A Lesson in Unlearned Helplessness

In a sociology class I took in college, we discussed the theory of learned helplessness. Basically, it’s the notion that we mimic what we see portrayed or illustrated to us. In the context of the course, the lecture was specifically directed toward learned helplessness in women. We see damsels in distress on television, we see knight-and-shining-armor-like male characters rescue them from their sadness, and then we believe by being needy we’ll attract the guy we want.

I see this time and time again, and I’ve probably been guilty of the same “help me!” tactic in past relationships. There’s something about being upset and then being comforted by anyone – man or friend – that seems normal. Sometimes it even feels good. But the older I’ve become and the more men I’ve dated that were far more helpless than I’ll ever be at any given point in my life, the more independence I have claimed.

Well, until today when Mr. Possibility experienced his first unexpected summer storm. And unluckily for him, with my hands on the wheel.

Returning from The Biltmore, wind, rain, hail, and lighting encompassed the Carolina sky and we watched the cars on the highway slow and some pull off to wait it out. I’m not a fan of driving due to a scary accident I had in high school and torrential weather only intensifies my fear because it reminds me of how it feels to be out of control of your vehicle. Stuck in traffic on the expressway where everyone else was going at the same speed, I didn’t freak out. He kept quiet, I stayed focused and I felt comfortable enough to get us off at the right exit.

But then my nerves got the best of me. On the older, uneven country roads plagued with flood plains, the water rose to the top of my tires and with the inclination I could hydroplane, I almost burst into tears.

“Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!” I repeated continuously while gripping the steering wheel,  keeping my eyes peeled for wrecks ahead, and prepping myself for a disaster myself. Instead of consoling me or getting me out of the situation, Mr. Possibility calmly encouraged me to breathe, to keep moving, to not brake and assured me I could get through it. When we hit the next overgrown puddle, I returned to my “Oh my god” chorus and again, he let me know that this was in my hands, that I could do it and that this was all me. He even threw in a “Can’t Tigar do anything?” pep talk for good humor.

You could guess I was highly unamused.

Once we pulled over into a parking lot after a firetruck kept us from going any further because part of the road was underwater, I snapped at him: “Why didn’t you just comfort me? Why didn’t you just say ‘Baby, you’re fine. I’ll handle this, just pull over and get out’?” He reached across the car, placed his hand on my knee and asked, “Well didn’t you handle it?”

I nodded.

“And aren’t we safe because of you?”

I again nodded.

“You didn’t need me to comfort you. You didn’t need me to make you get out and let me drive. You could do it just fine on your own and you did.”

It took me a while to cool down, still convinced he should have just rescued me from the awful storm so I could crawl into the passengers side, curl up and hide my face from the ugliness outside. But once we pulled into the driveway and I finally exhaled an hour later, I realized he was right. I didn’t actually need him. If he had not been in the car, I would have been fine – I would have just said the same things to myself that he said to me.

So why did I suddenly feel helpless? Is it because we’re conditioned to give up and surrender when a man is in our presence? If a guy is by our side, do we throw away any gumption we had without them? Or is it just easier to tell someone else to do something, to get through the nitty-gritty instead of doing it ourselves? Instead of correcting what’s wrong with us or embracing our fears with courage?

A few hours later when I needed something out of our rental car (that luckily wasn’t damaged from the hail), I started to ask him to run outside and get it because it was still raining. As the words slipped out of my mouth and he asked where the keys were, I quickly excused him from the duty. Will I melt in water? No.

And I don’t really need Mr. Possibility – or any man that’s a possibility. I just kinda of want him – maybe that’s partly because he reminds me that helplessness isn’t part of who I am. And that if you can learn it, you can unlearn it, too.

And the Storm Will Rise

There are certain things people say that you’ll never forget: the first time a man tells you he loves you (even if he’s merely a boy at the time), when someone ridicules you publicly, or when you have a heart-to-heart with your mom, not as your mother, but as your friend. I remember each of these moments in my own life, but if someone were to ask me my favorite, most memorable phrase anyone ever said to me, it’d be:

“Well you’re like a Southern summer storm in the middle of August, aren’t ya, now?”

I can’t tell you the woman’s name, but it was a friend-of-a-friend at some family reunion I attended in North Carolina when I was 17. Having only been in my presence for about ten minutes, this older lady decked out in pearls and with nails so perfectly manicured you’d think she lived in a salon, literally nailed who I am in fifteen words.

