Learning How To Love

Recently, I reconnected with a high school friend. I hadn’t seen her in 15 years. “How is your Mom doing?” she asked, lovingly. “Is she feeling better?”

I looked at her and after a pause she continued: “I told my Mom I was coming to meet you and she said, ‘I remember when I picked you up from her house and you would be so upset because her mom never came out of her room all weekend.’”

My heart sank. Shame rose along my spine in a rush of heat. I began to well up.

My mother is a depressive. It’s not something I talk about often, but I know that there are others like me for whom the holidays conjure up something quite different than holiday cheer and warmth, from blissful gatherings around bountiful plates of food. Thus, my intention in writing this is to connect with other women who feel or have felt void of female role models, those who feel similarly bereft. I’m not sure this sort of pain is ever fully resolved. It can only be expressed and offered up into the light. And so that is where I am placing it.

When I was a little girl, my mother would smoke while she sat on the toilet. And I remember, so clearly, sitting on the carpet outside my parents’ mirrored bathroom door, with only my reflection for company, waiting for her to join me. Of course, I don’t remember the joining. I only remember the waiting. Memory is funny that way.

My mother’s childhood was devastating; my grandmother’s madness left an indelible mark, one she never recovered from. I was determined to break the cycle, whatever it took. Unlike my mother, who folded into my father, I have been increasingly driven by a profound desire to heal myself, to discover who I am, to make sense of my place in the world, first and foremost.

The thing is, we cannot heal ourselves in a vacuum. My mother completely isolated herself, hiding behind my father, an emotional refugee in his own right. People, she told me, will always disappoint. My father, despite (or maybe because of?) his success, is similarly distrusting. It was and remains them against the world. Hyper critical and judgmental in the extreme, my mother built an iron clad wall around her, my father standing guard.

I vowed to do the opposite, to explore the world, to support others with compassion and empathy, to create a circle of female friendship to support and uphold, to seek connection. And that part, at least, has materialized to an almost overwhelming degree. It seems I am wired for it. I see beauty in every one and everything. But relationships are a two-way street and in order to truly give, we must also be able to receive. Those of us with absent mothers, physically or emotionally, often struggle with the giving and receiving cycle, regardless of whether we are partnered or not. I drew conclusions about myself based on my experience with my mother. If she couldn’t overcome her depression enough to love me, I thought, I must not be loveable. And if my father had all the control in their relationship, then that must mean that I, too, would have to abandon myself if I were to be loved.

Nothing has triggered this pain more than romantic love, which, for me, has been fraught with confusion, an aching so acute and so potent that the very thought of it causes my stomach to turn, to knot. So often I am asked, “but why aren’t you dating anyone?” This is a little like asking a woman who is struggling to get pregnant why she has yet to conceive. The answer is complex and multilayered and not easily understood.

For most of my life, I’ve had an almost primal negative reaction to romance, even as I’ve craved it. As a little girl, I winced at the final kisses of Disney films, burying my face in my hands. As I grew up, I likened this aversion to black bile being forced down my throat, even as I found myself sexually and emotionally entangled.  Coldness and neglect made sense, where as kindness left me bewildered and frightened. What did they want from me, I wondered? Who would I have to become? I’ve been terrified, as a therapist so wisely pointed out, of being engulfed and erased, so I embraced singledom as a means of self-protection. But as I have become more conscious and more self-aware, I have learned to work with this instinct and it is dissipating over time, as I unravel the stories I’ve been telling myself. I am learning to let people in. I am learning to trust.

We all carry scars, some of us more than others. We do the best we can with what we’re given. I wish I could say that I emerged from my childhood unscathed, fully whole, but that is not the case. Who on earth isn’t scarred in some capacity? Who hasn’t known pain or loss? Who hasn’t ached for something, only to recoil in fear at its arrival? No matter what our experience, all we can do is listen deeply and compassionately to the child within, shower him or her with love, give their feelings a voice, and lovingly re-parent them. Only then can we truly love freely, to give and receive without fear or shame.

I’m no longer angry with my parents. To deny them empathy and compassion would be to deny myself the same. I believe, at my very core, that my soul chose them so that I would expand and grow, so that I would understand things I may not have otherwise understood and learn things I may not have otherwise learned. And I don’t mean to paint an entirely bleak picture. Like anybody, they’re mixed bags. In many ways, they have been my greatest teachers. They just seem to carry more pain, more sadness, more grief than others.
Pluto, which symbolizes deep excavation and transformation, is currently transiting conjunct my moon. The moon powers the way we nurture and were nurtured, our emotional landscape. This is a rare, once-in-a-lifetime transit; most people will not experience this. I know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that the more I burrow through, the more fearless my intent to heal, the more transcendence I am likely to experience. This week alone, I have seen about 15 butterflies along my path, signaling this change. I know I am transforming. I am surrendering the old me and birthing something in its place.

What and who that is, I am not quite sure. It’s an ever-shifting unfolding. All I know is that there is no turning back now, that the tide has turned and that I am ok, even more than ok. And maybe, just maybe, that’s all I need to know.

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5 responses to Learning How To Love

Your article is beautiful and moving. Thank you for being so authentic about how painful the journey can be, and the many gifts that are bestowed upon us through the healing process.

Danielle,
This is so gorgeous. Beautifully written, elegantly painted with words. I can feel the bitter sweet nostalgia and the transformation that is (has been) undeniably taking place. You are lovely. And now I must read all of the articles you’ve written! XO

I think we all like to think of being able to take the best we can from our parents- yours is a lesson in compassion and empathy. Love your story and honesty :).

Your willingness to authentically share is like a healing portal for all that come into your orbit. I gratefully include myself in that tribe. I just love the woman that you are and I honor all parts of your journey. Loving your dear one. xx

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