How many of us have little or no experience of what good love is?
And how many of us conflate love with suffering? How many of us have been conditioned to equate love with pain because we either failed to bond with our primary caregiver as kids or grew up in an abusive home?
In my household, motherly love was a reward rather than an asset I was born with; it was something I had to strive for and earn, not something I deserve by virtue of being her child.
Nothing I did was ever good enough, no matter how hard I tried.
Although the physical aspect is no longer part of her vocabulary, she’s still fluent in disapprobation. Most days, it is her only language, one she still uses to speak to me about everything and everyone.
Show her a silver lining and she’s show you a cloud.
My mother is a bottomless pit of discontent, something I took upon myself to try and reverse, something that took immense amounts of compassion. Eventually, it was detachment that allowed me to find a balance between protecting my mental health and doing my daughterly duty.
Before I started seeing her a fellow human in pain rather than the woman who hurt me, she still had the power to annihilate me.
Can our past hold our present hostage?
In my case, yes, it does and this is why I’m actively working on letting go of the conditioning which has defined and blighted many of my relationships to date.
In a nutshell, most of them have recreated the familiar patterns of childhood.
When abuse is all you’ve ever known, you tend to think this is all you deserve, especially when you’ve never experienced love that doesn’t hurt. When my illness became a source of ongoing resentment within my marriage, I wasn’t even surprised. When my husband called me names, I wasn’t even surprised. When he went on to blank me for days on end, refusing to say a word to me even though we were under the same roof, that was a novel experience. But when it kept happening, I wasn’t even surprised.
What surprised me was when my self-preservation instinct kicked in after five years, demanded I go on living, and guided me back toward vocation by giving me back my writing voice.
Being able to harness its power is how I’m rebuilding a life that works but doing so came at a price: radical honesty, no matter how harrowing.
I had to take out an installment plan as coming back to life is quite a taxing endeavor on an emotional, intellectual level, and even physical level.
For the longest time, the only reliable, loyal love I knew was the one I gave myself and fellow humans.
Although depression led to self-loathing that went on for years, the minute I chose to live, I understood unconditional self-love would have to be the foundation of this new life.
But because the parasite in my head is fond of broadcasting self-destructive propaganda on a loop, I first had to learn how to catch it and deflect it.
While I’ve got a good grip on the above by now, physical reactions are a lot harder to manage. Raging anxiety still happens when I’m missing data with which to parse information and I get impossibly distraught. In practice, if any of my loved ones falls silent for too long, I worry so much it translates into physical symptoms.
A stress rash flares up at the back of my neck, I become shaky with stress, insomnia returns with a vengeance, and I have to force food down. Then there’s pungent stress sweat, unappealing to all but cats. And if the situation is extreme, my entire body gets covered in tiny, outlandish purple spots.
All this because my mind defaults to catastrophic thinking and it always reaches the same conclusion: Silence is either down to rejection or abandonment.
Rejection unfailingly reminds me the love I give was never deemed good enough.
Abandonment, meanwhile, is always a euphemism for death.
Love is as love does.
These days, I draw inspiration from my parents, i.e. my father and stepmom, who are modeling how true love works. They met around the same time I married my first husband some 25 years ago but we had never lived together until I came back to Europe in December 2018.
So we could navigate the reality of stage 4 cancer together.
My stepmom (who is sick) worried my father (who is not) might collapse.
In this household, our default is to look out for one another all the time with small, simple gestures because life is in the moment and in the little things and we no longer have time on our side.
What we’re not good at doing however is stating the facts.
When love is so obvious and so omnipresent, who needs the subtext? For example, my stepmom and I have never said we loved each other, we know it, we feel it, we don’t need words.
Or do we?
Even though actions will always speak far louder than words, language remains the main form of communication between humans.
A little heartfelt reassurance every now and then never goes amiss. For example, my father lost his temper with me again this afternoon. He won’t talk to anyone anymore, not even me so acting out is how he conveys the distress within. There’s never any malice but it’s difficult to deal with and today I snapped.
“Dad, do you have any idea how many sacrifices it took for me to come back to Europe and how many more it takes on a daily basis?” I asked him with a wobble in my voice.
“What’s the point? I don’t care,” he shouted back.
“Dad, A. (my stepmom) was worried about you collapsing and made me promise to be here for you so I’m here,” I replied calmly.
And the message hit home. He was a different person when he came back this evening. “You know, I was a little wound up earlier,” he told me by way of apology as I made him an espresso to welcome him home after he spent the afternoon in the dentist’s chair.
Telling someone we love them or writing it down may go a long way toward helping them reconcile our actions with our words, and confirming our love is the real deal.
For many of us, it is also the scariest thing to do and the very reason we should.
Practice often; action cures fear.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.