True love or just chemical imbalance?

I can't get the lover I abandoned 25 years ago off my mind. Why does this torment me so?


Garrison Keillor
June 22, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been happily married for 22 years to a wonderful man. We
have three beautiful girls, caring friends, a lovely house. Two years ago I
ran into a man I had been in love with 25 years ago. We spent
three hours talking and reminiscing, and now not a day passes that I don't
think of our conversation. I ended our relationship in distress over the
tragic death of a parent and confusion about a career and terrible mood
swings; I took off and never looked back until now. Now I am obsessed
about it: why I left, why I shouldn't have, what I might have missed. I
need to find peace within myself. I pray, I cry, I write a great deal, I stay
involved, I get therapy, I talk to friends I can trust, I work on keeping
a positive outlook on life. Why does this torment me so? I am so sorry it
happened. It is like a death that has never been grieved over. Here we
are, both still alive, both happily married, neither of us the type that
would do anything stupid, but how do you heal and find closure when you
still love the person you were estranged from for reasons out of your
control? My therapist tells me I feel this way not for any rational reason,
but when my chemical imbalance kicks in (even though I am on
medication and take it faithfully).

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Anxious

Dear Anxious,

I know nothing about pharmacology. I do question the
happenstance of the meeting with Old Blue, and I question that you were
estranged from him 25 years ago for reasons out of your control.
For whatever reason, he was not your port in the storm and you sailed
away and chose to take your confusion and depression elsewhere. And my
suspicion -- only you know if I'm right -- is that you're going back and
picking up this old love affair, as one might glance at an old book. That's
OK. But this man can't help you grieve or understand what happened
way back when. And you've not injured him in any way you should feel
sorry about. Are you actually a happy person who has become fascinated
with a dark episode? That's legitimate, but then understand this as an
inquiry pursued for its own sake, having no particular weight or relevance,
as if you were to be suddenly fascinated by the giant sea tortoise. Don't
take it as your cue to sell the house and move to Galapagos.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a woman in my late 20s who rushed to marry
Mr. Nice four
years ago. I married for stability and he is very responsible and
works hard to support me and our young child, but I feel little
connection to him. I'm working on a novel, and when I read him an
excerpt he tells me to hurry up and finish it so I can make lots of money
and he can retire. He comes back from a long business trip and we talk
for about five minutes about what we did while we were apart and that's
all. There doesn't seem to be anything that he likes to do
with me, or with anyone else. He sounds depressed, but this just seems to
be the way he is.

I need to be with someone who is kind to me, who likes to hold me and
laugh and talk with me. He seems fixated on his own needs and not that
interested in being a father to his son. If he were abusive the solution
would be clear. Instead, he is just neglectful and inconsiderate. I don't
know what to do.

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Lonely

Dear Lonely,

You make your husband sound like an automaton. Surely he
has some personality, some history, a sense of humor, affections, some
trait other than stability. Don't walk away from this marriage, shopping
for Mr. Movie. Perhaps your husband really is depressed. Try working on
that assumption. There is treatment for depression. Are you able to
suggest he seek help without making it sound like an indictment?
Depression is a grim state, in which a person feels incapable and unworthy
of holding and being held, and laughter seems part of a former life. It also
sounds as if your husband is frustrated at work. But don't assume, for
your own convenience, that "this just seems to be the way he is." He's in
trouble, maybe in danger. You're married to him. Have a heart and help
him. Put aside this bill of particulars you've written and try to get the
poor guy out of the slough of despond.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

I dated my former boyfriend for four years -- a sweet, sweet man, but I
had no passion for him. He was so hurt and bitter that we couldn't
continue as friends. Now, three years later, I am living on the other side
of the country and am engaged to be married to a wonderful man. I have
heard, through mutual friends, that my ex is still very wounded by our
breakup, is still single and continues to talk about me as though I left
yesterday. Some suggest he is obsessed with the memory of our
relationship.

Should I phone him and tell him I'm getting married, or let him find out
through friends? I don't relish the thought of phoning him, but I wonder
if it would be kinder.

