Intro Note: I started writing this essay about 12 months ago when I found myself falling into a romantic situation with someone that I knew, from previous experience, was bad for me. I kept coming back to it but could never find a decent ending because, in all honesty, as much as I knew the guy made me vulnerable, I still wanted him.
I feel we all have that one person we don’t want to quit, even though all they promise is hurt. The one we could keep going back to – no matter how predictable the outcome.
When someone continuously shows you how little you mean to them, but you keep coming back for more, you eventually start to mean less to yourself. But being treated like shit is not an intellectual experiment, or amusing game and it is most certainty is not love. Instead it’s something you start to accept and condone; you may even believe you deserve it. This essay is about realising that, and taking the necessary steps to walk away from that person and that situation.
Your mood, you mental health, your self-esteem, none of these should be at risk around someone who claims to love you.
“I don’t think I’ll ever really get over him.” That’s the refrain I muttered to anyone who would listen after he left my life the first time. I could hardly count the amount of nights I spent crying over him; the number of days his absence pushed me to the edge of unstable. Living with the heartache of a future without him on the horizon.
I spent month’s limping toward a fresh start. I soothed myself by writing countless essays, each one triggered by a different moment or memory: the day I found his orange toothbrush in my bathroom; the night I figured out he’d cheated by smelling someone else’s cologne off him; and even the moment, as inevitable as it was, I realised he wasn’t built to love me the same way I did him because we both wanted different things.
Like all who have suffered heartache, I felt trapped and alone on an island; marooned there as punishment because I fell for the wrong guy, or rather the same guy. I’d again failed to adapt myself to romantic love, and now I had to wait to be rescued, never realising that you have to save yourself – which, in the end, I did. Somehow, I got through it. I got over it, I got over him. Until he crept back into my life.
His arrival was one I welcomed without a modicum of hesitation, and under the guise of friendship we started spending time together. First it was overly careful check-ins that follow a long-term separation; followed by silent, tense social meets for coffee or a walk about town. Then time announced it was safe to be around each other, so down dropped our guards and in ushered evenings of dinner dates, movies and drinks. Sometimes spending three, even four, nights a week together.
I was firm in my belief that I could navigate a friendship. For one we’d both grown emotionally; our conversation was no longer laced with an awkwardness, nor was there any worry one of us would say something wrong and trigger a fight. Whenever he told me about a guy I simply shrugged it off, being only happy for him. Where resentment once stood there was now forgiveness. All bad blood had been washed away.
It had been weeks of us being friends and still I hadn’t succumbed to even a tinge of romantic feelings. It seemed to be playing out well. Then one day, after losing ourselves in conversation, I caught a snippet of who he used to be – of who we used to be. That moment announced itself loudly and hit hard, then old flames started to reignite.
After that split-second change everything immediately felt different. The atmosphere had a current of possibility surging through it; now he looked at me with a familiar fondness, and I allowed myself to do the same. Before I knew it, the flirtation began and then rapidly started to spin out of control. The full time I ignored the alarm pounding in my head.
Later that week I went to his flat and the flirting escalated. I knew at my core this wasn’t harmless anymore, that I was at risk of resurrecting feelings; yet we let our emotions conquer us. Want (stubborn, unyielding, relentless want) beat back logic, bridging the gap between us. Eventually he said he needed to get ready for work, and the sinking feeling that had routinely outlined our previous time together returned. So, I pulled him in for a hug, and we both held each other tightly.
I felt his breath on my neck, while our chests pounded against each other. Hearts in cages screaming to be free. The air was thick was anticipation, with right and wrong; we both knew what we wanted yet I pulled away, delivering only a kiss on the cheek. As he walked me to the door he held one of my hands, then again leaned in and hugged me. He said goodbye and through his hallmark grin said he’d message me later.
It is impossible, in moments like that, not to access old feelings; you’re reminded how valuable you were to each other. That night I lay in my bed, thinking of the first time we met on the chilly April day. All our memories came back in technicolor, full of odd, quiet details, leading up to the first time I told him ‘I love you.’ Lying there I realised how delicate I was when it came to him; I hadn’t so much got over my feelings, but rather I’d shipped them far away, somewhere they could no longer do any damage. Now, they’d found me again.
