Busted Antennae

Sometimes, I still feel like I am still an angry person. Maybe the right word is frustrated. I don’t know. But I am realising that this road back is harder and more consuming than I thought. And I thought it was hard already…

As husbands go, I think I am OK. Most of us do. We acknowledge that there is room for improvement, but we generally feel like we are doing ok, under the circumstances. In the circumstances. In spite of the circumstances. Always, there are “circumstances” that we use to justify our imperfections. Maybe it’s our wife. Our upbringing. Our work pressure. Our health. Whatever. Always, its “out of our control”…

In my case, it’s the way my wife “talks to me”. And the multiple demands she “places on me”. I have to be honest, somedays it drives me a bit “nuts”. But that is not to say she is wrong and I am right… that’s the point of this post!

To backtrack a bit, my love language (the way I am tuned to receive expressions of love) is  something called “words of affirmation”. It is my primary way of showing love, and it is the way I like to receive love. When a person has a harsh tone, or does not say please, or speaks unkindly, or does not use my name, I get ratty. Very ratty. Very quickly.

I am built to be loved with words. I also – to a lesser extent, but it’s still measurable – enjoy quality time with someone.

It’s a complicated thing, a relationship. I guess if you meet and fall for someone who speaks and receives love in the same language as you, you probably will have no idea what I am talking about, in this area anyway. However, where this is out of kilter, this is a biggie. A very biggie. It’s the foundation; the place where core expectations met or unmet, result in trust or a lack of it. Where deep desires and needs are either met or not met, and our emotional tanks are filled, or start to run low. (Our emotional tanks are the reserves we have to keep going when times are tough).

Speaking the other persons love language is very hard. It feels like a lot of effort for little return. To us, it feels like a duty, because there are no automatic feelings of love and affection associated with it. No internal feedback loop that makes us feel like we are getting it right. My wife’s primary love language is acts of service, and she gets a great deal of satisfaction out of doing things for others, and having things done for her. She feels loved, when things get done for her. But I don’t feel loved when things get done for me. I am appreciative, of course, but my heart doesn’t go boompity-boom. And she doesn’t feel loved when nice things get said to her. She feels appreciative, of course, but her heart doesn’t go boompity-boom.

Here’s the real problem though. I don’t feel like I am being loving when I make the effort to do things for her. And she doesn’t feel like she is being loving when she makes the effort to speak kindly to me. We both feel like we are being manipulated by the other person to be something we are not. She is feeling manipulated by my demand for kindness in her tone and the words chosen. And I feel manipulated by the constant need to do things for her. We feel manipulated because we are feeling forced to do something unnatural to us, because it’s what someone else wants.

But as I discovered today, this is not the case. And perhaps, this is why I won’t be so angry in future! I have been reading this all wrong. I have been feeling criticized and attacked because my efforts at loving her seem to be meaningless to her and unappreciated by her. I have become frustrated and angry that so much effort on my part is wasted.

I control my words carefully, because they are important to me. I believe in their power to bring life and joy, or shame and darkness. So I exert huge control emotionally to always choose the right words. A control that taxes me and leaves me exhausted at times from the effort of it. And I am sometimes very angry and frustrated that all this effort is tossed in the bin. My anger and frustration comes out in my own tone of voice and my unwillingness to then do things for her. Why should I? My tanks are empty. I am not feeling loved. In fact, I am feeling the exact opposite. So why on earth should I?

But – and this is the most important discovery – my wife is not criticising me. Hearing that, is entirely MY responsibility. What I hear, is on me. I am the one filtering them according to my attitude and mindset. My wife is speaking words. How I hear them indicates my state of mind, not hers. It’s my antennae that are preset to the wrong frequency, or just plain busted. With the old presets, or busted antennae, I hear “You are not good enough”; or “You are such a failure at this”.

But with a new preset, or a new set of antennae, the same message can be received as “This is how to love me, if you really want to”

Forget tone of voice. Forget preferred love language. What do I really, really need? I am married and I am eager to please my wife. So, simply put, I need to know what my wife will feel loved by, and I need to do that thing.

And she is telling me, loud and clear every day, but my busted antenna are just picking up the same old static.

I’ll let you know how this turns out.