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August Bride

Dear August,

It's thoughtful of you to consider your ex's feelings, but
there is a fine line here between informing him of your situation and
waving your happiness in his face. For a mission so delicate, a personal
letter is the medium of choice, not the telephone. Draft a hundred words
or less that say exactly what you mean -- I'm marrying someone, I love
him and I wish you well and will always remember our good times --
and send it off. But take a moment to consider your own feelings. Does
your apparent interest in the ex's "obsession" with you reveal some
lingering fascination with him? No? Good.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

I feel I am always looking for a definitive answer that I will never
find. Is there a point in life where we give up looking for definitive
answers and just enjoy our loved ones and our work? I am often obsessed
with finding out the truth, and usually this leads me to believe
destructive ideas about my relationships with other people. Most of the
time, however, I appreciate my fianci and my loved ones and consider my
relationships to be healthy. In those times of panic, how can I tell if
there is any basis for my fears?

Tired of second-guessing

Dear Tired,

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You don't offer a clue as to what sort of definitive answer
you're looking for -- inner peace, a just society, a clearer skin -- but my
guess is that you may be trying too hard to ascend the mountain of the
Good & True & Beautiful and that if you take the short view and focus on
the here and now and your loved ones down here in Pleasant Valley, the
definitive truth will sneak up on you, and you'll know it, even if you don't
have words for it. But you're not talking to a guru here, you understand,
just a guy in a bathrobe drinking coffee. And my feeling is that life on the
mountain is chilly and not that much fun.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a young freelance writer working on my first novel and getting ready
to marry the woman I love this fall. In order to make money, I've
had to take on a lot of magazine projects and take a secretarial job at a
real estate company.

Neither job is hard or unpleasant. But do you have any tips on
keeping on track? I don't want this book to slip away.

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Happy Man

Dear Happy Man,

The danger is the magazine writing. A writer can't be
doing 10 things at once, and if you're cranking out "Ten Tips for Making
More Attractive Closets" and "Twenty Ways to Achieve Ecstasy in
Topeka," it's going to drain you of the energy and enthusiasm you need to
complete "Methodist Sex Vixens: A Novel." If the novel is trembling,
shimmering, on the verge of completion, drop everything else and finish
it, and let the woman you love wait until spring. If the novel is in an early
stage, make appointments with it and keep them. Give over one day a
week to it and go to bed early the night before. Or meet it every morning
at 5 a.m. and give it three hours before you do anything else.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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I quit smoking three years ago. The next day, I put away my writing, too.
Smokes and writing are entwined in my psyche, it seems.
Whenever I imagine writing I imagine a mad dash to the nearest
convenience store. The thought of trying to write without cigarettes is
horrifying to me, but I miss my
journal! I'm being a wimp, but I don't know how to shake this.

Shaky Grounds

Dear Shaky,

Take your notebook to the stately reference room of your
public library where smoking is forbidden and sit down and write. If you
wrote on a typewriter back in your tobacco days, try pen and paper now.
After three years, your addiction is gone. You are struggling with a
phantom. It is your choice whether to smoke or not, and whether to write
or not. You can do one, do both, do neither, as you wish. But the old
habit is gone. And if you started writing again, the ghost of it would
evaporate pretty quickly.

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Dear Mr. Blue:

In my younger years I had three huge love affairs, each of which broke
my heart, and after the last one I took a few years off. Now I'm 34,
and I've met a really great man. We're living together, we get along
really well, we make each other laugh, we have great sex and every day
I'm happy to go home to him. The idea of marrying him feels right. I'm
sure I love him, but I don't feel that same
sense of "overwhelmed by love" that I had in my earlier relationships. I
notice its absence and wonder what it means. Should I be looking for a
relationship with more intensity, or do I have a good thing going?

