In the series on recovering from traumatic relationships, this is the third article on grieving and letting go. It is an extension of the last one, which discussed exploring the past to understand our patterns of belief and behavior. This is about how we do it and what we find. Or rather about how I did it, and what I found
Unpacking frozen memories
This week I reached out to someone whose name is part of my history. She was once the lover of a man I regarded as the great love of my life. He was an alcoholic poet who died when I was 23. She is a poet too. I found her web site, read a poem about the first time they made love, and wrote her an e-mail to introduce myself.
She wrote back, asking about his life and how he died. I tried to answer her factually, but found myself drifting over and over into how I felt about it all.
She asked if I ever wrote about him. I told her that, when he died, it was as thought my memory was wiped. I couldn’t remember his voice or the joking banter that was part of our everyday conversations. Except for photos, I couldn’t remember what he looked like. I was so angry, it took me four years to finally grieve him and let him go. At that time, I dreamed about him, and those memories are more vivid than our life together. If I could write anything, it would be only my story. I couldn’t reproduce him in prose. I wish I could.
I wrote a second letter, apologizing for going on and on about my feelings. I tried to tell her more about our life together, getting lost again in telling her about how it was for me as more and more memories returned. Then, within the same day, I wrote her a third letter. Apologizing once again for dumping all this me, me, me on her, a stranger. Telling her it wasn’t my conscious intention when I wrote her, but I was using her to unpack those frozen memories. That’s what she was seeing in these letters.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve done this. Through the years of recovery, I’ve reached out several times to lost people in my history. Always thinking I was just writing to say hi, and then finding memories flooding me. The one the sticks in my mind was an e-mail exchange with my high-school boyfriend, who broke up with me after we begin attending different colleges. It happened at the same time that my mother threw me out, because I’d tried to tell her what my father had done to me and was about to do to my younger sister. My mother accepted my father’s lies about a 13-year-old seducing him. Before this boy broke up with me, I finally told him the truth about me. Then he told me he wanted to date someone else at his new school.
He remembers only the sensible break-up of two teenagers going to schools in different states. But talking to him reopened what I was living through. I was at the edge of adulthood, abandoned by everyone who cared about me. Until then, I survived on an illusion that I could have a “regular life” by pretending it never happened. Now I saw that I was going to pay over and over. I felt how my personality tightened around fear, determination to ward off new monsters, and a hunger for something I called love, but now think was simply safety.
This was one of the foundations of behavior and belief I described in the last article. These events shaped much of what happened later. I didn’t have to think about it intellectually. I felt it. The insight shined like a light on the future of that young adult.
I had to stop talking to him. I was starting to say cruel and provocative things to him, sniping he didn’t deserve. Because in insight, I also saw him as he was, as well as my mother as she was, from the vantage point of the distant future. He too was entering his adulthood, actively shaping his future. How much of his potential could I expect him to sacrifice for a girl who was truly messed up? Would he fight my father? Was there anything fair about expecting him to take care of me, when he never would have gotten involved with me if he’d known the truth? Likewise, my mother, what did I expect from her? She was beaten down, trying to survive with her three younger children, and she was afraid of my father and afraid to leave him. She chose their survival.
I could see how my father’s behavior had damaged me and how my damage burdened other people. It wasn’t my fault or theirs. Whether they took on my burden was a decision about their lives, their resources, what they could handle. I had no choice, but they did. And they had more than me to consider.
I could see how it all came together. Without thinking about the word, I forgave my boyfriend and my mother. Instead of being angry, I mourned for myself, that young girl with no one but herself to depend on. It could have been different. But it was what it was. She had to move on, wounded but with no time or place to heal. She would create a life that reflected the reality of those unhealed wounds. And in understanding this, I forgave myself too. I stopped thinking I was stupid or selfish or incompetent or lazy or anything else. I was someone who lacked the resources that a lot of people took for granted, and I did the best I could.
