There’s nothing quite like 4am to make you sentimental. Is there any other time as hollow?
On this night, when I wake up and can’t fall back asleep and watch the minutes crawl into the next hour, I’m tempted to do what I would often do under these circumstances: look at his Instagram, check his Facebook, maybe reread our old text messages.
But I know not to do that, because two weeks ago, I ripped off the Band-Aid.
It had become a secret habit, looking a few times a day at his Internet profiles, even though he hardly ever posts anything, and as with all things that provide a false sense of security – that superficially numb our vulnerability – I finally reached a breaking point.
And so my therapist told me that while you can’t stop your feelings, you can stop your behavior, and that when I did it, it would be like ripping off a Band-Aid.
I’d ripped off Band-Aids before. I’ve been known to door slam when I start to feel too close to someone, when I start to feel like a doormat. I wasn’t ready to rip this Band-Aid off for a while though. I wanted to keep numbing.
For all those months, I knew that what I was doing when I looked at his Instagram or Facebook was unhealthy and masochistic but I also got something from it: a false sense of connection. The ability to trick myself back to a different time, into a sense of comfort from revisiting when we were friends and there was something to us that was real and unusual and electric – a time when I didn’t look for anything more than he gave me. When I found myself reeling in the present, I could find safety in the past. I could find something restorative in those pictures or our old text messages that would fill me back up. The part of me that I’m always trying to get back to lives in those conversations, so I tried to live there too.
The thing about finding comfort in the past is that the present will always slip into your experience of those memories, circling around the places you try to drop back into like a shark. You’ll have the shell of the feelings that were once your now but they’ll be hollow and almost eerie, because they no longer live there.
And inevitably what I felt the more I tried to go back to the past was emptiness and disconnect and distance. My memories of us were becoming more and more fuzzy; I was losing details I’d once known so viscerally. And so the more I felt us growing apart, the more I turned to the past to keep us alive, and the more I turned to the past to keep us alive, the more I had to face that none of this was real, that I’d built a safe haven with very, very high walls in my head and in trying to protect myself I was only becoming more and more trapped.
Maybe there are reasons beyond our capacity to understand why we chase people who don’t love us back, who we try to keep with us long after they’ve gone away. Maybe we learned love wrong, attaching misconstrued definitions to the elusive construct we all want to know and feel. Maybe we downright learned to associate rejection or pain with a sense of “love,” increasing our willingness to chase until the ends of the Earth, to be run around and around and around. Maybe we just want to believe that we’re capable of love.
When I finally reached my breaking point – when I saw something about him that so painfully didn’t align with who I thought he was – I had to confront the truth that was in front of me: that this person doesn’t tend to treat girls nicely, and that this person is what I’ve associated with “love,” which means that I’m still broken. The truth that was in front of me was that I haven’t really changed and that I can’t trust myself.
And so here’s what’s so threatening about the present: it forces me to admit that I was wrong. It forces me to acknowledge my own damage. It forces me to admit that I still don’t understand love correctly, that I haven’t truly changed.
I don’t know much about love but I do know about conditioning. You take two things that aren’t naturally one and you make them so. You take a bell and food and in making them one, you teach a dog to salivate. Maybe we learn love the same way.
Some of my earliest memories are of being chased to my room, me running as fast as I could to my bed, the safe place, the place where I was protected, crying and pleading to not be touched, tripping over fast apologies; or being told to get out of the car and left on street corners in the middle of the city, learning a lesson by being made to think I was being left for good, before being picked up again five minutes later. There were always three words that followed these moments: “I love you.” Maybe the TV remote that once flew past my head as I ran as fast as I could to hide was the “food” and the comforting promise of love that came five minutes after the fact was the “bell.” Maybe hurt and love became one; maybe two things that don’t go together became one.
Here’s another thing: the part of our brain that processes physical pain is the same that processes rejection and loneliness. What this means is that the brain is unable to differentiate between emotional and physical pain; when we’re rejected by someone we care about, it might as well be a punch. From a neurological standpoint, it’s no wonder that when we experience rejection, we work to take ourselves back to another time, one that we deem safer, comforting. We’re doing what we can to reduce the threat of pain.
What if each time my brain processed his rejections, another inextricably linked part of it processed “I love you”? What if validation is liking me, but rejection is loving me?
So I finally ripped off the Band-Aid, because the truth about him, about us – about myself – had become too loud to deny. And having to accept this truth hurt more than any of the things that I’d ever mistaken and twisted to be love. Having to accept this truth made me want to be wrong.
And I still do. I want to know that I can trust myself, that the love I think I feel is real. But if I’m coming back to the now, if I keep myself from the comfort of the past, I have to admit, however painful, that I choose love that is always hanging on the other side of hurt. That I want people more the less they are nice to me, the more they leave me on that street corner and make me wonder if they’ll come back. That maybe I don’t think of anything as love until I start being run around. That probably I shouldn’t trust myself.
I’ve ripped off the Band-Aid; I’ve gotten rid of him – but yet I won’t delete him. What I should do is delete the text messages; make myself unable to see pictures of him. I should take the present – the fact that he’s not here – and make it the only thing I can access.
But it’s 4am and a part of me is waiting on that street corner for him to come back.
It’s 4am and a part of me would still like to carry around his ghost like dead weights tethered to my ankles, always a little behind me, there.
It’s 4am and the present gives me nothing but myself in a bed in a dark room in Los Angeles, long before that hour when sleep-dizzied bodies start to pull themselves up.
And so while I won’t let myself look, I won’t completely delete him. I’ll keep the past tucked away in my pocket, out of reach but always loud as neon, just heavy enough to know it’s there. Just to know it’s there.