The Death of Unicorns

I remember the exact moment I closed the door on sentimentality. It’s funny because I don’t remember the date, or precisely how old I was, or too many of the relevant details that would make for a cohesive narrative, but I remember the exact moment. It was when I killed the unicorn.

Cohesive narrative notwithstanding, let’s see if I can at least provide some context. I collected unicorns as a girl. I adored them. My favorite bed sheets had unicorns, I had posters, a stuffed unicorn, I begged my parents to rent “The Last Unicorn” every weekend, and as gifts I received figurines that positively littered the top of my dresser. Particular favorites were little blown glass unicorns with gold manes and tails and horns. They were probably cheap, but to my 8 year old mind they were absolute treasures. I loved the way the light gleamed through the smooth glass, or struck the gold like sparks. They felt rich and special and like tiny portals to the high fantasy lands where I so desperately wanted to escape.

We escaped a lot when I was a kid. The grown-ups called it “moving”, but when you do it every year without fail, you’re running from something. It didn’t matter then; it was just a fact of life. The school year ends and the house gets packed. I learned early on how to pack my own room in musty boxes, wrapping my treasures in dry, gritty newspaper. Practice improved my technique. But no matter how careful I was, no matter how meticulous with my ration of coupon inserts, something invariably emerged broken from a box. Leaving was never a disappointment, but arriving always was.

One by one, my tiny blown glass unicorns became casualties of our nomadic life. A horn occasionally, but more commonly a leg or tail. The needle-like edges pricked my fingers as I unwrapped them, their jagged amputations pitiful and useless. They could no longer stand on three crystalline points, one leg raised artfully mid-prance. They couldn’t balance delicately on two hind legs and a tail, a rear forever ruined by the missing point. Somewhere between 9 years old and 11, the second-to-last unicorn broke. I think I remember crying a little as I unwrapped it, but that may have been out of habit because I don’t remember feeling sad for long. It was more like a flash of grief and then a wave of anger. Of course it broke. They always break. No sensible person can expect a child-wrapped glass figurine weighing 2 ounces to survive an interstate move in a U-Haul. Who does that??

I unwrapped the last whole unicorn along side the broken one and stared at it. We’d just arrived at our new house, but as I looked at it all the joy I’d derived from its charm and delicacy was blackened by the knowledge that in a year’s time it would be broken. The inevitability of moving was one of the few certain things in my life. The only constant was change. In that moment, I hated every person who’d ever given me anything breakable. Surely the adults – who created the change, who controlled the change, who knew the change was coming – surely they knew what my child mind grasped? Moves are inevitable. Tiny glass unicorns don’t survive moves. Broken unicorns make me cry. Why do the adults in my life want me to cry?

I threw away the broken unicorn and its intact companion with it. I can’t cry over it if it doesn’t exist. It was a conscious decision to choose relief from loss over whatever fleeting happiness material things could give me. I was somewhere between 9 years old and 11.

Yesterday, I signed the closing papers on the sale of the house my marriage ended in. I left feeling free in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time. Arriving was a disappointment. Leaving never is.

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Sorrows and Deep Sighs

The world is bona fide mess.

Our president has tacitly threatened nuclear war on the one other country in the world with a leader stupid enough to retaliate. The institution of police have openly embraced their role as blue terrorists in our communities. A series of catastrophic hurricanes is steadily destroying lives and nations in the Caribbean. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are struggling to survive.

My tiny, insignificant corner of personal misery isn’t much by comparison, but it’s everything when my own mind is no refuge from the wretchedness. The only solution I can think of is to put my misery to bed.

The end of my marriage came without my consent, or input of any kind, really. My husband simply left – emotionally and verbally if not physically. No matter how I begged for communication, he simply stopped talking or acknowledging my role as his spouse in any way. All of my anger, all my despair, centered… no, centers, to be fair, around the loss of my agency. To this day, I seethe with frustration over never being able to confront our problems head on.

But that was his entire goal.

If he never accused me of failing him, then I couldn’t accuse him back. He wanted a do-over without consequences. Because to him, ignoring our 12 years together means they didn’t happen the way they really happened, and without my input to contradict, he can remember them any way he likes. My real failings become imagined in whatever way suits his narrative. My real quirks become monstrous or nonexistent as fits the story he wants to tell himself (and the next woman). My heartache, too.

While I have real regrets and real sorrow and real hurt, my worst pain comes from my erasure. There is nothing I can do to make myself relevant in his life again, for good or ill. I’ve long since let go of my love for him, but becoming invisible to the single person I trusted with every corner of my soul? That’s a betrayal I might never recover from. No matter what indictments I can throw his way (and there are plenty), the crux of my misery rests on the helplessness of being invisible.

And that’s on me. Because I knew he didn’t really see me. I knew it, and I chose to make excuses for it. When he insisted on portraying me in ways that were inconsistent with my perception of our relationship, I objected – in the beginning. But when those objections were met with “I’m just teasing”, I backed off. Because I didn’t want to perceive my role as humorless. I wish I had. I wish I had been perceived as humorless instead of whatever was in head. At least then there would have been a modicum of truth to it.

Instead, I dove into the dark spaces between what I knew was real and what he would acknowledge. There was peace in not having to talk, and I embraced it wholeheartedly. I was tired. I’d spent my entire life navigating emotions for people too damaged to do it on their own and I was just fucking tired. What he offered was freedom from that, and I accepted.

And that’s on me, too. I was tired, I was lonely, and I made a fatal mistake out of weakness.

It’s happened to better people than me, but strangely that doesn’t bring me much comfort.