Inside the myths
The more I crack open the “truths” of my life to discover what is really inside them, the more I come to realize that luck is a big factor. Perhaps that is too light a word for what I mean — the random way that events coalesce at a moment in time.
The great learning of the angry phase is that we are not responsible for what we cannot control. Our traumatic encounters begin with location and timing. If things had been a little different, we would not have been there. Beyond that, we did not want to be hurt or ask for it. Other people have their own histories and structures of behavior and belief. We did not create them and we cannot control them. If they had been different, it would have come out differently.
In the angry phase, we spend time dissecting what happened, finding what to blame on the circumstances and on the people who hurt us. We look outside ourselves for the reasons our good intentions attracted such bad results.
Twenty-five years after this husband died, another man drove me into healing myself. I believe he is a sociopath. In getting over him, one of the things that moved me from anger into grieving and letting go was a jarring realization that there was nothing I could blame on the sociopath that didn’t seem to be equally true of me. He was using me and he didn’t care about my feelings. True, but I also wanted him to be what I wanted him to be. And though my methods of coercion were more socially acceptable as “expressions of love,” their intention was to persuade him or guilt-trip him into giving me what I wanted.
The same was true for lying or obfuscation. Whatever he hid from me, I hid as much from him. I didn’t share what I really felt or wanted. I kept posing as an adult when I had a wounded child’s needs for unconditional love and complete safety. The same was true for being selfishly uncaring about what I wanted. I claimed to be committed to making him happy, but what I really meant by “happy” was him loving me and making a forever commitment. .
If I had accepted what his words and behavior were telling me about his capacity to give me what I wanted, that would have been the time to decide whether I liked or loved him. No blame. No fault. He fit or he didn’t. The truth was he didn’t. I wasn’t lucky that way with him. His life might have been improved by me, but the opposite wasn’t true. This was a frog, not a prince. It was that simple.
Luck turned on its head
As I get older, and keep cracking open the bits of mythology that make up my beliefs about my own life. I sometimes find surprises.
Writing the former lover of my dead husband, my memories opened up. Because I read her poetry and remember a few things he told me, I knew that she wasn’t certain about him and ultimately sent him away. She knew he was an ex-con. She knew he always had a bottle of beer in his hand. She knew he was seductive and smooth. I understand why she passed on him. She had professional stature, life equity, something to lose.
It was different for me. I was barely 20, desperate for a new life. Equally desperate for acceptance, because I felt like a freak. I had a soul-killing clerical job, no money, no clue of what to do next. I had heard things about him.That he had stocked the library shelves in a brand-new prison and was literate, had read everything. He was already a published poet, and people spoke of him with awe and affection.
When I met him, I saw a big handsome man with a background as bad as mine who had made something extraordinary of himself. The booze and drugs, the terminal liver disease, our shared ability to ignore the fact that he was engaged to another woman somehow just added to the mystique. I looked at him and saw a future that was better than anything I could create alone. That night I stayed with him and never left.
I told her how it began. And then I told her about the end. Watching his character and intellect deteriorate as his liver failed, the blessing of his death in a car accident, my angry refusal to grieve him until I had a psychotic break four years later. But, by the time he died, I had a profession. I was a writer. He fed me books, taught me to edit, gave me rules of writing and thinking which serve me to this day. He left this girl, 13 years younger than him, a new future.
That’s the mythology. In the first letter, I wrote “I was lucky.” I meant lucky to find him, but the words stayed with me after I sent the letter. As I told her more in the second letter, I found myself looking at me through her eyes. My myth of a great romance began to shrivel to the story of a vulnerable child-woman and the out-of-control addict she had chosen as a replacement daddy. I would do anything, accept any treatment or circumstance, as long as he would stay alive and keep convincing me that he loved me. Yes, he was charismatic and funny, brilliant and talented, and probably more tolerant of my childish neediness than almost anyone else might have been. But it was a dead-end ride and I wouldn’t get out of it without more damage.
