He tasted like bread the first time I kissed him. It was probably because he had just been drinking — I thought this was the exception, not the rule for him — so it didn’t register as striking. I just remember that he tasted like bread in the way that only beer can taste like bread. On the first kiss. On the second. On the 10th and the 17th and the 25th.
To say that you’re looking for a relationship without baggage is a crapshoot. You’ll be looking forever. Everyone has their hang ups and their issues and their demons, and to look for someone who’s polished and ready and perfect is to look for something that doesn’t exist. But some issues are bigger than others, and some burdens are too heavy for even two people to bear.
When I was little, I was taught that if you loved anyone enough, you’d want to spare them any kind of pain — but that if they loved you, they wouldn’t want to see you suffer alone. And as I grew up, I developed my own hang ups in the process, and came to realize that sometimes, the only thing you can do is keep your issues separate from the people you love. Not because they’ll love you any less, but because just as you’re afraid they might reject you, you try to spare them a certain sort of misery in the process. Nobody’s expected to pick up someone else’s baggage just because you’d like them to, anyway.
The man I dated who ran to his booze before he ran to me was a little bit much, in a little too deep from the get go. I knew this, but I figured that if he was functioning, it would be okay, it would be bearable, it would be alright. That he’d get better, that it was a phase, that he’d grow out of it. But one malt-stained kiss led to another, and my clothes slowly started to smell like alcohol the more I slept over, and it struck me that functioning is still not to say that he was surviving. There was something in him that only he could confront, and no amount of my knowing it was there, no amount of hoping I could be there for him was going to help.
Walking away from someone who needs you is a kick to the ego. Having someone rely on you is as gratifying as it is sweet. But only initially. There’s only so much they’ll be able to do, either on their own or with you. It is good and noble and brave to stick by someone who is struggling, but sometimes, you wind up serving as their crutch. Sometimes, you’ll go down trying to save their ship, not realizing you’re sinking your own. Because try as you might, you won’t matter as much as their demons do. And we’re only human. We want to matter to the people we love. Extracting yourself may be selfish, but sometimes, that is all you have. Sometimes, their burden is not yours to bear.
We want to keep them afloat. We want to think our love will be the great love that changes things, and changes them. We want to believe we’re important enough to them to inspire them to change — to get better and face their fears and problems and addictions. But this only romanticizes illness. And romance is addicting on its own. It’s not love that fixes these things, it’s hard work and determination and personal will. It stems from deep within, and the most anyone else can do is hold up a mirror and show you the parts of you you cannot see on your own. After that, it’s up to you to act. It’s up to you to want a better life. It helps to have people in your corner, to be sure — people to whom you can run and confide in and hide in when things get dark and tough — but you also have to want to be better more than anybody else wants it for you.
I’ve been there, I wanted to tell him. At first, I thought I could see it through, and I had all these ideas about commiserating and reassuring him that he was not alone, about being able to help because I’d been there, because I struggled in my own way and would have drowned myself and tried to reach out to other people. But when I was there, too, I often conveniently overlooked the fact that I dragged people down as casualties in my own battle. I didn’t realize that no matter what, I would end up on the ground, doing the hard work myself. Alone.
And every time I tried to say it, that I knew what he was dealing with (or at least I felt like I did), every time I wanted to explain that I couldn’t do this anymore, it felt like an excuse. I felt like a chicken, like there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t strong enough to carry his burden for us both. If I loved him like I said I did, why couldn’t I sink with him? Because I was scared. Because I was wary. Because I was intimidated by something that I knew all too well and didn’t want to relive again and so I was selfish, in a way, but also because it all just seemed like a fancy way of saying that I was getting out because I didn’t want to fix him. Because it wasn’t my place to fix him. Because I knew the fixing would have to stem from him.
So I left, and I stopped checking in, because I felt guilty and to wish him well was the most I felt like I could do. I later learned that he cleaned himself up, and went to meetings, and met somebody wonderful there, and I can’t take credit for that because it was all in him. I didn’t do that. He did. He’s the one who fixed himself, and to even wonder if I could would be to take away from who he was and what he accomplished. It’s not that I had any obligation to fix him, or that it would have been bigger of me to stay, or even that he might have gotten his wake up call when I left. That’d be the most selfish idea of all. Whatever incited that in him is his alone to claim. His broken was not my broken, and our jagged edges couldn’t fit together. Sometimes, you need to walk away before you drown together. Maybe learning how to swim on your own is the only way.