To be or not to be (yourself)

Today, I didn’t cry. I consider this a small but very real personal triumph.

I could have cried. It was a bad idea to have mulled wine at lunchtime and then show my friends photos of the 16-day-long round of Greece I did last year. With him.

Let’s give him a name: let’s call him Ryan. Actually, he helped me come up with it. It’s supposed to be a character’s name, for book 5 in my Natural series. I will write book 5 someday–soon, I think. Also, book 4. And I’ll finish book 3. Okay, I digress. Where were we?

Ryan. Today, as I showed my friends wonderful photos of magical Greece–Meteora, Santorini, spectacular, awe-inspiring places–I remembered all the crazy times with him. The fun. The lunches on boulders in the middle of dry riverbeds. The dinners watching the sunset in Santorini, with local beer and wine. Discovering half-hidden caves in cliff faces and hidden ponds fed by little waterfalls in the forest. Late nights with strong spirits and talk, talk, talk. Kind words shared and amplified.

And, maybe it was the mugful of Glühwein, or the fact that I stubbornly can’t dismiss the wonderfulness of the whole experience, but I found myself thinking of one of the last things he told me, long after the magical adventures: he wasn’t really himself around me.

I thought I’d gotten past this.

But how do you get past something like that? After half a year of unforgettable Sunday excursions to wonderful places (I do have a knack for planning excursions), music, outings, walks, hikes, spectacular sunsets, late nights with alcohol or burgers on lakeshores, deep discussions, and plans–you’ll visit me, I’ll visit you we’ll go hiking, there’s this place I wanna show you–to be told you’ve been friends with a fake version of him? After he’s slept in your mother’s bed, he’s stayed in your brother’s room at the summer house, he’s been offered food and cookies by both your aunts, he’s met your brother, seen your childhood bedroom, played with your children, been in your car dozens of times, as you drove thousands of miles to all those excursions, to be told that, all this time, on the Ferris wheel, in the turquoise water of the Ionian sea, basking in the glow of the Aegean sun with a glass of Santorinian wine in hand, in the fucking kitchen of the house I grew up in, he just wasn’t himself.

I’m really asking. Do you have the answer? Any advice? I’m begging you. How do I get past that?

How can I accept this level of deception? How can I come to terms with it? Any suggestions welcome.

And, why, I’d like to ask him. Why did you fucking stay, then?

Why did you make plans? Why did you promise stuff?

Why can’t you even talk to me?

Whatever the fuckity fuck is the matter with you?

My friends, to the last one, tell me I’ve been used. They think I’m naive. It’s simple why he stayed, they say–and rather obvious, Ioanna, really, are you that blind? You drove him thousands of miles to wonderful destinations. You took him on an amazing trip to your home country. You cooked and baked and roasted a 90-Euro turkey on Thanksgiving so that the American man, alone in a strange land, wouldn’t have to feel so lonely in the middle of the pandemic. You listened to him and his woes. You were there. You cared. You were good enough–as long as he didn’t have anyone else. A stopgap measure.

It doesn’t end there. There’s worse to this story, but I’ve bored you enough. And if I keep writing, the three tear-free months I spent will come to an inglorious end.

I won’t cry. I won’t fucking cry. It’s enough.

This lack of basic decency, though, by someone who claimed you were important to them. Who promised he’d be there for you. It’s so fucking hard to take.

There are always setbacks, they say, in the process of healing. I’ve come a long way. I cried for fourteen months straight, but now it’s been three months since the last time, and I can take a deep breath and say: well, maybe not today either.

Because today, I realized Ryan’s not “being himself” doesn’t reflect on me. It’s not in any way my fault. I’ve made tons of mistakes in my life, some of them in the past year and a half, and in that particular relationship. I’ve apologized for them. And one thing I can say with certainty: I was always honest. This is my one consolation: as flawed as I am, as uncomfortable as I might make people feel, as weird, as brash, as annoyingly single-minded at times, I won’t deceive, I won’t hide, and I won’t manipulate.

Maybe that’s worth something.

Wading out

Like so many other things, mental health sneaks up on you.

In June, you can’t breathe. You wonder if this torment that calls itself life is ever going to end.

In July, through sheer effort and lots of time to yourself, you can begin to exist within yourself again.

In August, hope is on the horizon, although the pain is still very much present.

In September, the tears are starting to melt down the pain.

In October, you face the facts.

In November, you decide to care for yourself.

And December? In December, your energy comes back.

As my faculties return, I marvel: is this the level of mental energy humans have at their disposal when they’re not overwhelmed and obsessed and running two parallel processes on the single processor that’s in our heads? How can I describe this transition from the absolute brain dullness–too long my companion–to the lucid state of my mind now? It feels like wading out of the sea. First, the water is up to your neck, and it’s such an effort to take a single step. You think you’ll never make it. Then the water is up to your chest, and you have to keep your arms raised to reduce resistance, and it’s slow going, and you’re panting, but your determination carries you on. By the time you’re knee-deep, it’s child’s play. It can’t get easier, can it?

