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“If you are rejecting yourself, everyone around you, except the unhealthy, will reject you too,” shouted a Facebook meme.
Tears welled up in my eyes. I felt the pangs of grief wetly mop over my body. My innards were fuzzy and expanded with the dampness—enlarged with moisture and threatening to escape.
They say love is an inside job, but my insides didn’t even seem to fit inside me anymore. I felt dizzy with desperation: how can I stuff myself back inside my own body?
How do we process a kind of grief that doesn’t exist? What do we do when we have lost nobody, and who do we call when nobody has died? What kind of grief is it when there is nobody to begin with?
I never set out to be a single woman in my mid-40s. Or my early 40s. Or my late 30s. Or at all.
And when we end up in places that we don’t expect to be, it is a disenfranchised grief. We may not be aware that it is grief because how do we grieve for a life we never had in the first place?
We grieve the loss of a life we envisioned but don’t have: the people who don’t exist, the plans we had for a life with someone or something else.
We grieve the invisible.
We grieve the “this was not supposed to happen-ness” of our lives, awash in the silent pain of losing our dreams: the babies we never had, the spouses that never materialized, the shattered dreams of a career or home or life we never got to experience.
How do we grieve a life we never lost?
I popped my eyes open again and buried my face in my phone, looking for a place to avoid the pain. Where I find only more.
The meme-y undercurrent of social media screams my failures at me through the lens of positive psychology and manifesting: if I happened on this path, it is something I’ve personally created. I’ve either chosen it and need to be happy and empowered in my choices. Or I have not, and I am met with reminders that I have done something to cause it and I need to come to terms with it—I need to take responsibility to change.
In a world of self-actualization, self-fulfillment, and self-love, we aren’t supposed to speak about needing something or someone else. We aren’t to admit that we aren’t fulfilled alone and that we deeply crave families or partners or babies.
I work hard at change, exhausting myself with 14 years of self-help. My hallway is stuffed with books about emotions and relationships. My synapses are alive with podcasts on self-actualization and trauma. My spare time is filled with courses and conversations about loving myself, shifting my mindset, and embodying authenticity, awareness, and vulnerability.
I remain maritally barren.
I feel rejected, as if I failed to be born with some sort of innate human quality accessible to everyone else. I swear I’m not “rejecting myself,” but I can’t f*cking make my thousand-fold attempts at dating work.
I’m also told that all this effort is the problem. For “it will happen when you least expect it.”
So I need to try, or it’s out of reach. But when I try, the effort of trying is the apparent problem.
Whether it is attempting to have a baby or finding love or stretching toward another impossible dream, we are tied in the double-bound ropes of being shamed for either not enough personal responsibility or taking too much of it.
And in this, we find ourselves alone with our grief.
It’s impossible to speak of: we are not set up to acknowledge that barrenness is painful. We have outlets for “real loss,” but none to measure the loss of something that didn’t exist. We instead turn to laughter, pity, or rage.
My failed efforts become fodder for entertainment: “You should write a book!” I am told. I guess it is cute to laugh and roll our eyes at the 48-year-old man who sends me unwanted lewd jokes between dates. I don’t laugh and, in the end, cancel our dates, his demonstrations of incompatibility not cute in the least.
We are allowed to solidify in rage, this time in Facebook dating groups, to rant about being ghosted or stonewalled after months of dating, where we can criticise and critique those who have purportedly wronged us in this victimless crime.
And we are met with pity from people not in our circumstance: “Jeesh, I’m glad that’s not me!” I’ve breezily been told.
So we laugh, or we scream. Or we are pitied.
But we never once mention that some things are just out of our control, unchangeable, no matter how much we try or don’t try, whichever of the two we are supposed to do.
And we never once mention the feelings of loss and grief and shame and sadness—they take on their own shame.
An ocean of shame rains on my head, like a film of silt encasing my head. I am tied at the throat—muzzled by shame and dizzy with grief. I feel fuzzy.
I feel ashamed of my wants, my desires, and my longing.
I feel ashamed for having grief that this is how my life turned out, and bound to unspeakable anguish that I did not want this or ask for this. What is it to have shame for that which I cannot even name or identify, let alone speak of?
We can’t assume that everyone’s life choices are exactly what they envisioned or manifested or wanted to create. Sometimes we end up where we never planned—a life holding us in opposition to what we most deeply crave.
We feel sadness and sorrow when we are alone, unable to find this pain in our body, understand the reason or name the cause. We struggle to pull out a reason for our sadness when it’s not a person, place, or thing. It’s like trying to catch flowing water in our hands.
We want to hold onto hope, yet with each passing moment, it becomes larger rather than smaller. With the passage of time comes an accumulation of loss: a knowledge of a life that we cannot live and will never live the way we wanted to, even if we change the circumstances later. Some bits of life have a sweetness in our youth that cannot be replaced or replicated later.
We feel shame for wanting. We feel shame for our grief. We feel the bleakness of loss that we cannot pinpoint, for it never existed.
We feel rejected like we somehow failed to be born with an innate human quality that allows us to access what other people experience. We are unable to find the source, for it does not exist.
We feel grief and sorrow for what never was.