my place, about 10 miles from her parents’ home. I remember that move very well, and not really for all of the positive reasons you’d expect. Her demeanor was actually quite discouraging. She didn’t appear to be excited or feeling good about moving in with the love of her life. Instead it seemed to me that she was overwhelmed with feelings of panic and uncertainty. And those were feelings I could recognize immediately…after all, I had spent several years of my life suppressing those emotions myself. I sensed that she was not comfortable at all. And that hurt me. I thought we had a great thing…why would she be feeling that way?

When I asked her about it, there were always a million reasons for why she felt she was having a hard time getting settled. She was good at distributing the blame elsewhere. The place wasn’t big enough…there wasn’t enough space for her things…we didn’t have a yard…the apartment made her feel very closed in…she didn’t like the area where we were living…and on and on. And all of that negative energy wore on me quickly. I was very proud of my place prior to her arrival, and everyone who visited seem to think that it was great as well. I worked hard to be able to afford it, and it was something that I held in high regard. And now, I was being forced to question its value. Instead of sharing in the good, it felt as though she was working to break me down. It was as if she wanted to keep me feeling on edge…as though she had one foot out the door the entire time. And that motive appeared clearly evident by the fact that it took her more than two months to change her mailing address. I began to have my doubts about her commitment to our relationship.

The fall of 2010 was an interesting time. It was really then that our troubles began to manifest themselves. There was a lot going on in our lives personally. I was getting extremely busy at work, and I began to find myself needing to arrange for a lot of business travel. I was often finding myself in different parts of the country during the week, and on the weekends I was still attempting to visit UNC on a regular basis for football games. I was embracing the travel and spontaneity of the lifestyle that I was being afforded, but I’m sure that she felt she was being thrown a complete curve ball. There wasn’t much stability. And her life had always been so routine and predictable…now it was spinning somewhat out of control. I would be gone for several days at a time, and this forced her into situations that were far outside of her comfort zone. She’d be expected to hold down the fort while I was out of town…and I’m not sure she was ready for that. And I really wanted her to be able to handle it. So I’m certain that she felt the the pressure to be strong and independent…admittedly, I had put it on her. With a fear of letting me down weighing heavily on her mind, she decided to hide her apprehension about being alone in our place…and in turn she began to act dishonestly.

In spite of those challenges, we were still able to share in some amazing times together that fall. She visited UNC with me a couple of times, and we always had a great time together. Chapel Hill seemed to be the spot where it always clicked for us 100 percent. We both enjoyed those visits and she felt completely comfortable in the welcoming arms of the South. We often contemplated a potential move there someday.

And we had some good times around the apartment as well. I give her a ton of credit…she made an exceptional effort to be a good partner to me, and for the most part she was absolutely that. She took an interest in responsibilities around our place and she was always involved with cooking and cleaning. She made me feel well taken care of every evening. We really enjoyed spending time with each other relaxing, snuggled up on the couch together. There was something about the simplicity of a night in together that we both embraced. I often look back on those times and smile…they were always very intimate and sweet…I loved them, and I loved her. I remember spending time decorating for the holidays with her and thinking that I could see myself doing it forever…she could be a lot of fun…and always adorable.

But there was something developing inside of her that was slowly working its way to the surface. Many days she seemed depressed, and I found myself wondering what had happened to the person that I had met a year earlier? She seemed to exemplifying the complete opposite demeanor and personality now. I tried for quite some time to reason with her, cater to her needs, and pick her up when she was down. I really did attempt to make my best effort at that. But her lack of commitment to working on things began to bother me inside…my concern turned to frustration. She would not often acknowledge that there was any problem…in fact she would make every effort to deny it. I would beg and plead with her to talk to me, confide in me, let me be there to support her…but those efforts only made her resent me more. So in the face of the denial I found myself continually convincing her that her behaviors were not normal or welcomed in a relationship…and I pushed her farther away. I wasn’t helping…I was adding to the pressure that she was already feeling inside. And I am very sorry for that.

As days went by, she seemed to be distancing herself from me. Our relationship was not nearly as strong as it had been initially. We both began to feel a bit alienated by each other, and as a result we found ourselves overly defensive and on edge. We began to argue on a regular basis, and it appeared to be only a matter of time until there would be a serious explosion…one of us just needed to light the fuse…

And then in Mid-January while traveling to Nebraska to visit our production facility with one of my clients, disaster ensued. Out of respect for her, I’d really rather not go too far into the details. But I returned to Pennsylvania feeling very unsure about things…she had been dishonest with me while I was out of town, and this wasn’t the first time. And when I arrived home, feeling very upset and betrayed, she flipped the situation on me and made it out to be my own personal trust issue. She proceeded to pack a bag and leave our apartment for several days and returned only as a result of my full apology and willingness to take complete responsibility for the situation.

We never really made a full recovery from that incident. And an old monster from my past was now present in my life again. I suffered with so much anxiety on that trip to Nebraska that I was a volatile mess for weeks after my return. I was about to have a nervous breakdown. And on Super Bowl Sunday while driving home from my parents’ house with my girlfriend…that’s about exactly what took place. We found ourselves in a disagreement in the car, and I lost total control of myself. I had to pull over. I shook repeatedly almost as if in convulsions, for what seemed like an hour. I tried walking, taking deep breaths, drinking water, everything I knew…nothing could hold back the emotional and psychological panic that had set in. It was by far the most terrifying experience that I’ve ever dealt with. I didn’t think it would ever pass. But in time, I gathered myself, and somehow I drove us home.

