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When The Tango Dancing Therapist Loved The Nature Obsessed Neighbor-From-Hell

(Note: This is another of my personal musings written so that you might get to know more about me. Enjoy!)

            He was a die-hard camping, hiking, nature-loving Oregon hippie. He parked his truck on his overgrown lawn. Paraphernalia from long gone construction projects was piled along the side of his house and scattered hither and thither just in case he might need them in a year or five. I remember thinking the first time I drove up to his house that he was your typical neighbor-from-hell.  

            What was I doing with the neighbor-from-hell?

            We met online. Even though his photos made him look kind of dorky, I liked what he had to say. He read Annie Dillard. He was going to Idaho to take care of his mom after her hip replacement surgery. He was self-employed in the renewable energy field. Had raised two kids who made it to adulthood. Drove a Prius. In our first email exchanges, he asked smart, complex questions. He told fascinating stories about his adventures in the Arctic. These were all signs the man might be worth meeting.

(photo from Vasilios Muselimis, Unsplash)

            And the first meeting went well. He was much cuter than the photo. Tall. Well-built. Articulate, smart, and sensitive. He did not smell like garlic. On our second date, he watched me dance. I had started taking Argentine tango lessons five years earlier. Craig was impressed, even though it was an unusual second date, with me dancing the tango with handsome men who were not him. He was a good sport about it, appreciating my talent.

            I introduced him to my girlfriends, looking for their assessments.

            Me: I don’t know. He’s kinda hippie dippy. His house is super messy. I don’t know if I’m ready for another relationship and, anyway, he’s probably a serial killer or a codependent pothead with siblings who are in prison for insider trading.

            Girlfriends: He has great social skills and a sense of humor. This could be fun. C’mon, there’s no harm in trying. A serial killer probably wouldn’t have a good relationship with his mother.

            So I decided to give it a try.

            And it was sweet.

            But I was not a die-hard camping, hiking, nature-loving Oregon hippie. I thought I might become one with the right guy. Maybe not die-hard. Maybe not camping where there might be bears, cougars, raccoons, and no internet. But I am an ardent environmentalist so I thought I just needed a safe, kind soul to introduce me to the wonders of a rushing river, the mysteries of hiking in the forest, and the thrills of outdoor plumbing.

            And Craig tried. I remember one weekend in a comfortable yurt by a lake. He brought a solar cell thingy so we could have music. He supplied several flashlights, delicious snacks, and a kayak built for two. I tried to enjoy myself. 

            He did not give up. Months later, he bought a small trailer so we could stay at campgrounds with showers and restrooms. He cooked gourmet-ish meals and was upbeat and generous.

            Sadly, it did not work. I just could not love it like he did. I could not even like it much. I was a failure at nature-loving.

            But there were other strengths I brought to the relationship.

            For example, I was a success at psychotherapy-loving.

            You see, I am a counselor working with people healing from childhood trauma. I love my job. It is such a privilege to guide people on their journeys to self-acceptance and self-actualization. I have also been a client in therapy. It is really one of my core values: introspection and facing one’s fears to heal yourself and create a better world. So, I was able to be bring a good bit of self-awareness and compassion to the relationship. This would make up for my nature-loving deficit.

             And as I got to know Craig, it became clear that he had his own childhood trauma. But psychotherapy was not his thing. When it came to introspection, or as I called it, diving into the abyss, or even just looking under the rug, he would decline. Change the subject. Or play the nature card.

            I would say: “Honey. I’m so sorry your father was so critical. And it sounds like he may have been an alcoholic. Therapy has been so helpful for me. I’m much more confident and self-accepting. I can give you a few names of therapists you can try. OK?  It’s so worth it.”

            He would say: “Nature is my therapist.

            Now, I know there are many ways to self-actualize. Psychotherapy isn’t the answer for everyone. And nature can be such a healing place. Many of my clients find solace and even spirituality when they are connecting with the natural world. But for Craig, it was his solace. And his excuse.

            I would say: “Sweetie. If you don’t want to do traditional therapy, how about meeting with my medical intuitive energy worker? Or my acupuncturist? “

            He would say: “Nature is my therapist.

