“Well,” I warned. “She’s going to be disappointed.”
I was driving back from a Wisconsin cabin, in the passenger seat beside the man who I’ve been with for the past couple months; he’d just shared his mother’s request for permission to read my blog.
“Why?” he asked.
“Cause there isn’t a trace of you.”
“Oh yeah?” He glanced toward a passing cornfield, then toward me. I knew he’d checked out the blog early on, and that he’d decided—like previous men in my life—that it made sense for him not to read it. “Why not?”
“Well,” I said. “The thing is, I’ve been in this new relationship…”
“Ohhh,” he nodded, playing along. “So you haven’t been able to process?”
“No!” I shot back. “I’ve been processing the hell outta this thing. I just haven’t felt like processing in public.”
That was Tuesday evening. It’s now Wednesday afternoon and—perhaps it’s worth noting that one way in which said Dude and I connect is a shared propensity for openness, contemplation and frequently changing our minds—I’ve changed my mind.
The circumstances, too, have changed. As of yesterday, we were in a relationship. Today, we decided to take a pause during the next month that he (and I, less so) will be traveling. At the cabin, and to some extent in weeks prior, he’d begun to express ambivalence about his ability to balance being with me whilst doing the personal work he’s set out to do. (For the record: when we met we were both “on hiatus,” and the first time he asked me out, thankyouverymuch, I said no). Today, after connecting with select members of—as he put it, encouraging me to check in with them on our drive home—my council, (also: a long run, a bike ride, and a yoga class) I told him that I don’t want to move forward while he sorts that out. Instead, I said, we should take the time apart as a chance to reflect. We’ll check in on the other end.
“Maybe we’ll decide to be friends, or maybe we’ll pick up romantically,” I said. “Or maybe we won’t want to see each other at all. I don’t know. Whatever happens, we’ll both be okay.”
This, as put by my dear friend (and council member) Robyn, who spirited herself to my porch within the hour after I texted last night in need of support, was the New Elizabeth speaking: the one who made it four months into a dating break, who distanced herself from her parents for over half of a year after recognizing them as the (well-meaning–have ya met a parent who hasn’t traumatized their kid?) root cause of her chronic pattern in relationships, the one able to occupy a state of relative calm while dating someone she genuinely likes, as opposed to she steady state of panic with which she’s so familiar. (Also, evidently, the one with the confidence/folly to refer to herself in the third person for a few sentences.)
Of course, this is not to say that the Old Elizabeth has disappeared: we can never cure ourselves the effects of our damage, just learn to tolerate and respond to them more skillfully. In fact, she made a somewhat bothersome appearance just yesterday morning.
We’d been alone at the cabin since Sunday, and for two days modulated between solo activities (reading, writing, exercise) and what the Dude playfully termed interactive time (boat rides, meals, a singalong and a 1980s board game possibly manufactured for our relationship, titled Therapy). But by late morning Tuesday we’d each spent the day almost entirely on our own. I sprawled on the dock of the house (one lent to us by the very generous parents of a very generous friend, #blessed), reading the (difficult, stunning) Collected Stories of Clarice Lispector, absorbing an excess of sun, and wishing he would come check in. He was reading on the porch, or he was playing an instrument indoors, or he’d gone for a run—I wasn’t sure, and I was careful not to check.
(“Were you hoping I’d read your mind, again?” he asked, also playfully, over lunch a couple hours later–after I confessed how I’d felt. No, I replied. And then: Okaymaybeyes.)
The dock is a floating dock, which means that it sways along with the waves; the lake is smallish, so there aren’t so much waves as there is wake from assorted motorboats and pontoons. The morning was windy, though, and as each gust of air or force of water lurched the wood and my body in another cyclical motion, I thought, hopefully, is that him?
I felt reminded of a particularly old Elizabeth—the one who, while living with her college boyfriend, would run to the front windows on Saturday mornings in anticipation of his return home from work; who, with the sound of each passing car, would think, hopefully, is that him?
As in: am I going to be alright? As in: have I been left? As in: will this person please assure me that I’m not alone, that I am loved, that I will be okay?
This may sound melodramatic, but for those of us whose childhoods gifted us the fear of abandonment, this kind of panic is something of our doom. For children, loneliness is worse than dying. For us, the threat of abandonment can feel like the threat of death.
I know I will never eliminate this impulse. The Old Elizabeth will always be my first response. (See above). But the work I am practicing is to recognize when she surfaces, and to treat her with more care. I’ve felt fortunate to practice these last (lovely) months with someone who has made me feel safe and secure enough to do that. He couldn’t relate—his own tendency, not totally unrelated to why we need this pause, is quite different—but he could listen to me, and hold me, and when you have spent your adulthood unable to recognize much less express your most ancient anxieties, these things are not small.
I fully expect Old Elizabeth to keep arising: in the days and weeks ahead, tinged as I know they’ll be with uncomfortable—though chosen, necessary, and healthy—uncertainty. I fully expect her to generate moments of mild panic beside lakes and roads and other assorted environs, for the duration of my life.
But today, she feels eclipsed by her newer, calmer sister: the one who has worked hard to (mostly) trust that, whatever happens in August, or with whatever partner or poem or parent or friend, she will be okay.