A week later we went to Philadelphia for Valentine’s Day weekend. I was a complete wreck. It seemed like it took us days to get to the city and back because I needed to pull off of the highway so many times to gather myself. The sight of halted traffic repeatedly served up vicious panic attacks…I had to escape the situation. I felt as though I was on the cusp of another major breakdown. But in time, we made it back to Wyomissing safely. I don’t know how I got through it…it must have been with the guidance of the Lord.

The next day, as I found myself at the lowest point I had been in 8 years with anxiety, she hit me right between the eyes. I was still attempting to recover from the day before, but she had things she wanted to put on the table…immediately. So for the next six or seven hours, she hammered me. She literally told me that I was responsible for everything that went wrong in our relationship. She made me out to be a horrible person, and in my weakness, I honestly believed it. I felt horrible. I never wanted to be the person she was describing. I loved her and was feeling overwhelmed with regret. She maintained that she had zero responsibility – EVERYTHING had been my fault. She threatened to leave over and over again that afternoon…only choosing to remain as a result of my persistent pleas for her to stay. Apparently, she had reached her breaking point.

And then in the evening, everything calmed. It seemed as if we had weathered the storm. I gave her a hug and told her I was sorry for everything that I had done to her. I would do my best to be a much better partner to her in the future. We’d get through it.

As we left the apartment to grab dinner together, I saw her tear up multiple times…when I asked her why she was crying, she said that she felt awful about some of things that she had said to me because she had been so mean and unfair. I gave her the benefit of the doubt. That seemed to be real…

And then less than 24 hours later on Valentine’s Day, wearing a red sweater similar to the one from our first date, she decided that she had enough, and walked out of my life forever…

moving forward

I sat in my house that evening with my Dad at a loss for words.  I found myself feeling completely defeated.  I was now 0-2 with engagements.  I felt a sense of shame and embarrassment surrounding me.  What were my friends, neighbors, and co-workers going to think about this?  Regardless of the circumstances our of relationship, it was going to be hard to convince others that I wasn’t completely the one to blame…after all, I now had a track record.  This wasn’t the first time that I had a girl from Florida move into my house and then make a desperate running escape shortly after.  I worried about the reaction of those around me.  I wanted to curl up in a ball and hide.

Internally I accepted a lot of responsibility for her unexpected departure.  I had been extremely critical of myself during our time with each other, and this wasn’t going to be any different. The timing of her decision made me feel as though my gambling relapse was to blame.  Perhaps she was afraid of committing to me because I had acted so irresponsible with money?  Or maybe the sheer magnitude of it all was too much for her to handle?  She had never really exemplified the ability the persevere…she was much more comfortable with walking away from a problem than with dealing with it.  So while I had always “hoped” that she would stand by me through thick and thin, her decision to flee the situation should not have come as such a great shock.  I just felt awful about the fact that my habitual setback ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I remember attending the second Gambler’s Anonymous meeting a night or two later.  I swallowed my pride and decided to share my story with the group.  It was hard for me to get started…I had a lump in my throat and I was finding it hard to summon the strength the face the shame of the situation.  But eventually I was able to get through it, and I quickly learned that the people around me would pass no judgment…in fact, they were all incredibly supportive.  Most of them had experienced relationship issues as a result of their personal habits as well.  They gave me some great advice.  I decided that night that I never wanted to allow gambling to lead me down the road to destruction again.

But in the days that followed, I constantly found myself having the urge to place a wager.  And I realized that it did not have a thing to do with money.  That led me to a bit of self realization.  I only wanted to gamble so that I could focus my attention elsewhere.  I knew that if I were to take action on a Major League Baseball game that evening, I could spend my free time researching the pick and then find myself completely absorbed in the game that night.  It was a tactic that I had developed to escape from reality for a bit.  My addiction was being driven by anxiety and depression as much as it was a desire for money.  In fact, it always had been.  I never thought that I’d make a lot of extra cash wagering…I just wanted to pay off some debts and find myself in a more comfortable situation.  It was the anxious apprehension about the debt that initially fueled my desire to bet.  And now, it was depression, loneliness, and shame that was introducing the stimulant.

But in spite of looming temptations, I managed to keep myself on track.  I wouldn’t allow myself to give in, and with every passing day it became easier and easier for me to resist those subtle urges.  I began to feel like a cloud was being lifted from eyes.  All of a sudden I could see things clearly again.  I found myself making peace with the breakup.  Honestly, I realized that our relationship had been a mistake all along…I just didn’t want to admit it.  And while I still missed her quite a bit at times, I found a sense of relief in my solitude.  I had been on edge since her arrival in Pennsylvania a year earlier.  It felt as though a giant weighted had finally been lifted from my shoulders.

I had put everything that I had into my efforts to save that relationship, time and time again.  The hardest thing for me to move past was the fact that even my most resilient attempts at compromise and salvation would always come up short.  I was a fixer and I always believed in the goodness of people.  I didn’t walk away or get discouraged often because I usually felt that with a conscious mutual effort, anything could be accomplished.  But sometimes, things were out of my control.  I had an extremely difficult time accepting that.  I hated losing and forfeiting my hard work.

As the Spring turned to Summer, things got a bit easier for me.  I had decided that I needed to keep myself busy, and thankfully I had one friend in particular who picked me up and forced me to start living again.  We hadn’t really spent much time hanging out in several years, but we were both trying to move past broken engagements, so I think that we found a lot of comfort in each other.  We met for Happy Hours, played golf, and spent lots of time out running around, living.  It felt good.

I also connected with a couple of good people from my hometown who got together regularly to play basketball.  And I began playing in a Sunday softball league with my neighbors.  Those were both great outlets for me because they kept me active and involved.  If I was busy, I would be far less likely to fall into a pit of depression and anxiety.  I continued to run and workout on a regular basis…I knew very well how important the exercise was with regards to me maintaining a sound mind.

