I read this blog post by my friend Jonno and I started to respond by writing this:
“We are told to let it go, whatever it is. Childhood abuse, a broken marriage, a friend’s betrayal. We are never told to go at our own pace. Or that letting go is a process. Or that letting go is a convoluted kind of thing that happens only in pieces. That it’s a dance where you never quite learn the steps.”
Jonno had found himself still enraged by abuse that happened decades ago, and was struggling with the idea that that rage was still roiling inside of him though he thought he had worked through all of it. I was angry on his behalf at that idea that our processing of trauma had some kind of time limit on it. At least I thought that’s what I was angry about.
My blog post petered out after 16 sentences. I told myself it was because I’d been doing so much writing and editing—as I was on the verge of being out of the office for two weeks—that I just didn’t have any mojo left. I was out of words. I was out of space to think. And maybe, to be kind to myself, I should say that that was partly true.
But what was more true was that I recognized in Jonno’s post a similar anger in myself. He wrote:
“I see it all the time in my work. I teach actors I try to prompt them, try to get them to lose their fear of that rage I see in so many of them. I tell them it’s okay to give in to it, that the fire they are so afraid of will not, cannot, shall not consume them.
“But I’m lying. My own chest contains a bomb. I am terrified of its power.”
I am terrified of my own bomb ticking, my possible detonation. I am terrified that the engine of these poems about my father is not a need to understand nor a need to forgive but sheer rage. I know that without the poems, I would ignite and each time I run out of words, the ticking asserts itself, its volume undiminished by the years, by the poems. My rage is rarely heard by the outside world, yet it never decrescendos.
I do not want anyone to see my anger. If they do, I might learn that the story it took me so long to untell myself—that I carried deep inside a monster, a feral creature of black and pitch that made it impossible for anyone, particularly my parents, to emotionally care for me—may be true after all.
I tell myself it’s better that I stay alone. Sure I can exist in civilization for short bursts. Sure I can have friends and I can love and be loved. But I’m not sure I can let anyone close enough to hear the ticking. I am not sure I want to let anyone close enough to hear the ticking. I do not want to indelibly bruise anyone with my anger because I’ve been indelibly bruised. Sure, I’ll show you my bruises, but I’m not sure I can let you close enough that you might accidentally graze them. I cannot let you touch me with your accidental trigger finger.
One last thought from Jonno:
“I have finally had to admit that I contain so much anger, so much atomic fury, that I fear if I let it out I’ll never come back to myself.”
Without that rage-built metronome, what will I write about? If I run out of that anger, how will I know that I’ve survived and I’ve not been broken entirely? When that trip wire finally snaps, who will I be? What if I can’t find the words to put myself back together? What if even all of the hands of every single person in this whole world who loves me even a little just isn’t enough to heal me? And if the detonator is pushed and nothing at all happens, who am I then?
…. And today, as I start year 45, I’m profoundly grateful that I’ve found some quality people to connect to, people who—to borrow from Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary because, well, Colin Firth—like me just as I am. And that is both glorious as hell and profoundly uncomfortable, don’t you think Marc?
(I wrote that last bit when I got home from my birthday revels last night, which consisted of tapas, two margaritas, and a solo shot of tequila for sipping. Which isn’t to say I was drunk. Or tipsy. But things were a little shaky moving from the couch to my desk and so forth.)
I’m thinking about what I mean by the fact that being loved “just as I am” can be profoundly uncomfortable. What is so scary about someone loving us even with all our flaws intact? Is it that if they accept us no matter what we don’t have an excuse to escape when feelings get too intense? Is the fact that knowing that someone accepts my flaws can be a catalyst to work on them problematic because my perfectionism kicks in and I live in constant fear of disappointing them even though I’ve already established that they’re going to love me anyway? There’s some sort of pressure I feel with close relationships that I can’t quite explain or articulate. When I feel myself getting close to a person, it can feel like a vise closing, like asthma attacking my lungs.
I want to write this in the past tense—when I felt myself getting close to a person—and I do think that feeling has grown more muted over the years, but there are definitely times when a maelstrom of doubt rises up regarding whether even my closest friends really care for me, and, of course, I’m always the bad guy. “It’s because I said that thing at breakfast.” “It’s because I didn’t go to that party.” “It’s because I told that joke.”
That doubt, that overdeveloped willingness to take the blame—isn’t that how I survived childhood?—has led me to cling on to some very toxic friendships. I’d blame myself for all the bad feelings, all the bad times, and keep hold of them and never notice how that person was undermining me, never supporting me, never going out of their way for me. Which I’ve slowly and painstakingly had to learn is what a normal relationship is like. I’ve also slowly and painstakingly had to learn that even the most devoted friend can’t show up every single time. And that’s also what a normal relationship is like.
I say “had to learn” but the truth is I’m re-teaching myself that lesson more days than I’d like. You asked once on air why you always seem to have to relearn the same shit. My answer? Just because. I think maybe that it might not even be because you or I are particularly broken—though we are broken in a particular way. For all of us, maybe, there’s some lesson we need to learn over and over again and maybe we are still learning even as we transition to the next life. What do you think?
To be continued…