I have a new friend. In a way it seems silly to announce this given how we have spent time together for a few months. But last night was the first time I could acknowledge the friendship without my strategic ambivalence.
I was leaving an event that was positive but emotionally exhausting. In that way it was similar to how I feel when I leave work every night. My body and mind were in agreement: we want rest and solitude.
Then a text appeared before I began my drive home: “Hello friend–do you have dinner plans tonight?”. I was caught off guard. Not by her invitation but at the sweetness I felt at the invitation. I missed her when she was away but I dealt with it by disowning it and by inventing reasons for why our friendship could never really work out.
“I’m two blocks away from you”, I respond. “Want me to pick you up?”
“Well look at that. It was meant to be” she says.
“I have to warn you–I’m tired and smelly.”
“Well forget it, then. Let’s meet sometime in July when you’ve cleaned up a bit.”
I laugh. I realize that one of my excuses for not letting her in is that we’re too intense when we’re together–that we’re too serious. What a load of bullshit. It’s true that we carry similar traumas; that we both collapse into solitary depressions; and that we often “go deep” in our conversations. But I realize: she’s witty and funny and has that charming way of taking digs at me in order to show me that she cares about me–that I’m more family to her than stranger.
I pick her up. We have an awkward sideways car hug. She asks apologetically if we can get burritos again. I smile and welcome her home. I tell her that she never needs to apologize to me about burritos.
“Well that’s good then. It’ll just leave the other things on the list.”
“Yea, like your accent that leaves me wondering if I should hire a translator for our hangouts. Jesus–English isn’t even my first language.”
Laughing, “Fuck off. All I’ve eaten the past few weeks away is meat and bread and gravy. I need a fucking burrito.”
“I’m on it.”
We get to the restaurant and I see that she even manages to make generic interactions with strangers rather funny. During our order she expresses disappointment to the cashier that her favorite salsa isn’t a part of the dish she wants to order. The cashier says, “Oh, you like that salsa?”
I look over at my friend and she responds: “I love that salsa, yeah. It breaks my heart to have to choose.” I realize that she’s not being manipulative. For whatever reason she can’t imagine that she’s only a request away from her bliss.
The cashier thinks about it and says “We can add that salsa to your burrito.” I realize that he too sees this as a revelation and I am amused at the silliness and purity of this whole interaction. I see that my amusement is based on witnessing two intelligent human beings arrive at an idea that wouldn’t seem to require so much thought. I relate to it by recalling how frequently I get stuck in the face of simple obstacles. In short, I enjoy the humanness of it all.
She lights up sincerely and asks, “You can?”
“Would you like it inside or outside the burrito?”
She’s in disbelief at the choice, “Inside. I’m so excited!”
The cashier smiles. I smile.
I sit down at our table while she goes to get salsas. Within a minute she covers the table with about 8 different ones. “There aren’t any salsas in Ireland. I can’t wait.”
We enjoy our food immensely. We talk about our personal demons and the challenges we faced over the holiday season: family, loneliness, trauma. We interject humor and display our ability to make light of ourselves and one another without ever losing our sensitivity. I notice that even in this enjoyable and meaningful interaction I occasionally look for reasons to block the intimacy. (“Is she ever going to ask about you?” “Maybe she’s full of herself.” “Oh no, what I fall for her? It’ll just be more trouble in my life than I’m willing to deal with.”) But at every turn I’m able to ground myself and stay present. Or at least more present than I have ever been with her.
We finally have the conversation about us. The potentially difficult kind where you begin to relate all of the stuff you share about yourself and your past relationships to the “us” part of things. I tell her about my struggles with regulating intense feelings (good and bad). She tells me that our first date was a turning point for her. She says she cried when she got home that night. “It made me realize that my heart was hung up on an emotionally distant, confusing and unavailable man. It hurt that I couldn’t feel something romantic for a kind and sensitive soul. It was like I couldn’t deny that something was wrong.” I explain to her that it’s okay. That I have sensed all along there wasn’t a mutual attraction. She tells me that it’s true but that she can’t predict the future–that she doesn’t know if one day she’ll wake up and feel something like that for me. I explain to her that I need to proceed as if it’s more cut and dry in order to increase the likelihood that I remain authentic with her. I tell her that if I’m going to be her friend and minimize my tendency to strategize that I need to take it in as a “no”. She understands and tells me that she would never expect me to wait for anything. She tells me about how she freezes up when anyone other than a partner touches her and that she appreciates the way I have never pressured her to be “snuggly”. She says she is sad about how this limits her life–how it makes touch an all-or-nothing proposition. I express understanding and we talk about how we could come up with hand signals as ways of expressing physical affection.
