Sunday, July 2, 2017

On Love, On Change, On Hope

In seventh grade, I had my first crush.

Her name was Christine Strout and she was the smartest girl I knew.

She had orange hair, and I remember sitting behind her in Math class, thinking about how pretty she was. Back then (meaning, before high school), it was pretty well-established that I was the smartest person around. It wasn’t something I bragged about or even mentioned (even then, I think I considered intelligence more of a “genetic lottery” than anything else, and I didn’t see much to be proud of for natural luck). But it was there. And then, there was her.

I don’t remember much about her (or that time in general). I do remember the thrill I’d get when she would answer questions in class and I would be genuinely surprised by what she said. I remember dreaming. And, I am pretty sure, I remember never talking to her. At some point later that year, she moved away. And that was that.


This has not been an uncommon pattern.

For as long as I can remember, love has been practically the only thing I’ve cared about. I have gone through the motions of school, careers, extra-curriculars, this that and the other, but it’s all mostly been that: going through the motions. I’ve wanted love. Love, love, love.

And so, given that, it might be surprising that I’ve had so little of it. I didn’t have my first kiss until 18. Had one long-term relationship from 20-23. Had a few flings and one “star-crossed lovers” episode. And that’s about it.

Since then, for about six years, there’s been almost nothing. For so long, I’ve tried to figure out what to make of it. Am I unattractive? Is it because I’m trans? Am I fundamentally damaged? Too intense? Too _______? It’s almost infuriating, because unlike work and school, it’s largely outside of your control. You can make yourself work harder, you can study more, you can strategize. But with other people, none of this works. You can’t make someone like you. You can’t force love. It’s perhaps the strongest feeling of powerlessness I know. And, for most of my life, it’s kind of ruined me.


Then, sometime last year, I turned 30. Existential crises aren’t exactly new to me; sometimes I think my life has pretty much just been one long, existential crisis. But even still, leaving Knoxville and turning 30 was like a punch in the face.

In many ways, it was a wakeup call. I looked around at my life. And what I saw was horrific. I’d just completed a PhD in a field I didn’t really like, doing work that often felt tortuous. I’d been single forever. And although I’d travelled thousands of miles, I still felt haunted by everything I left behind.

What’s more, I saw I was significantly alone in this. At Utah, I was part of a four person cohort [seven, if you add the social work interns]. And, each day for the year, I got glimpses into their lives. They had doubts, certainly. Some days were worse than others. But what I mostly saw were hard-working people who had supportive functional relationships, passions outside of work, and generally decent self-esteem. They were not superheroes. But they were resilient and their lives were rich.

Many of them have gotten or are getting married. They’re thinking about kids, thinking about building upon careers they’re interested in and have worked hard to build, and are excited about all the different places they might go and live. And, again, they weren’t perfect or always cheerful or anything. They had issues and concerns like anyone. But the degree of the disparity still kind of shocked me. I was and had been hopeless, loveless, aimless for most of 15 years at that point. I don’t think I’d really realized until then just how much of a toll my depression had taken. I knew I was depressed; had been depressed (probably since the days of Christine Strout). But I was beginning to see what depression was. And what it could look like if I wasn’t.


So, I suffered a lot that year. A whole lot. Every day felt like a Hell I couldn’t escape. But eventually, I suffered so much I decided I wanted to stop suffering. So, I started trying to make some changes. And I started trying to learn.

When you’ve been in a rut for a long time, it’s easy to feel defective. Part of depression, at its core, I think, is a learned helplessness that says “you have no power to change.” And feeling that way, that nothing you can do can help, you really do start to believe that it must just be you. You must be wrong. Inescapably wrong.

But I had suffered so much, was so sick and tired of being so unhappy all the time, that I started learning anyway. I started seeking help. And one place I sought, in particular, was Al-Anon.