 

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Forming new relationships

I am not strictly ordinary as far as middle aged men go. Having relocated twice internationally, I have found myself not once, but twice, in a new country with no friends locally, nor even any acquaintances with shared values and shared histories. Its not like I relocated when I was younger either; my first relocation was at age 39 and my second at age 42.

The closest I ever came to a close recent friendship was with an old work colleague – the one who hired me in the Middle East, whom I have known for 19 years now. But we each moved on geographically and now live very far apart. Even at the height of our friendship, we lived in different cities and we have never shared a common faith.

Now I am older, and I am struggling to form friendships with other men. If I am honest, there is a measure of busyness and complexity of life getting in the way, and to some extent there is also a lack of reciprocation. But mostly it is fear. I am afraid.

I fear that I will be rejected, that what I have to offer in a friendship is too narrow and too limited to be of interest long term. I am in a comfort zone; (which by the way is not very comfortable, but it is more comfortable than the unknown) a comfort zone of mediocrity. I am comfortable with an “initial fly-by” and the establishment of a basic acquaintance. I can crack open beers and throw a few pieces of cow on the BBQ, and we can chat forever.

But beyond the first impression I am fearful. What do I have to offer? My conversation is limited in terms of areas of local interest. I am widely read and aware internationally. But most people are not interested in Middle Eastern trends, or American politics, or Greek economics, or Vatican reforms, or whatever. The topics of conversation locally are sports, DIY, and such. I do not have expertise in these things.

I am also hesitant because my marriage and family demand so much of my time that I wonder if I can even sustain a friendship. They take time, and effort, and so much energy is spent working through my marriage and family responsibilities that I wonder what would be left. Would I be the guy that always says “Thanks for the invite, maybe next time?” I don’t want to be that guy.

The bottom line is a continuing feeling of not being able to sustain a friendship. That is not to say I cannot sustain friendships. I have friendships that are 40 years old; I have been best man at 7 of my friends weddings. For all my tumultuous relationship past, there have been deep and core relationships that have been awesome. Relationships I can do. But new relationships, across culture differences and at this stage of my life, seem to be harder than they ever were. I don’t fully understand this, if I am honest.

Even as I write, I can see how I am making excuses here. It’s the product of fear. Probably irrational, probably unnecessary, but fear nonetheless.

I need friends. I need interests outside my marriage and family. They are key to me being whole and wholesome. Key to being interesting to my wife and children!

So here’s to overcoming that fear and working this one out!

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Building the Marriage Team

Basically, I suck at it.

Bottom line, I have never been good in teams. For many reasons, some discussed here already, I am awkward and not very charismatic. My boundaries and borders were all messed up by the abuse, and I have spent my whole life trying to figure out the impact of all of that!

So whipping up other people’s support has never been my strong suite. Wooing them onto a team where we work fluidly together, has never been easy. And in hindsight, it alway seems to be me that was the stumbling block to unity and synergy… Teams are a discipline for me, a thing I have to approach very methodically and carefully, or my natural urge to go solo takes over and I quickly become very unpopular.

In the workplace, I learned very early that team membership was key to success, and was constantly frustrated that my intellectual assent did not turn into immediate results. Forming a team, and being a part of a team, I learned, was very different to knowing that it was the right thing to do.

Getting married was a rude awakening to my lack of understanding about team. Initially my assumptions were that my new wife was joining MY team, and that obviously did not go down well. We lived in constant place of frustration as I had expectations which were not met, and she had expectations which I couldn’t even see! Then I tried joining HER team, and all that result in was frustration and anger as we miscommunicated constantly about what was best for the marriage and our family.

We are slowly getting to the place where we are a team together. Eventually I realised that we were to build a new team, a team created by us together, and that we were not to “morph” a previously existing team or concept. That has led to great progress but also to new challenges.

A new team means a new understanding of roles, and in a marriage there are many roles. We are still, 7 years on, hitting major speed bumps around our roles. I am focussed on providing (work) and relating (evenings and weekends). I have not yet developed DIY skills but am getting there, and that adds gardening and repairs and modifications to my portfolio.

Her technique of giving me a new role in our relationship is to hand it over. The end. My way of learning a new role is to do it together, and then to do it myself. I also value kindness, generosity and thoughtfulness in communication, which because of our constant low-level frustration, is not often there. So we have a few stumbling blocks there, and as I have written before, being taken for granted or being manipulated sets me off quite nicely like fireworks.

