When I’m single, I am confident and fulfilled and engaged in my life.
And then I’ll meet someone, and something happens.
The confident, self-assured woman I thought I was runs for the hills and leaves behind the shell of herself.
What I’ve been able to deduce is that the attention of the person who is attracted to me because of my confidence, triggers something in me. And gradually, a forgotten or unknown wound will appear—like a body that’s been inadequately weighted down, rising slowly to the surface of my life, bobbing there. It becomes all that I can look at.
What once felt like a full and satisfying existence, begins to feel lacking and unfulfilling and terrifyingly empty. I firmly believe that should this person decide to leave, I’ll be without purpose and value and love for the rest of eternity.
You’d think, given how many times this pattern has repeated itself, I’d be able to talk myself down off the ledge—but no. Each and every time, the panic is just as great as the time before it. And the time before that. And the time before that.
It might be a gradual change, I can’t be sure, but regardless, eventually I become off-balance. I forget how to take deep breaths and, for the duration of our relationship, can breathe only as deep as my chest.
I seek validation and affirmation constantly. I can’t make decisions about my own well-being, can’t entertain myself, and take any sign of my partner’s independence (or any suggestion that they have a life of their own), as indicative of my own shortcomings—proof that I will never be enough for someone else to want to be with. This then serves to prove my lack of inherent value and worthiness of love.
I guess you could say I develop all of the neediness of a toddler and puppy combined, but with none of the legitimacy or cuteness.
One minute I’m walking down the street listening to Beyoncé, both feet firmly planted on solid ground, and the next I’m tumbling into this cavernous hole inside of me that I didn’t even know was there; a hole that I believe can only be filled by another. And all at once, I find myself wanting to be utterly absorbed by another, completely dissolved into their life.
It’s a desire for a completely passive kind of love—a starfish existence, if you will. Basically, one in which I cease to exist, believing that a relationship is something that will solidify my identity, and thus must be held onto. And if it’s something that must be held onto, then it’s definitely something that I can and will lose.
Deep in my little girl psychology, I must have learned (or at some point started to believe) that who I am is not enough for someone to actually love, so I try to suppress any and all parts of myself that could lead to the inevitable leaving and losing of love.
In the book Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, they say that early human foragers never fought over food until there was a surplus built up. But for most of human history, no such surplus existed so resources had always been shared up until then. I liken this to my feelings about love: As soon as I feel there is something to lose, I forget any and all charity for myself.
I doubt my inherent value and worth, and then scrabble viciously over what I desperately want to be mine. It becomes a love based on fear, which, of course, is no love at all. So naturally, my significant other starts to pull away (even though everyone knows that what is most attractive in a partner is possessiveness, desperation, and low self-worth).
Them pulling away then results in me feeling like I’m being dragged closer and closer to the cliff’s edge that they are supposed to be saving me from. So I hold on even tighter, and I demand even more. And they pull away even more. And the more they pull away, the more I panic and grab hold, and so on and so forth.
The claws I’ve sprouted, as a result of the gaping, oozing wound I’ve been desperately trying to protect, begin to rip tiny shreds of us out at the roots as the object of my affection pulls (understandably) away from me. I become an animal living on her knees, and they remain upright and evolved, able and grateful to dust off the remaining bits of me that I’ve sprayed all over them—jealousy, fear, resentment, animosity, manipulation. I really do pray, for their sake, that it all comes out in the wash, because they were innocent bystanders who had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
Obviously, the relationship ends. (Shocking, I know.)
And then gradually, ever so slowly, I rebuild.
I find my footing again, or maybe, myself again.
My way of falling for someone reminds me of Robert Munsch’s character, Jule Anne, in the children’s book Mud Puddle. The little girl can’t go outside without being ambushed by a mud puddle that’s hiding in trees, on top of buildings, and behind bushes. As soon as she lets her guard down, the puddle launches its attack, covering her from head to toe in mud. She is forced to walk sheepishly back to her house, calling for her mother to explain how she was attacked by a vicious puddle of mud.
Again and again, her mother hurls her into the bath and scrubs her little body till it’s red and raw, dresses her in fresh clean clothes, and sends her back into the world with the assumption that this time she’ll know better and be able to avoid repeating past mistakes. But of course, the puddle is relentless and devious and intent on ruining Jule Anne’s sense of security, and lays in wait till just the right moment before hurling itself at her again.
What a kinship I feel with this foolishly innocent girl. As soon as I’ve mourned and grieved and cried to my mother over whatever mess I’ve just come from, I take a bath, put on a nice, clean dress, and try it all again—believing that this time, I’ve learned. That this time, surely, I’ve developed a healthy amount of self-esteem and self-awareness that will ensure my ability to walk away before things get too messy. That this time I won’t end up shell-shocked and in need of a bath and a cry. And yet…
For the longest time, I believed that only one of these two women was me. That surely I must be the needy, scared, pathetic girl. That I must be the one incapable of communicating like a grown up, because that is the person I feel most in denial about and most afraid of. When I’m together, going to my grown up job that I enjoy, paying rent for my grown up apartment that I love, that to me feels like the fraud. The woman in control, enjoying her life, must surely be a facade, just a bullsh*t shell waiting to be cracked with the tiniest of tapping.
The prospect of love and being loved makes me feel like a little girl climbing into the lap of an adult I want to be held by, who has just told me they have to go; that I will never get to sit there as long as I want to. That I will never be loved as hard and as long as I need to be.
But I have to acknowledge that both of these people are me. Both are versions of me that I need to become acquainted with and heal. I think I’m realising that the panic and fear that arises in me, that is my flashing yellow warning sign. That is the indicator that I need to pull over, sit still, and let myself feel the void I’m about to want to start running from. The feeling that comes again and again that I need to be filled up, and that someone else can do it for me–it’s just a feeling, a reminder that now is the time to be still and kind to myself.
Because when I get still and quiet, I remember that I do have value. I remember the people who have loved me even through my moments of crazy, and what that must say about me, that I do have something to offer when I’m in a relationship with another. But to see that fully, both feet must be on the ground. And to maintain that stance, I need to become more comfortable staring into the void instead of trying to fill it up with other people, or the internet, or thrift store shopping, or greasy food. Binges of any kind are just keeping me from coming home.
Never before have I seen the void so clearly as I do now. I see that even when I’m doubting whether or not a relationship is right for me, I become terrified that this may be my only chance for romantic love, and this—this lacking, frustrating, dishonest, and panicky version of love—is the only kind I can expect or hope for. But maybe seeing it, identifying it as fear and not truth, is the start of being able to see outside of it.
Maybe this is how I start trusting and expecting and knowing that more and better and peaceful love is available to me.
Jule Ann eventually defeats the mud puddle by shoving bars of soap in her pockets and hurling them with all her might at the puddle. Maybe I can trust that my pockets have already been filled with the tools I need in order to live without fear. Maybe I can remember that coming home to myself will always be the answer to whatever questions I’m asking, and that anything I pick up along the way can just as easily be let go of.
Author: Pamela Stewart
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Editor: Nicole Cameron