Many people hate being single. I am not one of them. I could argue that’s due to a strength of character and admirable dependence on self, a usually undeterred cheerfulness, and a solid internal relationship. It is. I could explain that it’s based on my relationship experience being summed up by the word “agony” and the understandable desire to avoid more of the same or the effect of being taught that wanting to be physically and emotionally near another person is weakness. That is true as well. I could say that I also developed a level of comfort in the normalization of loneliness and isolation. Furthermore, I’ve enjoyed the peace of solitude. I have needed time to heal, grow, and rebuild my life. I have loved coming home to myself, not in a physical sense, but in a spiritual one, the abstract wrapped in the concrete. My acceptance and happiness in being alone is all of these things.
It’s also cowardice.
“If I could emotionally (and physically) castrate myself, I would,” I told a friend a couple of years ago. “I don’t want to feel the desire for anything outside of myself or even register loneliness. I want to turn off that part of me and never revisit it.”
I admit that I admired my ability to be “above” need. A part of me hated that I even possessed longing, that I had to repel it and squash it down. I had disdain for people who appeared to be the opposite, the ones that rush from relationship to relationship screaming without words, “Complete me. Fix me. Cloud out all my brokenness with noise and doing. I am too scared to look in the mirror. I am terrified of sitting with myself for any amount of time.”
It’s so easy to judge others when we aren’t taking risks. It’s easy to call strength in us what is really a façade covering our greatest fears. And I have been afraid. Very, very afraid. But even as I experienced astounding growth in a period of rich convalescence, I realized something that caused me to poke my head up out of the insulation of my emotional hermitage. In interest. In longing. With intent to possess.
I would not find full, true healing if I didn’t expose, and challenge, and brave the deepest parts of my heart with others. The greatest wounds. The most painful lies. The woman-child of my heart that desperately wanted to be held, but run away; be beautiful, but hide; and cared for, but rely on herself. The most powerful way to do so was through intimate relationship.
Giving the middle finger to love isn’t bravery. It’s a child’s way of saying, “This scares the hell out of me, so I will call it stupid.”
Turning your back on hope isn’t cleverness. It’s a child’s way of saying, “This scares the hell out of me, so I won’t ever try it (again).”
Shutting yourself away from the world’s eyes isn’t strength. It’s a child’s way of saying, “This scares the hell out of me, so I will never live again.”
Real anything, real everything, is lived and found in community. True healing comes in relationship. Fully knowing and being known can only happen when we pull aside the layers of self-protection and let someone in.
On Christmas Eve, six years ago, I sat in a counselor’s office. He was the most perceptive, wise, and shrewd man I’d ever met. The only one who seemed to truly understand the powerfully destructive dynamic of the two people before him. One who saw my soul for what it was: shriveled, crushed by despair, and desperate for relief, answers, even death.
“Do you want Sara to have a good life?” he asked the person next to me. “She can’t have it with you. You don’t want her, but you won’t let her go. You need to decide. Choose. Show her in one way right now, today, that you want this marriage, that you’ll do what it takes to have one with her.”
For the next 55 minutes, the person beside me shook the couch with his anger. He sat, arms crossed, lips an iron line, refusing to speak, livid at being called out in such a ruthless manner. I knew there would be a cost, one that I would surely pay, for the way he had been nailed to the wall.
I sat there, silently considering the humiliation of my state: the rejected one. I had thought silence was benign as a child. I had since come to see it as a formidable, cruel enemy. The minutes ticked by. The counselor was aghast, his eyes wide at the belligerence before him. Our eyes met multiple times. I sensed a sadness and pity when they passed over me. I stared at my hands. Grief consumed me. The message was painfully clear.
Hold it together, I thought. Don’t show emotion. No expression on your face. It is like fuel to the fire. When you show emotion, you are the unstable one. It will be used against you. Disconnect. Don’t feel the pain of this. Don’t register this. Don’t think about the fact that you are unloved and unwanted and hated and trapped.
In the midst of this silent assault, a quiet, gentle voice came to mind:
“You are a good woman. You are worth fighting for.”
I clasped my hands together, met the counselor’s eye, and bided my time. He determined it would not be beneficial for us to continue couple’s counseling.
Later, at home, I did pay. Not all at once. We had company visiting. The first round was more of the same: rageful silence and the refusal to acknowledge my presence for four straight days, except a “No” when asked a direct question in front of others. The second round was brilliant: sabotaging housework and my sleep, getting out of bed for the day at 3 p.m., and expressed disgust over…everything about me.
At one point, we stood in the kitchen, facing each other. He told me it was my fault for not finishing the dishes before rushing off to help a family member who had been hospitalized. They had maggots in them when I came home several days later.
“You had three days off; why couldn’t you have done them yourself? I tried to clean the entire house before I left. The 10 or so dishes were all that was left,” I said. I was very, very angry.
“You can’t blame me for your failure. You should have done them when you got back, at least,” he sneered.
“I was caring for our children, their children—one who still wakes multiple times through the night—and an immobilized adult for days on end, I—” I couldn’t find the words to defend myself.
“You just want me to feel sorry for you. Because you can’t even keep the dishes done.”
I trembled with emotion. I wanted to break everything in sight. Instead, I sat back on my heels, and spoke softly, with all the conviction my fractured heart could manage,
“I am a good woman and I’m worth fighting for.”
He leaned forward and laughed in my face.
The most important part of that story isn’t what he did, or the counselor’s words; it isn’t the fact that I knew my marriage was over, never really was a marriage, or that I was too broken down and scared to leave for another year and a half. The most critical part is what I heard from a source outside my wasteland of a heart:
I have value. I am worth fighting for.
So, I gathered my strength and those words and began fighting for myself. And that is what I have steadily been doing since.
I ran into the dark.
Because I want—I am choosing—to believe that, despite never having experienced it, I am made for love. That there are good people in this world. And I am not irredeemably broken. I am enough. That my love is powerful, my presence formidable, and my soul is worthy of honor. That my heart will find a home. There is safe haven. That I can only truly, truly live by being soft and strong, not cynical and closed off. I am wise enough to protect myself when needed and wise enough to choose safe people, so I don’t have to live in a cage. That love will heal, and love will win. Because my story isn’t over, not by any measure or in any sense of the word.
For all that darkness represents in the manner of fear, danger, and pain; it holds even more promise of potential, of opportunity in an unknown land. One I intend to plunder. There is much more to gain than all I ever lost. So, I’m running into the dark.
How am I leaving the past in the past? Not easily. Not prettily. Some days it’s more like crawling up a cliff with an anvil strapped to my back. I’ll write more on that next.