What does love really mean?

As an empath, a water sign, a healer and a writer, love is a central theme to my identity. An identity that has grown more and more complex as I’ve aged. For a long time, I blamed myself for the growing complexity of it.

I was merely born in the wrong century, a time that has long been forgotten. Where people loved each other and took care of each other based around what that person needed, and not what you were comfortable giving. And it’s only recently that I’ve come to the understanding that not only was I wrong about where I was but also how wrong I was about the past.

The past has been romanticized as this place where great people did great things to take care of their people. The weak and downtrodden were lifted up to be part of the group, a group that was viewed as a unit instead of many individuals. The problem with that is that it’s patently false.

Sure, if you fit enough of the mold, you would be accepted. But the outcasts, the ones who believed in “trivial” things like magic, feelings, vibes, and emotions were pushed out. Forced to create their own communities. And even today, the large populous looks down on groups like the hippies of the ’60s and ’70s as kooky or out of touch.

These people are viewed negatively because they embrace their feelings and emotions and listen to the stars, but these are closer to my people than any others. Luckily, in the age of social media, these people are easier to find than ever. We’re drifting toward a society of people who not only embrace their emotions but thrive BECAUSE they do so. Still, there’s a large divide in how we view things like love.

The problem with the word love is that we use it in too many varying ways. Anyone can love sports, their family, their friends, their spouse, and themselves, and each love is different. But we throw the word around with anything we like and expect everyone else to figure out what we actually mean. And for most of us, our problems expressing that love is the cause of divide in relationships. 

To be clear, I also don’t like how we use the word “relationship” either, but for different reasons. When we hear the word “relationship”, most of us default to thinking “Oh, they mean their boyfriend/girlfriend/partner/spouse.” In reality, everyone we interact with is in a relationship with us. We have relationships with ourselves, our family, our friends, our coworkers and really anyone we interact with. You don’t have to love everyone you’re in a relationship with, but it’s still a relationship.

So where do my sticking points come from? While most people’s most difficult relationship is with themselves, mine is not. I don’t say that as a judgment, it’s purely what I’ve observed and heard from people I interact with. That is the part I’ve put the most work into, and probably 99.99% of the time, I do love myself.

But it has been a lonely row to hoe. My family has been there, but I feel our paths diverging. Not in any sort of negative way, but I know that if I’m going to grow further in the ways that I want to, there will be some level of fracture. Nothing permanent or bad, just different from what it is now.

The love of family is strong. It’s almost unbreakable in most cases. People will go to extremes for their families, in ways that they won’t for other people. But that puts a level of weight to it. Almost as if you HAVE to love your family. You can severe any relationship you want, including with family members, but they will always be blood.

To highlight this, look at a family with children. The parents, in moments of honesty, will admit that if it became a choice of their partner or their children, they would choose their children. Why? Because the children are literally blood-related to their parents. The parents, as much as they love their partner, aren’t blood-related.

There are still varying degrees of this, though, so it’s not a black and white decision. Most people would probably choose a partner over a blood relative, but we’re getting too stuck in the mud by trying to assign a distinction to every relationship of every human.

No, my problem is in the friend and partner sense of the word. My desire to love in those areas has typically led me down a self-sacrificial route. When it comes to friends, I’ve mostly always accommodated, never wanting to rock the boat. I’ve gotten better about that, but I was always trying to curry favor in an effort to keep people around. I would agree to go out for a night, knowing it was going to stretch me too thin, and then flake at the last moment. And it meant eventually, I was running people off because I was a yes man, not a friend. 

And in terms of what we call “relationships”, it was more of a selfish-sacrificing pattern. In my teens and early 20s, I was never single for very long. I ignored a lot of warning signs and got into very short term relationships because it was, in my mind, better to have someone, anyone, than to be alone. It’s probably part of why I’ve been single for so long now. It wasn’t a punishment or a lack of potential matches, but I had to teach myself how to be independent.

I had to learn about myself for once and expand myself into new places. I had been running in circles for years and I finally had broken off onto a new path. And it worked. The very, very few times I’ve opened up to new people in the last couple of years, I was confident I was doing so because it was the right decision, and not just grasping at straws or trying to fill a void. Because there was no void to fill anymore.

I’ve acknowledged to myself that I’ll be ok if it’s just me. I worried a lot when I was younger that I would be alone. It’s where a lot of that scrambling to be with someone was born out of, and also why those relationships didn’t prosper. The old saying about gripping on too tightly is applicable. There are no negative feelings around relationships for me either. I had a period where there were, and even times where I was miserable at a wedding because I was making it about myself. As I said, a selfish-sacrificing pattern.

However, it’s been lonely. The loneliness, I used to think, was from not being in a “relationship”. And in a way, it is. But not in the ways we typically conflate. It’s not just about the physical, it’s the emotional and mental labor that you share with another person. It’s the type of symbiotic relationship that only comes when you don’t “have” to love them. When they choose you and you, them. You’ve both acknowledged that your life is enhanced by them being in it. 

Every time I have a rough day mentally or emotionally, it’s all on me. In a healthy relationship, it’s a balancing act. When they’re having a low day, you can adopt more of the load and visa versa. If I have a low period, I still have to make sure the bills are paid, fix the sink, cancel the phone plan, or whatever issues may come up. And for a short period of time, most people are ok. Hell, sometimes people thrive in that situation. I am usually one of those people. But after a while, it does get old. But you learn from letting things fall through the cracks and the mistakes made and you get better next time. 

