See also my Submissions page for information on how to have your own letter or voice note featured on my podcast.
See also my Submissions page for information on how to have your own letter or voice note featured on my podcast.
And then, two months after I began writing poetry in English again, the annual Poetry in McGregor Competition took place. The theme was “Love in the time of Covid”, something I’d become intimately acquainted with over the last few months. I had the option of writing either in English or Afrikaans. Why did I choose English? I don’t know and I feel conflicted about my choice still.
But here’s my poem. It was a finalist in the competition and finally won the merit award for very moving poem (an award that felt so ultimately perfect that I giggled about it in delight for days afterwards):
Content warning: This post contains mentions of drug use and mental illness and abuse and heartbreak.
This is not the full story. I’d like to preface this post by saying this is not the full story. There is also triumph and joy in my life and I am much more than my trauma. But this is a true story. And I’m sharing it because I don’t know of any other way.
I have spent the past two and a half years in a near-constant state of being triggered. Re-evaluating how I love and relate has forced me to confront old aches I didn’t even know I had. Trauma I thought I’d processed a decade ago reared its head again. Trauma I didn’t know I had announced itself. There were times I felt surrounded only by naked loss – new losses mingling seamlessly with old ones, like a sinister forest crowding out my life. There are months from last year that I barely remember; when I try to recall how I got through last winter I just feel the reflexive urge to roll into a little ball and start weeping.
The arrival of another winter, all thin air and silent mornings, coupled with lockdown and the general angst of current life, has forced me back into myself once more. There is nobody I can turn to, so again I go inward. And there I ask myself: is it worth it? This long strange journey into unknown territory, where nothing is as I learned to assume it must be, why am I still on it?
Yes it’s worth it.
Ask me again tomorrow.
Nothing is worth this searing desolation. Nothing.
Everything I do these days is tinged with pain. Over the past few years I have had moments of soaring joy and triumph such as I have rarely felt before, but they were never uncomplicated – for me joy comes with grief now; I struggle to distinguish between the two. Laughter is prone to tip into sobbing. I am very, very tired.
This is how these years have gone:
I had prepared myself for the first hard bit. I woke up one morning in early 2018 and in the night I had left my life behind. I had an entire journal explaining why, and a tiny empty flat, and many books about non-monogamy. But I had wounded someone I loved; my resolve did not keep me warm at night. In the mornings my heart dragged itself across the bathroom tiles for a numb silent shower. Life would get better soon, I knew. I just had to get through the hard bit.
I woke up on another morning and I was busy making death-defying choices. I was buying cocaine in a strange car from strange men with whom I had to speak French to be let out. I wasn’t sleeping much. In the silent hours of the night I daydreamed about my death while my fuck-buddy (lover? best friend? co-dependent hanger-on?) lay twitching next to me.
When that ended in a muddle of drug-addled open-relationship-miscommunication, resentment and searing jealousy, I went to spend three days alone by the ocean. This was almost exactly two years ago: wintertime, and pouring with rain. I walked. And walked. I sat on rocks with the wind whipping into my face, feeling Brontë-esque, enraged and abandoned.
So far, so familiar. Just because something feels intense doesn’t mean it’s unknown. I swam through the seas of heartbreak with my usual mixture of despair, self-pity and panache. But when time came to get up… I couldn’t. I didn’t want to eat. I had unlearned how to sleep. I felt forgotten and weak and terrified.
Below my feet the ice gave a resounding crack.
But it held.
I finally checked myself into a psychiatric clinic because my mind wouldn’t obey me anymore: I’d sit in front of a screen with time to kill and interesting research to write up, and my mind would spit up blanks. The energy to string together any words at all was missing. My memory was hazy, my ability to formulate thoughts almost non-existent. It scared me.
In the clinic the angst subsided. On my first night there another patient said to me “No offence but I don’t think you should actually be here”. I laughed and replied: “I just look functional”. But a part of me agreed with her. I might be crazy but at least I’m self-aware, I thought. At least my family is functional, supportive and loving. In comparison to most of the people there, I had a lot going for me. Within days I was the nurses’ favourite patient, the little eager one with all the answers in group therapy, the empathetic one who made friends with all the other patients. When I left, they made me a card and each wrote a personal message. “I have never met, such a gifted person like you,” said one. Another went: “You made me feel special without me having ever asked for it”.
I’m likeable. I’m kind. I’m gifted. I deserve to exist.
And I was fine now. I was fine. I’m fine.
