Saturday, February 27, 2016

Cleaning house: reflections on love, partnership, and loss.

This post started with wanting to write about being single on Valentine’s Day. Over the past couple weeks of reflecting and writing, it has evolved into something much more.

When I departed for Australia, it felt like pretty much everything in my world was falling apart. Professional life abounded with stressors, I was still devastated from a breakup from a couple months ago, and then the day before I departed I went through redefining a (different) partnership to be a friendship. The only thing I had left for stability was an amazing community: all else was changing out from under me. The situation contrasted sharply with the past summer, when it felt like everything was on the up and up: amazing job with flexibility for remote work and a budding partnership to which I quickly assigned dreams of marriage and family. Now, I found myself irrevocably, painfully single. Part of the reason I embarked for Australia so ill-prepared was that I'd been preoccupied with all these other events. In many ways, going on a grand adventure to Australia was the *last* thing I wanted -- my chief desire being to crawl into a hole. 

On my trip over, I set an intention for my journey Down Under: to maintain an open heart. I, of course, wanted to turtle, to withdraw and never again expose myself to the abject dangers of falling in love the way I did last summer. Following through on such reactive impulses would, of course, only further hurt me, trapping the pain inside by putting up a wall between the world and me. So I promised myself to be wholehearted and honest with myself and others. That’s a tricky position to maintain, particularly when your heart is laden with grief and you sound like a broken record from a bad Country artist (it was so good back then, it was all my fault, now I’ve lost everything, yadda yadda); it’s hard to not think that being in my company would begin to pall. It’s not something you want to ever show to another living person, lest they judge you for being feeble, for appearing vulnerable, for indulging in self-destructive thought patterns. In a world where we are trained to always and only present a well-rounded, carefully put together persona, being wholehearted like that can be downright terrifying. Of course, as my past two years of growing in the learning from Daring Greatly has taught me, leaning into the discomfort and allowing myself to be vulnerable is the best course of action.

In practice, it feels forced, this process of putting myself out there; in my moments of insecurity, all I want to do is feel sorry for myself, all I long for is to be with her. The connection we shared was all-encompassing, a soul mate connection, giving way to moments that would leave me breathless, exhilarated, and deeply grateful to be with this person. The loss of this bond makes all else feel dull by comparison, dimming the brightness of the world: no one else will be her, and forming new life experiences reminds me she’s not a part of them. When I mentioned in a previous post about being withdrawn on the Friday of a dance weekend, it’s because I was in the throes of missing her and couldn’t be bothered to find interest in anything else about life. This mindset is so unproductive and equally impossible to escape, impervious as it is to reasoning.

When a relationship comes to an end, you lose more than the other person: you lose the dream of what a future would be with them. Part of what has made this breakup so particularly overwhelming — despite lasting for a relatively brief duration — was how vividly I could imagine that future with her. I easily envisioned all the aspects of life that I wish for one day: adventures around the world shared in the company of another, building a home and community, raising a family. The future has been a hazy and far-off concept for the majority of my relationships, but for this one it felt like it was right around the corner. Losing a dream that ties into deep-set beliefs about fulfillment in life has brought on such emotional anguish. It has brought me to the uncomfortable realization of how strongly I tie self-actualization in life to finding a mate.

One sagacious friend pointed out that I may have lost the possibility to fulfill the dream with that person, but the dream in the abstract (marriage, family, community, etc.) still belongs to me. Excellent advice to be sure, but it’s hard to be comforted by it right now. The mind latches on to the details, it likes concreteness. An insubstantial notion that one day I might find a mate and have an enriching life-long partnership pales in comparison to the evocative imagery I built up surrounding a future with this person. I endeavor to redefine my dream to not include her, but my mind refuses to let go. It is exceptionally difficult to replace a broken dream that involves a specific person with a complete dream that involves no one in particular. 