I certainly was not in a rush to be engaged again, but I was relatively eager to meet someone new.  If nothing more, I felt that it would help me to take my mind off of the past.  And I was fortunate to date two very attractive and sweet girls over the course of 6 months following my breakup.  Unfortunately, my heart was not yet ready for anything serious, so nothing further developed with either of them.  But I did have a lot of fun with them both, and I would still consider them to be friends of mine today.  I wish them both the best.

As the Summer pressed on, I realized that I was coming to a crossroads in my life.  I was beginning to feel as though the past was making every effort to hold me hostage.  My house was something that I had been extremely proud of initially, but lately I was beginning to resent it.  I was working at home from a remote office and all day long I found myself facing the images of past experiences there with my ex-fiances.  I couldn’t escape it.  Everywhere I looked I was reminded of something…even the good memories now led to pain.  I needed a change of scenery.  I couldn’t move forward in my life without it.  There was no way that I could bring another woman into that house…

By the end of August 2009, I had sold my property.  It was a very bittersweet moment for me.  I was excited to move on, but I was deeply saddened by everything that I would be leaving behind.  I had put a lot of hard work into that place…I grew up in it.  It wasn’t easy to say goodbye.  I remembered my grandfathers’ generosity and couldn’t help but feel ashamed about how I was leaving things.  I had acted completely out of character at times by literally gambling with my future, and I had failed multiple engagements under the roof that he had provided for me.  And now I would leave things in pieces, with very little to show for it…I would walk away with unfinished business.  But I felt at that time that it was what I had to do.

So I began investigating my living options.  I was not in love with the area where I was living, so I searched for alternative destinations that might be suitable for my career and my personal preferences.  I settled on Philadelphia and Washington, DC.  My best friend from high school (who had been living in South Carolina) was going to be accepting a new job offer in the DC area, so we contemplated getting a place together. Eventually I spoke to my boss about it, and have gave me the go-ahead.  But in the end, I decided that it probably wasn’t the right decision for me at the time.  My buddy understood completely.

Philadelphia appeared to be the destination of choice.  I’m not sure why I thought I wanted to move back to the city that I had left only three years earlier…I guess it was “single Matt” speaking to me.  I checked out a couple of condos for rent that were located directly on the Delaware River on the eastern side of the city.  They were beautiful, but would I have enough space for all of the things that I had accumulated the past couple of years in my house?  Nope, I’d definitely need to downsize.  And I’d need to prepare for a hefty rental payment each month..the city was far more expensive than the suburbs.  But even with my lingering doubts, I was finding myself pretty sold on a particular unit as I got ready to make my decision.

And then at the last minute, I decided to make a second visit to some new construction apartments in Wyomissing, about 20 minutes south of my house in Berks County.  I had done a hard hat tour of the property when it was still in its initial phases of construction, but I hadn’t seen the finished units.  When I arrived, the leasing agent showed me a corner apartment with a very open floor plan.  It was a one bedroom, one bath, with den.  The set-up was perfect.  It was on the second floor overlooking the pool and it had a balcony, fireplace, and French doors in the bedroom.  And it had adequate storage for all of my things.  It just felt right to me.

I went home and analyzed the numbers and the logistics of the move and quickly decided against Philadelphia.  I’d be staying in Berks County, at least for the time being.

It wasn’t my Utopia by any means, but it was home.  And home was where I found myself most comfortable.  It was where my family was, and it was where I could regain strength and move forward.  It was undoubtedly where I needed to be to begin the next phase of my life.

the fixer who can’t finish

Over the course of my life, I’ve never been good at turning a cheek to adversity. I was always taught to stand and fight. And I developed that side of my personality very early on, likely as a byproduct of my involvement in athletics. Many times, as has been the case with my anxiety and panic, it is that mindset that has been my only saving grace. So more often than not, I’m very thankful that I carry both an unwillingness to quit and a steadfast desire to right my wrongs. Those are qualities that I’m very proud of…but unfortunately they haven’t always led me to positive outcomes.

In the case of relationships, it’s proven to be a double edged sword. To my partner, I’m incredibly loyal and resilient. I’m pretty good at working through things, and I’m very open with communicating my feelings and needs. But that mentality also leads me to be a bit of a perfectionist, and I know that at times that I’ve made mountains out of mole hills. If things don’t appear exceptional day to day, I begin searching for reasons why, and in the end I do far more harm than good. I create problems that need resolution where there might not have been any previously. This is a part of my personality that I’m still learning to accept. It’s almost a compulsive need to be able fix things. I’m not sure where that comes from, but I do know that I have an incredibly difficult time forfeiting my efforts without a clean resolution at hand. I’m sure that the events of my past have contributed…creating an anxiety about being left abandoned with only the pieces of a failed relationship remaining.

Perhaps this is why I could not distance myself from the partnership that I had formed with my girlfriend from Chapel Hill. All signs pointed to an emergency exit, but I remained persistent and determined. I couldn’t bear to see it fail. My attempts to reason with her were futile, so in the end I would often accept the responsibility and blame for most of what took place. I was beginning to feel like a stress-filled ticking time bomb inside. I was always kept on edge…you could never predict when the next wicked turn would occur.

