This post will be a little different from previous ones, more personal, though I’ll try to steer clear of detail. I’m writing this because it feels right, right now. It’s about a recurring struggle of mine with a nightmare from my past that sometimes seems to rise up and threaten to swallow the present. I’m sharing because I think I’m far from alone in struggling with such an issue. And I hope that by sharing my own experiences I will not only help myself think and live through them, but also perhaps give hope to others who have faced similar difficulties in their own lives.
Everyone’s past is complicated, and it is possible that we each think our own past the most painful, the most bizarre, unrivaled in its complexity. I honestly don’t know how my past compares to the rest of the world’s. I suspect most people go through life hiding their scars the best they can.
What I do know is that, years ago, I encountered what has proved to be an almost indelibly traumatic incident in my life. For complicated reasons, I was forced to leave place and group of people in which I had previously felt at home. This may sound trivial, as if I just mean that a circle of friends and I went our separate ways. First of all, that wouldn’t necessarily be trivial. But my position went beyond that. It was, in a sense, exile. Coldly, and with no sign that they cared if I lived or died, a small group of people whom I had trusted and even loved, told me I might never see, set foot near, or communicate with them again. Moreover, their excommunication entailed my forcible disconnection from others who weren’t even aware of it at the time or perhaps ever. After I was told, I wandered in shock for days. I held onto hope for longer that this must have been a mistake. It wasn’t that I thought the banishment itself inconceivable – it was the way it was done. It was the way people with whom I had felt close, with whom I had felt a bond of common affection and purpose, could all of a sudden, without even looking me in the face and saying they were sorry or wished me well, tell me they never wanted to see or hear from me again.
The point of this post is not to attack or defend anyone, to explain or to acquit or to blame. The point is to describe how this incident has affected me since, how I have continued to struggle with after-affects, and how I have grown.
It is years later. I rarely think of this incident consciously. But I live, in most close relationships, in fear of cold abandonment. I have rebuilt my life. I would have been in a difficult state even if it weren’t for this experience, in the months that followed it, and making the journey to where I am today required a reconsideration of almost everything. I moved around, worked jobs I didn’t like but which taught me to appreciate what came next, and finally have ended up in a community rich with well-meaning people with whom I have things in common. I have great new friends, reliable mentors, and I even think I’m beginning to love… And I very often feel loved and appreciated for who I am, despite my inevitable imperfections. After years of worrying I might never have one, I’ve begun to feel at home.
But recently, practical circumstances forced a loved one to temporarily turn away to focus on other things. Despite practical knowledge of the circumstances he was going through and the fact that all previous information suggested that I remained important in his life, I went into mourning mode. Or my emotions at the time did, anyway. And this may sound crazy – in fact, I think it does – because I had every reason to reason through the situation and realize that there was nothing to fear. But it’s important to understand, once you’ve gone through an experience where multiple people you admired and trusted cut you off without warning or sign of caring, it’s easy to believe that people are triggerable – that once you do something wrong, something a little over the line, they will close down, and hate you, and never speak to you again. And I was afraid of that then, and stared at what seemed like a bleak future with a face that was sure I had just been abandoned again.
But ultimately, this is not a post about my traumatic past overwhelming the present. On the contrary, it’s about hope and rebuilding, and a slow acclimatizing to trust in the enduring nature of love.
Unlike some people I know who’ve been hurt significantly by others, I tend still to trust people and to see the good in them. I’m lucky in this regard. It has always been a part of my personality to see the best in people and to empathize with them. And despite this one incident, most people in my life have responded to my trust with kindness. However, those people I had trusted who cast me out seemed kind, too – certainly I knew they weren’t evil or heartless. So, rather than learn not to trust others, I’ve learned (or perhaps relearned – I was never the most self-assured of kids) not to trust myself. I trust my ideal self, the self I aspire to be, but my real self lets that self down, quite a lot. And, while I don’t think they should do it or that I’ll be entirely to blame if they do, a part of me fully expects others to abandon me when they see my failure to live up to my own aspirations and, perhaps, their image of me.
So recently when this loved one acted distant, I thought that was the end. But he’s smart and knows me well, and even in the midst of the distraction and altered focus, managed to tell me that I was wrong – that this was temporary, and not to be feared. I calmed down temporarily, but I was still stooped and trembling as I headed home. And when I got there I started crying. Because I realized I was vulnerable. I loved again, and therefore, I could be hurt. But I don’t think that’s why I cried. I cried because I saw I had found something that would outlast my past’s pain and fear: someone who saw my reaction, felt for me, and took the time to reassure me, even by jeopardizing priorities that were important in their own right. And I cried because I thought I had lost and then realized I had not. And somehow that experience made me realize that slowly, through exposure therapy, as it were, to the uncertainty of life coupled with the compassion and dependability of those who love me, I am learning that not every averted head means hatred, and not every frown is directed at me. I’m learning again to see life on its own terms, and not in the light of my most painful past.