That brings out the worst in me as I fight for perceived fairness, and understanding, and kind words.

That said, my poor wife is not often wrong in her view on things, but we have the obstacle of our default settings that prevent easy and quick resolution of issues. Both of us are defensive, both of us on our guard against the preconceptions we have of males and females, from our pasts.

So we are on our way to building a new sense of “normal” for us. A new understanding for us of what the husband does, what the wife does, and how we go about creating a smoothly functioning harmonious team.

But honestly, its easy to do that when the waters are smooth. They say smooth water never made a skilful sailor, and that is very very true for marriage. Its not about the easy times. Its about how we deal with each other when the waters are rough; when we are tired; when we are frustrated and insecure; emotional or hurt. Its how we connect in those times that is the true measure of our “team”, and I have to say we are a long way from ideal there. Its my responsibility to lead the way, and I am still working stuff out.

My main challenge is to be better at it each time it happens, and my deepest hope is that our children do not see and copy our failings in this area. I pray for grace that they see the good times and the successful times , and that they miss, or overlook our failings. I hope they do not remember them and tuck them away as “OK” ways to deal with their future partners.

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Around Intimacy

Its hard to describe just how convoluted my understanding around sexual intimacy was, as a result of the years of sexual abuse. Obviously, there were deep scars and a warped understanding of physical expressions of love and intimacy. I had no reference point for the way things were supposed to be, only my understanding of how they actually were.

All I knew is that sexual intimacy – or rather, the use of aroused genitalia – was a painful, aggressive world where choice did not matter and somebody got what they wanted at the expense of somebody else.

In my relationships with women, or at least my attempted relationships with women, the overriding mindset was actually of a deep fear of intimacy. Sort of like a dog chasing a car. It was in my nature to chase women, but I would have had no idea of what to do with one if I actually caught her!

I also realise, looking back, how my pursuit of relationships actually had nothing to do with intimacy and everything to do with a need for affirmation. I desperately wanted to be a normal guy, and normal guys had relationships! So at the end of the day, the woman specifically was unimportant. It was about me, and affirming me, and the woman was a tool to that end. (This was an important dynamic later on – my approach to ladies reversed almost completely and I would’t engage for fear of exploiting. This was a big factor in my marital relations…)

Funny, though, I can also see that the ladies I were attracted to where the unavailable ones, possibly as undone as I was in one way or another. The “available” ones were not interesting to me. I was never keen on someone who was actually keen on me. I think I understand it now, in the light of the dog/car situation. Dogs don’t chase parked cars, or cars that are going so slowly they can actually be caught… And its also clear to me that had I dated anyone, I would have damaged them badly. Not physically, but emotionally.

I lacked a lot of things, but there was something fundamental – the self belief to be persistent where there were unknowns. The idea of actually pursing someone and working out the rules of the game was just not going to happen. That is a game for people who believe in themselves, people who were more whole than I was. People who innately believed that they had something to offer and that the lady would be really happy once she realised that. I had no such self belief.

Then one day I found the lady I was going to marry, and then, all of a sudden we were married. And in a bedroom. And my whole world came crashing down. I have described our early relationship in another post, but there is more to say about this, having walked many years now.

I remember at our pre-marriage counselling I said that I would never “take” sex from my wife, that I only ever wanted sex if I knew she was wanting it to. (The anti-exploitation concept mentioned above) I remember saying that in my value system, anything else was rape. This was linked to my issues clearly. While the “single me” idolised sex as the proof of my worth, the “married me” had a whole different challenge. I had to overcome my long standing belief that women simply toyed with men, that they were playing games of intrigue and deception. And that a guy had to jump through hoops and if he did, then sex was the prize.

My wife and I struggled from the outset because sex in a relationship is so much more than just the physical act. There are so many layers to a relationship, all of which are bound together and which result in a healthy sexual intimacy between partners.

It is firstly an expression of trust, and as can be seen, I didn’t have much trust in the opposite sex. This still manifests itself, as a bit of guardedness between both of us as we go about normal conversations… there is always a small danger of one of us feeling threatened by a comment or a particular choice of words. She has her own trust issues with guys from her own upbringing, as well.