We confess that we both strategize with one another. That we protect ourselves from acknowledging what we mean or might come to mean to one another. “Love hurts a lot for me sometimes.” I smile. I know. I already sensed that in her and know that it does for me as well. In that way we are kindred spirits. For better and for worse we both want so badly to be loved and accepted but we are terrified of being hurt. We both spent a good part of our childhoods yearning for attention and acceptance and we carry that into our adulthood. I tell her that I’m grateful to her for salvaging our friendship; that a month or two back when she told me how it hurt her when I went away it woke me up and made me more sensitive to her. She is surprised at my gratitude. She says she understands; that she goes away as well. We decide to pick an emoji that we can send to one another if either one of us falls into our collapsed depressions. A way of saying, “Hey, I care about you but I’m really in it right now”.
I tell her I’m exhausted. She expresses the insecurity (in a very adult and contained way) that she has tired me out. I look at her sincerely and explain that if anything she gave me the type of second wind I don’t normally feel in the evening and that my day was emotionally exhausting. She takes it in. Then we get to talking about television shows and I get a third wind without realizing it. I tell her, “Dammit–we have to stop. Now I’m awake again and I’ll have to wind down to get to sleep.”
We walk out of the restaurant and she says she has a craving for a Diet Coke. She’s about to get into my car when I point out the gas station convenience store across the way. “Let’s go get you one.” The clerk says it’s good that I’m buying the Cokes because “a gentleman should always pay for a lady.” I respond, “I’m only buying these Cokes because this lady just bought me a condominium. I’m just working off my debt.” He looks at us confusedly and we laugh our way out of the store.
I’m eager to drop her off and get home and into my PJs. I pull over in front of her house and we get caught up in a third conversation. I talk to her about my two potential moves and how they make me nervous. She expresses excitement at the idea that I could move downtown so that we can be a bit closer. More stuff is said that I can’t remember.
I get home and I’m beyond exhausted. Even so, I send her a coffin emoji and ask, “Too dark?”
I send an eggplant and cherries emoji: “Too sexual?”
“We could use that as our ‘sorry, I’m, busy shagging’ emoji’
“If I have a shag in the next 30 years I’ll be sure to send it” I say.
“Don’t worry, you will.”
“That’s good to hear. I’m not sure you will though.”
I send a dancing disco man emoji: “Too ironic?”
We laugh and acknowledge we both need more time. I realize how this works on different levels. Yes, we need more time to find the right emoji. And we also need time to come down from a meaningful and fun evening together.
One of the things you have to be careful about when you have my sort of trauma is to not get carried away by feelings. I feel everything intensely–good and bad. (I’m choosing right now to stay away from diagnostic terms. Not because I’m ashamed but because it is one of those things that I want to simultaneously own and hold loosely. To use the explanatory/normalizing part of it to empower me while also rejecting it as the only way to frame or articulate my struggles.) I know that right now my tendency is to idealize her slightly. Tomorrow it might be to devalue her a bit. I also know that both of these extremes are just expressions of my defended self.
I suppose what I’m saying is that I want to sum up where I am in a way that is grounded. I know that I care about this person; that I respect and appreciate her. I know that we have the power to move one another (which means we can hurt one another). I know that our strategies for dealing with potential hurt are similar, that we both fear abandonment and that, rather than cling, we shut down. And the thing I have to be most mindful of is my tendency to yearn for the unavailable. I’m not “enlightened” enough to avoid this. I’m not being negative, just honest. It’s still in my wiring. So I’ll have to depend on my wisdom, experience and a plan to ensure that I deal with it better than I have in the past.
Step one, careful not to fantasize. So far so good on that one. I’ve never had elaborate fantasies about her. If I begin to fantasize I will not shame myself, I will simply notice and ideally try to ground myself. If that fails, then healthy distractions are acceptable.
Step two, keep in mind that I don’t need her romantic love to validate my worth. I want to appreciate her while also remembering that I’m a singularly special person.
Step three, remember that I don’t actually enjoy others when I idealize them. That I remain lonely when doing so. Dissatisfied. Unsatiated. It takes me far away from myself and from the real appreciation I have for the other.
Step four, I have to check in with myself. I’ll do that now…. Slight longing in my heart. It has that tingly longing feeling. What am I really longing for? Me. Why does it direct itself at her? Because it’s easier. Because it’s familiar. Because it distracts me from all of the yummy and terrifying life force I carry within. What do I do now? I will go for a treadmill run because running is the exercise that best allows me to release pent up misdirected energy. I will forgive myself for not lifting weights this weekend (yup, my self-criticism extends to the most trivial things at times). Funny as it might sound, my soul has been directing me to run more recently. There’s probably some wisdom in that.
I’m tired of writing. It’s time to get moving.
Gratitude for yesterday and last night. Today is a different day. I have to count on myself today.