🎵 The song for this post is Lágrimas Negras, performed by Compañía del Amor. 🎵
My heart's been through a lot since early 2021, and I've tied together some narratives about love and loving this year especially. Indulge me!
Moments prior to the events of this post, my friends and I watched Man of La Mancha, which, like a lot of adaptations of older work, had to change the source material to include women (the Monty Python musical needed to invent a new character because The Holy Grail didn't have any women). In the novel, Don Quijote does everything for a woman named Dulcinea (a play on Spanish dulce, meaning "sweet"), who, like the monsters and castles, is completely made up. She never shows up in the books, he just longs for her.
Man of La Mancha adapted this to have him project Dulcinea onto a real woman (Aldonsa), a bar wench. I liked the central conflict between them: Aldonsa at first finds his affections misplaced, naive, and troubling: he refuses to see her as she knows herself; he's put her on a pedestal, and he's obsessed with his projection of her instead of who she is. Many of us want to be seen and loved, and you can't do that if someone loves something you aren't. You can't trust a love that's directed at what they want you to be, instead of what you are.
But as the play goes on, she also comes to appreciate that he's able to see a goodness in her more strongly than she lets herself see. Yes, she has a self-image and it's bad that he refuses to see it, but that self-image is harsh, and it's validating when someone sees that best version of you, one you may not believe in all the time. You can give up on yourself if you're not careful, and having someone you tell you yes, you are amazing and loveable and deserve this and more feels Extremely Good, actually.
That conflict is very present when choosing how to invest in someone — I want to love freely. I want to feel stupid, irrationally grandoise feelings about someone. And I want that back at me. How can do you do that free-falling, storybook, capital-L love when you need it, but that realistic, grounded, "I see you as you see yourself" version when that's appropriate?
This came up a lot in couples therapy with Karen — the word "surrender." To really trust someone with your heart and happiness. We both got in our heads a lot and I think about the next person: will I have courage to surrender? To love stupidly? To not have an escape hatch?
If I'm being honest, neither Karen nor I did this. We made half-leaps, and we both withheld. If I look back at too many of my relationships, I think I was picking partners who felt safe, because I felt like they liked me more than I liked them, and I probably kept it that way. This wasn't a conscious choice: I'd never knowingly lie to someone I love. But some subconscious part of me was making that choice to never fully surrender. It was lying to me about what I was doing.
Karen was my longest relationship, and while I feel justifiably upset about the particulars of how it played out (me noting a similarity in kind is not noting a similarity in degree, and there's a lot I'm not noting in this post), I think we lasted long together before eventually dissolving because under the soil we shared this teensy bit of mutual distrust. And it wasn't new: neither of us had ever gotten dumped before, and even our breakup was something of a double-KO.
Thelonious Monk is probably my favorite composer and performer, and he's credited as saying, after a disappointing improvisation "I made the wrong mistakes." I hope I make new ones.
Mourning and Melancholia
My very earliest crushes (where I just let myself feel freely) ended so badly more than one therapist assigned the word "trauma" to them. The most recent one asked me to read Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" in August, while he was on vacation. It was a bender.
For some context, I had this exchange with a previous therapist:
[Previous therapist, right out of Central Casting, a older guy with white hair] "The reason I'm asking you this, Pablo, is to tie it back to a theory Freud had about mother/son relationships…"
"Ed… didn't Freud say some absolutely coked-out shit?"
[something seemingly caught in his throat] "…in a manner of speaking, yes, he said some… "coked-out shit.""
And that's present in this essay too. My notes have parts that are triple underlined and feeling like "YEAAHHH WHAAAAT!!" and others where I'm like "Sigmund get off your bullshit."
As I understood it, the central takeaways are:
In response to a great loss, two things can happen: there's mourning, an expected, temporary process, and melancholia, superficially similar on the outside but critically different in a few ways.
Mourning has the person reacting to the great loss in a few observable ways: loss of interest in the outside world, inability to fill that loss with a new object of love, turning away from activities that remind the person of the lost object. However, in mourning, with time and recovery and effort, the subject can fill their image of the world and re-engage with it.
Melancholia has superficially the same traits (cessation of interest with the world at large, inability to extend love), however it's not the world that becomes poorer: they internalize that loss into their ego, and they get hollowed out. The simple passage of time does not "fix" it, and the healing mechanism for mourning never really carries itself out. They then adapt to the hole in the ego with self-reproach, mistrust of others, and perfectionism. For a while, I think I called this depression and anxiety.
