My boyfriend, who isn’t in love with me, is at this very moment hiking the West Coast Trail. He’d been planning this trip for months, him, his best friend, and his best friend’s dad. The not being in love with me part wasn’t something he originally intended to carry with him, along with his thirty-seven pound pack, as he walked forty-six miles in six days. But after the Fourth of July weekend, he added it.
We lay in bed in a rented house on the Oregon coast the afternoon of the Fourth, sleeping off the pleasantness of sunshine and a day drinking with friends. I was rolled into his arms, back toward him, feeling warm, satisfied, held. I said, “I love you.”
After a pause, he pulled me close and said, “Yep. You certainly are a good catch.”
I smiled, ignoring that he hadn’t reciprocated the sentiment again, as was the case the half dozen or so times I’d given “I love you” a test drive in the four months we’d been dating. “You should marry me,” I mumbled sleepily.
“Hmmm… Maybe,” he replied, drawing out the last word into a long, uncomfortable moan.
I didn’t sleep.
After dinner, the rest of our housemates headed down to the beach for fireworks, but I stayed at the home base. I’d had too much to drink earlier and my head was still swimmy. Plus, I wasn’t feeling very sociable. I’d been withdrawn most of the evening, though I’m normally gregarious and energetic.
My boyfriend very sweetly brought a comfortable chair to the yard, pointed it toward where the fireworks would soon be, and helped me get situated. “Are you okay?” he asked.
I began to cry. “Maybe it just isn’t going to take, you know?”
He squatted down so that we were face to face, looked me in the eye with great fondness and concern, and asked, “What do you mean?”
“I’m just tired of it feeling like I’ve farted every time I say I love you. I know we haven’t been dating that long, and we’ve had several talks about how my feelings are developing faster than yours, and I appreciate your honesty, so I’m not mad. But I’m just wondering if it’s just not going to take.”
“Gloria,” he said, holding eye contact. “You’re great. You’re exactly the type of person I would fall in love with if it were going to happen. You’re the most interesting person I’ve met in years and I want to spend all of my time with you. I want you to be a part of pretty much everything I do. I have no explanation for why this isn’t happening. It’s been bothering me for months.”
I knew this was true. He and I were fast friends the moment we met at an Oscars party in early March. We became Facebook friends that same night and a week later he asked me on a date. And since that night, we haven’t gone a single day without talking. Not until now, anyway.
I started crying harder. Emotions are supposed to develop as relationships progress, I told him. I deserve love, the whole enchilada unbridled and unrestrained, scream from the rooftops love. I told him all this, and so many other things, and I heard what he had to say, too. He remained squatted down holding my hand and processed with me for a very long time, all while huge explosions of fireworks went off overhead. Glorious, spectacular fountains of color erupted in the sky, and each time I got a clear view of his face – his, big, concerned eyes; his set jaw, hand over his mouth in both horror and pain.
In the end, I said, “Listen. We don’t have to decide now. It’s a bad time, actually. We’ve both been drinking and we’re on vacation with friends. Look, all I’m asking you to do is examine your heart. Take some time, like when you’re out there on your walkabout, and figure out what you want. Figure out your priorities and needs. And then, when you get back, we’ll talk. You’ll be clear headed, and we’ll just have an honest, open, pragmatic conversation when you get back. Does that sound okay?”
He agreed and I felt lighter. We sat in silence for a while, me looking at the last of the colorful explosions, him looking at me.
“I don’t like the power imbalance, though,” he said unexpectedly.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “I mean if I’m going to be out there contemplating and examining my needs, then I need to ask you to be here in Portland doing the same thing. I need you to figure out very clearly where your boundaries are and how much longer you’re actually willing to be patient.”
While it was a perfectly reasonable request, and one I immediately agreed to, I was taken off guard by the question. Despite the look on his face the whole time we’d talked, him holding onto my every word, never once defensive, letting me finish every long winded and repetitive thought, he was still able to strongly but lovingly advocate for his own needs and express them with conviction. He is inarguably the best communicator I’ve ever been in a romantic partnership with and in that moment, when he made that request of me, I felt my heart grow even bigger. But I also felt suddenly confronted.
Examine my heart? Take inventory of my needs? Hadn’t I already done that? Isn’t that what this was all about? I mean…hadn’t I?
I’ve been distracted by this conversation with my boyfriend since the long holiday weekend. Even before he set out on his excursion, my thinking had already begun to shift from “what is his problem?” to “what is my problem?” But not as self-flagellation; that’s the reason I’ve avoided alone time for so much of my adult life – to keep the cannibalizing thoughts at bay. In fact, the morning after I returned from my trip, I woke up and the first thing I thought, loudly and very clearly, was, “I’m incapable of hating myself anymore. Huh. Wonder when that happened?” Then I went and made coffee.
No, in fact the conclusion I came to – the answer that was obvious the moment I thought it was “I’m depressed.” I don’t mean I’m depressed about a single thing, as if it were triggered by a recent life event. In fact, my personal life right this moment is good – better now, in fact, than it’s ever been. I have a great job that’s finally stabilized after a year of trying to find my rhythm. My twelve year old twin sons, one of whom is on the autism spectrum, the other of whom suffers from depressive issues, are both individuating and learning to thrive in ways that make my heart swell so big it feels like it’s going to explode out of my chest sometimes. My co-parent and I are working in harmony for the first time since my boys were born. My friends are kind, loving, supportive people I’m actively thankful to have in my life. And there’s a new man in my life who’s fantastic in forty-nine of the fifty of the ways I listed at my friend Tree’s behest five years ago when I kept complaining I didn’t know what I wanted from a relationship. (My boyfriend gets angry in traffic sometimes).
