He sleeps in bed as I stay up writing. I can feel my stomach churning over the familiarity of it. Wondering if curling up on the floor and sobbing is what’s next. This is too much like it used to be. But I can catch myself on the edge of it now. Talk myself back down gently. Coax back in the breathing. Anxiety that is bubbling purely out of habit. A reminder that I’ve been scared of showing myself for so long that I don’t remember what it’s like to be seen. Held. And he rubs my head and tells me he doesn’t want my feelings to be ignored for his comfort. He wants me to speak honestly. Radically. Tells me my hurt is never an inconvenience. He asks if I need him and I finally have the nerve to say, “Yes. Please.”
Nadine tells me it’s okay to not know how to be okay. That this, as with everything, takes practice. I learned how to be broken. Became exceptionally good at thinking I needed fixing. That I was secretly unlovable and it was only a matter of time before everyone figured that out. Before those I cared about truly saw me and exited my life accordingly. A lifetime devoted to perpetuating the idea that other people somehow know what they’re doing and that I am doing this all wrong.
Close to midnight a stranger from the Internet parks in front of my duplex. I usher her inside and give her the tour of my new apartment. Pour a glass of water for each of us and go sit on the patio. The warm night air clinging to our shoulders and shrinking the space between us. We live in different worlds. Separated by years and lives of doing it all different. But in this city, on this day we both just needed someone to sit and talk with. Human interaction. A hug. Someone to laugh with about how ridiculous it is that life is so hard to live. A reminder that none of us do this uniquely. That none of us do this alone.
At lunch days later a friend I managed to keep after the divorce asks me if he can tell me a secret. “None of us know what we’re doing. There is no right way to live.” And we talk about how we fumble along and find good people to share it with.
That night I whisper into Andrew’s chest that I’m afraid I’m going to make the same mistakes I made before. That I will get wrapped up in feeling like I’m not enough and eventually exhaust him. Tell him I’m afraid I’ll need more than he can give and he’ll start to feel helpless. I replay every relationship I’ve ever been in. I relive my entire marriage in an instant. But he does not flinch. Just pulls me close and says, “I’m not going to let that happen.” And bit by bit I start to believe him. And bit by bit I start to see myself as the people around me see me. And bit by bit life turns back into an adventure rather than only misery.
Photo courtesy of Samuel Zeller.
I’m not sure where it started. A seed planted by someone when I was a kid took root and wrapped itself around everything I learned to believe. This sense of worthlessness. Of being unlovable. Of “if only I were more/less…” thought patterns. If I could just get mentally healthy. If I could just exercise more. If I could just lose weight. If I could just be less jealous, funnier, easier going, better looking, more feminine. The lists went on. Journals full of it, books covering every aspect of how to “improve” myself. My worth tied to a version of myself that never existed. That never would.
This feeling sabotaged relationships from the inside. Sunk its filthy claws into my life and didn’t let go. Colored everything in its image. The impossibility of ever being a capable, lovable, powerful person seemed more fact than opinion. I did not take anything as evidence to the contrary. My entire existence pointed to the truth that I was not worth loving. That I needed to be better before anyone would do that. Before I could do that.
As I packed for my upcoming move I threw away those books. I tossed those journals. I cleared my cabinets of all the little pieces of memorabilia hinting to the fact that I need to be something I am not. All those bullshit motivational magazines. The fabric tape measurers, the food and bathroom scale, the diet plans and lifting regimens. All those letters I wrote to myself about how once I am properly medicated and go through enough therapy someone will want to stay with me. Promises of tomorrows that will find me worthy of existing. Overwhelming and unachievable goals of someday being someone other than who I am. Of someday being the kind of person this or that person would want to love. Would want to keep. I walked them all outside and dropped them in the trash. Take it to the curb on Friday. Never invite them back in.
The shift happened gradually. The acceptance that I am good. Worthy. That I am not broken or in need of fixing. That I don’t need to do anything, change anything in order to be a person other people want. That I want. I am the person I am and I am deserving of every goodness in my life. Nothing and no one can rob me of that.
