“Put nothing between yourself and your grief.” —Tara Hardy
So I get raw. Strip away that which makes me numb. I try to substitute something else, unconsciously, until I realize and strip that away too. Showering feels good, turning up the water just a little too hot. That wakes me. Movement feels good, but I am so sluggish I can rarely remember to do it. Like my brain tricks me to stay still and not feel. Close and collapse and tighten, it silently urges.
But I don’t want to.
It’s so much easier to push it down, push it away. Easier to numb out the heart. Easier to harden. In some ways, I wish I was that kind of person. I miss the ability to turn things on and off. Or—can you miss something you’ve never had? I am envious of it. Want more of it in my own life. Want a little light switch on the back of my neck. That’d make for an interesting tattoo. I have enough marks but sometimes I seek more needles, more things staring at me, yelling, you survived. Marking time passing. Marking a different state, so I can remember that things always, inevitably, change.
I have thrown myself into shadow comforts. Films, tv shows, food, alcohol, sex, power. I even started smoking again. Quit now, once I left New York there wasn’t quite the need to regulate my anxiety so daily. I caught a cough the week I came here and didn’t shake it for long enough to stop wanting them every couple hours. I wonder if the same will happen for a drink. Still, in the evening, when I’m done working, when the boy comes home from work, I crave a little something in my glass. Something liquid and smoky to sip on. Ice cubes clinking.
I lied. I do want to.
But I’m trying not to. I’m trying to be aware. My brain that is seeking aliveness, awakeness is sometimes at odds with the part of me that screams, I can’t feel anymore of that stop just make it stop I don’t care what I have to do just stop. Take a deep breath. Feel down into my feet. It will pass. It’s probably temporary. Just wait, and feel it, and be still.
Those are the easy shadow comforts. There’s also Facebook, reading things online but not really reading them, being way too busy, sleeping until noon. I am on entirely too good of terms with all of those habits these days. I am not good at being still, but I’m not good at moving either. I’m not sure where my aim is, so I’m not sure how to move. The apartment where I’m staying has an arrow on the wall above the bed and I stare at it when I can’t sleep. How do I become an arrow? How do I find a target at which to aim? How can I make myself sharp enough and strong enough and capable of riding the wind enough to find something close to center? I filled out a form today for a coaching session with a I’ll-make-your-business-better coach and it asked, Where are you now? Where do you want to be? … That’s kind of what I need to figure out. Sometimes I think, I could do anything, if I only knew what it was.
But grief is a fog, something that envelops, “its tropical heat / thickening the air.” Something I am choking on, sometimes without warning. I’m all fine, thin sunny air with lemons and lemonade and ocean breezes through the leaves making the most pleasant sound, then I get a flash and I’m on the floor, searching for that one foot of air that isn’t already black. Floundering. Grief. I don’t know what happened. It feels like a before and after, the landscape devastated, muddy brown everywhere. The rage bubbles up like the electric tea kettle water which is probably done in the kitchen and now back to cold. Push the little button down again and make the blue light appear. Does twice-boiled water have any benefit? I’m floundering now. It doesn’t matter. Either way, I will make some tea and get another sweater because I haven’t been able to warm up at all today.
I’m trying to listen. What does my body need, what do I need, what do I want, what would feel good. Maybe not even good—nice. What would feel not like a football thrown by a pro straight to my chest. Anything but this. Anything but this. “Shadow comforts say, ‘Come home to your life.'” wroteJen Louden. I’m trying to come home. I know there’s a boy and some fresh vegetables, even a bit of chocolate, my most important things. Funny how little I have discovered that I really need. Thirty boxes in storage waiting for an address, four suitcases from sublet to sublet. I don’t need much. I’ve been looking at photos of myself all afternoon and now I feel the ghost of me behind each of these lines. My own image is starting to come into focus. I already know the answer to all of those questions. I don’t know what that means, but I know it’s true. It’s not time to sit still. It’s time to move. I have already purged. I have already fed myself full, gorged on honeysuckle and lavender ice cream, water with meyer lemon that puckers just right, all of my favorite things I am letting myself indulge in. I don’t know what else is going to happen, but I know I’m heading toward home. The compass of my body is telling me it’s time.