Secondly its a barometer of communication in a marriage, and my wife and I are not the best communicators. She memorably said to me once that “Communication is an art, and you are at the scribbling stage”. (On my side, I acknowledge that I focus very specifically on things that I am doing, even to the extent that my hearing shuts down completely. I also tend to use many words as a barrier to embarrassment and shame.) As far as I can tell, she only says about a third of what she planned to in her head, but she is convinced she said it all out loud. Put those two together and communication can be a bit of a problem!

So the sexual dynamic in our marriage is constantly an area needing work… we are always working uphill against a tendency to be defensive and insecure about our roles. We are tentative and cautious, and we often assume things about the other (she doesn’t want it, she’s offended, I did something, etc) and then we don’t initiate. And the other person sees the lack of initiation as a signal of a problem, and then all of a sudden where there was no problem at all, we are on opposite sides of a misunderstanding.

from my side, this all ties back to my sexual abuse and to the degradation of my borders and boundaries with women, and a understanding of sex that is more like a dropped vase that has been glued back together by an amateur, rather than a beautiful work of art, whole and treasured form the outset.

I never had a chance to have an untarnished, undamaged perspective on intimacy. By the time I was 6, that was lost forever.

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The Parenting Challenge: Sons

My oldest son is nearly 5, my twin boys are 2 and a bit.

I have discovered a part of me that still responds to my childhood experiences and it is expressed in ways that affect them too. This is not good. Not good at all.

My wife sometimes calls me aside to say I am being a bit strong with my oldest boy, and she is almost always right. She is, thankfully, very aware of these things. Her slight over-sensitivity is a good foil for my slight lack of it, and together we are good for each other.

So why am I sometimes a bit harsh with him? He is a beautiful, gentle boy, quietly spoken and slightly built like myself at that age, and deeply sensitive and kind. He loves books, and solo play, which also, is as I was back then. I guess, and this is the root of it, I think, that I see a bit of myself in him; maybe even a lot of myself in him. And I still look back on my past and wish I hadn’t been quite so small, quite so dominated and quite so insecure. I wish I could have been more assertive and strong, standing up to what the world threw at me from such a young age.

I was a nerd, a bookworm, and a bit of an outsider. And I hated it, and wished that it was different. Although I am very conscious of not forcing my child to live the life I wish I had lived, maybe I have a subtle desire that he NOT live the life I lived? And maybe that is just as bad?

I think, subconsciously, I am trying to “man” him up for the challenges that I know were ahead for me, and I believe might be ahead for him…

That is unnecessary. He is a complete human being just the way he is, and while we all need preparation for the road ahead, he will not be walking MY road. Trying, therefore to prepare him for a similar road to the one I walked, is foolish. My lessons don’t apply to him. My insecurities are mine, as are my coping mechanisms and my memories of regrets and lost opportunities.

He is his own person, my awesome little man, and he deserves to be raised up to fulfil his own potential without having to dodge the shadows of my past.

The danger with trying to “man” him up, even subconsciously, is that he and I are being alienated from each other. He is looking for love and intimacy and affirmation, and to know that his daddy is proud of him. But if I am not careful, that message – which is there and the truth of it is that he brings me great, great joy – will be lost in the muddle of my conflicting messages.

“If my daddy is proud of me, why does me tell me to be stronger?”

“If my daddy loves me, why does he not cuddle me everytime when I hurt myself?”

“If my daddy things I am the best, why does he want me to be different?”

My little man is not required to discern the real reason for my choice of words. He is only 4. His job is to enjoy life and bask in the unconditional love of a deeply joyful and satisfied daddy. And he should not have to question anything.

And his character will be formed by my affirmations, not my warning shots across his bows. He does not need to be steered through a treacherous minefield, he needs to be played with in the sun without a care in the world. There is no treacherous minefield. There are only memories of hurt and insecurity deep in my brain, and I need to deal with them.  They are not his.

My boy, I will try with everything I have to raise you as your own person, free of the demands and the fears, of my own upbringing. I need to protect your innocence from my fears and regrets, as much as from the possible dangers outside.

You be you. With joyful abandon.

And with joyful abandon, I will celebrate that.

