Exactly two years ago today I sent an email to my then-boyfriend Todd. It was just before midnight on a Monday, and I had undoubtedly been up late working on school work in my last semester at the University of Illinois, and researching an idea I had. The email subject was “rats!” and the body contained only a link to a site about how to care for a pet rat. Not long before this, I had gone with a dear friend of mine to a pet store in town to buy a feeder rat for his snake. When we asked for a feeder rat, the salesperson disappeared into the back and returned with a rustling paper bag, and though I understood this was simply part of the process, I was overcome with the desire to save that rat and every other rat in the entire world. When I peeked into the bag and saw its inquisitive eyes and ears twitching with a heightened sense of curiosity but not outright fear, all I wanted to do was punch my friend in the face, steal that bag, and run far away. I didn’t do that. Instead, I went home and furiously began to research rats as pets. Todd and I lived together at the time, and when you cohabit with another human being, it is prudent to ensure that said human being with whom you are cohabiting is on board with whatever potentially life-altering decisions you might make.
We were the kind of couple who fought about nearly everything. A simple breakdown in communication, a misheard inflection, a misunderstood facial expression, and bam we were bickering. He almost invariably misinterpreted my intentions and I spent most of the relationship miserable and sequestered inside myself. It was one of the few times in my life that I took my time walking away from a relationship that didn’t work, and I could never figure out why until my mom pointed it out to me. After Jason died, my approach to relationships shifted dramatically. I began to unconsciously operate from a place of post-traumatic stress, a place where I was terrified that if I left, something might happen to that person. Not that my leaving was the reason or even the catalyst for Jason’s death. As with most things in life and death, it was far more complicated than that. But our simple, subconscious minds tend to provoke us to actions based on rudimentary reasoning of which we are perhaps totally unaware. And so in my subsequent serious relationships after Jason’s suicide, I was prone to tread very lightly, and to push through awful incompatibilities and emotional damage that I would have given the finger in my old life.
This is not to say that I regret these relationships that sputtered, existed in fits and starts. The truth is, I learned how to fight and how not to fight. I learned to clearly and calmly explain my own position, to recognize my own needs and to require that those needs be met. I learned to be kind, even in the face of a partner who was not being kind, and how to not let someone else’s behavior dictate mine. I learned to stand my ground on the things that were truly important, how to compromise on the things that weren’t, and how to tell the difference. I learned to slow down and listen, and how to stay and attempt to work through things even when every instinct I had told me to run far away, and fast. I learned to derive my worth not from how I was seen through the eyes of a partner, but how I saw myself independent of anyone else’s opinion.
Had I not had the boyfriend who regularly grabbed my gut and told me I was getting fat, I might not have learned to stop shaming myself about my weight and my body. Had it not been for the boyfriend who left me in bars, I might not have learned to avoid getting blackout drunk in public. Were it not for the irrationally explosive outbursts of the boyfriend who allowed the stress of everyday life to blind him to the importance of taking minor inconveniences in stride, I might not have learned to stop internalizing the daily frustrations of the human existence. Had it not been for the boyfriend who used sex as a coping mechanism and saw me as merely a facilitator of that, I might not have learned exactly what sex in a relationship means to me. Were it not for the boyfriend who told me I could have a hug or a kiss but not both, or the boyfriend who actively moved out of the way so he wouldn’t have to accidentally touch me, I might not have recognized that I am a very affectionate person who requires a very affectionate partner and that’s okay.
With each relationship, I learned a multitude of lessons that I may or may not have picked up along the way without those experiences. The way we grow is determined in large part by our surroundings, and the way I have grown in the five years since Jason died is likely very different than the way I would have grown if he had lived. Had things gone down differently in 2008, he and I probably would have gotten married in July like we had planned, and we might still be married today. And maybe we would have learned all of those lessons together, bumping against one another as we figured out adult life, bumping against the complications of that life as a united front. As two early-twenties kids, we were trying desperately to learn those lessons, even if unwittingly.
Had we not lost the battle against the depression that swallowed Jason up, I like to think that we might have landed as a couple and as individuals in a place similar to where I feel I have landed at nearly thirty years old. It is a place where humility reigns supreme. A place where I know who I am, but I do not hold dogmatically to any part of my identity. A place where I do not take for granted any aspect of my world. In this place I acknowledge and respect the tenuous grasp we as human beings have on this fleeting life of ours. Maybe we wouldn’t have landed in this place as a couple. But I like to think that even if we hadn’t, we would have landed there as individuals, and we would have been lifelong friends. Sometimes I imagine us as friends, the two of us sitting on the tailgate of his truck in the woods, sipping beers in the moonlight, talking and talking about life and relationships, love and hope and dreams. We would talk endlessly, or sit comfortably in silence, the way we had so many times before and after we started dating.
In these thoughts of days that will never come to pass, Jason is still twenty-five, unable to age in my mind’s eye beyond where he was when he died. And in these thoughts we communicate more readily than we did toward the end when darkness had seeped into every open space of our life together. We are not perpetually exhausted and weighted down with the triviality and mundanity of daily life. We are not engrossed in a wearying war against a force so powerful it had the ability to completely snuff out the life of one of us, and threaten to do the same to the other. In these talks that we have in my mind, these talks that drift to me sometimes in the fuzzy state of almost-consciousness between wakefulness and sleep, we are self-possessed and poised. We sit on the porch swing as the sun goes down, me with my bare feet on the porch railing and him with his long legs stretched out in front of him. He wears his boots. He always wears his boots. We talk about how far we have come in five years, we lament the challenges we have faced and applaud our triumphs.
In my alternate reality where I share deeply with the person with whom I thought I would spend the rest of my life, the prevailing lesson is the same as the one I have learned so painfully in my actual reality. Through every broken relationship, and through every unexpected, grief-laden bend in the road, the overarching lesson remains the same: vulnerability is key. This lesson first throat-punched me when I inexplicably went blind in one eye at twenty-three. It has been conspicuously reminding me of its presence ever since. As a young person, I refused to make promises or allow anyone to rely on me. I refused to rely on anyone else. I obstinately denied myself a tremendous amount of love on the premise of being “strong” or “right” or “independent”. We get so caught up proving to others and to ourselves that we can handle everything. We get so bent on needing to prove a point. We stingily cling to our sense of indignation, we write people off, we reject the beautiful opportunity to be the first one to apologize. We hold grudges and we enumerate the wrongs we believe we have suffered at the hands of the people who love us.
I am not above any of this. I spent much of my life allowing these tendencies to be my soldiers on the front line, so certain I was that I was protecting myself. Even in the failed relationships I have had since Jason’s death, since I had to recalibrate my plans for the future, I have not unequivocally upheld what I know to be true of vulnerability. One can only turn the other cheek so many times before the claws must come out, or so I thought. As the summer of my mother’s death has faded into autumn, and I drift further away from her wellspring of wisdom about life, I am forced to recalibrate again. In doing so, I have found myself stark naked in front of the bright reality that there is no such thing as too much vulnerability. Of course you cannot allow yourself to be completely taken advantage of, and it is imperative to speak your truth and to stand your ground. But I am continuing to learn that being vulnerable and standing one’s ground are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the most assertive and freeing way to truly stand your ground and to speak your truth is to do so entirely unguarded. The only way to test the principles upon which you have built your life is to expose them to the harsh realities of someone else’s criticism, the brutal judgment of the world at large, or – most terrifying of all – the honest critique of someone you love.