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Today I was having lunch with my son for his 18th birthday.
He chose the Cheesecake Factory, a restaurant that had been a special place for us to celebrate in the past.
There is nothing more grounding for me than spending time with him—it is almost like actively living that provocative question, “If you could go back to high school and live your life again, knowing what you know now, would you?”
With an 18-year-old who is open to your influence, who is right on the precipice of making big life decisions, I feel like a new and improved version of me (and his dad) gets to go through the maze of life anew. It’s hopeful and exciting, yet familiar.
Talking with my son lets me see patterns, especially the patterns that apply to his dad (from whom I’m divorced) and I. Today, my son was talking about his friends and drinking. He was saying that the people who have strict parents and are drinking for the first time go crazy. They get to the party and madly search for a drink, will steal the cup out of your hand, or will drink someone else’s half-empty beer.
He tells me about one girl in particular. She is only able to attend one or two parties a year, when she can contrive a plausible excuse to be out overnight, and she goes crazy trying to take it in all at once. Of course, she inevitably ends up throwing up in the bushes at some point.
“Kids like that don’t realize that the point isn’t to gorge on alcohol,” my sons says. “But because they haven’t had it, they drink it like they’ll never have it again.”
Then my son and I talk about relationships. I ask him if he feels like he’s seen a healthy adult relationship. His eyes search up in his head for a minute. He names his friend’s parents, who he says seem similar to one another and supportive. He says he thinks his own relationship with his girlfriend is based on love and mutual support. My heart smiles and I nod in agreement.
I tell him that I don’t think his dad and I saw healthy relationships as kids. We didn’t see warmth and support modeled. We both felt alone in our families, for different reasons, but with the same result: as soon as we were able to, we sought out relationship after relationship, desperately consuming as much love and attention as we could. Like the drunk girl at the party.
Love is everywhere, I tell myself. Logically, I have evidence of this. There is no scarcity, no rush.
But something inside of me doesn’t believe it. There are only two options: feeling the depths of emotional loneliness or drinking furiously from the well of love and attention. That connection feels like safety; the opposite feels like the rejection I felt as a kid.
Spend time alone.
Give yourself the love you never got.
Go to therapy.
But can you heal relational issues outside of relationships? Is the need for love and attention the problem? Or is it rushing into relationships that is the problem? Can they be untangled, delinked?
Can we chase down what we lack? Or do we have to learn to sit back, get centered, and let it come to us?
How does the drunk girl learn to drink responsibly?
While I may continue to grapple with these questions, the saving grace is this: at least my son doesn’t need to learn the answer.