I remember one week I had to make a business trip to Washington, DC. I was there for two nights I believe, meeting with one client and a couple of prospects down in the District. The evening of my departure, she had received a phone call from a college friend who had just made a desperate escape from an abusive relationship. When I initially spoke to her about it, I acted with compassion but she seemed somewhat distant and short with me. I figured that she was likely just very shocked about the turn of events that her friend had described. But the second time we spoke, she even more irritable. She was acting as if I was the same vicious partner that her friend had encountered…it was as if she was suddenly full of resentment for me and our relationship. I was never, ever abusive…I’ve done a lot of things wrong in my time, but that’s a line I would never dream of crossing. So her reaction towards me was completely confusing. And then, as I was making the trip up I-83 North upon my return, she called me and calmly told me that she didn’t want to be with me anymore…

Where had this come from? I was distraught. And I still had about 90 miles of the drive left to go. She told me that we’d speak more when I got home. And when I walked in, she met me at the door with a hug and kiss, and had dinner waiting on the table. Could this be any harder to understand? We spent most of the remainder of that evening talking and arguing…I was basically pleading with her to stay because she continued to insist that we weren’t working as a couple, that we had been fighting far too much, and that she didn’t feel that we’d be able to keep things on track long term. In the moment, I was really was disgusted with her for making those comments to me…but in my heart, I knew that she was right. I was feeling the exact same things. But I couldn’t quit, and she could…that was the difference. So I ended up doing the only thing I knew how…I pressed forward…and ultimately we hung on together.

Shortly after, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. In speaking with others, the agreement was that perhaps the reason she was feeling so conflicted was because she was uncertain of my level of commitment to her in the relationship. After all, she was far away from known surroundings, friends, and family…she was completely reliant upon me for her happiness. If things were unstable between us, it was natural for her to be on edge, right? I began to wonder whether solidifying our bond together might fix our problems…

And then I proceeded to purchase an engagement ring, and make my proposal. My plans had been to ask her on a trip to Baltimore that I had arranged for Valentine’s Day weekend. But a very positive and intimate conversation ensued one evening a few days prior, and it just felt like the perfect time. Things had been good, we were back on track, maybe this would help set us over the top…

When I popped the question, initially she said yes and we hugged and kissed in celebration. Then, a few minutes later, she asked if I’d be upset if she took some time to think about it… Really?? Wow. Sure, take your time. I walked downstairs to give her some space and absorb the devastating blow that she had just landed in my stomach, taking the wind right out of my sails.

Moments later, she came downstairs and said “yes”. I asked her if she was absolutely certain that it’s what she wanted, and she agreed. It was an interesting night. Not how had I anticipated what was supposed to be one of the happiest days of my life. I felt more relieved to have survived it than excited about the prospects of our future together. It just wasn’t right.

In March of 2009, my Tar Heels were making an amazing run through the NCAA basketball tournament. Everyone loves March Madness…but when you’re an alum of a team that’s making a title push, it’s even more exciting.

I always enjoyed tracking my brackets and following the pool. Unfortunately, my interest in winners and losers soon led to a desire to wager on the games. I started betting on the NCAA tournament, and I did very well…in fact, I made a killing. I thought that I would stop there, but everyone knows that it’s impossible for an addict to quit while he’s ahead. So I continued… the NBA and then the beginning of the MLB season. And by mid-April, my bankroll was quite significant. And then I got greedy, and my luck turned…

I was betting way too big. I ripped through all of my profits from the past month and then some in a matter of a week. In fact, by the time I was finished, I owed a sum of $7,000. This was an all-time low for me. I had seemingly hit my bottom. I didn’t have enough cash available to fully pay off my debt to the bookmaker, so I made a very tough decision…

I came clean with my family. I wrote them a long letter detailing the ups and downs of my gambling addiction, and I included my fiance as well, because I felt that she had the right to be involved. I was turning over a new leaf. And there was no other way to do that then to face my problem head on. My parents agreed to loan me the additional cash I needed to pay off the debt as long as I promised never to come to them again with such a request. They wanted to see me move past it…and they wouldn’t be there to enable me should I happen to relapse. It was a horribly embarrassing day for me, and I really regret putting them in that position. But I thank them wholeheartedly for supporting me….I know it was very difficult for them.

When I discussed with my fiance my gambling habit, she was a bit shocked by the value of the wagers that I had been placing. And she had every right to feel that way. Those were big numbers…and I was making decisions with money that were far beyond my ability to effectively manage. She and I had made a couple of trips to Atlantic City during our time together, but honestly, I always seemed to win when she was along for the ride. And nobody questions a winner. Plus, in Atlantic City, my bets remained a bit more under control…I’d risk losing more than I should, but I never put really big money on single wagers. That was what made it so eye-opening to me that my problem had grown out of control. The amount of my wagers had grown so significantly…it was as if money had lost its value to me altogether.

I now really wanted to make a commitment to move forward. I was recently engaged, I was a homeowner, and I had a been working in a new job for the past year…it was time to pull it altogether. I could not afford any more setbacks. And I recognized the impact that my relapses with gambling had in my previous engagement, and I certainly didn’t want to repeat my mistakes. So I decided to go to a couple of Gambler’s Anonymous meetings…

The first night was tough, but I got through it. I told my story to the group and learned that there were a lot of people facing similar challenges, many of whom were far worse off than me. At least I had escaped before the real damage was done. I had a woman that loved me, a great family, and whole new life ahead of me. I left the meeting feeling really good.

My fiance and I had met for dinner prior to that meeting, and things were really flirtatious between the two of us. I couldn’t wait to see her when I got home. Everything was coming together. It felt amazing to have such a new lease on life. When I came in the door later that evening, she was wearing a cute outfit in anticipation of my arrival, and we enjoyed an amazing night being intimate with each other.

The next morning, she had to leave bright and early for work, and I remember her standing over the bed kissing me on my cheeks and forehead over and over, repeatedly telling me she loved me…it was to the point that it almost seemed odd…”I love you too, have a great day” I said. Shortly after, I proceeded to get up and start my work day. Over lunch I decided to run something over to my parents’ house. As I left their place, I called my fiance to talk to her for a few minutes but she didn’t pick up. It seemed a bit odd to me since we usually talked during her break, but perhaps she was in a meeting? No big deal.