The melancholic displays something else besides which is lacking in mourning — an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale. In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself. The patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable; he reproaches himself, villifies himself and expects to be cast out and punished. He abases himself before everyone [...]. This picture of a delusion of (mainly moral) inferiority is completed by sleeplessness and refusal to take nourishment, and — what is psychologically very remarkable — by overcoming the instinct which compels every living thing to cling to life.
Finally, it must strike us that after all the melancholic does not behave in quite the same way as a person who is crushed by remorse and self-reproach in a normal fashion. Feelings of shame in front of other people, which would more than anything characterize this latter condition, are lacking in the melancholic, or at least not prominent in him. One might emphasize in him of an almost opposite trait on insistent communicativeness which finds satisfaction in self-exposure.
(sounds like if someone frequently overshared on their blog, eh? 😉)
My current therapist suggested this to me thinking it might help me understand where I'm coming from. I was distrusting or upset at something and he said something like "you're still so upset about the rejection" and I was like "Karen? Of course!" and he was like "No, [the fallout from early traumatic childhood crushes]. You're still reacting to them after all this time!"
It was a mindquake!
What a crush!
In the mother of all burying the ledes, I'm sharing all of that to share this: I had a crush this year that I knew I was Dulcinea-ing a bit. I hardly knew this person, but something profoundly magical happened when we dated, and for the first time in decades, I had a crush like I did before I decided I was hollow, the world was hollow, love had a ceiling, and life had to be tolerated. Something in me finally surrendered. I'd unclenched my jaw for the first time in 20 years. It was awesome.
To be 1000% clear: my brain still functioned enough to know it was doing this. And unlike my boy crushes, I never consciously or subconsciously lost sight of the fact that this flight was mostly my heart having fun, and that I shouldn't put a ton of hopes into a single, concrete outcome. And I never did: in my group chat, this person's nickname was "Improbable Crush" because I always knew that it was probably never going to happen. I didn't pause on meeting whoever came into my life or going on dates, nor expected her to either (last we talked, she met someone! Good for her 😄).
It felt urgent to chase it at the time, but with the help of many patient friends and my therapist, I realized the urgency was a good diagnostic for how to heal myself, which takes time and required my attention. Every "wanting to run toward a thing" is also, in part, "wanting to run away from the current state." And while I internally bristled at her suggestion (and that of a few other people I met) that I was emotionally unavailable so soon after my breakup… they were right! It's now September and I cannot believe how much more whole I feel. My past inability to read myself here makes me hesitant to declare victory 😅
And it's not mine to declare. I'll be ready when I'm ready, and it won't feel binary, like a switch flipping. I'm reminded of John Scalzi describing when he knew he "made it" as a novelist: he was pumping gas, drove home, and it occurred to him that for the first time in his life he never stopped to calculate if he had the money for the gas, he just knew he had it. He didn't feel like he "made it" at an atomic point, he was just "there" and the anecdote provided itself.
Last time I was single for a long time was in college, and during a call with my mom, she said
"It'll happen when you least expect it."
"Thanks Mami. I'll note that I've been "least expecting it" for 19 months. I really can't expect it any less."
So here I am, not expecting it again ☺️
Anyways, now that I've sobered up a bit: Christ, this threw me for a loop! I'm not used to being this confused by my emotional states! Every other romantic interest suddenly became black & white, the memory of her was in color. The sunlight hit my eyes when I woke up the next morning and I so badly wanted to reach over and hold her. So much of my life before that felt quaint but inconsequential compared to the life we could build together. I did research on how to move to London. I started learning to cook vegetarian. It was a revelation, feeling my heart get so big, and my life so free from weight I didn't realize I carried.
I'm so grateful, and will always be grateful, for the experience. To remember how it can feel, to multiplying the height of my ceiling. I've used my "roadblock you become attached to" metaphor in a few posts already, and I think this helped me take a big step to unblocking one of my biggest ones, without which I'd have trouble feeling that good love, whoever that ends up being with.
Improbable, if you're reading this, please know: your spending a few hours with someone, being your whole, lovely self, can send them onto a journey of healing and self-discovery that will fill their life with joy. Thank you for making the choices you make every day to be the person you are, and for spending those hours with me. ❤️
Everyone else: there's no reason ☝️ doesn't apply to you too. You doubtlessly have spent meaningful hours with people and sent them on paths of goodness you hadn't anticipated and could scarcely imagine the scope of. The only difference is they're not writing overshare-ey blog posts about it that get put in front of you. Your choices to be your best self matter, and thank you for doing it.
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