It does not matter that I’m not a svelte athlete. That I will never grow my hair out. That I wear make up most days because I like the way I look in it. That I’m queer even though I don’t feel like I’m queer “enough”. That I’ve slept with someone who was married when they weren’t married to me. That I used to drink and use drugs and forget about my friends. That I don’t have a petite frame. That I’m the jealous type. That sometimes I like to blow everything off and watch Netflix for hours. That I’ve lied because I thought someone would like me more for it. That I’ve started and stopped running regularly more times in my life than I can recall and will probably do it more. That I used to be able to deadlift 200 pounds, but now haven’t lifted anything in almost a year. That I’m divorced. That I don’t want a “real” job because I love working in customer service. That I dropped out of college. That I talk and laugh way too loud. That I love having my photo taken even though it makes me feel vain. That sometimes I still cry over relationships that didn’t work out. That I said “I love you” obscenely soon to my current partner. That I love to cook, but not for myself. That sometimes I really just want to listen to Top 40 pop songs. That I don’t like to go hiking. That I pour my soul out to strangers on the Internet, but often don’t know how to talk about my feelings to my friends.
All that matters is that I understand that each piece of me is decent and valuable and worthwhile. That I am a good person, an excellent friend, capable and deserving of love regardless of all the reasons I think I am not. And even on the days I have trouble believing it, I have to still know it. To listen only to the part of me that looks at myself like my partner does. Like there is nothing about me that needs changing. That each piece is loved and understood and accepted. A scarred and worn package containing an impenetrable goodness that does not have to be earned or fought for or proven. That exists simply because I do. Because my heart still beats and my breath still pumps in my chest. Just like yours.
Photo courtesy of veeterzy.
In the envelope went a selection of Christmas cards addressed to the two of us. Several pictures. A couple love notes. The boarding pass from the plane I took from Oakland to Seattle. Random keepsakes collected over the years. My passport. A necklace, my sobriety ring, and my wedding set. And, of course, the certified copies of our marriage and divorce certificates. I closed the clasp and brought it to my parents’ house. Asked my mom to put it in the safe deposit box and that was it. An entire life with someone distilled down to a manila envelope to be tucked into a vault and possibly never brought out again.
I asked Mason if we had any other business after the final check was mailed. After the phone plan was broken up. After the car keys were exchanged. Part of me wanted him to say yes, even though I knew we didn’t have anything left to sort out, nothing to discuss. I just wanted him to tell me he wasn’t ready for me to leave his life yet. But he didn’t. Another time I wanted him to show up, but couldn’t bring myself to ask. A beautifully distilled example of our entire relationship. Neither of us ever being able to ask for what we need. Separated by more than space and time. There was always a wall between us. Something to keep ourselves out and the other person in. Or maybe it was the other way around. It doesn’t matter now, does it?
So this is what it feels like to close off a section of your life. To remember a time with someone, but to know it will never be repeated. There are no second chances here. We do not recycle and come back. It’s over. And that’s just the kind of thing we have to let ourselves believe. We have to hold on to. We have to learn to need. This is moving on.
Andrew pulls his car up next to mine, Astronautalis’ “Guard the Flame” blaring out the windows. I climb inside and we both sing as loud as we can, “Fuck it, if I was that smart, I’d never learned your name…” The music dies and we breathe in deep in unison. Wait, wait, wait. Scream. The sun beats down hard on my face. “One hand strikes the match. One hand guards the flame.” He reaches across the center console of the car and puts his hand in mine. We’re alive.
It’s waking up from something. Breaking out of the sludge I’d been encased in for years. The one that always made me feel broken and afraid. The one that, for whatever reason, my marriage learned to perpetuate. The constant nervous aching of not being enough for someone. Of letting them down. Of losing. Of quitting. Of giving up. I don’t know how we fell into that pattern and I wish we never did. But we did. And that was it.
And here we are. Cut loose. I’m standing in a crowd screaming. My hands are in the air. And for the first time in a long time I am not afraid of being undeserving. I am powerful and lovable and strong. I am unafraid of love because I know how it feels to lose it and how it feels to find it again. How it feels to have it find you. How it feels to be in it with someone who sees you and isn’t afraid of what they’re seeing.