I came back to the house and began making a sandwich, and a couple of minutes later there was a knock at my front door. It was my Dad. He had a look of both disgust and terror on his face. I asked him what was going on. And he he proceeded to tell me…”I just received a call from — (my fiance), she told me that she’s leaving.”

Later that afternoon, I watched her come home and scramble to gather all of her things, pack the car, and head off on her way to Florida. There was no discussion…she wouldn’t allow it. She wouldn’t even really look at me. Her mind was made up.

Once again, I was left with the pieces of a broken engagement…she walked out on me at a time when I was down and needed her most. But then again, I should not have been surprised. I should have seen this coming…

I immediately reflected on the conversation with my friend from that October weekend in 2007 when we first met each other…”Don’t take things any further if you can’t leave it here, Matt”. He was right. I paid the ultimate price.

chasing the past

I had always enjoyed the pursuit of love.  I was born a romantic.  For most guys, the sweet and sentimental side requires a lot of hard work and effort to develop.  But for me, I always felt like it just came natural.  I was always a pretty emotional individual, and I never had any problem with communicating my innermost feelings to the opposite sex.  I definitely enjoyed the chase of it all, but I appreciated the relationship side of things as well.  I took great pride in my ability to make others happy.  Perhaps it helped me to settle some of my own insecurities by allowing me to validate my worth to someone else….I don’t know.  But there was nothing like falling in love.  Seeing that glow in my partner’s eyes as they made every effort to cling by my side…it gave me chills.  I couldn’t get enough.  In a very real sense, I had become addicted to that feeling.

Considering the events of the previous couple of years, most people in my position would have chosen to give up on love for a little while.  Take a break from it…experience what it was like to be single.  Allow some time to become more comfortable with the independent version of Matt.  Run around with the boys, drink some beers, kiss some random women, enjoy life.  That all sounded great…to everyone but me.  I was a relationship guy, and I LOVED being in love.

But love was again on the run from me.  It had been about 4-5 days since our last conversation during my drive home when I again heard from my newest pursuit in Chapel Hill.  She apologized and we talked through things, and of course I forgave her and immediately refocused my sights on her heart.  For the next several months, we embarked on a long distance relationship with one another.  It was tiresome…flights back and forth and weekend visits that never seemed long enough.  But, in many ways, it was a lot of fun too.  We had both found ourselves in a bit of a rut in our jobs, so our weekend escapes to visit each other were always anxiously welcomed.

There was something so adventurous about it…it was all very spontaneous and and unique.  Honestly, looking back on it I think that’s what made it so attractive to both of us.  A lot can be lost in a long distance relationship.  You aren’t really provided the opportunity to get to know the other person very well for who they are day in and day out.  And when you see them only on a short weekend, every moment is filled with passion because from the minute that you first greet each other, the clock is ticking…soon you’ll find yourself saying goodbye again.  We really had no idea how we’d do if we were in the same town with one another and needed to maintain a “normal” relationship.  But the travel was getting old, and if we were going to continue to pursue a future with each other, one of us was going to need to consider relocating.

I wasn’t good at compromising on moving…see a pattern developing here at all?  It all ties back to my anxiety and my constant need to maintain control of my life.  A move could have sent me spinning wildly out of control, and I was afraid to risk it.  I wasn’t overly happy with where I was living, but it was a known and secure setting, and I needed that.  And quite honestly, it made logical sense for me to stay put as well.  I owned a house and had a job less than 5 miles away that paid me fairly.  My parents lived only a short drive away as well.  She had been renting in North Carolina and her family was from Florida.  At the time, she was ready for a career switch.  So it made the most sense for her to come to Pennsylvania if we were going to continue things with one another.

In April of 2008, about six months after we had begun dating, we made our plans to move her north. She had mentioned potentially renting a place of her own initially, but of course I discouraged that.  I wanted to fill that void that had been missing since my fiance left, so I encouraged her to move in with me right away.  It was all happening very quickly, but I figured that if she was renting we’d just be wasting that place anyway since we’d be spending so much time together, especially initially as we got a feel for the new “local” relationship.  Ultimately she agreed.  Probably not the smartest decision for either of us, but we decided to run with it.

Interesting story…the weekend that I went down to Chapel Hill to help her pack and make the move to PA, something incredibly terrifying happened.  As we traveled up I-85, roughly an hour or so into the drive, we encountered a vehicle that had spun wildly out of control.  I was leading the way, and my girlfriend was following close behind me.  She had just called me on my cell phone to talk for a few minutes, and as we were chatting, we noticed a truck that had been paralleling us in the passing lane speeding wildly into the grassy median.  Then as the driver worked to gain control he turned and headed directly for my girlfriend’s car at full speed.  I watched it unfold in my rearview and held my breath…thankfully he missed her by less than a foot and flew onto the shoulder.  I stayed on the phone with her and kept her calm until we could exit and gather ourselves together.  She was shaking uncontrollably.  It was one of the most frightening things that either of us had ever experienced.  Was this a sign of what was to follow in our relationship?

The next year or so that we spent living together was filled with more stressful and generally sad memories than good ones.  Of course, we had the honeymoon stage initially.  We really had been looking forward to seeing each other on a regular basis, so early on it was very enjoyable.  I had taken great care to make certain that she had all of the space that she desired in my house.  I painted the guest bathroom and offered that she could keep it all to herself if she wanted.  I went out and bought new shower fixtures and a whole new set of bath towels.  I wanted her to be excited about the change of scenery, and I hoped to make the transition as comfortable as possible for her.

