Originally published in P.S. I Love You, a Medium.com publication, on May 12th, 2020.
Sometimes it is the only way.
We seek each other. Wait. Hope. Stare at the night sky, black, pinpricked by a billion stars, swirling galaxies. Somewhere, out there.
When we met, I knew. The pull of two pieces. Pieces of destiny.
“I met a man I could marry,” I said to my friend on the phone.
How did I know? I know, see. Seer. Sometimes.
Sometimes the vision is half. Obscured. Just the next step revealed. Who would start the journey if they could see the entire path, the persistent painful grinding of the reformation of self?
Did I also see the demise? The decay? The divorce that would occur 14 years later?
I was attracted to his dark silent presence, solemn. We looked at an exhibit of photos. He gravitated towards one of a sad, young boy holding a stuffed toy, a rabbit. We stood in front of it, took it in. I thought it meant he was sensitive and open, attuned to an inner child — the little boy he had been.
Jeremy drew together my history, part my mother — solid, sensible, and part my father, prone to rage. Both merged into one.
Not many months later, when we were still in the bloom of fresh love, he suggested, “Let’s go hiking with my brother.”
“I don’t have hiking shoes.”
Jeremy loaned me an ancient pair, clunky, dusty and brown. His mother’s. They didn’t fit well. My feet hurt. My ankles turned. I could not keep up.
He yelled, his face closed in. “Hurry up.”
I don’t remember the rest of his words.
Clumsy. Yuk. His disdain spread over me. A dark mustard cloud.
The first red flag I saw.
His brother, a silent witness, as I retracted into embarrassment. The tall trees, multicolored rocks. The cliffs I would rappel down, terrified, surrounded by an arching sky. None could save me from my humiliation.
It starts always somewhere. For me, it began with my father. For women, it often does. The deep wound, the dark place, the need to be loved, the holding on.
He criticized me. “You’re ugly.” “You’re a mess. Go brush your hair.”
My father, tall, beautiful, brilliant. A Leo, a Sun. I adored him. Why did he say those things? What was going on inside? Why didn’t he care about his awkward suffering child, children?
The planets revolve around our sun. The sun’s gravity keeps them encircling. While separate beings, they do not break out of orbit. The pull is too strong. I was my own separate planet; my father was my sun.
My relationship before Jeremy was with Sam. Sam was riddled with the obsessions of addiction. I tried to save him. Explained. Begged.
The glass crack pipe, I grabbed it, tried to tear it away. We struggled, muscle, flesh, skin, determination against determination. The glass shattered, slashed my palm, blood, jagged red line. Scar of my life. Now visible.
Fighting with addiction is fighting the wind, a ghost. Nobody there. Just me. Who am I, this broken young woman?
I go to Al-Anon, sit in meetings. I listen, absorb. “Let Go and Let God.” “First Things First.” “One Day at a Time.”
I take in these thoughts. They still the anxiety threaded through me, the strands that tie me up, pull at me, twist me, contort. Nights I lay awake worrying. My mind spinning circles with no outlet. Where is he? Why hasn’t he called me back? Is he safe?
Crack dens, dim with stained mattresses, semi-conscious beings lying helter-skelter, the body pulsing, the mind gone to some other universe. The orbit around the drug. The cycle of addiction not much different than the cycle of violence.
Before the end with Sam, after I found her lipstick, and realized he had cheated (again) while away on a job, I confronted him.
“She is a dancer,” he said. As if her sweet supple limbs explained what had happened. Explained how the man I lived with, the man who begged me to come back after rehab, the man who said he loved me, wasn’t faithful.
It explained the attraction yes, the choice to act on the attraction, no.
The repair — the stitching together of fragments into solid form, the finding ground under feet previously askew, angled as if hit by a car — started during the crisis of my relationship with Sam.
How had I been so undone? How had I started with so little self?
The subterranean dive into understanding the parts of myself that trapped me. Trauma haunts us. It lies hidden inside. Its dark messages seep into the cells like a squid’s black ink. The billowing murky cloud infiltrating everything, blocking out vision, blocking out the sun.