Happy, but afraid to miss out

Dear Happy,

You sound as if you really love this guy. And of course your romance
with him can't be the same experience that a romance 10 or 15 years
ago was. A person is capable of an emotional purity in her younger days
that can't be replicated later. No romance can be replicated; each has its
own ethos and beauty. Your first three lovers were your education and
prepared you for the fourth; be grateful to them, but accept your man
for the happiness he is. Past a certain age, we can't be overwhelmed in the
same way, my dear: We know too much, we've had experience, but it's
that experience that guides us to something happier than being
overwhelmed. Please don't shop around for intensity if you love the man
you're with.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been married for 11 years to a man I have adored since the day
we met. A year and a half ago, I discovered his affair with a co-worker.
He refused to end it, then tried, then failed -- and so on and so on --
throwing me into a period of the most intense and sustained pain
imaginable. I am mostly OK now -- still in love with him but clear that
our relationship cannot work right now because he cannot give up the
other woman and he does not feel passion for me. A month ago, after I
told him I was planning to file for divorce, he proposed that we try again
to see if we could reconcile. I agreed, with trepidation but ever hopeful. But
he never got around to breaking up with her, which devastated me. I
have resolved to serve him with divorce papers as soon as my lawyer can
draft them up, and I am hoping that the finality of the divorce will help
me move on. The problem is that there's still a little voice inside my head
telling me that he'll want me back one day, and that little hope feels
comforting. Am I just sabotaging my own recovery by clinging to this
hope? Put another way: Can I will myself to stop loving him?

Sad but Hopeful

Dear Sad,

You will hear all sorts of voices and wishful thoughts and
wonder how you could make things different, but you are not in charge of
this situation now: he is, having decided to take up with someone else.
And you must separate yourself from him so that you can take charge of
your own story and not be the victim in his. This means forging ahead
with the divorce. Don't waste time trying to figure out your husband.
Invest some time in thinking about what you would like to do in the next
six months. Cook up plans to do things and see people who make you
happy. That's your first step out of this misery, the pursuit of personal
pleasure.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I dated a woman in high school 40 years ago, and since then we've
stayed in touch and kept track of each others' marriages and divorces and
now, grandkids. She has moved back to our hometown, not far from
where I live, and a couple summers ago I asked her why she broke up
with me after I joined the Army. "Because you never wrote," she said.
So I wrote her some letters. I have wanted to rekindle our old friendship
at least, and if she showed interest I would write more letters; I suppose I
have written 20,000 words to her by now, and it is becoming
heartbreaking. She has a much tougher heart than I. I am hopelessly at
sea in this matter and hoping you can help.

Far from shore

Dear Far,

This is a sweet story, a man courting an old love, and I wish
you well. But of course you know the heart has its own wisdom, and hers
may no longer be open to you. There's no advice to give. Yours is a noble
pursuit, and I am rooting for you, that's all.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been married to a wonderful man for 18 months. We have a
home in the city and 40 acres in the mountains. Recently his ex-girlfriend has moved close to our mountain retreat. She used to spend a lot
of time at the place. I asked my husband what he would say if the
ex-girlfriend wanted to spend time at our property, and to my horror, he
said that she would be welcome, that he considered her part of his family
and that his loyalty to her was as deep as his loyalty to me. I am
crushed. I do not want to share our real estate with his ex. What do you
make of this?

Devastated

Dear Devastated,

Don't try to measure loyalty. Don't get in a territorial
fight. If he wants to be friends with his ex, then he's going to, and you'd
do better to put on a hospitable face and learn to be pleasant around her.
There are ways to fight this fight, but be wise, don't do it head on. And
don't turn your back and sit in the city and be devastated and let Mountain
Girl walk yodeling through the forest. Invite her to dinner and kill her
with kindness, is my advice. Become her new best friend.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 29, married less than a year and just had my second
child. Since the baby I have felt sooooo unattractive. My
wonderful husband tells me every day how pretty I am, but I feel like I
look disgusting. Since the baby, my husband and
I have only been intimate four times. It's not that I am not attracted to my
husband, it's just that I feel so
unattractive myself. What is wrong
with me?

Wanting-to-feel-Pretty

Dear Wanting,

Four times in the first four months after childbirth strikes
me as above average, maybe even an all-time record in your county.
Giving birth is a large event -- that's why we pay homage on Mother's Day --
and the first year of a baby's life is a real marathon, and depression seems
to be part of it. An anxious, sleep-deprived lady who has just extruded an
8-pound person cannot be expected to play the seductress. I mean, you
sound lovely but you're not immortal. Exercise is a good all-purpose tonic
for feeling unattractive. Pop the baby in the stroller every day and go for
long, brisk walks. See if your wonderful husband can't spring you loose so
you can go to a health club, jump around and sit in a steam room. And
you undoubtedly could use more sleep. And you're doing fine.

