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When I was 23 I thought I was doing a very good job of convincing people that I was attached to any aspect of my life. I went to the local pub, spent weekends with my group of friends in the mountains, and always did my best to keep the mood light and playful. I had it all under control: my drinking problem, my eating disorder, my fear of having my heart broken again. I was always "The Other Woman," actually seeking out emotionally unavailable lovers since it inherently meant no commitment from myself. I was in my friends' lives but made a conscious effort to keep them out of my own. At least, keep them at far enough of a distance so that when they would inevitably disappoint or (as I was convinced they all would) turn their backs on me, I would remain unaffected.
I had it all under control.
And then one day my friend, the gentle giant Fred, took a small group of us on a hike. We smoked a bowl, we reveled in nature, and then when the rest of the guys were pissing in the lake and I was sitting on the remains of a fallen tree, Fred approached me as if I were an injured animal. I watched with curiosity as he sat gingerly next to me and turned to me with a conflicting mixture of fear and confidence on his Paul Bunyan-esque face.
"I've been wanting to talk to you about something for a while now, but was worried about how you'd react when I brought it up," he began.
What little warmth I was capable of feeling at this point in my emotionally anorexic life stirred in my chest and I said, "It's okay, whatever it is." Of course, since I thought I had my house well in order, that I was protected and that no one had enough interest in me as a person to actually reach beneath the surface, feel for my heart, and discover it had long ago turned to ice, I had absolutely no inclination this conversation was going to be truly about me. I thought maybe Fred was about to tell me he'd decided to tell his longtime girlfriend about the night we'd spent together. I was prepared to tell him that whatever he decided, I wouldn't put up a fight since his relationship was not, as I saw it, my responsibility in any respect and his choices were his own.
Instead what he told me was this: "I'm not sure you realize this, but we all love you. We love you and we want to be part of your world in a real way. And I think that you do care for us—I know that you must, but... Ann, trying to actually know you is like trying to cross a ravine that doesn't have a bridge. It's impossible! No one is able to reach you. And... I worry that no one ever will be and that the light everyone can see inside of you is on the verge of being snuffed out."
This would come to be one of the most important conversations I would ever have in my entire life, because of course, he was right. I was the one who took the hacksaw to the bridge and watched it shatter at the bottom of the ravine. I was the one who didn't want to breathe in the beauty of the people around me for fear they'd one day cut off my supply of air.
Even the shock that rolled over me was dulled to the point that it barely registered as an emotion. "I... didn't think anyone noticed," I said.
"I'm not sure everyone does, but I can see it. I can see how much of yourself you're holding back and trying to suffocate. Please," he said, covering my hands with his own massive ones, "don't check out on us."
I honestly don't even remember the hike back or my drive home that day. All I could think about was the revelation that in trying to put myself in a position where I couldn't be hurt, I'd hurt other innocent people who didn't deserve to be poisoned by me.
And so I began the extremely difficult process of dismantling the prison I had erected around my heart. And after a few years and a few setbacks my heart, so tender and malnourished, was once again free, exposed, and painfully vulnerable.
Getting there was arduous. How does a person who had spent such a significant chunk of their life refusing to feel for any person with any depth wake their soul up again? How would I know when I succeeded? It was confusing, this process of trying to take responsibility for the people who wanted to be close to me. I didn't know what I was supposed to feel when these people experienced grief or joy. What did it matter to me? It wasn't actually happening to me, after all. Why should I say no to a person in a committed relationship who wanted to share my bed? I wasn't the one in a relationship and I wasn't forcing them, or even offering myself to them. They just asked and if I wanted it, I didn't understand why I should say no. Their choices weren't my responsibility and their commitment to someone else meant I was safe from being hurt.
However, as I started going through the motions, making choices not necessarily because it was what I wanted, but because it was what I thought someone who cared more would choose, something small and beautiful started to happen. I hardly noticed it at first, but gradually I stopped thinking along the lines of "I think this is what I'm supposed to do" and began thinking "No, I don't wanna do that because it would hurt someone." This to me was deeply profound. It was working! At first my not wanting to hurt someone was because I didn't want it to come back to me, that I had caused them pain, but as I kept practicing the art of caring it morphed again into something even more genuine and delicate. Eventually, I started making choices because I simply didn't want these people to hurt. I started to think about the people in my life with actual concern, not just how I figured into their life. I was curious about if they were happy, if they felt loved and safe, and it gave me a small thrill of joy to see when they were. I thought I had finally done it! I'd finally built that bridge.
It wasn't until I met the man who would become the beginning of my chosen family, however, that I would truly see that bridge come to fruition.
When I finally gained access to all of my emotions again I was completely overwhelmed. I remembered why I'd starved myself of them for all those years. The running theme of this process isn't exactly pain, but confusion. I seem to feel so deeply, so intensely it feels almost as if I'd been skinned alive. This sounds dreadful, for sure, but the confusing part of it is I am constantly questioning if everyone else feels as deeply or if I'm one of a few. It's a dangerous train of thought, scary and often leading to a tailspin where I am in danger of closing up again and cutting down that bridge. I am determined to never do that again, however; to never disrespect the people who for whatever reason have decided to honor me with their affection.
So when I met this man, Alex, and I was so wide open, the absolute hurricane of affection I felt for him completely bowled me over and I just assumed it was a romantic love. After the initial heartache that followed when he rejected my intensity (and good on him as I've since learned I was mistaken), I came to realize that what called out to me from him was I recognized him as family. Well, perhaps "family" isn't the best word for it. There isn't a word that has enough weight to describe what he means to me.
This man is such a gift to the entire world. He saved my life and woke me up completely. I felt for the first time in my life what it was like to be genuinely happy for someone. It was a revelation! to have someone else's joy be the source of my own and feel it to the same extent as them. I had always believed that was a false emotion or an exaggeration, but in getting to know him, watching him succeed in his projects I genuinely felt that and it's a gift I'll never be able repay him for.
So... Why have I decided to share this story?
Because despite the journey I've been on and how much I've come to appreciate I continue to struggle. I meet people, I feel as if I fall in love with them instantly, my heart gets broken over and over again, and yet... I refuse to shut down again. Though the ropes holding up my bridge may fray and the boards may dry rot making the path shaky, I will continue my maintenance.
Because the ability to love is what gives our lives meaning. I've learned that wholly. Our connections are what makes it all worthwhile and without them, without opening ourselves up to one another, we are lost.
And I want my story to be a source of strength for others, for myself. Keeping it to myself negates that purpose, doesn't it?
Love yourself. Love others. Don't be scared, we're all here for you.