months of letters mid-air before I knew her face, many more weeks before I could look at it directly one middle finger tracing the back of a middle knuckle a meditation an introduction to touch if you listen past breath, you can hear the sound a woman’s skin makes on another’s skin: a prayer a welcome the luminescence of oil: how she makes a body shine even in its earthness (still, sometimes, I fear she’ll turn or return to ivy) how I hold back my breath, my pulse, the full weight of my mouth, so she knows my reverence and desire in perfect balance This is a poem in moments kind and cautious: each deliberation a devotion, every exploration a sanctity we cannot bear to reduce to romance
with a line by Regina Spektor
I stand outside a New Orleans coffeeshop in an Indiana town, my face all summer sun, having just decided I will let my lover love his wife. This is how I remember romance: a rubber band. The longing in its pull, the welt left by its snap. I left soulmate on a curb outside an abandoned gas station, fate and destiny its burned-out neon signs. I tucked god in a bright white nativity and walked away. I know there's no such thing as mine. But reverence. Abandon. This hulking, dramatic beast, roaring against its harness, my hands raw from the leash. I know there's no such thing as mine. Still I seek a yard where it is safe for him to play.
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 intervals—deepest 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
If you love something set it free. If it comes back, it’s yours.
A well-loved toddler will venture further from its mother A neglected child will cling. I am the mother who lets myself go, I am the child who returns. If I forget either mother or child, I may cling to you. When I do, set me free. Watch me return over and over to myself.