Many published posts about LOVE around Valentine’s Day. Love is always important. It’s also possible to have too much to handle.
Men do want love, you know. And women also want sex. Not always both at the same time but still, the old adages are wrong. When I was young I wanted both in large doses. Young men can’t help it. Like other young men I was a prisoner of testosterone, a powerful hormone. All desires were amplified.
History and culture have current, like the tides, like all life. In the 1970s there were looser definitions of what was or was not acceptable in relationships. It was a period of intensity in America, one with more heat than light. The senseless, pointless Vietnam War was over. Nixon had taped himself “cheating”, and like celebrity sex tapes today, it hastened the end of his relationship with the public. I was married. I was in love with my wife.
The difference between loving and being in love is the degree of need. I have friends that I love. I would do anything for them. I would donate a kidney if one asked. But I might not see them for years at a time. When we do get together, we laugh, cry and share secrets. I want these friendships to last my whole life, but I don’t need to be with them every day. It’s different when you’re in love with someone. If you can’t be with them it hurts!
I was volunteering at a crisis intervention center. Crisis centers were still a new approach then. We trained under the supervision of a psychologist, role-playing alternatively as counselors or as a person in need. We took calls in teams. One person would listen and talk. The other was there to help the counselor with emotional or informational support. There were no personal computers. If you needed information to help someone it would be in files, reference books or a phone call away.
Life’s problems don’t change. They just put on different clothes. We’ve been trying to solve loneliness, poverty, anger and alienation for thousands of years. Families broke up and siblings fought over inheritance before the pyramids were built. We tried to help in the ancient way, by listening and offering sympathy and information.
Talking with depressed persons who are contemplating self-harm or suicide is absorbing and intimate. You develop a deep bond with your teammate, your silent partner. Most counselors and most crisis intervention clients are women. Men have the same problems, but women are less hesitant to share them and seek help. Most of my teammates were women, including my wife.
There are a lot of things people will only admit to anonymous strangers. Telephone counselors hear things people can’t say to their therapists. The therapist is in the room. It’s too hard to reveal. As counselors, we had to try and make sense of it. It’s not so hard when the call is in progress. You focus on the specifics of the problem as presented. Husband beating you? Here’s the address and phone number of the shelter. Encourage them to call back if they need more support. But afterward, the big questions remain. Solving the chronic and systemic problems of people with too many needs and too few resources isn’t easy. We cared about our callers. They had real problems. Some went to prison. Some went to rehab. Some died. In most cases we never knew what happened after the phone call.
Suicide calls must be taken seriously, though most who follow through on that never call a crisis line. It’s actually a hopeful sign if someone calls you in that state of confusion, depression and pain. Counselors can’t give answers to the big questions. You answer the ones you can, like where to get assistance. It’s information and referral, with psychotherapy happening under the radar. Something about modern life makes things too distant. People feel they aren’t being listened to. If you can make them feel heard, they usually feel better no matter what the problem is.
Over the months I developed an exceptionally good rhythm with one particular female teammate. If she was taking the call I could anticipate her informational needs from the conversation, and she could do the same for me. It made things smoother. After hard calls, we would talk them over while awaiting the next one. We were on opposite sides of a desk. We never touched. But when you bare your soul to someone over and over, big things sometimes happen. We fell in love.
This was a huge dilemma. I was no less in love with my wife than before. My counseling partner was also married. My wife considered her a close friend and loved her too. Of course I told my wife about my feelings. She was my best friend. I would never have lied to her about it. What hurts most when partners cheat isn’t the fact that there’s another love. It’s that you’ve been lied to.
We didn’t work together after that. I did go to her house once after we knew. I expected it would hurt, but when you are in love, you are in need. It was sunny and beautiful on the patio. Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the afternoon of a faun) was playing. She was working on a puzzle, a village landscape with red roofs. I saw the piece she was looking for under the table. As I offered it to her, our fingers touched. Agony. Electricity. Longing. Impossibility. She smiled.
I got drunk with a Medicine Man, trying to get over her. He told me to close my eyes and give him my hand. He placed a small, smooth object in my palm and closed my fingers around it. He asked me to direct my pain into the object. I did. Then he told me to open my hand and look. It was a small stone that looked like volcanic glass. When light hit it, it looked black, but when you held it up, you could see through. “Apache tear”, he said. “Things look black now. In time you will see them from another direction.”
I saw the puzzle unexpectedly on a table. It all came back to me. A single Apache tear rolled down my cheek. It had hidden in the corner of my eye for thirty-five years. Mary asked, “What’s wrong?” “Nothing”, I said.