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The Hardest Thing…

Some time, a very long time ago, before I was born, a man married a lonely divorcee with two young girls. He was a sexual predator, and he dominated and owned that family. He molested the young girls repeatedly, turning them into insecure co-dependent young women, who formed a lifelong bond deeper than sisterhood. They were co-survivors of brutal rapes and molestations that they could not escape from, could not avoid.

They were prisoners of this man, economically, for sure, but that was just the padlock on the gate. They were psychological and sexual prisoners of a twisted paedophile who had found himself a nice little family to own.

One of those women was my mother.

That man also abused me, as this blog describes. When I tried to reveal my abuse to my mother, she confessed her abuse to me, and I realised that, firstly, I was not alone, but secondly, he had destroyed generations of my family. My grandmother, my mother, and I had all suffered the same way, at his hands. One victim, another victim, and then another victim. The cycle of abuse, as victims become abusers, or in this case people whose incapacity to act, exposed another to the same abuse they had suffered.

Recently my wife asked me how I felt about the fact that my mother had been abused but had allowed me to go to the home of her abuser…

Up until that point, I had not considered it consciously, but obviously, stated like that, there was no getting away from it. My mother had knowingly allowed me to fall prey to her own abuser. What intrigued me firstly was that it took me so long to see it… I guess something inside me had taken sides for my mother against the abuse, and I had simply not seen it. Or maybe I had suppressed the obvious question because of the pain of the obvious answer, I don’t know. Once I got past that little intellectual delaying tactic, the real problem was left staring at me, unblinking.

My mother was complicit in my abuse. She was an enabler, a passive person who should have protected me but instead exposed me to him. Left me unsupervised, unprotected with him. Knowing what he was, knowing what he had done!

Who would do that?

After my wife asked me that, she realised the depths to which that question had gone, and she was deeply sorry. But I was not angry. Hurt, yes, but not by her. Confused, yes, but not by what she had said. That question, and the answer implicit within it, was the only artillery powerful enough to shake my confidence in my mother.

And of course, I knew she loved me, but at the same time, I knew also what she had allowed to happen to me. And I knew… I knew, I KNEW, I would never have knowingly allowed my own children within a mile of an abuser. So why did she?

The angry me would have blamed and accused, and felt betrayed.

The empathic me realised that she probably was as confused as I had been, and simply made a choice that was not wise. I realise that in her mind, she was caught in an impossible situation – one I have no right, from where I now stand, to judge.

There she was, a rape and molestation survivor, her and her sister, my aunt. They had survived together, and they had managed to keep this shame from the world. They had built lives with husbands and families. They were doing well. The molester was still alive, still very present, and still very much part of their lives. Perhaps he held them in fear as he did me, with a threat of another abuser “taking over his property”.

Their lives were so intertwined, and so dependent on each other. Their privacy was all they had.

And now he wanted me. The price to her was to break that bond with her sister, and give up their privacy, give up their lives and the safe world they had created, and expose their abuse to the world. And whatever she decided for herself and me, would have the same impact on her her sister.

I can imagine the shame and the fear and the panic she felt, and I can imagine her deciding to close her eyes and pray that nothing would happen. I can easily imagine that for a powerless, abused woman, that was her only available option. It takes a particular strength to chose another path. She was hoping, that maybe, just maybe, he would leave me alone. And my silence probably gave her immense relief. If I said nothing, then surely nothing had happened…

So to her, she escaped her fear, the fear of exposure. And to her, I was OK. There were no consequences. She simply didn’t know. I am sure that had she known, she would have done everything required to end the abuse and bring our abuser to justice. I know that now, and had I known it then I would have opened up to her. But I did not know.

What confused me at the time, more than anything, was her lack of guilt. And then I realised. She was always guilty. She blamed herself for everything, literally everything. All the time. her entire world centred on her guilt, her need for forgiveness and acceptance. She was in a horrible cage, all the time. Like an abused animal in a zoo, it was all she had known. All she knew.

So do I blame her? No.

Do I wish it hadn’t happened? Yes.

But she was not my abuser. She was also a victim, and as much as I had needed gracious and kind people as part of my journey, I realised that I could be that for her.

And then there is the truth – look who I am now. I would not be this person, if not for the abuse and the road I have walked in recovery. I like who I am. I did not like who I was, and I did not like much of my journey. But I like who I am now. and in many ways, the road I have walked has made me this person. They are intertwined.