Dear Mr Blue,

I am a 29-year-old writer who has not really written for three years, since
the start of my present romance, except for a salvo of letters home when I
was overseas alone for a month. I have been diagnosed as having
depression, but I don't think that's the cause. It's a motivation thing. I'm
not lazy, but I have an abnormally high moment of inertia.

I'm sure I could write if I had a timetable, say a weekly column, with an
editor bashing me to get it done. I'm tired of not writing. I miss
writing. Even writing this letter was a small catharsis. So how do I get up
the energy to look for such a job, and how does one tell a prospective
employer that one is unmotivated?

Inert in Saskatoon

Dear Inert,

Confessing to lack of motivation is an awkward moment in
any job interview. It tends to broaden the employer's role in the direction
of therapy, and your chance of finding an employer eager to solve your
motivation problem is slight, I would think, though perhaps things are
different in Saskatoon. You'd have to be a brilliant writer for an editor to
be willing to bash you every week. Are you? Maybe your high moment of
inertia is a sensible reluctance to write under insufficient pressure, not
having enough you really want to say. It's like my inertia when it comes
to badminton. I just don't get the thrills from it that other people do.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a writer who lounges around the cafe with a notebook looking
disaffected and writing nothing but odd scraps of stories and essays. I had
pretty much accepted the fact that I suck, when all of a sudden my
fragments of stuff appeared in a heap before me and cried out with one
voice, "Publish us! All texts are incomplete! We represent neither
narrative nor argument but the raw matter of experience itself, and hence
are more honest and uncompromising than a regular-type author's wicked
attempts to impose a hegemonic form on his interaction with the reader!
Our very half-assedness is our integrity!"

So I was going to dump all my papers in a box and send them to a
publisher, encouraging him to make of them what he will. Do you think I
have any chance at all of getting away with this?

Postmodern in Petaluma

Dear Postmodern,

Ever since "The Bridges of Madison County" and the rise
of the postmodern memoir -- the book about writing a book about
thinking about writing a memoir -- I don't pretend to know a thing about
what is publishable or what the American people will take to its collective
bosom. I think the journal of a disaffected coffee drinker in the Poultry
Capital of California could be a terrific read, especially if it's as witty as
your letter. Do not, however, send this box to me and do not send it to
David Talbot, editor of Salon, in his luxurious walnut-paneled office on
Mission Street in San Francisco. He'll have enough to do trying to piece
together my next column, which I will send him in the form of random
sentences and clusters of words and entries torn from the dictionary.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've written for my own spiritual and artistic fulfillment, never intending
to be published, and then got this one idea that is too big to be put down
in short form and that I'm sure other people could benefit from reading, so
I've been letting it stew and develop in my head before I start taking up
time writing it down. Now I feel apprehension about starting to write it.
I'm afraid that once I start writing it down it will just seem like some
dumb story. How can I convince myself that my writing is good enough to
do my thoughts justice, never having had anything published before?

Inexperienced but Inspired

A Transmission From Planet JIM

Dear Planet,

This apprehension is part of the joy of creation. If we could
simply squeeze our heads and produce a stream of prose out our left
nostrils, it wouldn't be half so much fun. Don't worry about not being
good enough. Go write what you need to write.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 28-year-old grad student in love with an extremely attractive
woman who says she loves me but hates the city we live in so has taken
a job in another city and is moving in August.

I plan to go with her. She won't consider a long-distance relationship. I
can transfer to another school (not as prestigious as this) and get my
degree. I would be miserable if I stayed here
and let her go. Though it frightens me that she means more
to me than this particular school's degree. Am I nuts? Is she
selfish for not considering staying? Is it OK to give up some goals
for the potential of Love?

No Right Answer

Dear No Right,

Go and Godspeed and vive l'amour. So you're giving up
Harvard for Western South Dakota Tech. If you're in love, follow her. Is
she selfish? I don't know. But she's honest about what she wants, and
that's good. You can find ways to demonstrate your talent and smarts even
if your degree is from a mediocre school. Don't be frightened. That's
your parents' job, not yours.


Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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