After the clinic my psychologist said to me: “Well I hope you’ve learned not to try open relationships again”, so I promptly stopped seeing her. I still wanted to do non-monogamy. I wasn’t sure why, but it felt true, truer than my former ways of engaging. Looking back, perhaps it’s simply because our intuition guides us to the paths where we might find the most growth and healing. But healing demands discovering and acknowledging that we are wounded first, and I didn’t have the space or the courage to see the immensity of my own brokenness yet. I don’t know if I have it even now.
Things were different after the clinic. Colours were more intense. Everything moved me. I cried a lot. I felt closer to God, even while my definition of God remained as vague as ever. In my every spare moment I walked – through suburbs, down little paths next to streams, over hills, through private properties, in nature reserves. I had to keep moving; I was aflame. I felt very alive and it wasn’t always pleasant.
After some months I fell in love. Of course I did, I am addicted to falling. All the months of guarding my health closely, of reading spiritual books, of doing yoga, of listening to uplifting music, of walking, all said to me: “This time you’ve got it. This time you’re balanced and healthy and totally capable of having a relationship(s) without disappearing into it”. And so I fell.
All the other times my relationships ended, I could point my finger at the other person: He couldn’t communicate. We wanted different things. He was a drug addict. He was severely conflict-avoidant. We were too different. We grew apart.
So I had control over the endings, and when I didn’t, it was clearly because the other person was at fault. Perhaps somewhere inside there was the niggling fear that I, just as I am, might not be good enough. But matters never came to a head; I would end relationships, or the other person would turn out to be an asshole, long before the question of my worth came up. I left each relationship battered but unscathed. Within my heart doubts of my own worthiness could bloom unchecked and unacknowledged.
But this time. This time I fell in love with a worthy adversary. He was verbose and self-aware and emotionally astute. He was almost as kind as me. He was more gifted. He was raw and real and wise and fucked-up in a profoundly moving way. He took up a lot of space. His way of being demanded engagement and authenticity from me in larger amounts than I had ever had to bring before. I was hungry to show up. I wanted to rise to the challenge.
I was petrified but I unfurled. I powered through my insecurities. I gave of myself unquestioningly while tamping down on my need to be reassured. I impressed myself with how well I navigated the waters of non-monogamy, his other connections and then mine too. I communicated my heart as bravely as I could while editing carefully the jealousy, the fear, into digestible titbits, without even knowing that I was doing it.
Sometimes my bigness would spill over. I’d react to something like a frightened child or a wounded animal and then apologise profusely for my emotions. I’d try to explain myself. I’d try to control his reaction by showing less of me, yet more of me demanded to be known. As time passed I found myself weeping more often after our encounters. Loss. Loss. Loss is coming, screamed my heart.
Loss came. It came in threes, as these things do. First, just more than a year ago, deep wounds at the heart of my family surfaced, long overdue. I sat back in horror as I witnessed the uncomplicated truths I had clung to as a child dissolve: “My dad might be an asshole but my mom is a superhero”, “The women in my family are strong” (I realise now I had confused strength with the ability to suffer), “My pain as a child was worth it somehow because my siblings came out okay”, and, resoundingly, this myth: “We’re fine. We’re all fine now.”
‘Crack’, went the ice. But I was still standing.
The second loss: The second person I was seeing did a runner. He disappeared with barely a sound. I coped because in the larger scale of things, there were more serious crises. I’d loved this person but I’d known for a while we weren’t compatible and perhaps his disappearance was a tiny bit of a relief. I could tell myself it was on him: he didn’t have the courage to communicate. He didn’t know how to show up. It was on him. And I still had my other relationship, the scary one, the authentic one, the one where I was bringing unknown amounts of myself to the table and was being met in equal vulnerability. I was weepy, and wounded, and my family didn’t make sense anymore, and I wanted to run into a mountain and scream my guts out. But I was fine. I was standing.
Then in a casual conversation my remaining lover admitted that things were changing for him. “It doesn’t feel like it has to be a big deal because I don’t think it’s necessarily permanent,” he said. “It’s just that I feel a moving-apart kind of energy for now.”
Even as I lashed out in terrified anger, my mind whispered to me: “What did you think would happen? Did you really think you were capable of having a mature relationship? Did you really think someone, anyone, could hold space for the entire mess of you? You’re too broken. You’re too intense. You’re too much.”
Without a sound this time the ice beneath me dropped away.
