Self Identity, Long-Term Relationships, and Moving on When You Just Can’t

Self Identity, Long-Term Relationships, and Moving on When You Just Can’t

She’s getting married, you’ve barely stopped waking up from night terrors.

Or no, wait. That’s me.

Only a couple of months ago, we were sitting across the table from each other, grasping each other’s hands. She looked earnestly into my eyes and told me she regretted walking away. She knew this was wrong; we both had (other) significant others now.

The intensity of the moment weighed heavy.

This was too complicated, I didn’t even know her anymore. Why now? I spent the last three years wrestling with how unhealthy our dynamic was, how much I’ve grown since we parted, and how she turned out to be more cowardly than I wanted to believe. I deserved better than that. I deserved someone who wasn’t embarrassed that I was a part of their life. I deserved someone who wouldn’t try to erase me, covering up all evidence of me and pretending I never existed.

I am not a f^cking afterthought.

But to look in those eyes that had so completely captured me before, begging me to come home, begging me to stay again… that caught feelings in my throat I hadn’t felt since I sat alone for days on end staring motionless at empty walls in Austin.

The pressure on my chest grew, my lungs began to burst. I opened my eyes to find I was underwater. I couldn’t breathe. An invisible anchor pushed against my chest, dragging me farther down with every second. My body was paralyzed. I craned my neck forward in a desperate attempt to bring my face above the water. The surface was so far, yet so close.

A sharp intake of air. I gasped dreadfully. My eyes opened again. My body was still frozen, but I was in my bed, alone in my Köln apartment, very far away from California.

Over the next few minutes I would slowly regain control over my limbs, while catching my breath would turn into ragged sobbing. I was crying uncontrollably. Finally. After three years of begging myself to let it all go and cry, it was finally here. My meltdown.

How Did I Get So Lost

Breakups are never fun.

Somewhere along the way, I really lost myself. I was living in the delusion that romantic love conquers all. You can get through anything if only you love someone hard enough. If it doesn’t work out, the fault was in your inability to do that.

Romance movies encourage an obsessive mentality that looks a lot like stalking. They reward completely inappropriate (and scary) behavior with “getting the girl”. That’s the blueprint I had to work with, without anyone to talk to about building healthy relationships. And having grown up in incredibly conservative communities, no one was addressing the pathological demonization of sex in general or the subsequent self-loathing and shame because of who you have feelings for.

No outlets. No way to get advice or balanced perspective. No role models. I was taught abstinence only – and don’t associate with the homosexuals because they’re going to hell in a hand basket.

So there I was, a girl desperately in love with a girl, and we hated ourselves for it. For six years. I know adults who haven’t had relationships that long.

They were not easy years. Things were complicated like any teenage romance. Only we spent much of that time lying to ourselves, lying to each other, and lying to everyone else. Because really, we had no other choice. We were cornered by our circumstances.

Once her family found out, I was no longer welcome in the house. I was specifically requested not to attend her college graduation, even though I’d spent every other weekend commuting three hours and back throughout her entire college career to provide emotional support and be there for her as much as I could.

“Why are you doing this to us?” her mother asked her when she found out. “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

This, coming from a woman who lost her entire family in a car wreck when she was a child.

So yeah, it hit hard that she would say that.

I had to constantly balance my own rage at her family’s systematic alienation and brainwashing, with the generally frowned upon ‘talking sh!t about your girlfriend’s family to your girlfriend’ thing.

And in that entire time, she was the only thing I really knew about myself. College, career, gender identity, sexuality… none of that mattered because as confusing as the rest of life was, I had her and I knew how I felt about her. I was never more clear about anything else. I loved her. Every single part.

I clung to that love with my entire being.

Unfortunately, I was not remotely emotionally equipped to express it properly. I was a needy and insecure girlfriend. I’m not pretending to wonder why things didn’t work out. But in the end, it wasn’t those specific things that destroyed us.

We simply never got to be normal people.

There was always some external force turning us into monster versions of ourselves. Trying to love each other, but constantly fighting a never ending battle. We couldn’t focus on becoming better versions of ourselves or learning how to build a healthy relationship, because we weren’t ever allowed to put down our weapons. Every single day was stressful no matter how happy we were together.