By the time I was writing the third letter, I was not telling her about the times he had hit me. The ways he made me carry his grass, because he was already a three-time loser. How, when we were broke, he wanted me to start whoring. How our open marriage was a license for him, not me. How when he became too bored writing the trash novels that supported us, I did it alone. Or how, at the end, he kept getting into serious accidents with other women, until he eventually died in a car with a woman who barely survived it.
In the myth, these were blips in a mostly charmed life with someone who understood me and who my horrible life into something interesting and glamorous. But now I remembered that the last time he went to prison, it was because of a tip by a woman he was living with, who was supposedly working her way through college as a prostitute. I thought about how people with my background make up the majority of prostitutes. The woman who tipped the police about the suitcase of grass in his trunk had gotten rid of him, like the woman poet, like the wife before her, another beautiful and gifted woman who fell in love with him, corresponding while he was still in prison, but gave up on him after his drinking created grief, chaos and endless expense. Like me, they probably all loved him after he was gone, but they got rid of him, because he was dangerous to them and himself.
Looking back at him, another damaged child with a terrible background, and me, who was hungry and bright but with no boundaries or any idea of what a good relationship looked like, I realized that I was luckier than I knew. Lucky that he wasn’t well and needed someone to take care of him. Lucky that, except for a brief scary period, we made enough money writing that he didn’t go back to dealing or trying to turn me out. Lucky that he was probably more kind than he would have been under other circumstances, and that I had the opportunity to see the best more than the worst of him. Lucky that I came out of it with a way to support myself so I didn’t have to submit to the next “rescuer” that came along.
Like the situation with the man who couldn’t be what I wanted him to be, this was a confluence of circumstances. If I hadn’t been so hungry, I wouldn’t have seen him as I did. Nor loved him and mourned him as the soul mate whose good influence stays with me to this day. If he hadn’t been too broke to escape from Albany, I never would have met him. If either of us had more resources, it never would have happened. But I was lucky. He was what I needed him to be, and I was that for him.
Who is under those sacks of cement?
Writers treasure people’s peculiarities. Stories would be boring without them. But, to write well, it is also necessary to dig under the stereotypes of good and evil. My husband’s story didn’t begin with prison, or the dope-dealing or pimping. I knew a few things about his early life, but in retrospect I know more from just seeing how he responded to trauma. He refused to be broken. It was something I loved about him, but it also spoke of entrenched habits of trying to ignore or bury pain. We had this in common.
We thought we were brave, but I’ve come to think it’s braver to face the truth. Which, in our case, was a dance of the walking wounded. Facing truth can take romance out of a story, but facts may be more nourishing. Truth may lead to spontaneous forgiveness, as I forgave my old boyfriend and my mother. It also can show us that we did the best we could. We see the burdens we are carrying and the innocent and good soul who is trying to bear them.
Blaming ourselves is a function of anger. Realizing that we are not perfect, that we live with handicaps, is part of grieving and letting go. Facing it doesn’t mean we give up trying to heal. And forgiveness has nothing to do, ultimately, with the people we are forgiving. It is a choice of what we want to care about, what burdens we decide not to carry. Being mad at a sociopath for being a sociopath and exploiting or hurting us is like hating the sun for shining and giving us sunburn. Facing reality empowers us to deal with it. Wear sunscreen. Trust conditionally.
The best reason to invest in healing from unresolved trauma is because it is crippling. It blocks our ability to mature through experience. It constricts personality structure with fear-based blinders and self-limiting rules that should only be interim strategies, rough protections until we see through what happened. The more we understand the confluence of events, most of which had nothing to do with us, the more trauma tends to lose its glamour and terror. It becomes simply a variety of human experience that we integrate into our knowledge of the world. When we stop mistaking a snake for a goose, because we now know that snakes exist, life becomes that much easier, safer and richer.
In the next piece, we will talk more about the relationship of fear and forgiveness. Until then
Namaste, the unchangeably innocent spirit in me salutes the unchangeably innocent spirit in you.