I notice images, movies, and TV shows with hugging and holding, expressions of love. They pull at me. So foreign. My path would have unfolded so differently with a past like that.
Mine was not to be the regular life of husband, kids, job. I had other purposes, other visions. Some part of me knew, saved myself for what life demanded of me. I knew better than to trap myself permanently. I knew better than to have a kid.
These relationships, each man a false sun. Only part of myself present. I could not find the rest of me.
My need for them to be there for me boundless. If they would only open their hearts, I would be okay. Each broken man showed up and brought out the broken in me. Shards that fit together. Shards that did not know how to create a whole.
A pattern that took years to dissolve.
The first therapy
I knew something was terribly wrong. What do I do? We would have to talk. I gathered myself.
I did not call him for 3 days after that hike. I told Jeremy that we needed to go to therapy, that I couldn’t continue as it was. That what had happened wasn’t okay. He agreed to go.
Because he agreed, I stayed. I thought it meant something. I thought he would change, look at himself. Sift through and move into the stories of his past. The shame trapped below the surface that exploded into molten anger.
In the cycle of violence, the tension builds. The explosion occurs, and the pressure is released. The bliss of the honeymoon period follows. Both parties caught. The less powerful one is carefully waiting for the loving partner to reappear. The thirst for love traps this person until they know that loving themselves is enough.
I wondered years later why I hadn’t, couldn’t walk away after that hike. What had kept me in? What persistent hope caused me to not see the truth?
Life needed me to finish this chapter. I wasn’t yet strong enough to break out of the gravitational pull. I still thought I had a job to do, the work of mending something broken. Myself. Him. Us. I did not yet know that I would be freeing myself alone.
Our therapist was slow, calm, stoic even, and leftover from my previous man, Sam. The one who eventually told me he couldn’t stop getting “blitzed,” couldn’t get off the road of destruction, the dopamine rush towards death. It felt too good.
Thank you, Sam. You taught me that I wasn’t ready to die. You put me on the road of looking within and those first early steps in Al-Anon.
Sam had refused therapy. He didn’t want to change, to stop using, to stop cheating. I traded him in for the counseling.
Now Jeremy and I were seeing that therapist together. She didn’t use words like “anger problem” or “abusive.” She was careful to stay in the middle.
He was angry during and after every session. He hated talking about feelings, about what upset each of us. I tried to stay upbeat. He was going with me, after all.
I didn’t know why this had to be so difficult.
“Please,” I say, “Let’s just try.”
Unable to leave
From my home now, years later, across the water, far in the distance, the Olympic Mountains reside. Sometimes they are obscured by clouds and invisible. You would not know they are there. Other times their cubist white peaks shimmer through the layer of clouds — a pattern of hard and misty soft. Or they may be wholly uncovered, showing off their beauty, their glistening shapes.
The mountains are there whether I see them or not. This is also true in a relationship. Your jagged edges were sometimes obscured. Still, I was careful about what I would say.
Therapy became another reason to resent me. Reticent. Reluctant. I was making him. He would do this because I asked, but he didn’t want to. Why did he go with me? Was it because he didn’t want to lose me? Our relationship became transactional. I’ll do this, but I’ll hate you for it.
Of course, this wasn’t clear back then. After all, I still married him.
Even though I was tempted to cancel the wedding. Even though I had fantasies of cheating and ending it the easy/hard way. Yet, I did not give up. I could not walk away. Be alone. I needed love. The sun.
I realized there would be hard times. I knew from the weather. From rainy days. From the frozen winters. From my sister with chilblains on her cheeks, because she regularly walked 2 miles home from school in below-freezing weather, the wind whipping across the golden grass covered stiff in white. Our father was not willing to drive down the road to pick her up. I knew from my childhood, from the accidents, the fighting, and pain. I knew from the hard slap of a parent’s hand. I knew love wasn’t easy. I knew.