But the transition was not easy for her.  She struggled to find a new job for several months, and I think the emptiness of being in a new place without friends was wearing on her at the same time.  She seemed depressed and irritable.  The house and the small town setting were not a good fit for her.  She really took no interest in making it feel like “home” or in sharing in responsibilities inside or outside of our place.  Things were not developing as I had hoped.  I had set out to fill the void of my missing fiance, and in a sense I had only created a bigger one.  I wanted her to be something that she wasn’t.  We were two different people with two completely different objectives.  She was just test driving a new phase in her life, and I was looking to settle down.

I did continue to make my best efforts to try and build romance and spontaneity into our more quiet lifestyle.  I wanted to make her happy…I wanted her to love me, and most of all I didn’t want to fail.  For Christmas in 2008, I planned a fun getaway for the two of us.  She and I had begun watching the show “Diners, Drive Ins, & Dives” on a regular basis.  So I planned a seven day trek around the country where we’d have the opportunity to visit several of the show’s venues along with quite a few other local popular eateries.  I booked hotels and thoroughly researched all of our stops.  And then I prepared and laminated a “Daily Specials” menu that listed all of our destinations by day of the week along with the places where we’d be eating.  I planned out the mileage and gave her envelopes marked “Time to fill up”, each containing enough cash for a tank full of gas.  And then I bought her the DVD set/and book from the show, and presented everything to her in a deep frying basket.  It was one of my most creative ideas ever.  I really thought that she’d be more excited…her reaction left a lot to be desired.

On the trip our first stop would be Roanoke, VA.  From there we’d head to Nashville and then on to Memphis for New Year’s Eve.  The next day we’d head to St. Louis, and then Indianapolis.  Our final destination prior to returning home was Pittsburgh.  This was going to be an amazing time…how could anything possibly go wrong?

Here’s how…Memphis, Tennessee –  New Year’s Eve 2008.  We were getting ready in the hotel that evening and she proceeded to lose it on me for taking her water bottle from the bathroom and drinking from it.  A huge argument ensued, and as a result neither of us felt much like going out and celebrating.  But eventually things cooled down and we made our way to Beale Street to eat at a local BBQ joint.  The mood was slightly better, but she still was maintaining a bit of a rough edge.  As we stood outside after dinner contemplating our next stop, I made the mistake of asking her what was wrong and why she was still hanging onto the argument from the hotel.  She lost it again.  I turned my back to her for a minute, and when I turned around, she was completely gone.  I began to panic.  Where was she?  Was this really happening or was I dreaming it?  I began calling her cell phone but she wouldn’t answer.  I walked up and down several blocks with no idea where she was…and then eventually, I got a hold of her, and she told me that she was in a cab heading back to the hotel…I had “ruined” her night and her New Year’s.

Her actions were completely uncalled for and childish.  I had never seen anything like it.  This is where my next decision should have been to grab my bags, find the car, and leave her for good.  But instead, I found a cab, ran back to the hotel and pleaded with her to make the most of the rest of the night.  Eventually we made up and the trip continued…and there were some good times, but while heading out of Pittsburgh, another major argument developed, and she was absolutely vicious to me.  I could hardly even continue driving during the explosion of emotion that followed.

What was I doing in this relationship?  Why was I so determined to keep fighting for something that was so detrimental to my well being?

running red lights

I had a great time in North Carolina that October weekend in 2007.  It was nice getting together with my friends and feeling like myself again.  The past several months leading up to that weekend had been a blur of anxiety and depression.  It was refreshing to put that behind me for a couple of days and find some sweet southern comfort in my home away from home.  I met a girl and she helped me to see that there was indeed going to be life beyond my ex.  And to top it all off, I was finally able to make the drive back to Pennsylvania with a UNC win under my belt…that wouldn’t happen often that season.  Like I said, it was a fabulous weekend…but I should have accepted it for simply that and moved forward with my life.

Instead I carried with me the flame that had been lit that Friday evening at the Martini Bar.  I wanted so badly at that stage in my life to meet the right girl and seek redemption for the error of my ways in my past relationships.  Although my ex had broken my heart in the most calculated and vicious manner possible, I still felt a sense of responsibility for our eventual downfall.  I knew that I had not done everything right, and I wanted a second chance.  So I took the first opportunity that presented itself, and I attempted to run with it.  I decided that I wanted to set my sights on a long distance relationship with my new acquaintance from Chapel Hill.

Blinded by passion and fueled by a need to make the next relationship work, I ignored countless red flags that would have deterred most from pursuing things further.  For instance, when I returned home, she and I spoke on the phone for a couple of days and things seemed to be proceeding well.  And then one night as I was driving to my parent’s house, she called me with the intention of ending communication with me altogether.  She was very direct, and not nice about it at all…”this is not going to work…I don’t want you to call, text, email or stop by when you are in town…are we clear on that? This is it”.  Was she serious?  Initially I thought it was a joke.  And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.  I was immediately sent back to the feeling that I had on September 12th.  As I walked into my parent’s house, I was shaking.  My Mom asked me what was wrong…and I just said “it’s happening again.”

About a week later she emailed me and apologized.  She said that she just didn’t see how we could ever make it work so she wanted to end things as quickly and cleanly as possible before either of us got too wrapped up in it emotionally.  I could understand her reasoning, but the manner in which she handled it was very questionable.  Again, another opportunity for me to let things go.  But instead I pressed on.

We continued to communicate over the phone and through email.  She was going to be visiting Philadelphia in a couple of weeks with her roommate, so we talked about possibly meeting up with each other in the city.  My friend from home had been interested in her friend, so he agreed to venture down with me to visit with them for the weekend.  I believe it was the first week in November.  Naturally, things went very well.  We enjoyed each others’ company and my buddy and I had a great time playing tour guides.