            He was adamant, in a nice guy passive-aggressive kind of way. But I have to admit, he did try therapy a couple of times. He went to a weekend workshop. Spent a week at a nature-based vision quest program. He even saw my medical intuitive energy worker once. He tried. But he did not love it like I did. Could not even like it much. He was a failure at psychotherapy-loving.

            As time passed, I started to see signs of trouble. Serious anxiety. Problems with his adult children. Unpaid taxes. Toxic friends. Vodka. Rooms in his house filled with old magazines, tools, gadgets, papers, and moth-eaten suits from his days in the tech world.

            But, like any good therapist, I ignored the signs. We bought a house together and planned a small remodel that turned into a big remodel. He was a very capable self-made contractor so wanted to do it all himself. Which took a lot of time. But I stayed in my own house until it was mostly complete, then, let my home, my little sanctuary, go. He didn’t sell his own house and, lucky for me, left most of his clutter there. But not his anxiety, his unpaid taxes, or his vodka.

            Once we were living together, I noticed the garlic. He loved it. I have a thing about food smells on breath. Especially garlic. If someone smells like garlic, I immediately despise them. My therapist self knows that this is a bit of an over-reaction. Likely a bad memory from the past. But those olfactory triggers are hard to control. I started to eat garlic myself as a way to reduce the odor and manage my despising. It helped and I tried not to hold it against him.

            And we grew closer, in spite of our failures and our differences. He kept his chaos contained to his office and the garage. I ate more garlic and bought gifts for his grandkids. He was my bodyguard when we’d visit my family. I befriended his mother when she needed a careful listener.

            We were creating a good tango. We’d step on each others’ toes occasionally but our hearts were in sync.

            And then the music stopped.

            One day he told me it was over. He said he needed a partner who loved the outdoors as much as he did. Who could walk the beach for days. Who was intensely curious about the ocean floor and eager to spend weeks lost in the Oregon forest.

            I was in shock. I had thought he was the one. This was going to be my last and best relationship. I thought it was going well. He would take his trailer to the coast for a few days and enjoy nature on his own while I would stay home, see clients, and blog. I had started a blog (this blog!) about three months before the break up. It was surprisingly satisfying, meaningful, and fun. I thought we had worked out a good compromise.

            But apparently, we had not.

            It was not easy for him to break up with me. I cried. He cried. He offered to move back to his old house until I found a place and we sold ours. Move out? Back to your old house? It took me some months to believe it was really over. That I was being left. Not for another woman, but because he loved mother nature more than he loved me. That is just weird, if you ask me. But he was not asking.

            He moved back to his house and I was alone.

            But I had support. Over the years, I had built a reliable family of friends. My friends and my blog (this blog!) would get me through my grief.

            But, for a long time, I felt lost and lonely. No one tracking me anymore. No one asking me annoyingly what my schedule was for the day. No funny stories of polar bears. No bodyguard for family visits.

            And so I did what I had to do. I went to therapy— to continue to examine, process, and release old complex patterns and beliefs that were underneath my choice to be with Craig. I found an excellent book to work through, too. And it occurred to me, Craig and I had very different basic needs. His: Finding peace (and denial) in the beauty of the natural world. Mine: Doing deep inner psycho-spiritual work to heal my past and live a life of meaning and purpose. Interestingly, we were both fairly inept at participating in the other’s greatest priority.

            I began to wonder how we had lasted as long as we had. I began to wonder why I did not run the other way when I first saw his neighbor-from-hell yard. Why he did not run the other way when he heard I was a therapist.  And yet, in spite of it all, I knew our partnering had not been a mistake.

             And as I continue to examine the beautiful layers of my psyche, one thing is clear: I am now certain I want a partner who is willing to look under the rug. Who is not afraid to do the deep dive into his abyss. Who has done the inner psycho-spiritual work to heal the past and live a courageous life of meaning and purpose.

            To keep the music playing, our hearts in sync.

            To tango, fearlessly. With me.

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To my bloggEEs: Let me know your thoughts, feelings, and questions. Thank you, as always for being here. And just remember, relationship “failures” make great material for your blog, memoir, or TED talk!