The Most Productive Hangover

Today, I’m nursing one hell of a hangover.

A vulnerability hangover, that is.

Two weeks from today, my husband and I will celebrate our fourth wedding anniversary and our sixth year together. This is the first truly healthy relationship I’ve ever been in. That means my husband gets the profound, terribly messy gift of access to the deepest, darkest parts of me.* Sometimes, at least.

For years, I’ve done increasingly deep work on my core issues: fear of abandonment, fear of being “too much,” fear that having needs and setting boundaries mean I become ineligible for love. Picture a spiral staircase descending slowly into the unlit, fortified vault of my earliest trauma. Sounds fun, yah?!

We tend to attract people whose neuroses perfectly align with ours—but not like beautifully interlocking puzzle pieces that make complete the whole. Wouldn’t that be lovely?! No, it’s more like our fingers are perfectly designed for pushing one another’s most sensitive buttons.* If I’m clingy, I will attract and be attracted to people who recoil from intimacy. If I’m terrified that my larger-than-life emotions will be too much and make people abandon me (cough), I will attract and be attracted to people who tend to recoil from larger-than-life emotions (very loud cough).

It’s a great system. Thanks, evolution.

This means that, as my loving, kind, gentle husband is invited farther down the spiral staircase into my personal abyss, he tends to drag his fingernails along the walls—not intentionally, not to hurt me, but because by inviting him into my own dread, I’ve also forced him into his own.

He’s not exactly kicking and screaming. He’s almost always down for this trek, and he’s certainly interested in both getting to know me more closely and helping me heal the wounds that keep me bleeding on the people around me. But that doesn’t make it easy. It’s hard for both of us. But we’re committed to it, anyway. It’s the best way we know to love ourselves and each other.

Healing those early-childhood wounds requires exposing them to the light, and one of the best ways to heal them is to recreate the situation that caused them—say, abandonment by a parent who can’t handle your big feelings—but with a happy ending* this time. Re-parent that inner child, baby.*

And so, yesterday, I took a deep breath, opened the next level down in my emotional oubliette, shared some difficult feelings, set a boundary, and held my breath. The fingernails dug in, and I lashed out. We reckoned with the fact that sometimes, what we most fear really is true. And then, the healing: even when what we most fear about ourselves is true, it doesn’t always mean abandonment.

My husband asked me to repeat these phrases several times, out loud:

I can have feelings that cause problems, and that’s okay.

I can be too much and still deserve love.

And I did, several times, though it was shockingly difficult and I had to do it through tears.

Today, I feel a bit like I was hit by a bus. It’s like when I got a cut that needed stitches, but before the doctor could treat it, he had to bust up the scab that had started forming there. It hurt like hell on wheels…but it was the only way to help me heal in a productive way.

Today, my husband and I both woke up feeling a little bit bruised…but together. And I believe just a little bit more that I really can be my fullest, most human self, and still be loved.

That’s almost enough to cure a hangover.

* Yes, I did notice the sex jokes I could make at each of these intervalsdeepest parts of me, sensitive buttons, happy endings, a myriad of potential “ooh daddy” comments. I’m far too grown up to make them…

in the main text, and far too immature not to make a footnote pointing them out. Cheers!

Learn more about attraction theory and how to heal childhood wounds with a partner: Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix (yes, the title is terrible, just trust me that it’s an excellent resource!)

Learn more about vulnerability & vulnerability hangovers: The Power of Vulnerability (TED talk) by Brené Brown, or any of Brene Brown’s books

Curious, Not Judgmental

Be curious, not judgmental.

-Not actually Walt Whitman, so I guess Ted Lasso gets credit?

In Ted Lasso, the titular character uses this prescription—be curious, not judgmental—to advise against judgments and assumptions about others. It’s solid advice, and has served me well, especially in difficult conversations that are likely to veer into defensiveness. When I feel the urge to defend myself or lob an accusation, instead, I try to ask a question. Perhaps, Are you saying… followed by a paraphrase of what they said, to make sure I understand. Maybe a question that probes deeper into what they’re saying, a reach at its roots. Sometimes, asking about the feelings underlying their words increases empathy enough to defuse my explosive feelings.

But you know where I always struggle to be curious rather than judgmental? With myself.

By way of example: At any point in the past two decades, if you’d asked me what my greatest fear is, I’d reply invisibility. Not being seen, not being valued, not having my needs met. In short, not mattering. This, to me, feels like death.

And when I feel that fear, usually because nobody is actively paying attention to me at any given moment, I don’t get curious. I get angry.

How stupid and needy I am! How ridiculous to be a grown, independent woman and still want someone validating me 100% of the time. Why can’t I just meet my own need for visibility? Why can’t I just heal whatever stupid wound causes this feeling, already!? Pathetic.

In case it’s not immediately obvious, this is judgy as shit. And unkind, and unhelpful, and I would literally never say anything remotely like that to someone I cared about. Except me. Because I do care about myself! I’ve worked really hard to care about myself.

It’s just that, sometimes, that gap between the way I want to be and the way I actually am is frustrating as all hell. I want to be someone who doesn’t need validation from others in order to be okay. I want to be someone who has healed the deep wounds that cause the anxiety about not mattering.

But when I actually get curious about that feeling, its origins, and the meta-feelings I have about that feeling—like, when I decide to focus on them long enough to write a blog post about them—here’s what happens in my brain:

What’s this feeling really about? Hmm…it’s not invisibility, it’s not a bid for validation…Oh! It’s a desire for connection!

Is that bad? No, no, that’s just human.

So why does it feel bad?? Well, because I’m probably not going to get it. I probably don’t even deserve it.

Where does that idea come from?? Oof. Childhood.

