September 26, 2022
Everything changed on September 26, 2012 at 10:15 AM (maybe 10:17, she was late). But first, the backstory. And it’s messy.
My forties were emotionally confusing. I had successfully risen up the academic ranks to a tenured full professor position but my love life was always in turmoil. I hadn’t yet connected the abuse I experienced as a child to the bad patterns I had perfected in adulthood. And work and romance tended to overlap. Pew research reports that most Americans meet their spouses at work, and I had habit of dating former students (with the emphasis on “former.”) While the university had no policy against relationships among faculty and university students, that line mattered to me. After grades were turned in, two consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want. It never was an issue, nor should it have been. There were several respected professors who were married to former students. Let love rule.
About a dozen years ago, I had a brief relationship with a former student that started off fun but, as new relationships sometimes do, quickly hit a dead end. It was clear that not only were we not a good match, there were red flags popping up all over the place. (The university would later deem this woman “unstable.”) I tried to end it amicably but she was not having any of it and went into full Glenn Close/Fatal Attraction mode. She found allies in the administration to champion her cause. They’d drag me into regular administrative tribunals and lecture me about “power dynamics.” (One of these administrators was having a “romantic, amorous, and/or sexual” relationship the administrator who had appointed her to her six-figure job.) I hired a lawyer who shut it all down and I recorded her confession that she made all her accusations up. Hoping to expedite my return to normalcy, I offered to sign an agreement that I wouldn’t date anyone who was enrolled at the university. Although I did briefly date an administrator after that. Because irony won’t be lost on me.
September 24, 2012 was the first day of the 2012-2013 school year and I had asked to teach a Sociology 101 class that started on Monday mornings. I wanted to be the first professor a fresh batch of college students would encounter. So I put a lot of work into that first class. It was a true performance, a sermon on the salvation of critical thinking. There’s always a few students who blow off the first class because they think nothing important happens on Day 1, and it always annoys me because everything important happens on Day 1. I make note of their absence and develop a grudge. One of those absentees was named Andrea Barrios.
So before she walked in late on Wednesday, I already had a bias against Ms. Barrios. Then she walked through the door. I’m not being overly dramatic when I say it felt like being struck by a bolt of lightning. It was an out-of-body experience. (She has told me of a similar experience.) My first clear thought was, “Oh no, universe, do not put this woman in front of me. I signed a contract!” as she sat in the front row and smiled. I was on the tail end of a two year relationship with a wonderful woman that was sputtering because I didn’t have a basic understanding of how to be in a relationship. But I was a good professor and stayed perfectly professional the entire term (while my teaching assistant routinely hit on Andrea). I stayed focused, as hard as that was.
At the end of the term, I posted on Facebook that I was going to see local singer Storm Large at dark club to celebrate the end of the quarter. It was a rainy December night and I was sitting by myself at the end of the bar when Andrea walked in. Of course I was thrilled to see her. She was probably the smartest person in a class of a hundred students and she radiated. She bought me a shot of tequila and said we should hang out sometime. I told her I didn’t date students. She bought me another shot of tequila and we ended up making out at the bar.
A mature man would have stopped right there. I began building my career as sociology professor at 17 as a freshman in college. It didn’t make a lot of sense to risk it over a woman in her twenties, as fascinating as she may be. I invited her to dinner the next night so I could explain the situation, that I had signed a contract with the university and if I dated her I could lose my job. “Maybe nobody will find out,” she said. That’s all I heard. I was already head over heals in love. I just wanted to be near her. She tried to get into another school to avoid the conflict but that didn’t happen. We were two adults who just wanted to be together. Two years later we were married with a baby.
But it wasn’t easy for her. I was only just starting to figure my shit out. The first lesson was how I tended to keep old relationships on the back burner in case the current relationship went south (a product of deep abandonment fears). I learned that only burned the person I was with and I almost lost Andrea. Fortunately, it was a surprisingly easy fix. So many of my other issues, wrapped in my narcissistic tendencies, made her feel invisible. But, as a tenured professor, I represented the stability she craved. Then all that changed.
This is the part of the story that involves a psychotic inmate in an Oregon prison. (“Psychotic” isn’t hyperbole. It’s in his medical records.) He was a “former” racist skinhead who I had worked with before his incarceration. He had decided, for some stupid reason, that I had aggrieved him. He made it his personal mission to destroy me and found allies in the university who were endlessly annoyed by my role as a faculty union agitator. I was dragged back in before the administrative mob, with our daughter in her baby carrier, and asked me if my wife was a university student. “Yeah,” I said, “She’s taking an online Women’s Studies class.” That was it. They had me. I was toast.
My long career was successfully destroyed, not by a nazi skinhead, but my failure to make better choices. I could blame Glenn Close girl, psychotic skinhead, or a university administrator who was banging her boss, but it all came down to bad decisions I made over the course of years. I just wasn’t ready to accept that fact.
Who was I without my career? Certainly not the stable provider Andi and our baby needed. My issues began to cascade. I thought I was one of the good guys, but I centered my anger, creating less and less room for her in the relationship. To her credit, she not only finished her undergraduate work but earned a Master’s Degree and began teaching her own classes. All while I tried to pick up the pieces of my life and figure out how the hell to be a good father and husband.
There are numerous details but suffice it to say she told me in very clear terms what she needed but I was so wrapped up in my pain and anger that I repeatedly failed to deliver. It was when things were at their worst, that I started remembering the experiences of early sexual abuse. But it’s not like one has a realization that leads to an immediate change, “Oh, I was abused. Now I can stop being a self-centered prick.” I still had a ways to fall before I hit the bottom. And that happened on last New Year’s Eve when Andi told me she was in love with someone else. The floor opened up and I was ready to cease to exist. I felt beyond repair. Beyond redemption. There was nowhere to go but oblivion.
After that, as I have written much about, I found a wonderful therapist who helped me not only connect the dots from my trauma to my behavior, but who gave me practical tools to start to change the patterns. My trip to Ukraine to resettle refugees this past spring encouraged me to be a source of healing instead of pain. And Andi’s patience helped me to see how childish my behavior tended to be. I’ve learned that love is more than a feeling but behavior in the small moments; a comforting look, a curious question, a snarky text not sent.
I’m marking this ten year point for two reasons. First, that psychotic skinhead is out of prison and still threatening me. I need a public record of my journey. But the main reason is that this ten year effort to deconstruct myself and build a better version of me may not be enough to be Husband 2.0 to Andi, but it’s been worth the attempt. We all can repair harm and fix ourselves to reduce harm to the people we love. I’m proud of who I am becoming.