For those of you who have not had the privilege to experience a thunderstorm in the Southern region of the United States – I hope you do someday. They are beautiful. Out of nowhere, unforgiving gray clouds encircle the endless sky, enticing bursts of sound and light in every direction. The rain with a scent so intoxicating, so vibrant you yearn to step outside to inhale as deeply as you can. But, if you’re educated by the ways of the countryside, you dare not step off of your porch, but allow the storm to capture your attention from afar. Leaving the security of your steps would be quite risky and with the aging Oak trees swaying helplessly in the sweeping winds, you can only imagine what they could do to you, the barefoot and sticky with sweat observer you are.

And then, almost as easily as the storm came, it leaves. Its noise, its electricity, its saturation, and its perfume trail off into a space beyond the Blue Ridge mountaintops you’ve never crossed. It is only then, when the branches rest from their dancing, the daffodils face the sun as it breaks through the clouds, that the real beauty reveals itself.

As everything comes back to life and still at the same time, and the color returns to the fields and the atmosphere…an echoing silence that’s as vivid and consuming as any sound on the Earth, captures the Southern afternoon. It’s simply quiet.

Perhaps the lady didn’t know what she was saying to me when she called me a summer storm, but something tells me that with her accent and the way she sipped her sweet tea – she did. When a relationship comes to a close, when a man leaves me before I’m ready to be left, when I don’t hear from a guy who I was convinced was intrigued by me, or when I feel like I failed at something I thought I deserved, I hear her words ringing loud and clear in my head.

Am I really as messy as a summer storm? Or is love the storm we all chase after, but never quite catch?

When I’m falling in love, I see myself enveloped in a tornado, shaking around aggressively, feeling the rush of lust wash away all of my fears, all of my insecurities, and capture me in a breeze I can’t (and don’t want to) fight. Instead of hiding behind a door, I dodge through it. I tease the storm with my laughter, with my ever-believing, ever-childlike spirit, and I feel unbreakable, unstoppable, and full of a fire I know could never be drowned with rainfall.

Until of course, I hear the thunder.

Or it shakes the ground so violently that mud splashes up against my calves. And lighting strikes a breathless few feet away from me, and though they say it never strikes twice, I start to remember what it’s like to feel the sting of heartbreak, to have that feeling in places you didn’t know existed that tells you “It’s over. It’s just so over.”

And like the same sweet child who ran to escape the unexpected summer rain and the disaster that often followed it, I dive back into my safe place with my hair and my cheeks damp, my mascara creating paintings on my face, and as if I wasn’t soaked enough – I cry. As if I wasn’t messy from the outside free-for-all I just came from, I shield my eyes with my grimy-hands, smearing the wetness even deeper. So deep it feels like it becomes ingrained in my blood and pours out of the hole that I hoped wouldn’t be put in my heart…again.

When I love, I love intensely. I love powerfully and profoundly. I make no excuses for how I feel and I give away pieces I should probably keep to myself – but I do it willingly. I do it with the rush of a hurricane, the destruction of a tsunami, and the intensity of a volcano erupting.

And I do it over and over again. With each and every single man who is lucky enough to be loved by the likes of a Southern summer storm.

In going through this journey, as raging and unpredictable as it seems to be, I thought I may lose some of my splendor. Some of that unyielding optimism that makes me believe my Mr. Right (who may be a Mr. Northern Storm, perhaps) exists, of that passion that helps me string together words and fight my way out of any disaster. I thought maybe, that tailwind that so many men, so many friends, so many people have often said they get mesmerized by…would leave with the addiction.

But then I realized, the best part of the storm isn’t the storm itself, but the calm that follows it. As much as a mess in a dress I am at times, especially when I’m drowning in a flood of new love, being a little cyclone means I find my peace eventually. I accept that no voyage, where it be one I travel alone or with a first (or fifth) mate, is ever safe from rocky waters. That while the storm will always rise, it will also fall – and it is there, you test your lungs and your legs out for size. And with the same strength that made the winds blow, the rain fall, and the leaves rattle and shake in all of the relationships I’ve experienced, I’ve been just as sturdy to stand after they were over.

To stop being a hot mess for a hot minute. To ring the water out of my hair and wipe away the stains on my knees, in between my toes, and on my fingertips. To step out of the drenched clothes and slip into something dry and warm. To open that backdoor and feel the summer breeze float through my ringlets.

And let myself inhale not only the end of the storm, but the colorful promise illuminating the sky. The one that makes you remember no matter how much hell a storm gives you or how much hell you are – there is always something waiting in the horizons you can’t see, in the cityscapes you always wished were in your view, but never quite were.

That somehow, no matter how detrimental the raging waters or how threatening the daunting clouds were – we’d never trade them for anything. Because without the storm, we can’t appreciate the sweet stillness that comes with the sun.

P.S. Confessions of a Love Addict is making Valentine’s Day more about the single ladies and less about flowers that’ll die in a day. Submit your Valentine here.