Coming Out™ was supposed to be freeing, but in the end she was cut off from her entire family and support groups. Those who were supposed to love and accept her through anything abandoned her as soon as she didn’t conform. Her biggest struggle was always to love and accept herself, so this was akin to having the floor taken from underneath her feet.

I was all she had left, and it was my fault that she was in that position in the first place. I was the last straw, the final anomaly that made her family reject her.

They emotionally blackmailed her. “Get rid of… that, and we’ll try to accept you as part of our family again.”

Like any good form of blackmailing or brainwashing, it was all subtle. The comments, the treatment, the implications. The same way an abusive father hits his children so that no bruises can be found. And when it’s all emotional, what’s there to prove, anyways? Of course they’d deny the behavior when she tried to talk about any of it with them.

Gee, I wonder why things were so difficult.

Take everything that’s already complicated about a relationship, use an infinite multiplier, and hand it to a couple of sexually atypical, clinically depressed teenagers with ever changing hormones. That’s what we had to work with.

But it was my constant, and I adopted it as my identity.

Identity, Gone

Fast forward to 2013, when I finally said enough.

There’s only so many years you can hear the love of your life profess “I am indescribably happy when I am with you and I love you with all my heart. But I don’t think I can be with you forever. Check back in a bit to see if I’m confident yet.”

For me, it was six years. And if living pretty happily out of a car with someone for seven months doesn’t tell you that you’re compatible with someone, what will?

If six years through trials and tribulations, finally cutting through miscommunications, and fighting through deep rooted fears together (not to mention escaping a toxic home environment, to unsurprisingly discover how much happier things were without constant negative feedback)… what would it take before she felt sure?

This was someone who obsessed for hours if she made the right choice about even the most mundane life decisions, like take-out lunch.

No matter how much I wanted to spend the rest of my life helping her work through those choices big and small, I couldn’t spend the rest of my life with her constantly weighing whether or not I was a mistake the way she would deliberate over a deli sandwich. That wasn’t fair to either of us.

And as much as she would never be able to choose to stay, I knew she could never choose to leave either.

It was up to me to find a way for us to end things without hostility or blame.

I suggested we spend a few weeks apart while she really thought about whether she thought she could ever decide be with me. I didn’t want to influence her during that time, so I stayed away. I clarified that no decision was a decision unto itself. (Please note, I didn’t ask her to decide to be with me forever. I wanted her to think about whether she thought she could ever make that decision.)

Sure enough, a few weeks later we stood in the kitchen and she couldn’t even make eye contact with me. That didn’t stop her from clinging tight and crying on my shoulder while I swallowed the entire vision of my future like a lump in my throat.

We tried to be friends, like many ex-couples do.

But for me that was too painful, and for her it was too inconvenient the more and more that her family began taking her back under their wings now that she was free from her abomination. Contact with me was a reminder of the black mark on her history. Her new boyfriend would learn that her long-term ex didn’t match his own anatomy by being physically present in my childhood home and looking, puzzled, at the lineup of children on the wall and wondering where the oldest boy was.

That didn’t stop us from having a few emotional phone calls throughout the following years.

The last real conversation I remember was when I asked if she was actually happy in her year-long new relationship. I asked because, when we broke up, I encouraged her to spend time getting to know herself and not let her family rule her life with their expectations, or jump right into a relationship that she could rely on for confidence and self-worth. After all we’d been through, she said she wanted more than anything to become her own person and find her independence. Yet just a few months after our split, she was dating one of the first guys she met.

“No,” she admitted quietly.

We kept talking. She wanted to know if I’d ever get married. She was jealous that I was dating anyone at all, serious or not.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get married. I am just trying to learn who I am now. What I knew about myself left when you did and I have to find it on my own again,” I answered.

The conversation continued on the topic of marriage.

“Remember how we used to say that I’d invite you to my wedding so you could seduce me in the back, one last time before I got married?” she asked. I couldn’t help but chuckle sadly.

“Heh. Yeah.”