The thing I wish more people would realize is how grey everything is. There is no black and white, no one single answer for any of life’s questions. People stay for a myriad of reasons. People leave for even more. And ultimately, if you can find that one person that will share your load, don’t take that for granted.

Wrapped up in that, however, is the understanding that we have to love how those people need to be loved, not how we want it to be. If they’re your friends, love them as your friend. If they’re your partner, love them like that. Same with your family. But understand that it’s not about you. It’s about them.

~

Photo by Leighann Renee on Unsplash

 

An Ode to my Hometown: What Now?

Today is a bit different, for several reasons. Mostly, this place isn’t in my hometown. This is also where things peaked for me for about a decade. It’s only been recent that, with the benefit of hindsight, I understand I had let my life spiral for those ten years. But we’ll get there.

Northern Kentucky University was the first college I went to after high school. It was the first time I was living away from home for longer than a week, and it continued to build on the lessons learned in high school. Lessons of growth, acceptance of others, and independence. It also bred new insecurities, feelings of lack of control, and new levels of chaos in my life.

NKU Dorm

 

My roommate freshman year was one of those super popular kids from high school. He also happened to have two strikes on his criminal record. I don’t remember his name now. He was a really nice guy that seemed to have a knack for finding trouble and allowing trouble to find him.

I remember one night he snuck in through our window, got in bed, and said he had been there the whole time. And that’s precisely what we told the cop that showed up at our door about thirty minutes later. I still have no idea where he had been.

That first semester went well. I had good grades, was actually enjoying my classes, and had made new friends. Being that I knew basically no one there, those of us from Louisville quickly found each other and bonded. But there was definitely a core group that I hung out with consistently.

Reggie and his roommate Roger were my two closest friends. We hung out pretty much when we all had free time, and they taught me a lot about opening myself up to new experiences. Roger and Reggie were both much more outgoing than I was, so I tagged along on a lot of experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

I opened up so much so that I was starting conversations with people that I had classes with, which was virtually unheard of for my introverted self. In particular, there was one girl in one class. And eventually, to make a long story short, I started dating the first woman I would love.

NKU Lake Pier

She was beautiful, intelligent, funny. Basically any good quality you could want in a partner, she had. Even her family was great. But I did everything a young man in love could think to do to mess things up. I stopped hanging out as much with my friends. I threw myself into the relationship while simultaneously becoming less trusting of her and, eventually, we split up sometime after the second semester started.

I spent a lot of time talking to mutual friends, and eventually, we started talking again. I don’t remember all the details now, but we ended up back together. A second chance.

The end of the semester came, and I had decided to move back to Louisville. My friends had found new friends due to my absence, my roommate never came back from winter break, and I thought that we could make a long-distance relationship work. And at another time, a more mature version of myself might have been able to.

In our break, she had started dating someone else. And it wrecked my psyche with jealousy. I brought that jealousy and paranoia into the exact situation where those kinds of thoughts and feelings would be the death knell. And the executioner was sharpening his blade.

When we broke up the second time, I was arrogant. I had talked her into giving me a second chance once, why couldn’t I do it again. And somehow, she was ready to give me another. It’s clear to me now that, as much as I loved her, she loved me more. And I took advantage of that until the people in her life wouldn’t let her anymore.

She had asked me to come to her dance recital. I say “asked” as if there was any chance of a future with her if I didn’t go. She stressed over and over how important this was, especially as someone who was trying to get back in the good graces of her family. And I was committed to going. Until I wasn’t.

I balked at the last minute and flaked. I don’t remember the shit excuse I gave myself, but trust me, it wasn’t worth remembering. I tried and tried to talk to her, but she wouldn’t have it, and for great reason. I asked and asked, why? I knew I had messed up, but can’t you give me one more chance? No. I was, and I quote, a dick. And it only stung as bad as it did because I knew she was right.

NKU Courtyard

 

I spiraled. Hard. I knew I was to blame, but I refused to admit it, even to myself. I deflected and pretended, all while my mind was beginning its first descent into the dark world of depression. I got put on an anti-depressant, by my own request. And it helped for a while.

But my 21st birthday was quickly approaching, and the thing with anti-depressants is that drinking alcohol while on them is a terrible idea. I did it anyway. The night of my 21st birthday party, I wanted to be anywhere else. I wasn’t suicidal, and I never have been. But I didn’t want to be on this planet that night. It’s one of the worst nights of my life when it should have been one of the best.

At the time, I believed I was heartbroken. And to an extent, I was. But now I think I was punishing myself. I knew all the wrong things I had done. I knew drinking alcohol with the medication was dangerous. I did it anyway. I wanted to feel the consequences of my actions. Or to feel anything.

NKU Lake Pulled Back

NKU shaped me differently than the other places have. Not only because I had, until recently, associated more negative feelings toward it than positive, but also because the story, my story, isn’t tied as much to the physical location. When I went up a few weeks back to take the pictures, I definitely had a rush of memories associated with the school. But those aren’t what shaped me.

The feeling of connection with another person on that level was something I had been searching for. I was always the kid that believed in high school sweethearts. And that dream, that I had put on a pedestal, came crashing down around me, because of me. I wasn’t ready for love at the time. But even more than love, I wasn’t prepared to look myself in the mirror for who I was and hold myself accountable for the behaviors.

NKU Campus Green

Especially in writing this, I see how much I’ve grown since college. Some of the people I’ve met more recently may not even think this story is about me. And honestly, I don’t think about it much anymore, because I know I’m a different person. But it is a part of my story, warts and all. Besides, I still hadn’t hit rock bottom.

~

Thank you again for those of you following along with this series. It’s been very therapeutic.