In lamenting to friends that I'd never meet someone else quite so amazing and that I was sure to die alone (a classic siren song of my internal gremlins), some joked that I'd probably meet that person in Australia. I replied that I surely hope not, because Australia is simply too long distance. But more seriously, I’m not ready to find someone else, as I have work to do: I need to learn from my previous experiences and discover how to be a better person, both in a partnership and solo. 

I’ve been thinking a great deal reflecting upon what I actually want in my life, what lifestyle I believe will be most enriching, and where my priorities lie. I’ve begun to question whether perhaps, like many other parts of my life, the relationship model is an aspect on which I’m flexible; that I have leanings, but am happy to go with what fits in the relationship for the right person. I’ve realized how easily I fall into a pattern in a partnership and stop being fully present, no longer offering the same level of love and attention that person deserves. My time here in Australia has helped me find clarity around where I want my life to head in the next five years: finding a long-term partner, beginning to settle down, and laying the groundwork for raising a family.

I’m grateful for these realizations, because it means I’m learning more about myself, but it’s also a direct trigger to a downward spiral starting with the thought, “This sure would’ve been good to figure out BEFORE that relationship ended.” I can’t blame myself too much, I suppose: these questions are deep, complex, and impossible to answer solely through reasoning. We have no choice but to live into the answer, and in my case the timing on this evolution of understanding meant I still lost a profoundly important relationship. The predominantly nomadic lifestyle I’ve adopted, necessitated by my path in teaching dance professionally, has been unquestionably rewarding, but it did allow me to fall into a holding pattern of never setting down roots anywhere.

While I have spent a lot of energy deconstructing my relationship dynamic, I have also spent time aimed inwardly. If we went with a metaphor of a house representing each one of us, I have an unfortunate tendency when in a partnership to focus solely upon building a new, shared home. I stop going back to my own house so often to perform regular upkeep. It’s been two years since I was last single, and now the kitchen of my house is a complete mess and there’s some science experiment growing in my fridge. I have to remember that my house is still my life force and I need to care for it, so it’s time to start cleaning. To that end, I’ve spent time and energy being with myself, being at peace with the world around me, being comfortable with being alone. I need to remember what brings me inspiration, what fills me with joy (aside from the obvious, which I can’t have), what helps me grow as a person. Essentially, I’m learning once again how to date myself, something I haven’t done for far too long. Clearly, I have a long way to go, but at least it’s progress.

I’ve done my best to allow other people into my proverbial home to visit, even while I’m cleaning house. This occurred once while in Melbourne, when I connected with someone on a romantic level. We met at Cider House Blues and then proceeded to spend several days and evenings together during my week in the city. We were both in a place to be able to appreciate the casual but sincere connection without attachment, and parted ways (on V-day, naturally) on excellent terms with much gratitude in our hearts for the brief time we shared.

The path to being open-hearted while brokenhearted is fraught with jarring juxtapositions of joy and sorrow. Take, for instance, the way I actually spent our final day together, wandering around St. Kilda Festival, a huge music festival that transforms much of the St. Kilda suburb. We enjoyed good food, gorgeous weather, and sharing playful, creative dances at a Salsa music stage and, later, at a bar playing classic soul tunes. I was swimming with delirious happiness, drunk on dancing and warm summer weather. Then I began to get hit by these sharp pangs of remorse as a memory would surface: one of meandering an arts festival on a beautiful day with my former partner, dancing in public, perusing the wares of vendors (predominantly of charming home furnishings) and daring to imagine crafting a home together and populating it with such accoutrements. It’s like my brain is determined to feel sad, and despite my best efforts to the contrary, will repeatedly bring to my attention evidence of why I should be the saddest person ever.