“If I ever decide to get married… please. Call me and talk me out of it. Seriously. Marriage isn’t what I want for myself.”

A Few Words About Moving On

Well, a couple years after that conversation and she’s getting married just days before my birthday. No, I’m not going to call her, show up to seduce her, or otherwise attempt talk her out of it.

But I’m sick of being invisible in the story.

I spent the first year of the breakup trying to explain the black hole that formed a vacuous, all consuming space where it seemed my heart used to be. I wrote 20+ heartbroken love songs. I expressed my anguish any time I could string a few coherent words together.

  1. What Shapes You
  2. Growing Up
  3. Letters to My Lover: Sinks
  4. Letters to My Lover: Photographs
  5. Meet My Insomnia
  6. Things I Have Wished
  7. It’s Still You Sometimes

I spent a lot of time wondering just how delusional I might have been. For a long time I wondered if I was some pathetic lunatic, only imagining that our relationship held as much weight as I thought it did. Thankfully, in spite of how hidden we had tried to stay, the importance it held for both of us did not go unnoticed, and I have been reassured by countless that I didn’t dream it all up. Including her, when I asked if I was blowing things out of proportion.

Sure, I may be crazy in other senses of the word, but the only thing that happened in this particular situation was two damaged people being crazy in love, under some really messed up circumstances.

They were the six most formative years of my life, shaped by a kind of passion and love I don’t dare to wonder if I can feel again.

To this day, I believe that breaking up was good for both of us. To this day, I believe that we both deserved to go out and learn to be ourselves, independent of our families and backgrounds, even each other.

And to this day, I will feel righteously angry that my memory has been all but erased and downplayed to someone who meant so much to me. I don’t expect to be an actively important member to any relationships but my own. But I don’t deserve to have all of the love I poured out (and received) in a mutual relationship, discounted into complete insignificance. I am not a black mark that you can rub out with bleach, I am not something to be ashamed of, I am not nothing.

So much of who I have become today was founded somewhere in the depths of that relationship. I know that for better or worse, the same can be said for her.

And in every meaningful relationship, isn’t that the beauty? That we accept who we were, are, and will become for better or worse?

I’m done tip-toeing around the nature of my relationship with my ex-girlfriend. For me, it held the same power and significance as a marriage and divorce. I’m not going to allow people to erase nearly a quarter of my life, even if it makes them uncomfortable to hear about or talk about.

Today I draw another line. Three years later, I draw the line at not feeling allowed to openly discuss such a big part of my past.

I draw the line at being erased.

I’m finished writing vague descriptions of emotions. I’ve got to be allowed my humanity. I am allowed to discuss my actual history, to celebrate what was, and to mourn what was lost.

Heartbroken, Not So Anonymous

Let’s be real. I’m quite happy with my life as it stands today.

I’ve been exploring the world and learning new languages. I’ve learned to build healthier relationships with everyone in my life. I’ve looked deeply inward to question why I believe what I believe and why I do what I do. I work hard every day to stare my most uncomfortable feelings right in the face and battle through them.

After three long years I am slowly emerging from the fourth stage, depression, into the fifth and final stage of grief: acceptance.

I hope that I’m wrong about her new relationship. If she has truly found her happiness, then that’s awesome!

I broke us up because happiness is what I wanted for her, and she couldn’t have that until she felt confident about who she is and what she wants – and she couldn’t find that while dating me or anyone else. It’s just not in her nature.

My fear is that she really is who I spent every waking moment of six years getting to know so deeply. If she is the same girl who I found buried and trembling behind high concrete walls of self defense and self preservation, with all the same deep-rooted fears and worries… this is all a cover up, the same way she’s been covering our past up to be accepted by her family, friends, church, and fiancé.

And that breaks my heart all over again.

The trouble is, if this is all part of the same emotional blackmail her family pulled years ago, I’ll never really know. She willingly put herself into captivity by going back instead of breaking out, and that was her choice. Some people are content to never be true to themselves, in exchange for fitting in. Some people don’t want to be saved. I want to believe this story of her happiness is real. Unfortunately, I simply can’t.

The great part of finally reaching acceptance, is that I can be sad about her fate, and still go on with my life.