But then you hit the shore and you run like the wind. This is easy!

Was life ever so easy?

In the past weeks, I’ve even started entertaining thoughts of going back to work. I have no clue what kind of job I can do or will be able to get, and it’s not going to happen soon anyway since my family needs me to care for them right now. But, oh–my–God, is this possible? The mere thought of it doesn’t exhaust or terrify me anymore. I occasionally clean the house. I keep my family fed and clothed in clean clothes. I kind of sleep. I sleep. I can cope with everyday things.

And why did all this happen? Because I gave myself license to feel.

Feelings tucked inside eat you up from the inside. I say, let them out. Okay, maybe you don’t want to write a 65-thousand-word memoir about them and share them with everyone in the English-speaking world–I am, after all, an extreme case, the eternal over-sharer. But don’t let feelings fester. They can become malignant.

Oh, man, it’s so good to be able to run on dry ground.

A love, regrettable but not regretted

I have a confession to make.

For eighteen months now, I’ve been lying to you. Okay, not really lying, just not telling you the whole truth. You’ve been reading about my mental health struggles, my family, my husband’s recently discovered autism, the difficulty handling everyday tasks, the stress and the chronic anxiety and the antidepressants.

But there was this one big thing that made life so much harder than it needed to be. I’ve hinted at it before, naming it The Boulder. Such an apt name, don’t you think? A rock you lug. Or can’t move. Or need to blast away in order to move forward. An obstacle. Something whose sheer volume can’t be overlooked. Something heavy. The parallels to the burden in my psyche are endless.

But I’ve reached the point where I can talk about this. Finally!

And I think you can relate with this one. You’ve been in love, right?

Yeah, it’s that unoriginal.

So, here goes: there’s this man I love. He’s not my husband.

(Yes, my husband reads this blog. Yes, he knows about that man. No, he doesn’t mind. Really, I promise you, he doesn’t. He’s weird that way. We both are. Yes, I love my husband. I’m still here, aren’t I?)

Where was I? Ah, that man. You might have noticed the present tense. I can’t put him in the past. I can’t say “I loved” him, although he’s very far away from me in every possible sense, not really present in my life anymore, and not really willing to be. But still: no past tense. Love doesn’t evaporate just because you haven’t seen someone in nearly a year. Love doesn’t care if said person causes you so much pain you want to physically vomit. Love doesn’t care about any contradiction, apparent or real.

In short, love is a huge asshole.

And it doesn’t like being neatly defined. So here I am, unable to put my love into a neatly tagged box. Sure, I loved that man. (How did that past tense slip in? I might as well leave it.) Was I in love with him?

(YES, my therapist will tell you. Don’t kid yourself, Frau Arka. You were head over heels in love. You were heartbroken when he left. We spent half a year talking about him in every single therapy session. You wanted to roll into a ball and disappear. You’re still talking about it, aren’t you?)

(Yes, my husband knows about all of this. We kinda live together. He wouldn’t miss me crying for weeks at a time, now would he? I told you. We’re weird.)

So, the answer, I regret to admit, is yes. Yes, I was in love. And he was my best friend for a while. And a bit of a teacher, in more ways than one might think. And a bit of a student. And partner in crime. All of this and more.

Was I any of these things to him? I have no clue.

The point is: today I can talk about this. Today, I am not ashamed. I had feelings. I have feelings. My feelings are valid.

This man didn’t want to be loved by me. At all. My feelings – which, let us savor it, I am not ashamed of anymore, not one tiny bit! – were a thorn in his side. A burden. He’d rather have the fun memories (we did have a lot of fun together, a good amount of burgers, a saturation of nearly-unreal sunsets, and a lot of music). But we don’t always get what we want in life, and boy, did he get a whole lot more than he bargained for. He got complications. He got the ultimate complication: me.

I am, indeed, a lot more than people bargain for. Take this any way you want. Ask my husband. I assure you, I am. I’m also a shy person’s nightmare: if you’re in my life, I’ll probably put you in a book, and you’ll surely appear in a blog post.

Why am I writing all of this?

The short answer is: because I can. And the fact that I can is glorious in itself. Two years ago, I’d have thought, “Who are you to dare have feelings for a younger, attractive man? You’re hideous and fat, and so beneath his league. Everyone is going to laugh at you. Everyone would ridicule you if they knew what you dared desire! You’re not worthy of having feelings!” But writing about this helps me realize this is only my self-deprecating internal monologue. Talking to my friends about it and receiving their reactions shatters the self-hatred. And putting it out into the world makes it real.

I’m here. I don’t loathe myself anymore. I can talk about this.

You, my dear reader, are my license to feel.

And I can only smile at how far I’ve come. The latest person I fell in love with is my not so humble self.