Soon after, I was planning a trip to visit her in Chapel Hill.  This time I’d drive down by myself so that she and I could spend some time together alone.  We knew we did well in group settings, but could we make it as a couple?  I took off after work on a Thursday and arrived in Chapel Hill at about 11:oo PM that night.  I booked a hotel for the weekend so not to make things awkward between her and I.  After checking in, I got changed and headed out to Franklin Street to meet up with her and her roommate.  She looked adorable that night…I remember she was wearing a white South Florida t-shirt as they were playing Rutgers on the Thursday night ESPN game.  It was good time…our introduction had exceeded my expectations.

The following day I picked her up at her office for lunch – I brought her a lily and she seemed smitten by it.  That afternoon we texted each other continually…I was hoping that she’d have the opportunity to leave early for the weekend.  And she did – she headed straight over to my hotel room and we hung out together just wasting time searching for the truth in each others’ eyes.  I’m certain that it was that afternoon that we both realized our feelings for each other.  That night we went to dinner and everything went great…it had been a picture perfect start.

And then came Saturday.  It was her roommate’s birthday and they had a big get together planned with all of their co-workers.  Everyone was going to meet on Franklin and then a limo bus would pick us all up for a night out in Raleigh.  I spent most of the afternoon on their couch hanging out and watching college football while they ran a couple of errands around town.

On Thursday night, we had met a really good guy by the bar that was taking an interest in the roommate. He and I had a great conversation, and it turned out he was from the northeast too, so our company was helping to make each other feel right at home.  The roommate was being extremely flirtatious with him that evening, and she had invited him to come with for her birthday celebration on Saturday.  So that day I encouraged her to call him and let him know where to meet everyone.  She seemed a bit nervous and shy about it for some reason, but eventually she agreed.

Back on Franklin Street that evening, I ran into him at the bar where we were all gathering prior to heading off to Raleigh.  The roommate had been completely ignoring him, and he couldn’t understand why.  He was hurting.  And he began to ask me what I thought of the situation, and why she was acting the way she was?  I didn’t know what to tell him.  To me it appeared completely childish and rude, but I couldn’t do anything about it.  I just really felt bad for him.

As the limo pulled up out front, the roommate ensured that she was ushered in with a group of people so that she could escape the view of my new friend.  And then she proceeded to have her friends tell him that he was not welcome to come along.  And not in a nice way either, there were literally people hanging out of the sunroof yelling at this poor guy.  I could see that he was breaking inside…it was extremely hurtful.  So I told my new acquaintance about it, thinking she’d be a person of character and that she would support me. I asked her to do something, and she proceeded to yell at me and tell me to “get on the bus or we’ll leave without you”.  I stood there for a few minutes and thought long and hard about it.  I should have let the bus rumble off to Raleigh without me, but instead I apologized to my northeast friend and chased after her with my tail between my legs.

For the rest of the night, she held the fact that I had stood up for him against me.  She told me that I had embarrassed her in front of her friends and that everyone was disgusted with me.  That was not the case at all, but she certainly believed it to be the truth.  But I could not handle another failed relationship.  So instead of standing up for myself, I did my best to work back into her good graces.  And by the next morning, things were fine.  She was clinging to me on Sunday, and because of that I didn’t even get on the road until about 6:00 PM.

About an hour into the drive home, I called her.  She didn’t pick up so I left her a voicemail.  It was a couple of hours until she returned the call.  She told me that she had just been napping on the couch and didn’t hear her phone ring.  But she was very short with me.  It wasn’t the same person that had been snuggling close to me that afternoon…it was like Jekyll and Hyde.  She ended the conversation quickly and told me that she’d call me later, leaving me feeling very confused and uneasy for the remainder of the trip.  And then eventually she called and dropped it on me again…”this is not going to work I’m sorry”.

I’m a pretty resilient guy, but I was not equipped to deal with this level of heartache this soon.  I had just been through an extremely painful breakup with my fiance, and she knew that.  Why was she treating me this way?  Just as soon as I’d feel good about things again, she’d tear the happiness from my grasp.

The more important question I should have been asking myself was why should I feel the need to hang onto something so destructive?  She had now provided me multiple opportunities to slam on the brakes and head the opposite direction.  But I couldn’t.  I didn’t want to fail again.  So I held on tight and waited for her apology so that we could move forward and pursue a future together.  I didn’t want to be alone, and I didn’t want to let anyone down or see them walk out on me again.

The events of my past were holding me hostage, and they were directing me down a road destined to lead to further painful experiences…

new face in a familiar place

It’s 3rd down and 15.  We’ve spent the first two downs of the possession losing yardage trying force our will against the defense.  We’re a running team, but our opponent has scouted us well over the past two seasons and has learned all of our tendencies.  Their linebackers are filling the gaps in anxious anticipation prior to the ball even being snapped.  Now we’ve again found ourselves in a predictable passing situation.  Since we employ only the Wing T, I’ll need to prepare to take the snap under center and execute one of a handful of plays that we have designed for this situation.  I look to the sideline and take the play call.  My coach finds my eyes and says “C’mon Matty – make something happen!”  This is a phrase I’ve heard him shout many times.  There was always desperation in his voice.  It was as if he knew that we were heading for failure, but he thought that perhaps my ability would somehow direct us to an emergency reprieve.  I head to the huddle and make the call, pleading “just give me some time guys”.  But I know the defense will be coming for me.  Our offense forces play action, but no one bites.  Linebackers storm through the middle and the defensive end zeroes in on me.  I’m running for my life.  It’s time to be a leader.  You’re down and now you’re facing insurmountable odds…stay in the collapsing pocket, cover the ball, take the sack and limit the damage…nope.  That’s not a part of my make up.  Scramble Matt, outrun that linebacker, shake the end, keep your eyes downfield, find a receiver, square your shoulders, deliver a strike…it’s time to “make something happen Matty”…

