to drink all damage into love

My three-year anniver­sary with Heather came and went with­out fan­fare or cer­e­mony (or even notice, on my part). Our time together went by in a blink; being chron­i­cally sin­gle for me, and trapped in an abu­sive rela­tion­ship for her, made the three years prior to that feel like an eter­nity by com­par­i­son for each of us. It was only halfway through that I real­ized part of me was keep­ing her at a sig­nif­i­cant distance.

When we first started spend­ing time together, I was drawn most to her inno­cence. The way she viewed the world with an open mind1 made me feel com­fort­able in a way I imme­di­ately found attrac­tive. I could tell her calm demeanour belied a dark­ness though; she knew a tremen­dous amount of pain in her short life, and that made her the same kind of old soul as me. Still, I never dared imag­ine things may work out between us, cause my pre­vi­ous lover was com­pletely unex­pected in both the com­ing and going, and the expe­ri­ence left me raw. Somewhat con­versely, I was also too numb to believe any­thing was real. It was only a cou­ple weeks after Heather entered my life that I tried to hang myself, and sur­viv­ing meant every­thing felt posthumous.

My love for her grew when she grad­u­ally took over my respon­si­bil­i­ties, giv­ing me the chance to start deal­ing with the emo­tional bag­gage I’ve been car­ry­ing for too long. In that time and ever since, she never made me feel like a bur­den. She never needed any­thing in return to be happy, and was noth­ing but pleased to have the chance to take care of me.

I was finally able to let my guard down…to a cer­tain degree. But that also meant I could be hurt more deeply, and I soon grew uneasy with how close we’d got­ten. Her absence alone was painful when she was down the street buy­ing gro­ceries; los­ing her in some freak acci­dent would have left me unable to cope, and I never wanted to be so com­pletely depen­dent on a sin­gle per­son. I couldn’t under­stand how most peo­ple func­tioned with that kind of threat always loom­ing in their relationships.

It was only in ther­apy that I learned how emo­tion­ally healthy peo­ple gain a sense of sta­bil­ity from an early age. One of many parental respon­si­bil­i­ties involves mak­ing sure a child is safe and strong enough to ven­ture into the world, so they can make their own deci­sions and mis­takes. Equanimity in the face of adver­sity comes from hav­ing a solid emo­tional foundation.

Except I never had that foun­da­tion, and was also com­ing into the rela­tion­ship with many years of depres­sion. When Heather entered my life, she became that foun­da­tion rather sud­denly, and on a cer­tain level, it was ter­ri­fy­ing for some­one to have that kind of power over me. As soon as I real­ized the fear was pre­vent­ing me from hav­ing a deeper rela­tion­ship with her, I knew the only way to get over that fear was to take big­ger risks by putting more trust in people.

The down­side of big­ger risks is big­ger poten­tial losses, and when one of my most sig­nif­i­cant rela­tion­ships fell apart last year — despite every­thing I learned and prac­ticed about cul­ti­vat­ing bet­ter con­nec­tions — the pain I expe­ri­enced was unlike any­thing I’d known. This woman dis­missed me from her life with com­plete cal­lous­ness at a time I was mak­ing active steps to get closer to her, and it cre­ated a cri­sis that became a cru­cible for my rela­tion­ship with Heather. I was left so dev­as­tated that she took time off work to con­sole me2, see­ing as how I couldn’t man­age to eat or sleep; the shock alone was too much for me to process.

While I can’t say I’m glad to have gone through such a heart­break­ing and dif­fi­cult expe­ri­ence, at least it was one that cre­ated the oppor­tu­nity for Heather to prove — on a pro­found level — that I was her biggest pri­or­ity. For days, I cried and cried and cried, and she met my sor­row with utmost atten­tion and ten­der­ness, as she sat by my side and dabbed the tears from my face. It was no longer old scars she was tend­ing to; these were fresh wounds, deep enough that I couldn’t hope to mend them myself. For the first time in my life, some­one was exactly who I needed them to be at exactly the right moment, and she was even happy to ful­fil that role.

My capac­ity to love expanded far beyond what I knew was pos­si­ble, while my under­stand­ing of it grew deeper. No longer was love sim­ply about attrac­tion, inti­macy, and com­pat­i­bil­ity; I learned that loy­alty, respon­si­bil­ity, com­pas­sion, and trust could also be sig­nif­i­cant fac­tors in the way bonds form between peo­ple. When I even­tu­ally started to recover from the breakup, it was a tremen­dous relief to truly know I wasn’t alone. Dealing with my trauma means I still have to remind myself every day that it’s okay to depend on her, that I can lose myself in this rela­tion­ship with­out wor­ry­ing she’ll betray me. Fortunately, it’s get­ting eas­ier with every step I take, cause she’s always been there to help me up when I fall (and nowa­days, the ground feels quite familiar).

My goal is to be strong enough to be inde­pen­dent, but I’m at a point where I need to be the exact oppo­site, and depend on Heather with­out any trep­i­da­tion to achieve that. It’s like we’re two trees, with roots begin­ning to grow inter­twined as we help each other heal from our respec­tive dam­age. She’s become an inte­gral part of me, and at this moment, I wouldn’t sur­vive if we were torn apart. But being together makes us stronger than if we were alone, and even­tu­ally our foun­da­tion will be solid enough that we can branch out on our own, if heart or cir­cum­stance ever take us that direction.

Even though I took a chance on the wrong per­son and it back­fired spec­tac­u­larly, I’m not quite as afraid of being hurt any­more; I took an even big­ger risk by trust­ing Heather in the after­math, and the fact that she didn’t let me down means we’ve grown far closer as a result. It doesn’t make emo­tional risks easy now, but they’re eas­ier when I know I’m not mak­ing them by myself. That’s some­thing I can be grate­ful for and take com­fort in, regard­less of the pain I may be going through.

  1. I relate it to the con­cept of an “uncar­ved block” or “pu” in Taoism: a state of recep­tive­ness, before the taint of expe­ri­ence, that gives one the poten­tial to see things with­out judg­ment or prej­u­dice. []
  2. Not even my par­ents, who often made me feel like any ill­ness was an incon­ve­nience or embar­rass­ment, ever showed me that kind of empa­thy. I wasn’t “allowed” to be sick enough to miss school, and any ges­ture of sup­port came with a con­di­tion that I work harder or make up for the help in some way. []

2 comments

  1. Jeff,

    Drink up! It is so nice to see how you are com­ing along in your jour­ney to your­self. Heather sounds won­der­ful, and you and her together sound even bet­ter yet.

    I too have been through the pain of being unable to rely on myself, let alone any­one else. Event through the dark­est times my wife was always there for me, but I never real­ized it until it was almost too late. She saved me by being my foun­da­tion that helped me rebuild myself and my life. It is amaz­ing how life is so much bet­ter when you work together with some­one, rather than go alone or against someone.

    I com­mend you on your jour­ney, and your open­ness to share the strug­gles and suc­cesses along the way. You have shown brav­ery and strength through all of the risks. Risk has great poten­tial for injury, but even greater poten­tial for reward. That is what you hold onto. That is what pushes you on.

    Drink in the dam­age. Forge ahead into the risk. Discover the jour­ney. Bask in the love. Relish in the reward.

    You and Heather are worth it.

    • Thank you so much for the encour­age­ment you give me. It makes me feel like there’s at least one other per­son out there who truly under­stands the extent of my strug­gle, and some­times that counts for more than all the ses­sions I’ve had with my therapist.

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