It is natural that my brain would offer these reminders. We identify strongly with painful situations; our brains are trained to make extensive notes about circumstances that lead to pain and then raise the alarm for future events that bear any resemblance. As a species, we are served well by an aversion to pain. The pain even becomes part of our identity, in a way. In those moments of downward spiral, I am impervious to any uplifting words, for my identity then is: I am Failure, I am A Lost Cause, and so on. It’s so hard to let go of that all-consuming identity, to let it coexist with more positive self-identities: I am Wholehearted, I am Loving, I am Talented, etc. It’s a perverse inclination, to self-flagellate in this way and be defined wholly by the negative, and yet it’s bizarrely satisfying because it feels so real. It leads to unproductive inner dialogues: “I’ll never find anyone like her again,” “I’m not worthy of someone like her,” “It’s your fault the relationship ended,” or “What if I had done this thing differently, maybe it would’ve worked out.” These internal dialogues perpetuate the cycle and keep us dissociated from the present, as we wallow in this toxic environment of self-abuse. The anguish of believing you’re unworthy is so intoxicatingly present; in the face of these dark forces, the forces of light dwindle and plead for a space to shine.

Much of my life feels like an endless struggle of forces, an uncomfortable coexistence of opposing emotions. My adventures in Australia have been exceedingly wonderful, filled with sunny days and warm weather, adventures in nature, entertaining times with friends new and familiar, and dancing to other dance styles (Kizomba, WCS, Salsa). Through all of these heady times, I carry a black hole of grief in my heart, one that can activate at any moment to absorb all positive energy that comes near me. Repeatedly, I encounter moments of staggering beauty and all I can think about it how desperately I wish to share it with that person. Sure, such is the Human Condition: to have complex emotions, to be both happy and sad, but I guess my point is that I never feel it so acutely as now when grieving over a terrible loss. The contrast can be so severe that the practice of going out and deliberately making the best of my time here in Australia feels disingenuous when given the context of my deep sadness.

The dream world offers me little reprieve. At least a couple times a week, I will wake up with a vague sense of missing something; occasionally, I am less fortunate and the dreams are more vivid, only to be filled with loss as those ephemeral details fade to nothing and I realize it was entirely a fabrication. It's only through force of will and habit that I drag myself out of bed to take on the day. I press through the thick, dull feelings of sadness — so non-specific and inarticulate in the mornings, as if my inner dialogue is still waking up and figuring out how to berate me — with a cup of tea and some treatment in the sun, or writing in my Morning Pages, or diving into my work. As long as I hit the day with a running start, I can usually get on top of my emotional state for the majority of daylight hours.

It is quite challenging, in those moments, to find the wherewithal to go on adventures. For all of my globe-trotting, I'm quite the homebody and it can require a lot of energy to motivate myself to go outside. But I do it anyway, I force myself to head out the door and off to visit a friend for a walk in a park, or to explore a museum on my own, or exercise, or to head down a street in search of food and await what moments will come. I do it because I know it's the right thing to do — exactly the opposite of what I want to do, which is to lie in bed and drown my sorrows in mind-numbing activities. It helps that I’ve systematically eliminated said escapist activities, such as watching TV or playing video games, so that if I want to feel sorry for myself I have little choice but to be present with my emotions, which can offer rather poor company when feeling down. Once I get over the inertia, it's relatively easy to keep on rolling along, but boy it is a battle to get the process started.

While on my adventures, I'm still prone to being completely sidelined by some thought that sucks dry the joy from the present moment, when all I can do is keep walking and trusting that one day it will get better. I remind myself of the sage advice from Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (I’ve never been so emotionally moved by a triangle and a circle), that I must be complete in myself. I focus on journaling, adventuring, learning, spending time with friends, exercising, being alone, dancing, teaching, speaking with friends about my sorrows, and sitting quietly with my thoughts. It's a hard path to walk and right now I still can’t shake the loss; I’m still tormented by uncertainties about the future, and still get blindsided by grief. I don’t yet truly believe in a bright future for myself, but I keep progressing one day at a time, because it’s the only way forward through life.


doctorsney said...

This sounds so much like me. Seriously. Others can tell too, a friend posted this to me privately and I came here to read the rest.

Andrew said...

Thanks so much for sharing, I'm humbled that someone would refer you to this post.