When I was in college, my friends and I would often take week long camping trips during the Summer. One of our favorite places was in Canada, near Lake Huron and sand dunes, where we could sprawl out over several campsites, far away from the rest of the world, and spend our time swimming, eating, listening to music, and drinking copious amounts of cheap beer. We’d all turn off our cellphones and sink into the glorious rhythm of fireside life without responsibilities.
I vividly recall one particular night, though I was no doubt drunker than I would ever care to get now, when the topic of marriage arose. I was there with my boyfriend of several years, our relationship defined by the ease we found with each other; we could effortlessly glide from being alone with each other to being surrounded by friends and chaos. We were in a time in life when it was easy to pretend like nothing would ever change, that those nights spent by the campfire without worry would ever give way to something different. But living in the Midwest, about ready to graduate college and become a “real adult,” certain expectations start to wash over a couple who, to the outside world, appears to fit together seamlessly.
While the topic was swirling around the circle, I stayed quiet. As far as I was concerned, it had nothing to do with me. And then, like someone always did because they thought it was funny, they turned their attention to me and said something akin to “you’re next.” Despite being in a dizzy world of careless inebriation, my chest tightened. I reacted with wide eyes and emphatically exclaimed, “no!” before scurrying my way toward the beach alone. I remember my heart pounding, my body seizing, propelling me up and away- signaling to me that I needed to get out. I could hear their laughter trailing behind me.
Over my entire dating career, they weren’t the only ones who had discovered and then triggered my fears on purpose. People compared me to Runaway Bride, told me I had a cold, black, heart (in a loving way, of course), and always, always told my partners to be careful. I was gun shy. Everyone knew it. And it was funny- until it wasn’t. It was funny until someone realized that maybe, they wanted me to commit. Maybe they wanted to marry me. Maybe they wanted even just the conversation to be a possibility. Then we would fall into a dark hole of me trying to desperately shake myself free despite not really wanting to lose them while they grasped harder and harder to that which they would inevitably lose.
Not wanting to get married is in itself not inherently an issue, which is what I told myself for years, through countless “he just wasn’t the one for me” men. I obsessed over needing to leave but not wanting to. And then wanting to but not being able to, and finally, without fail, over the new man I left for who I was certain was the one. You can guess how that went.
On the surface, jumping from one relationship to the next, playing the field, not settling down, is lighthearted, fun, something someone in their twenties and living in a city just does. But underneath it all, what my close friends saw and I felt, was misery. I deteriorated every time I discovered that he could not fulfill this deep longing I had within me. Collapsed into myself when I tried again and failed to fix what felt so broken. For a long time, I was ashamed that I, a fiercely independent, intelligent woman, felt so utterly dependent upon the love of a man. I was ashamed that at some level, I wanted to be a Disney princess rescued from her misery by prince charming.
But why, after being sold that narrative for my entire life, would I believe anything different? I saw that there was something broken in Cinderella’s, Belle’s, Aurora’s life, and a man, the love of a man, fixed it. I felt that brokenness within me. Round peg fits round hole, right?
Years and years of therapy, self-reflection, and meditation allowed me to discover that my commitment phobia, as I had come to define it, was not something to be soothed by someone else. In fact, it wasn’t really about the other person at all. I had been searching for something to fill in a gap and wrongly (but understandably) assumed that someone else could do that. The realization that they couldn’t wasn’t initially freeing, it was frightening and devastating. The knowledge that no one else could do that for me sent me into a spiral of hopelessness, like a heroin addict who knows but still tries to convince themselves that the next hit is the thing that will fix this and the rest of the world just has to be wrong. But over time, I stopped using. I stopped jumping, searching, fleeing from one relationship to the next. I had conquered my commitment phobia and it felt good.
Life is funny, but sometimes in a really cruel way. Once I stopped using men as my drug, I thought I was free from addiction, free from obsession. But when you remove the drug, you don’t necessarily remove the drive that brought you to use it in the first place. Over the years, I painfully began to see all the ways that I was a commitment-phobe, how I would escape what was in search of a better what maybe could be. I would walk away during a fight, I would fall into binge watching a t.v. show and get more involved in the characters’ lives than my own, I would use alcohol after a tough day, avoid situations that made me feel something I didn’t want to feel. It’s not a joke when I say that this runs so deep that I sometimes literally peek through my fingers to block out what I don’t want to see. And then, despite fighting it with every cell within me, I discovered that I did it with travel. God no, please not travel. But yes, there it was, that was part of it too.
When I started to recognize all the ways that I used this defense, I couldn’t unsee it. And then somehow, and often against my will, the magic of those things started to dissipate. It’s like being under the illusion that you’re eating a decadent piece of chocolate cake only to come to and realize it’s a gas station, cellophane-wrapped, snack-cake. Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes I still love those too, but they’re not the same, not as fulfilling, not as special.
I revolted. I shoved snack cakes in my face and pretended that they were the same thing as that truly delicious cake I wanted. I started shopping more, planning more travel, obsessing over anything that would grab my attention and free me from the binds of the gnawing feeling that something was wrong. If you follow a preferred defense into the depths, all the way down, you discover that you use it and abuse it in almost every aspect of your life. It didn’t matter that, as a psychologist, I understood why this was the case. I could think and analyze my way through anything intellectually, that part was easy. But the experience of it? Something in that was, is, primal. Like I’m still a child running away from that which has been deemed to be too dangerous, too destructive, too fatal to my life to see.
Suddenly, after years of patting myself on the back for seeing the light, I was in the dark again, stumbling my way through and tripping over that fucking rock I thought I’d moved long ago. Wasn’t this shit for my 20’s? I would resentfully think as I shoved yet another snack cake into my mouth, rebelling against the very idea that this wasn’t done yet. But then, with a lot of support, I realized that I didn’t have to flip on the light and turn my life into upheaval all at once. I could turn the dimmer switch slowly, and one by one, take care of the next thing that was in front of me.
As long as I can move and breathe, I’m not going to stop traveling, shopping, eating snack cakes. And I will try to never underestimate the urge to bolt, to flee, to fly up and out of myself when the burner gets too hot. But I want to use these wonderful things differently, not as an escape that cheapens them, but as an unnecessary yet delicious dollop of whipped cream on top of an already perfect sundae. To that end, I must discover what it is that I’m running from and trying to run to.
And that’s the tough part, because here is where I have landed, somewhere I was hoping the chips wouldn’t fall, but peeked through my fingers and saw it coming anyway-
I’m running from me, as I am in this moment.
-from the person who feels things incredibly deeply, the person who has always felt like she needed to be someone else for others. The person who learned that it was better to shove down her feelings, her thoughts, her opinions, because they would just be rejected and criticized anyway.
And ironically, what I’m running toward, searching for, longing for, is the same- me, as I am in this moment. I want to be wholly and fully myself, as I am. I want to be seen, accepted, and loved for all the ways I have deemed myself to be imperfect.
And, it’s not any stranger, or friend, or partner, or even parent I want to love and accept me- It’s me, as I am in this moment, who I truly want that from.
Because of fucking course, it’s still not about anyone else.