I’ve often related obstacles that I’ve faced in my personal life to experiences that I’ve had on the football field.  I had a passion for the game that I only wish I could have carried through to other aspects of my life.  My determination was completely unwavering.  I could get kicked in the teeth all game long, but I’d always get back up to play the next down.  I would leave it all on the field.  Setbacks did not discourage me.  And I faced them more often in the game that I loved than I did in other aspects of my life.  It didn’t matter.  I wanted more.  And I think the reason I felt that way is because I took so much pride in overcoming adversity.  There was nothing better than converting a 3rd and 15 into a fresh set of downs.  Now it was time for me to take that ‘won’t break’ mentality and apply it to my life.

I had been a complete emotional mess as a result of the departure of my fiance.  It was such a long and drawn out breakup…it had consumed me for months.  I had to learn to live alone in the house that we had purchased, furnished, and decorated together, and I had to make peace with the fact that she would never offer any explanation for her actions.  Thank the good Lord for my family, friends, and co-workers.  They stuck by me through everything, allowing me to vent when I needed, always offering a shoulder to cry on when it became too much for me to handle.  I’m sure I wore thin on them at times.  But I’ll never forget their support.  I hope that they understand just how critical they were to my survival during that time.

By early October 2007, the college football season was in full swing.  The timing could not have been better…I could at least find refuge in the game that I enjoyed so much.  My Tar Heels were off to a sluggish start.  It was our first year under Butch Davis and we had begun the season 1-4.  On October 6th we were set to match up with Miami in Chapel Hill.  My father was not interested in heading down that weekend, so I planned a bit of a guy’s getaway with my two best friends from high school.  My one buddy would make the drive with me from PA, and my other friend who was living in South Carolina would meet us there on Friday afternoon.  It was a much needed escape for me, and I was really looking forward to it.

On Friday night we went out to dinner and then headed over to Franklin Street to party like a bunch of college kids for the evening.  We ended up at East End Martini Bar.  If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll remember that this was the place where I first met my now ex-fiance for drinks during my senior year of college.  That night my friend had taken interest in a girl by the bar who was there with several friends, so I told him that I’d go get the conversation started for us.  I was pretty bold that weekend…I had nothing to lose, it couldn’t get any worse for me in the ladies’ department.  She seemed happy to talk, so shortly after I invited my friends over and hers as well…we’d all do a shot together.

Minutes later I was introduced to a girl that I had noticed sitting at a table by the window when we first entered the bar.  She was attractive and flirtatious, and I found her very intriguing.  I learned in talking to her that she was my age and was working for a company based in Chapel Hill.  She had graduated from, oddly enough, the University of South Florida in 2005.  That was the school that my ex had attended prior to her transfer to Chapel Hill.  And she was also originally from Florida, the Atlantic coast side, however.  This was all insanely ironic.  I couldn’t help but feel like maybe it was all supposed to be happening.  Perhaps this was redemption?

We spent the rest of the evening completely lost in one another.  Upstairs we danced and held onto each other as if we had been dating for months.  It was a great time.  And for me, it felt particularly good because I had been down for so long dealing with my broken engagement.  For a few hours I was able to feel like my old self again…to enjoy living and experience feelings of attraction and desire, things that I had thought I might never find with anyone again.  I didn’t want the night to end.  So we exchanged phone numbers and talked about getting together on Saturday night after the game.

My friends had an equally fun time that evening.  Unfortunately, we all paid for it the next morning.  We were actually so hungover that we contemplated skipping the game altogether…and trust me, I NEVER do that.  But eventually we gathered ourselves and found our way to Kenan Stadium for kickoff.  And I’m so thankful that we did…because it was the best game that we’d play that entire season.  We hammered Miami on both sides of the ball for the entire first half, and in the second we withstood their comeback rally to hold on for a 33-27 victory…an amazing and completely unexpected performance.

I called my new acquaintance that afternoon to see what her plans were for the evening but she didn’t answer her phone.  Maybe she was going to blow it off altogether?  The boys and I  headed back to the hotel room after grabbing a quick bite to relax, catch up on some games, and get ready for that night.  A couple of hours into our mutual slumber, she called.  It was decided that later that evening we’d meet up at the same place as the night before.  I wasn’t going to drink that evening, honestly even looking at an alcoholic drink made me weak in the stomach.  I had enough fun for the entire weekend the night before.  So I maintained a pretty laid back and quiet demeanor, which she must have appreciated because she ended up inviting me back to her apartment after the bars closed.

It was already 2:00 AM.  We had a long drive facing us the next day.  But I was running on adrenaline, so I dropped off the guys and headed back to meet up with her.  She invited me into her apartment and we spent the next three or four hours laying on her bed talking to and kissing each other.  I didn’t want it to be a one night stand, so I never allowed things to progress that far.  I liked her and I wanted to get to know her better.  I was just enjoying being around someone new.  And I had anxiously been hoping to meet the right person to fill the void in my heart…perhaps she could be it?  I wasn’t thinking about the logistics of everything…I was just riding the high that weekend.

I finally returned to the hotel around 6:00 AM.  After a couple of hours of sleep we got up, said goodbye to our South Carolina buddy, and then made the trip home.  I was so excited about my new acquaintance that I didn’t need much rest to function.

As we headed up I-85 North out of North Carolina, my friend looked at me and said, “Matt, I told you last night that you needed to be able to leave that here…if you couldn’t do that, then you should not have gone any further with things…”