And the thought of not deserving connection, or never getting it, makes you feel angry? Well, yes, but also, I get angry at myself because I don’t want to need anybody. If you need people, they can let you down, and then you feel bad. And I don’t want to feel bad. I don’t want to be a human person with a need for connection and unavoidable bad feelings. I want to be perfect, untouchable, invulnerable, and magic. I’m a unicorn.

Can you hear it? The voice answering the questions? It’s her:

It’s Krista, she’s 5, and she’s a unicorn, because unicorns don’t need anybody, because by 5 years old, Krista had already learned that needing people hurts.

Are you gonna judge her for it?? I’m not. Nobody should have to learn that by 5 years old.

Interestingly, what 5 year-old Krista feels when adult Krista gets curious about her feelings (instead of judgmental) is seen. Acknowledged. Understood. Validated. Held. Loved. Safe.

Like she matters. Huh. Curious.

What we Owe Ourselves

What do we owe each other? More than we usually give; see the chasms everywhere, the violent individualism.

Individualism demands we rely on ourselves, each an island. Be special, be strong, be capable. Need is a failure of individualism. Failures of individualism are gifted contempt.

Since we are called to be self-reliant, are we given tools to meet our own needs? Deeper than lavender candles, bubble baths, yoga and massages? Do we know how to see ourselves? Or only the gap between ourselves and how the world wants us? Are we taught to tend a circle around ourselves, define and assert where we and others may not overrun? Everyone loves a border, until they want to cross. Are we allowed? We are, but, are we?

I’m the child of an alcoholic, the eldest of three. Independence is safety, self-sacrifice is love. Untangling that is a full life’s work.

As I untangle, threads of imperfect questions: Want, or need? Selfish, or necessary? Reasonable, or dramatic? Mine, or others’? Over and over, How? Ultimately, What do I owe myself?

Sometimes, there is no avoiding hurt, and we can only try to mitigate. I owe myself consideration. But oh, it is so much easier to hurt myself to mitigate the hurt of others.

This is not clean: sometimes, we should—must—hurt to mitigate the hurt of others. Privilege, the discomfort of its end. But I know what I owe others, inside a lifetime of that relentless education. What do I owe myself?

I am drawing circles so I can give myself without losing myself. I owe myself protection. I am bad at making them round, at keeping lines unbroken, at speaking in italics. Untangling is a practice. Self is an untangling. I am trying to black my ledger, so long and so bright red. It is messy. I owe myself grace. It is tangled. I owe myself patience. It catches others in its threads. I owe myself forgiveness. Kindness. Tenderness. Love.

I owe us both the truth of my circles. I am teaching you how to love me. I owe myself those lessons.

Holes in My Own Loving

Now sewing brings the pain back, eases it. It reveals holes in my
own loving.

– Stephanie Sauer, Almonds are Members of the Peach Family

When I first loved, there were no holes, save for myself. I gave everything, kept nothing, a firehose emptying every well. I was the hole, and I wore it well.

When I noticed the whole of my emptiness and its longing, I found another firehose, and we collapsed together every night, soaked and wholly hollow.

I called this life without holes.

(It was not.)

There is no avoiding holes. I am a mess of holes, so there is a mess of holes in my loving.

I learned to love people who see my holes and see me through their own. The stinging bliss of love is seeing yourself through someone else’s holes—that is to say, an accounting of every lack, a negotiation of our respective failures.

I want to love both others and myself wholly and with minimal failing, so this accounting is a thorny gift we open tenderly together.

Loving reveals holes in my own loving. I cannot fill them. In my wholeness, I move them somewhere safer, and hold them somewhat gentler.

A Popcorn of Grasshoppers

Lately, I’ve been riding my bike to and from the gym. It’s only about a mile away, and it’s an easy ride. I could say that it helps get my heart rate up so I benefit more from my workout (true), or that I’m saving the planet in my tiny, non-commercial way (true), but the truest truth is that I feel like an utter badass rolling up to the gym with my yoga mat slung across my back.

Today, dozens of tiny grasshoppers had made their way to the sidewalk, presumably seeking an unfiltered sunlight. As I passed, they’d leap several feet into the air, startled or fearful or perhaps angry I’d messed with their sunbathing. Every few seconds, poof! hop! pop!, a handful of baby grasshoppers pirouetting all around me.

It’s a popcorn of grasshoppers! I thought joyfully and audibly giggled.

And then, immediately, If I hadn’t been biking to the gym instead of driving or skipping altogether, I would have missed this!

I thought of the red tail hawk who swooped into the field just in front of me on yesterday’s ride, surely to sniff a goldenrod or for some other entirely nonviolent purpose. I wouldn’t have seen that, either!

But then I thought of the other red tail hawk I saw yesterday, slowly hovering just above my windshield, then veering into the ditch (also definitely for a nonviolent purpose), as I drove to work.

Well, wait. Then what’s the lesson, if it’s not “bike places so you can see cool things“??

Reader, I am obsessed with “the lesson.”

Uncomfortable or unfortunate events? What can I learn so I can prevent this happening again? Happy happenings? What can I learn so I can make sure this happens again?!

That’s not to say there isn’t a lesson. Maybe it’s, Pay attention. Or, There is joy all around you, if you look. Or maybe it’s, Red tail hawks are very hungry. Who knows?

I guess what I’m learning — or, if you will, the lesson — is that I’m a bit tired of myself at the moment, of the constant popcorn of my thoughts grasping for some sense of control.

So if you need me, I’ll be lying in the unfiltered sun, sniffing a goldenrod, tying big red balloons to all these analytical thoughts and watching them disappear into the endless sky like a totally nonviolent hawk.