Al-Anon probably deserves its own separate post. But I will say this: I grew up in a dysfunctional family. A family divided, a family full of denial, resentment, animosity barely hidden (or, every so often, raging into full view). I did not see people talk to each other, work through problems, be genuinely affectionate. Instead, I saw people say things to “the people they cared about the most” that you would never say to your worst enemy. I saw manipulation, exploitation. I saw people go insane, caustically, violently insane. And I saw people pretend that it never happened or, even better, tell themselves it would never happen again (with no clear plan for that other than wishful thinking and good ole-fashioned “we’ll just try harder).

Growing up, I learned to focus on others. Managing my parents was my full-time job, so focusing upon their thoughts and feelings was core to my survival (and the only control I felt I had in a fundamentally unstable and unsafe environment). But in Al-Anon, I learned about focusing upon my self. I learned that we are probably the most significant force in the ways our lives go. I learned, as our facilitator would say each week, that “so much depends upon our attitudes.” And I learned that even if you don’t drink alcohol or do drugs, you can still have addictions. Even if it’s not a material substance, you can still be enamored with the promise of something outside yourself that will, ultimately, set you free. And that that hope, however understandable, can be the most insidious thing of all.


So what does this have to do with love?

Well, remember when I said all I wanted was love? That’s a pretty big sign right there.

Love, for me, has always been that escape. If I can think of someone else, I don’t have to think about myself. I don’t have to worry about myself; make decisions for myself; feel my pain, tolerate my fear, own my past. Love can let us disappear. And, for me at least, that’s all I’ve ever wanted.

It is a fantasy. The kind of fantasy a person comes up with when they feel they have no alternatives. A rescue fantasy, an escape fantasy. When you feel so weak, so powerless that it feels as if only your only hope is someone else coming to save the day, of course that’s what you’ll want. You’ll wish for them. You’ll wait for them. Someday, your princess will come, in her suit of armor with a sword of fire, and she will stop the horrors of the world and you can spend your life focused upon her.

And, again, this fantasy comes from an understandable place. I’m hardly alone in holding it.

But, at the end of the day, it is a fantasy.

And, as I have unpacked it, I’ve started learning some things.

For one, I’ve learned that there are lots of reason for love. There are some people who are afraid to live alone. There are some people who want to save or be saved. There are some people who feel perfectly content apart from all of that noise and fury.

And then there are some people who just like hanging out with somebody else. Some people who don’t seek tons of validation, who don’t need a partner, but who enjoy their partner’s company, who find that while their partner is not their whole life, their love enriches it all the same the same.

In fact, I asked an internet group I’m in about this. And one person said that if her partner died, she would be sad to lose that person. She believed she could be happy in and out of a relationship. But she loved her partner, and would just be sad about losing him. Others described partners as one sphere of many, as a source of joy independent of the sorrows and excitements of other aspects of their live. Some said they’d always want a partner. Some said they’d mostly felt pretty ok without them.

And, to me, this was a revelation. I never knew how someone could be happy outside of a relationship. I never knew how someone could view a relationship, could view love as a complement to life’s joys but not a prerequisite. It felt so secure, so healthy. And it made me want to love differently.

So, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to love honestly. I’m trying to work on my insecurities, to feel comfortable with myself whether or not I have a relationship. I’m still not very good at it (it’s been a particularly deep well to climb out of). But sometimes, I can see a vision. A vision of me with my own feelings, my own identity, walking next to someone I love, enjoying sharing this part of the journey with them not because they complete me, not fearing rejection or abandonment, not feeling like I need to do something or be someway to keep them liking me. But instead, I see me feeling comfortable with myself and, as a result, feeling all the more able to trust and enjoy someone else.

I don’t know if I’ll get there. I still often feel ugly/unattractive, defective, evil, creepy. I think there’s a pretty decent chance I’ll never find love again.

But all the same, it’s a nice goal, a nice vision. And I just have to hope that, if I keep putting in the work, I might someday realize it.

Wouldn’t that be lovely?

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