My father, my sun. He was two men. Cleaved apart down the middle. The one I loved. The one I hated. The one whose big hand I would hold, whose long steps I would try to match as we walked back from the mailbox together. After his rages, I wished my father gone. I imagined grabbing the big kitchen knife. I’d make him stop. Make him listen, make him see.
Other times I wished my parents would divorce. My mom did not leave my father. Where would she have gone? She loved him. But she carried a burden.
Sometimes I imagined I had been adopted. How could these two people be my real parents? How could I have come from them?
We took a break from couples therapy. I continued with a new therapist. Eventually, Jeremy and I started again with my newish therapist. Me speaking, explaining, talking, trying to understand, and sort. Him, a dark fuming presence who just sat. Shut down. Closed off. This therapist let him. Mistake.
Maybe it didn’t matter.
How could someone who loved me, who I loved, misunderstand me so completely? How could he not see me trying to keep us together?
I was determined to sort through what was wrong. To do what my parents did not do when we were growing up. To get help. To make what was wrong right. To clear the black cloud and let in the shimmering light.
A sense of security and safety comes from our investigations into who we are, how we have structured ourselves, what informs our thoughts, feelings, reactions. The work I was doing, the work he was not doing. The end already embedded in this dynamic.
Sometimes the difficult relationship is the catalyst — the spark that sets the fire. Without the catalyst, the fire cannot start, the journey falters. I needed these relationships. I needed to do this work to become who I am.
I didn’t yet see the future. I didn’t know what I was doing, what I was building. I didn’t realize I was slowly sorting, shifting, removing the debris of the past and the present — allowing for a new future. A new love. It would be years before that would manifest.
The beginning of the end
It was my birthday. Jeremy parked the car so that it hung into a red zone.
“Could you pull it back a few feet?” I asked. “So I don’t have to worry about getting a ticket while we eat.”
He blew up. We ate in silence. My eyes glassy with tears. One of many incidents. I had not yet given up.
Eventually, I realize that couples therapy will not help us. It requires two willing partners. After years of therapy with Jeremy and plenty more by myself, I said no. I’m not doing this with you anymore. I’ve done my part. I am not the angry one, the disconnected one. Figure out your stuff. See what you can learn without me. I just want connection. What you need, I do not know.
I had used my witch magic, but it wasn’t strong enough for those blind eyes. He would have to find his own way.
There is a door that must be opened. The door of looking within. The excuses, deflections, blame must fall away. The venting and complaints. The dark passage, the light now illuminating the cobwebs and phantoms. The aha of seeing oneself and one’s part. The movement from victim to co-creator and healer of one’s own life.
He continues with some therapy without me. Perhaps he senses how close to done I am. I am detached. I have opened my palm and let the particles of dust blow into the hazy air. I do not know where they will land.
I’m sorry you did not feel safe enough to look inside, sorry you made me bad. Sorrier you would not trust my good intentions or let me in.
You did not feel safe enough to trust, to release your hard bully belly, your tough impenetrable exterior. I didn’t feel safe enough to stop trying to get you to open, to dig down and excavate the layers of fossilized feelings that were burning a hole in your psyche. Brown, crusty, encapsulated around the pink hurting flesh.
Your sloppy drunk mother whose need for you demanded that you take care of her. The child spouse. The angry controlling father who could be no partner at all. How often does this happen? Future relationships potentially ruined for this child, unless s/he chooses the arduous excavation. And so it continues until someone says, “No, this is not good enough.”
I tried to help you find safety, tried to do it with you. The key that fits into the lock so that the lock snaps open. Instead, I had to do it without you.
Eventually, I am finished, done, complete. There is no more life force to put his way. Hope had long evaporated. The air of the relationship siphoned off. A vacuum left between us.
I am scared. I am ending us.
It was then that Jeremy tried to hold on. Made promises, bargained.
“No,” I said. After 11 years of marriage. That is when he turned.
“C**t.” “B**ch.” He assaulted me with names.
