Friday, July 12, 2013

On Giving and Receiving

For the past year or so, I've been making a concerted effort to connect with my emotions. I've been in this damned cognitive space for so long, and it feels exhausted; I need to feel the core of myself and heal the source of the poisons leaking out. One such poison is my difficulty accepting what others give me. And I can think of few better concrete examples of this than sex.

Sex has always been hard for me. I don't think that's surprising: feeling intensely alienated from your body makes anything that intimate and physical an incredibly fraught experience. But that disconnect was primarily evident when it came to *my* body. When focusing upon others' bodies, sex was wonderful. I love giving oral sex. I love it so much that it's still almost inconceivable to me that anyone doesn't like it. I love making people I care about feel good. I love the fluidity, I love the taste, the smell, the muscles tensing, the waves coursing through the body, the lovely release. I just love it.

But having someone reciprocate has always been a maddening exercise in futility. I have had women who so strongly wanted me to orgasm, who truly genuinely sweetly care about me and wanted to make me feel as good as I made them feel. And I just couldn't do it.

Not only could I not orgasm, though, I could rarely even enjoy the process. The arousal that I felt was more terror than pleasure; constant worrying, constant concern, constant guilt. I felt disgusting, as if I was punishing them by making them focus upon my repulsive form. As if I was degrading them. And I felt afraid, too. Afraid that I would never orgasm, afraid that they would spend forever trying and it might not be enough. Afraid that they would give me *so much more* than I could ever give them, and that they would hate and resent me for the irreconcilable imbalance. I was afraid that if I took more than I gave them, they would leave.

Sex felt weirdly transactional. I insisted upon giving as much or more than I received, and when I couldn't I felt terrified and out of control. One of my partners once said "we're not keeping score," but in my mind we were. If I took more than I gave, she would leave. And her leaving was the last thing that I wanted.

That's been a fear all my life. My father had deep trauma inside him that he never shared. This pain, that no one ever reached but impacted him so, made him fiercely protective of his emotional resources. He made it clear to us that if we asked too much of him, he would leave. Our need would drive him from our lives, and with his exit it felt like our family, our world would end. To prevent that, we always gave him what he wanted and tried to ask for as little as possible from him. And if we did that, he would stay.

So I developed this sense of transactional love. I, of course, could and should give as much as I was able. But receiving care was always a delicate calculus, something I had earned or a loan I must soon repay. If there was an imbalance, it *must* be in favor of me giving more.

This, of course, was not sustainable. Most people who care about you like to give you things. Food, hugs, places to stay, space to screw up. Compassion, empathy. And, yes, sometimes even sex. And when you resist these things, it feels like you're rejecting them. My father's inability to feel my love made me feel like my love simply wasn't good enough, like *I* wasn't good enough. My mother's inability to feel my love made me feel distant and helpless. And I know, on a smaller scale, I've replicated those dynamics.

Because people have given me things. There are numerous people in just the past week who have deeply, sincerely offered me beautiful affirmations of the good they see in me. And each time, when I feel so close to forgetting my guilty calculations and just authentically accepting what they offer me, I pull away. It's felt so reminiscent of my trials with orgasm: so close to just giving in and accepting someone's care, but inevitably pulling away each time.

I had one such experience in a workshop on Sunday, when I was surrounded with a literal chorus of voices raised in support as I faced some of my deepest fears. And yet afterward, I found myself feeling a sickish nausea. A nasty feeling, like violation, like loss of control. I felt raw. And guilty. How could I ever repay these people? How could they have given this me-creature so much, and how I could withstand never being able to reciprocate. Surely they hate me. Surely they resent me, resent not having *their* needs met. Surely, they will leave me.

But in therapy Monday morning, I came upon a question I had never before considered: What is so wrong about me receiving more than others? Why do I cling to this model of fierce karmic equality? What of equity? What of giving what I can and taking what is offered, regardless of the disparity between the two?

I have a friend with a disability. It impedes her movement, it makes her tired. When I am with her, I constantly restrain my long quick stride to a pace that accommodates her. I wait at elevators, I drive when I could walk, I slow when I could fast. When she is too tired to go to something we'd planned to do, I celebrate her self-care instead of resenting the change of plans. And all of this time, I do not keep a tally of "what she owes." I do not expect to someday be repaid. I give because I can, because she matters more than my convenience, because giving brings me closer to her. I give because I love her, and she loves me. I give because I like giving.

And so does she! Not out of obligation or to "repay me." She's just a loving, giving person. And, of course, as I've grown to accept her love more and more, I continually find that when I *do* accept people's care and love, I'm able to give so much more. When I take care of myself, I'm better able to take care of others. When I let others take care of me, I'm better able to take care of them.

Love is not a finite, trade-able commodity. We can't hide it under our mattresses. It doesn't accrue interest. To keep it alive, we have to let it out and accept it back in. It feeds upon itself or it starves. And the more I concern myself with counting and analyzing and weighing, the further I get from authentically giving what I can and accepting what is offered. The further I get from loving and being loved.

So it is my hope that, as I continue to grow, I'll be more and more able to accept care from others and offer the care I have to give without worrying about whether the values in those columns come out even in the end.

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