* * *
Just about a year ago now my heart broke itself irreversibly. The closest I can come to explaining it is by saying that it feels as if I have a different heart now. It is still recognisably mine, it still has the texture and intensity of my own heart. But it feels much older, and tired, and achingly vast. It feels like I have a war veteran for a heart now.
And perhaps like a war veteran my heart vacillates between expansive acceptance and abject terror. I lie awake at night and feel the blood rushing through my body as if in mortal danger. I feel my mind groping for a way out like a terrified child. My heart stutters one message, over and over: alone. Alone. Alone. Alone.
I hadn’t heard or read much about trauma before. So six months after the ice broke, in December 2019, I was still flailing about, trying to get back onto a patch of land, confused about how utterly devastated and ravaged I felt. I mean, I’m not a complete idiot. I knew how I’d grown up had left a mark. But I’d dealt with SO MUCH of it already. I’d wept and read and forgiven and loved and prayed and WORKED, worked really hard, for over a decade. How could I still be this broken? How could life be so unfair?
But this had to be acknowledged at some point and eventually, begrudgingly, I did: I was reacting to something more than what was visibly here. I was reacting as if my very life was in danger. The rejection was real, the loss was real, but it was nowhere near as big as my reaction to it. A year after the heartbreak, I still get stuck in loops of abandonment and unworthiness that are not being caused or confirmed by anything in my actual life. I am still extrapolating like a maths wizard. I am still descending into spirals of shame and terror caused by unseen bogeymen.
And I am having a really, really hard time existing right now.
I know it’s happening now because I never had the energy or the insight to face up to it before, but I don’t want this to be happening. I don’t want to be the sum of my parents’ errors. I don’t want to be just how I grew up. I have resisted the word ‘trauma’ for very long because I want to be NORMAL, dammit, I want to be at peace within myself, I want to love and laugh as easily as other people seem to do. I want to get to relax. I just want to get to relax.
But that’s not my path. What is on my path is blurting out my wounds wearily, knowing that my lovers and my friends will see me differently once I do. What’s on my journey is sifting through the mess left by generations of wounded ancestors as best I can, and right now my best doesn’t feel very good.
Because when do you tell someone? When do you say “so, about, ahem, ‘LOVE’: I think I might do it differently from other people. Like, more intensely or something. No sweat, it’s just trauma, I think. Or maybe it’s my personality. But I’m still having fun, I promise, it’s just that I can’t relax, never ever, and also, I know you’re going to leave me but my heart will shatter when you do so anyway. (But if you don’t leave I will.) But don’t worry, I’ve got this. I’m managing my shit. I know myself. If I break, WHEN I break, I won’t hold you responsible. And I’m really really healthy now actually anyway, I’m working on myself and I’m generous and brave so please never ever leave me. And I’m really sorry. I’m sorry I’m inconvenient. I’m sorry I’m an incoherent mess. I’m trying to make sense. In fact I’m actually quite considerate and I’ll rein in my terror until I can’t anymore and most of the time I am quite capable of communicating maturely and I have self-love practices in place and I even meditate sometimes and please please don’t run away”.
I have been feeling near-constantly triggered over the past two and a half years, and this has culminated for me in a weary acknowledgment that I am more traumatised than I care to admit. I think I should come with a warning: ‘This woman will use you to dig up old shit in her psyche and you won’t even see it coming (but she means well. And she loves hard, for what it’s worth).’ It has been years of digging through muck and the only thing I can say for sure is: I’m still here. I don’t like it very much, but I’m still here. And I’m fucking exhausted.
So is it worth it?
I don’t know of any other way.
I’m showing up. Most of the time. I’m here.
What is it that we want from love?
(This post is best read to the tune of this fantastic song.)
This morning I woke up at 2 a.m. There was a text on my phone from somebody I love, somebody whose very existence shakes me to my core. We’re at an impasse. We’re going around in circles, triggering each other, trying to be gentle, lashing out when we’re in pain, withdrawing, moving closer, moving away again.
“Why do we take this so personally?” he asks. “Because it IS personal”, I reply. I type and retype my message many times before sending it, yet this morning I realise how the emotion of the night might have made me sound harsher than I intended, might have overridden the love and gentleness I feel. I’m afraid. I’m afraid that he’ll suggest we stop this wrestling match once and for all. I’m afraid that I’ve finally pushed him away. I’m afraid that we can never come back from how hurt we’ve each been. I’m afraid that we’ll miss out on something powerful, on the profound healing and connection that we could have had, if we don’t climb out of this cycle.
What do I want from this love? Why am I still here?