Who he became removed any possibility of repair. It was clear. We were divorcing then.
The fall was severe. His words cut through my psyche, razor-sharp knives that bounced and sliced, reverberating through me. I could not escape the attacks. On the shower floor lay clumps of my hair that had fallen out. My periods stopped. My weight below my skinny teenager’s weight. Cuts on my hands that would not heal, raw red open for months. A stomach that could not digest food. A body that no longer worked. And fear. The plummet into terror.
Would I survive? Could I survive? How do I get through this?
He accused me. I must be having an affair, he said. What else could explain it? He believed that he should keep everything from our life together. Didn’t recognize any contribution I had made. He would not see. What I did, how I helped. How I had tried to weave us together. The gift of myself that he refused.
Who did he think I was? How did he not see me, understand my intention? My desire to make this connection work — to make it more than the gravitation attraction between two bodies. To bring light into this pull, rather than the drawing in towards a black hole. The collapse, the dissolving, the undoing of love.
Who would listen? Some of my friends. Others picked sides. His family would no longer speak to me. Initially, my family sided with him. Poor hardworking victim. Mean wife.
My mother begged me not to divorce. She, stuck in another generation, could not see, did not want to know what had gone wrong. I hung up sobbing.
I held onto myself for dear life. Gripped with all I was. The fight to not be bullied. The battle to stand up for myself.
I was crushed. The weight of the accusations. The weight of being abused by someone I once loved. The threats and manipulations. I fell into pieces.
Now he is my ex. Once, he was central to my life. Center. Middle. I revolved around him. The sun and the planets.
No more. Goodbye. The rush of fresh air.
I gained skills and tools on this journey. I became a full enough person. I would never again settle for not enough because I was no longer not enough.
I have finally and fully put down the load, the leftover bits that had not been banished. I have done my work and more. Guilt gone. The good girl vanished.
I had needed a lifeline. True love. An umbilical cord and placenta.
Someone who would tend a relationship with me. See it as a garden. Turn the fertile earth. Run their fingers through it and feel its substance. Put in the seeds, little packages of potential. Nourish them. Protect them. Enjoy the green unfolding. Nourish each other.
I had needed someone who wanted to be part of my nourishment, who wanted me to nourish them as well. Are we not each sustenance to the other? Yes, I have a lifeline to the bigger universe, but as a warm-blooded being, do I not also desire a nourishing connection to another warm soul?
Can we hold each other in our loving arms and enable each other to grow? Like a placenta, we supply some of the nutrients needed to the other and help remove the unwanted or hindering parts of ourselves.
Life after divorce
Eventually, after the divorce, I married again. A second marriage for both of us. Finally, an adult. Two adults. I find connection, nourishment, and emotional safety that I could not have dreamt of before.
Despite the initial ka-chunk of two pieces falling together, some loose ends, bits, and parts needed to be re-arranged. It wasn’t effortless. It even required a little more therapy.
The building of safety and trust is the slow patient task of an open heart. We split our pasts open. Tended each other. Our stories taught us who we both were and are. We choose our intentions. We choose to trust, to mend, to heal. We choose to make learning to love central to our lives.
My second husband is like the placenta and the umbilical cord — blood flowing in, nourishing me. Helping me navigate this world. Me helping him.
He is the one who didn’t have expectations that would trap me. The one who learned to speak my language, and I, his. Gestures, words curlicue, and play across the air.
A chalice, full to the brim. The surface glinting, reflecting, illuminating. The blinding white glow of clarity. Between us. Within us.
Below the surface, the warm liquid of love contains and holds. It provides the safety needed to see ourselves.
We are mirrors to each other. Enabling the unfinished parts of ourselves to transcend and transform, like a bonfire against the night sky, wood becomes flames, sparks reaching for the heavens, more significant than any distraction or negative influence.
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Jennifer Lehr, LMFT writes about relationships, personal development, self-actualization, and spirituality in relatable articles. Get these free insights and tips by subscribing to her occasional newsletters.