Over the next few days there were brief spaces between his replies. With every message I felt choppy and unseen, like an old TV set that needed the sharpness adjusted. I didn’t know what was going on with us; all I could see was the blurred shape of someone I used to love once again moving closer to me.
When old feelings come back, you suffer a time lapse interruption of your past. The bad moments remain in the shadows and you focus solely on the good times, which are perfectly calibrated to make you think that this could again be more. That’s what was happening. All the hurt, anguish, mistakes and fights that derailed us before no longer posed a threat. But one fact demanded to be heard: He wasn’t good for me.
Chemistry had a different idea, and inevitably we once again ended up in his room; the history of a few days before threatening to repeat itself. From my side he came and wrapped his arms around me, burying his face in the thick cotton of my t-shirt. Somehow, we were again holding each other too tightly. In those few seconds I tried to understand if I could love him once more, if we’d be able to build a life together this time. Could we now learn from the mistakes that defined our past and stand by each other in a way that was foreign to us before?
I hoped against hope that I would be struck by a sign that I should let this happen. Then, like magnets, our lips gravitated toward each other’s, my hands bringing him closer but wanting to push us apart. Suddenly it felt like the whole universe was watching to see what would happen next…but we all know what would. We kissed.
Afterwards I landed a soft kiss on his cheek, saying without prompt, ‘I love you.’ He waited a moment before burying his face into my T-shirt once again, replying only, ‘I know.’
Later that night I tried to fend off those intrusive thoughts: Is he flirting with someone else? Is he kissing someone else? I don’t have ownership over his actions, I can’t control what he does. I refused to cave under the weight of my growing anxiety, so instead I messaged him saying I hope he has a good time with his friends, and that we can do a movie night soon. Later he replied saying ‘thank you’, ignoring without shame the second part of my text. I found out the next day he was out on a date.
‘I’m think I’m still in love with him’ I moan to my friend, while we’re drinking cheap wine and catching up, wondering how I’ve turned another single summer into a rollercoaster of overlapping emotions. With a blank expression he suggested wordlessly that I should know better. ‘He’s playing you’ was all he said.
I decided shortly after that it wouldn’t [couldn’t] go any further. As much as I loved him, (or was ‘love’ the more accurate tense?) I must have respect for myself. I know that this isn’t good for either of us; not my aggressive clinginess nor his unwillingness to commit or change (at least for me.)
Even though we are now both new, different versions of ourselves, who I am around him is regressive, and I can’t go back to being that person. We can’t and won’t ever work. I know this path well, and it only leads to heartache; to me craving him like a drug. So, I needed to accept that fact, even if that thing in my chest protested it.
Realising nothing could come of this, of us, had its minuses and pluses. I started to regain a sense of freedom that allowed me to [slowly] repair parts of myself. With each passing day I felt healthier, brighter and shackle free. As for the minuses, I no longer had an excuse to act like an asshole or parade my feelings around, letting them take priority over anyone else’s. I also had to endure the drawn-out agony of once again kicking a habit. The thing about sobriety – much like quitting him – is to know when it’s time to leave the proverbial party; knowing where to draw the line and knowing when to say, ‘I’ve had enough.’
That moment in my history forced me to ask myself what I want from love; and while the narrative playing out in my head was one where him and I were together (I still think about it to this day), I know I need to be with someone who will make me feel secure, safe and at home. Not temporarily special, jealous and infatuated – because really, that isn’t sustainable.
When you’re in this situation there is no harm in remaining friends; but the magic trick here is to not land yourself in a situation where lines could be blurred. The lesson here is learning to separate want from reality. Just because the image of being together plays out like a cinematic daydream in your head, does not mean it would unfold like that. You may find yourself lost in the idea of someone, but it doesn’t mean that’s who they are.
If someone left your life before, there’s probably good reason for that. It’s a fact of life, some people are just bad for you. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just how it goes sometimes.
All I did with us was create a pretty concept of what I wanted, what I hoped for. Something that was as misleading as his temporary affection; as unrealistic as it was heart-breaking. As naive as it was avoidable. An idea that was too delicate to ever hold itself together. Both back then, now, and in the future.