My misery may be tiny and insignificant in the context of the world, but it’s also tiny and insignificant to the other person who might have shared it. I am a myth to the only other person in the world I wanted to be completely real with. I let go of him a long time ago, but it’s time to let go of the frustration surrounding my erasure. I will have to come to terms with the truth of my failings on my own, and maybe that’s as it should be. There was a saying in my house growing up – You’re the only one you have to look at in the mirror.

I’m the only one staring back. That’s enough.

On letting go

When something awful happens, particularly emotional trauma, it feels like the world suddenly wants to give you advice on how to handle it. If it’s not typewriter text overlaid on a seascape with a vintage filter, it’s platitudes from well-meaning friends, or the ever-not-helpful Facebook parables. The common thread is that you’ll feel better once you do it, and everyone wants to see you do it (if for no other reason than you’ve been a giant downer for the last 18 months and for god’s sake, can’t you just please wash your hair??), but the actual process is more of a mystery. Bookstores have devoted entire shelving units to “self-help” titles, and a quick search on Amazon for same brings back over 650 thousand returns (which should in itself tell you that nobody has this shit figured out, but hope springs eternal). Letting go: it’s all “good”.

I’m here to tell you it’s not. It sucks dirty canal water off of hairy donkey balls.

Listen, first of all, letting go does not happen on a schedule. You can’t time it according to the 7 stages of grief, you can’t force it by following someone else’s plan. It’s an ongoing process with hills and valleys. No, scratch that. It’s an ongoing process with spikes and pits. And the pits have spikes. There are days when you’re balanced precariously on a spike looking down and days when you’re impaled on a spike staring at the sky above. And it’s raining. Grief, pain – these happen in their own time and they will just take what you don’t give them, so you might as well put your life on hold while they shake you like a terrier with a rat. That is an accurate description of how much dignity you’ll have in the process, by the way: limp and covered with dog spit.

Secondly, the prevailing opinion is that letting go leads to some serene, blissed out state where the lotus position comes naturally and the grocery store being out of your favorite ice cream during PMS no longer makes you want to go on a rampage. Also false. There is no reason, ever, for the store to be out of Ben&Jerry’s Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch at any time. But more importantly, letting go doesn’t leave you happy, it leaves you empty. Hollow. Drained. Here’s the thing about grief: it was once happiness. Of course it was, or you wouldn’t feel so awful. You don’t start at base zero and go down. Grief pulls you down off your happy little platform into a giant, steaming pile of shit. You can’t just watch your pain blow away in whatever F5 tornado tore through your life and expect the happiness to be there waiting when the dust settles. It’s all gone. Everything. Now you’re at base zero.

Oh, and here’s a little addendum to that second point: anger. Hoo boy. Anger is the carpetbagger who rides into town right after the tornado and is all, “We will rebuild!” but just goes around kicking your stuff while you’re trying to pick it up. Not that it can’t be helpful. In my case, anger led to some productive changes, like shutting down toxic relationships and to stop apologizing for being myself. So, to continue the metaphor, carpetbagging anger kicked over some dry rot and let the bugs out. But being forced to watch that, to participate in taking down the rotted, crumbling foundation of my former happiness? Gross. So gross.

Okay, so far, letting go happens on its own (often inconvenient) schedule, and it leaves you empty (after pissing you off). What’s the appeal again??

Could be simply the relief from the agony of grief. Emptiness is way better than constant anxiety, stomach problems, endless fatigue and a full set of luggage under each eye. Could be the promise of new beginnings – the idea that something better is waiting to be discovered. Both of these are valid, but they don’t really describe my experience.

For me, the end result of letting go is that I never have to do it again. Not for that particular pain. I’ve let it run its course and chase through every chamber of my metaphorical heart, and it will never come back as anything but a memory. Sometimes the memory smarts a bit, maybe it nips at my feels with sharp little teeth, but it will never, ever strangle and suffocate me again. I’ll never be sucked into that tornado, never be subjected to that storm, never have to rebuild that house. The emptiness is a relief, and the hope of a new happiness is a possibility, but the lesson of never going back is my greatest reward. I will never make those same mistakes, I will never be vulnerable in that same way again.

Letting go makes me stronger, but I couldn’t have told you that, let alone imagined it a year and a half ago. The process is a mystery, a non-linear jumble of fucked up parts that kicks over your foundations and impales you and shakes the life out of you. And if you survive it, you’ve lost an integral part to your former happiness. Letting go is not “all good”. No wonder so many people never get around to it.  I should probably close this out by saying something optimistic like, “But it’s worth it!” The truth is messier than that. I don’t know yet if it’s worth it. It’s been a helluva process. Maybe being stronger will have its own consequences that I can’t see yet. Emotions are weirdly entangled like that.

I’d be happy with a popular message that gives a truer picture of what letting go is actually like. On letting go

 

 

Annual

Life is improving. Slowly. Marginally. It’s all very undramatic and anticlimactic. Boring. But boring is good after the shock and awe campaign of the last 12 months.

Shit. Has it been that long since my life blew up? Yes, yes it has. They say that after a major life event, don’t make any other drastic changes for a year. I’ve never taken that advice before, but it was forced on me this time.

It sucks.

It’s also revealing. Revolutionary. Wretched. Weird.

I’m cautiously making plans. I have a future, and it looks encouraging. School. Independence. City life. Friends. I’m 40, not 18, I promise. But it does feel like new beginnings and next phases. I’m tentatively approaching anticipation. Skirting the edge of excitement.

Lost things are retreating. Bridges are appearing. None of it is certain, but for the first time in a year it’s not completely shrouded in a depressing, gray fog. Pain is abandoning the siege. The fortress is damaged, but not downed. Ravaged, but not ruined.

Anyway, the pace is plodding. Still the better part of a year to go before the future manifests. Plenty of time for lists, plans, revisions, and surprises. Happy birthday, my destruction. Time to rebuild.