“Relationships take work,” they say. But as someone who now knows I spent way too long in failed or failing relationships, desperately clinging to any fragment of hope or chance of ‘making it work,’ as someone who stayed with abusers, bought their bullshit and was convinced by their smooth-talking blame-the-victim manipulations, as someone trying to wake up to my own power and control and confidence (and yes, maybe I’m spectrum-banging there a little bit, but I think sometimes that’s how I learn), as someone finally finally able to say, “I feel when you because,” and “you’re right, I’m sorry,” as someone who is still prone to overgiving and overwhelm and losing myself, my tendencies go the other way: to RUN. That this, this one, this time, this sign is The Sign, that any red flag is a Red Flag and is grounds to be a dealbreaker, that in six months I’ll look back to now and say there, that’s when it all went to hell, that was the point of no return, I should have listened to my gut, why’d I stay, why’d I trust her, again, how did I get here, I lost myself again, I swore that would never happen and here I am …
But that is not this relationship.
I am still skittish. I am still prone to explosions of emotion when I get scared. I am still unsure—not so much of her, or of this beautiful shiny strong relationship we are building, but of myself, my own ability to keep myself strong, solid, taken care of, whole.
It comes up again and again, especially lately, since she’s been in crisis and I want to help. I am a helper, and a service top, after all. My job is to take and care (but not caretake). My role is to comfort and protect. And when we both started realizing it was too much, and our parts in that, that I took on too much responsibility for her well-being and that she was leaning on me too much and not taking care of herself, I was left unsure of my standing.
What does she need me for, if she doesn’t need me for this?
Then came the silence, and look we stumbled upon another one of my many triggers: withdrawing. And we discovered containment doesn’t mean withdraw, and that I still need to learn how to listen without giving advice.
I need to remember who it is I am dating: her, this girl, only her, not any of my exes. How does one undo triggers, once they’re found? Or will they just always be there, like an old skiing injury, something to be constantly aware of and work around?
I need to remember this, rely on it: here are the things she and I are particularly good at:
- Telling each other, as openly, kindly, and honestly as possible, how we feel about where we’re coming from
- Taking responsibility for the parts that we own, and not blaming the other person
- Being totally willing to work on ourselves individually, and the relationship
- Being quick, thorough, vigilant learners, willing to do extensive research to get somewhere faster
I have never had any of these things, truthfully, in practice, in previous relationships, though I and my exes have often given lip service to many of them. Some of that was certainly my fault—it really is only recently that I was capable of executing them, the first one especially.
She keeps saying, “we love each other, we’ll get through this,” but that is not as comforting as those four traits, to me. This is about skill, this is about commitment, this is about patience. And yes sure, this is about love, too, and I am way too in love with this gorgeous, fierce, extraordinary person to stop the hard work it may take to get through these growing pains. They are as much mine as they are hers, and when we get through to the other side, we will know each other and ourselves better, we’ll be stronger and have more tools and skills to weather the changing emotional landscapes of love and relationships.
This continues to be a huge opportunity to grow and evolve and unstick the stuck places, and what better way to take that on than with a kind, loving person who knows me practically as well as I know myself? Together we are more than the sum of us separately, together we are stronger, bigger, more capable, more supported, buoyed by the magic strength that is sharing one’s life with another. Nothing cuts through the muscle, the bone, exposing the marrow, like love, does it? There is never so much to lose, so there is never so much to gain; with the highest stakes come the highest rewards.
I know relationships take work. I am willing to do the work, I just have to be certain that the work is worth doing. And perhaps for the first time, really, for the first authentic time, for the first awake and aware and really fully known time, I have someone who knows this takes work, who is certain the work is worth doing, and who is willing to do the work to be with me, too.