I cannot like who I am now, and hate her or not forgive her, for the road that I walked to be the person I am now. It doesn’t make sense.

But one thing is for sure, the cycle is broken. This will NOT happen to my children OR their children.

Not on my watch.

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Backing myself…

I recently came across a person who completely, utterly, and absolutely backed himself in any situation. I was partially impressed with his unshakeable self-trust, but also a little amused, since I knew a little about the gap between where he was and where he needed to be.

On the other hand, that confidence could probably a key for him to bridge that gap quicker than a more tentative type, and the truth was, he was either going to flame out in a spectacular failure or achieve more than anyone could possibly have imagined.

I have never been that confident. One particular strength of mine – the ability to see both sides of an argument and advocate or defend either equally strongly, is not always a strength. When faced with a self-assessment, I cannot avoid also acknowledging my own flaws and building them into my final assessment. Thus, while I usually believe I CAN, I rarely state it unreservedly because I know I will have to overcome some internal obstacles along the way. There is, in my eyes, an appropriate measure of caution – self-doubt? – in my assessment that I simply must factor in.

So it has been in my career as well. I believe in my abilities, my skills and my passions. I know what I can do and what I can’t do. And usually, I am right. So the question I ask myself, is this. Is it self-fulfilling or – perhaps more accurately – self-limiting? Up to now, I could not have answered that question.

But…

Recently I met up with a person I knew 20 years ago; we studied law together and then our paths separated. He was always confident, skilled calm, cautious and rational. I tended to be fiery, passionate and crusader-ish in my approach. Polar opposites, almost. But we are not so different. As I met up with him, I saw how similar we were in so many ways, now, and looked back on how different we were, then. It was astonishing. Clearly there was a factor that has changed, and I believe it is my recovery and redemption from the sexual abuse.

The angry me, is no more. The insecure me, is greatly strengthened and less insecure. The compulsive comparer is gone, and in its place is a far more measured, calm individual. Not that I am a emotionless soul, at all, but my processing skills and my reasoning skills now dominate what was a turbulent emotional wash of reactions and responses. I am more of a 30,000ft surveyor of things now; previously I couldn’t get out of the trenches if I tried.

Our careers are, if you like, an accurate projection of who we were back then. And the roads we have walked reflect to a great extent, that same starting point.

My career has been damaged by emotions, insecurity and aggressive responses. Poorly thought out decisions have cost me credibility and promotions, if I am honest. Only since I have unravelled the tight and painful knots of my past, and come to terms with so much of what was going on, have I seen my original capacity come to light; seen my 30,000ft analytical abilities come to the fore. Become perceptive, insightful and more accurate in my discernment. More others, and relationship oriented, as opposed to narcissistic and self consumed…

I do not want to compare to him. He has walked a longer road than I, with his own challenges that I know nothing of. And he has done well, walked humbly and graciously and with deep integrity. All honour to him for that. But I do believe that I saw, in his life and career to date, an inkling of what mine could have been like has I not been weighed down and twisted by my youth. I am privileged to have seen it, because I have a choice to make about the rest of my career too. And I have a choice to make about whether or not my “accurate” self-assessments can still be trusted.

I do not believe they can. I do not believe that my self-assessments are as balanced as I thought they were. I think that my self-assessments were a protective undervaluation of my capacity. A shield against embarrassment, but also against the demands of success. And therefore, against the responsibility to continue to be successful and to continuously ride a higher trajectory.

My friend, it is clear to me, had no such shortcoming, and he has ridden a trajectory defined not by what he CAN’T do but by what he CAN do. And his realistic and true self-assessment has meant that he is adept at lifting his game to the new levels required, and not, like me, only playing safe games where a higher level cannot be demanded of me.

So, what will the future hold? Can I redevelop my current role to accommodate my growing strengths and capacities? Maybe, maybe not. Can I find a new role with the requisite challenges to spread my wings and operate at 30,000ft, as opposed to 3ft? Probably.

It’s exciting to see what is possible, and what can be accomplished. And it is time to become better and more demanding of myself, regardless of the role. It’s time to trust in what has always been inside me but is only now being revealed.

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