Beyond that, what does it mean to love? What is the purpose of love in our lives?
In a way this post is a follow-up on my previous one. I grew up wanting love, romantic love in particular. I might be romantically inclined due to personality and all the books I read when I was much too young for them. But looking back it’s quite obvious that most of all my romantic inclinations were because I wanted to find someone, to find a somewhere, where I’d feel safe, seen and special. I wanted to matter. I wanted to be wanted. And I wanted this because I wasn’t getting it.
I am no outlier when I say that my childhood was, for the most part, unpleasant – many people have uncertainty, neglect or abuse as their origin story. And nobody emerges from childhood unscathed. Sometimes I think about how we are all walking about, as adults: making a living and making families all while trying to protect ourselves, still terrified of being weighed and found wanting. It’s so strange that the mistakes our parents made become so inextricably part of the fabric of our lives. It’s so weird that we get angry or burst into tears because someone says something that inadvertently reminds us of being that child again. It’s so weird that it can take a lifetime, if we live life well, to properly deal with and heal our wounds.
Anyway – because of my childhood, and because of books and movies and because everything, I thought for a long time that finding a romantic partner was all about feeling safe and fulfilled.
I wasn’t entirely unrealistic – I knew that a relationship would mean compromise and talking through stuff, that we’d still argue sometimes and all that jazz. But I thought that there would be this specific feeling to a relationship: I’d feel totally beautiful and awesome, loved for who I am, while also feeling challenged and inspired. We’d sit up at night and talk about poetry. We’d motivate each other to reach higher heights. We’d also be each other’s homecoming. There’d be this balance between cosiness and inspiration and it would be amazing.
I still kind-of think that. All of our loves do this, after all: my friends hold me when I’m terrified; they also poke me towards further growth. But with each friend there’s a different balance; I make my peace with the limitations of every friendship. I do not expect my friends to know or understand me fully. I take the support where I can get it and I am deeply grateful for it, but I know that no one friend will somehow validate my entire existence. In fact, the beauty of friendships is that we receive both love and opposition in ways that we never even thought we wanted. It’s uncomfortable. I walk away from barbeques or brunches feeling discomfited sometimes, annoyed even. The art lies in being open to a friend’s being, to the odd and lovely ways in which they enrich our life. Instead of trying to make our friends fit our needs, we open to who they are and how they see the world, and we are the richer for it.
But there’s so much more riding on romantic relationships.
When we fall in love we tell ourselves it’s about the other person. It’s about how cute they look in the mornings and about their lovely eyes and about how much random knowledge they have about superhero movies. It’s about how they sing in the shower. It’s about how competitive they get when we’re playing board games.
And these things might be true, but they’re not the whole truth. Not in my case, anyway. Falling in love is also – mainly – about myself.
A while ago I sat down and tried to analyse what happens for me when I fall in love – what makes it feel so intrinsically different from a close friendship?
Well, there’s a moment, usually quite soon in our friendship, when something shifts. I talk to this person and suddenly realise they’re really, really amazing. They’re wise, and smart, and mysterious. (Ah, that mystery.) Suddenly I feel a jolt of desire – not physical desire, but rather desire for this person to love me. This person, I have decided, has something that I don’t. Their combination of traits and unknown-ness has become a thing that I want, that I need, to feel better; because I do need to feel better, I always need to feel better, incomplete and wounded human that I am. I am a relational being, and so I look to others to fill the gaps in my psyche. Who better than this wonderful mysterious human, this wise person who seems so capable of holding my frightened heart in their hands and restoring me to fullness?
Of course as I get to know the person better I realise they couldn’t possibly validate me as I’d hoped. They’re scared and scarred too. But I keep on hoping, because there’s so much riding on this. I have put power in their hands and at times it feels as if my continued existence depends on their love. This is when reality starts intervening uncomfortably. Their tiny habits, those things I loved so much at first, now seem an obstacle, an annoying reminder of their flaws and of the ways in which they’ll never be able to make me feel whole. How could a broken person ever make me un-broken?
And so we settle into the long twilight of our relationship. By now tenderness has grown up between us and for a while it’s the glue holding us together. Fondness has replaced the initial in love feeling. But I’m itchy. I tell myself relationships are all about compromise and good communication, but somewhere inside I miss feeling alive, feeling gloriously awakened. The inspiration has made way for cosiness, and not even enough of that in between the miscommunications and the grind of daily life.