No, this depression is more like being adrift on an ocean, as if I’ve been slowly letting the tide carry me out, not quite realizing it. It’s hard to track back to when it started. My whole life maybe? Since the head injury? I mean, I know at least part of it’s chemical. I’ve been in therapy for ten years and on medication to manage my depression and anxiety nearly that whole time. But also, in the last year alone, I’ve started a new job, moved houses, had a tumor and part of my right lung removed, and ended an unhealthy two and a half year relationship – all of which have washed me farther out to sea. My life is objectively lovely, but it has been extraordinarily hard-won.
I’ve been buoyed for years mainly by my boys, my little men who’ve paradoxically kept me tethered to the shore and who are also nearly the entire tide itself. I spent the first six years they were in school fighting for them, attending meetings, getting them set up with IEPs, defending them while at the same time holding them to the highest standard they can reach. I’ve given them every psychic resource available to them. Often, I’ve given them far more. As they get older, bigger, more independent, louder, more aggressive, angrier, more sullen, and, especially, more self-soothing, the tether lets out more and I drift farther away.
Why have I been able to get so far away without noticing? The priorities/needs assessment can’t even begin until I answer that question. I believe the simple answer is that my daily practice of self-care faded almost entirely away. I’ve let family members, some of whom suffer from mental illness and drug addiction, take up more of my emotional resources than I had to spare. When I changed jobs last year, I left behind a small group of friends that, after five years, had become more family than co-workers. The job is great now, but the workload was nearly unmanageable at first, and I was attacked by an ill coworker. Just when I thought I was getting the hang of it, a month before Christmas, doctors found a tumor in my lung, and I underwent a major surgery that put me out of work for six weeks. I quit working out at the gym. I also ended an on-again, off-again relationship with a man who, in the end, after two and a half years and one failed attempt at hanging out with my children, told me: “You need to figure out whether you’re going to get your libido back after surgery; because if we aren’t having sex, we’re just friends.” Worth noting: this man and I never exchanged I love yous.
Two weeks later, the moment I reached the other side of so much change, I met my current boyfriend. Obviously, I’ve considered that it would’ve been ideal if I’d taken more time to process privately and alone. He and I connected instantly, though, and he is a joy in my life. Our interests and passions intersect in the best ways. We begin each day with a warm hello and end each day with a mutually welcomed phone call. When I hear his voice, I smile involuntarily. I feel I’m my best self when I’m with him.
So why, then, have thoughts that I’m ugly, old, fat, undesirable, or worthless been washing over me in waves? It’s true that I don’t hate myself anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’ve shed these useless gremlins of a hard lived life. Like stalwart and patient companions, they persist. “You go ahead,” they say. “We’ll just be waiting right here for you.”
I know these thoughts aren’t real. I know they don’t come from what I’ve learned to see as the Me Brain – the part that can observe these thoughts as separate and outside of myself. They come from a whole other part, the Animal Brain, which operates solely to survive. It signals danger when none is there. “We’re ugly!” it says. “We need to be pretty or we’ll die!” These self-image messages from the Animal Brain, while fatiguing, are finally easier to disregard. Far more so than the ones that say, “We’re empty! Put food in it! Put alcohol in it! Don’t be alone; go see your friends! Smoke a cigarette! Buy something! There’s a sale at Kohl’s for the love of god!” Those messages from the Animal Brain, the ones that say to consume, are sneakier and, I’ve been duped by them more lately than ever.
These messages and impulses from my Animal Brain, in fact, were the most obvious indications I had that I’ve been depressed once I began the task given to me to evaluate my boundaries and needs. Other evidence of this low-level depression includes neglecting household duties, quitting therapy, missing meetings for the parenting support group I started, and ever-increasing moments of loneliness, anxiety, and nearly constant boredom or exhaustion. In short, the Me Brain has been in a bone-weary slumber, comfortably floating along, unwilling or unable to participate.
How does this relate to my relationship? In every way, really. The burden of love doesn’t come from without, but from within. What are my needs and priorities? I’ll answer these questions in the coming days, and I’ll answer them again over and over. I hope I never forget to have them at the forefront of my day-to-day. I’ll develop a daily practice of self-love. Maybe I’ll develop a daily mantra. I’ll start working out more regularly. And so on. From this point forward, I’ll put forth the effort necessary to have my bearings, whatever that takes.
I know that stories about overcoming struggle are most compelling when the overcoming part happens. But that, in my estimation, is the easiest part; it’s all the work that comes before that’s the real story. This is the real story. I see, too, that my lack of self-hate isn’t the same thing, necessarily, as the presence of love. In my struggle to feel well, the tether has gotten longer and longer, the shore farther away until, finally, I find myself bobbing far past my safety zone trying to answer the question, “What are your boundaries?” I realize this is what getting better looks like. This evaluating and adjusting is also what self-love looks like.
Will I be able to stop saying I love you to the detriment of this relationship? Maybe not immediately; my insecurity and neuroses tend to leak out of my mouth like word-shaped vomit. But I’m getting closer. As my boyfriend walks his path, I’ll keep moving too and trust that, no matter what he and I decide, I’ll end up somewhere safe. I’m in good hands; my instincts are great and there for a reason – my Self Brain instincts rule above all.
Photo, “Choppy Seas at Sunset II” by Colin K is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.