I have accepted what happened. It is so freeing.

I can say, “Wow, what happened was really tragic.” I can have intense emotions about it. But it no longer ruins my day, or consumes my every moment. I can start forming new feelings and really get to know other people. I can give myself the chance to build something so powerfully meaningful again.

What I cannot accept is having my life erased and my memory abused. There’s no reason I should have to. So after years of not talking about the actual events that occurred, you get this 3,500 word post to catch you up on the basics.

I’m sure the wedding will be beautiful. She’s going to have a big, picture perfect smile, because she always does. But looks can be deceiving.

Please, if anyone who reads this knows her (if you think you know, you’re probably right)… can you start doing some kind of subtle check ins to make sure she’s really okay? Her shell is hard to crack, and after this many years of really caking it on for the acceptance factor, it’ll take a while to get to the core. She doesn’t open up easily.

But she needs real friends who can accept her history for her.

If for no other reason… in the same way I’ve had to work hard to process what happened with us, she needs to do the same and I can promise you she hasn’t don’t that yet. She hasn’t had anyone to really talk to about it because she’s terrified people won’t like her because of it. Because the people closest to her do everything in their power to make her ignore it ever happened (or else).

You don’t need to just start blabbing about all of this. In fact, don’t.

She has her own experiences and version of the story to work through. Just be genuine. Dig deeper than the silly giggle she uses because that’s what she thinks people want from her. Have real conversations about all sorts of things. Be a safe person to talk to by not passing judgement or pressing your own perspective. Look for the words that are hers, not her family’s. Eventually, you may find the real her in there somewhere. Above all, be patient and tender.

It can’t be me, because of everything you just read. And she doesn’t need to know the origins of your outreach, either. She needs to know there are people she can trust, people who truly like her for her entire self – the past, and whoever she has become now.

She doesn’t believe that those kinds of people exist. I want you to prove her wrong.

Help her turn the choices she’s made into a real, deep happiness instead of the cover job it stemmed from.

Because love is something you work on, and whether it started for the right reasons… I believe she can find it where she’s at. But it has to come from honesty to herself and everyone else. That’s a luxury she hasn’t been allowed, and who can blame her for being terrified of abandonment?

Don’t know her personally?

I bet you know a version of her in your own life, without even realizing it. Everyone out there is looking for a real friend. So many ‘happy’ people are still struggling with a complicated past.

Ask yourself how to be a better friend to the people you (think you) already know. Really look at yourself. Ask if you’re being abusive to the people you love, without even realizing it. I’ve been guilty. We all have. The first step is to recognize it and stop the pattern. You have to be willing to be wrong.

My Plea, For The Future

Can we please stop doing the thing where we put people through this kind of total bull?

I’m far from the exception in stories like mine. My symptoms from what happened have come out in the form of PTSD-like behavior. It’s not something to take lightly.

Not everyone is like me, with an intuitive psychologist mother and an open minded group of family and friends who truly accept me no matter who I am. I am lucky. But I think that’s messed up, that having people who love you unconditionally is lucky. That should be standard.

But even for me, that took years to grow into and realize what I had.

So no, love doesn’t suddenly bring all wars to an end, or stop all murders, or solve all the issues of the world. But why are we so obsessed with shaming each other for all of our problems and differences? Why is psychological abuse the go-to answer for things we aren’t comfortable with? Isn’t life hard enough as it is? Put down the figurative weapons for just a second, especially around those who you’re supposed to be loving and caring about. We all deserve to not be the monster versions of ourselves, for at least that second.

Don’t put yourself or others through this kind of story. Because in the end, we do this to ourselves and each other. It’s all made up in our heads, but it comes out in such a real way.

Anyways, thanks for bearing with me through this. Writing has always been how I process things best. For a long time I was pretty confident I would become suicidal when she ultimately decided to get married, so it’s quite the relief to find out that is far from the case.

Feel free to share your own stories, feelings, and thoughts down below.

P.S. For anyone wondering if this is a breach of privacy, she already agreed a while back that I could write my memoirs including details of our relationship. While that book has not yet been finished or published, I do have permission to discuss our story publicly.