And then I fall in love with someone else. I think “ah! There is someone, after all, who can make me feel alive and valid and powerful. I was just with the wrong person!” Then comes decision-making. Do I break up with my current person, someone who’s dear to me and with whom I’ve crafted a life? Do I stay, instead, suspecting that all relationships, after all, entail disappointments? Or perhaps I try to have the best of both worlds: I decide to try polyamory. I enter this perilous world of endless negotiations, of time management and pangs of jealousy, straddling my cosy love and my new exciting flame as best I can. Eventually the exciting love becomes familiar and flawed as well and I fall in love with someone else. Then at some stage I reach saturation, my calendar overflowing, my heart exhausted. And I still, STILL, haven’t found someone who might finally make the broken pieces of my soul stop aching.
I think back to that initial moment of falling in love. There’s a transfer of power that takes place there: I place the responsibility for how I feel in someone else’s hands. I hope that they will make me feel valuable and valid. And I do this because I perceive them as being in some way less lacking than myself. Their allure lies in how little I still know them: because I do not know this person’s flaws and fears, I can imagine that they hold the key to finally feeling whole.
Yeah, I don’t actually want that scenario. If I investigate this thing it becomes clear that this type of falling in love, this heady blend of hormones and infatuation, is largely dependent on misinformation. It demands that I do not see a person for the fullness of who they are, that I surrender curiosity and engagement in favour of wish-fulfilment. This person becomes the holder of my hopes and fears, instead of an vast person, unique unto themselves. I miss out. I miss out on a flawed and glorious human.
I don’t think we ever stop projecting our hopes onto other people. We all see but through a glass, darkly. It’s an interesting ride, anyway, realising again and again what it is we want as we project these desires onto someone else. But I don’t actually want to be stuck thrill-seeking in this way endlessly. I’d rather eye this whole falling in love thing a bit more warily, cognisant of my own insecurities making themselves known yet again. I’d rather connect with a real person.
But if love is not about wish-fulfilment, what is it about then?
Well I suppose it could be about anything.
Recently a friend said to me that love should help people attain their life goals. I liked that. It makes sense: if you want security and cosiness, then seek out someone(s) who’ll chase the same goal, people to whom building a coherent life is important. Perhaps someone who’ll be fun to come home to. Someone with roughly the same level of ambition or with corresponding dreams. You know, all the compatibility stuff we hear about. Wanting to build a life, wanting to have kids, wanting a partner in crime – all those things are worthy dreams. We get to have them.
But life goals also change. After thinking about what my goals might currently be, I wrote to my friend in response: “My life goals are to connect with other people in sincerity. To see them. To be seen. To be whole enough that I can love expansively, without feeling as if my life is being threatened by this expansiveness. To grow. To do everything as if worshipping. To know myself well enough that I am able to make my own boundaries and refrain from losing myself within others, but from this place be able to give, and receive, with joy.”
“Good luck”, my friend replied, “That will give you much pain and much reward.” I know. It’s a different pain than one might imagine: it’s the pain of dying off bits of myself that no longer serve me. It’s also a different reward than I always thought love would give: the reward lies in feeling bigger, more myself, more at home with the texture of my own heart; it’s about becoming more accepting of the aches and fears within me that might never go away. And the reward lies also in being able to absorb so much more of someone else, now that I am no longer swept away by my idea of them. It’s worth it, it’s so fucking worth it, this letting go of old daydreams, for the honour of witnessing others more fully as themselves.
I guess we all decide what level of intensity, of pain and reward, we’re willing to live with. There is no better or worse choice, one path is not more noble than another. My friend to whom I spoke about love compared his current model of relationships to a dance: “To me, nowadays, loving is a dance. And we spend more time practicing the steps and learning how not to step on each other’s toes than anything else. There are moments of passion and excitement, but mainly it’s about repetition, over and over again the same thing. And your feet start hurting in specific places, and you wish the practice sessions could be over already because they’re boring and it feels as if nobody’s progressing. But then there are moments where you show off your skills, where you realise how well you know each other, and it makes you feel awesome. That’s opening night. But the rest of the time you’re mainly performing for schools, churches, and old age homes. And you decide whether this gives you enough joy and excitement to continue on this path.”
Whether it be about the intricacy of a dance while avoiding each others’ toes, or about coming to accept ourselves more fully, or a bit of both – I think that love is better when we can ask ourselves questions about it. What is it that I want? Why do I want this? What would happen if I didn’t get it? What am I willing to surrender? Thrill-seeking quickly becomes a lonely, hungry chase. Digging deep sustains us far more powerfully.