If you let it, love will crack you open and you might discover things within yourself you didn’t even know were there.
However, you cannot surrender to it unless you feel safe even though many of us are so desperate for love we go all in even when our gut tells us not to.
Many adults whose life has been blighted by childhood trauma remain gluttons for punishment.
I grew up aching for my mother’s love, which isn’t even a metaphor as she used to hit me, a situation that worsened after my parents divorced.
This is why I left home at 17, moved to Belgium a year later, and to England a year after that whereupon I got married to an abuser. It took me most of my adult life and much introspection to understand the relationship I had as a child with my primary caregiver would come to define all others.
By then, I already had a failed marriage and a well-documented history of abuse at the hands of sexual predators behind me. Including rapes, all of which perpetrated by acquaintances or partners to whom I submitted out of some misguided sense of duty.
All because the only love I had ever known always caused suffering.
In the minds of those who grew up in abusive homes, love hurts.
This is why abusive relationships don’t strike us as odd and warning signs often fail to trigger any self-protective mechanism. By the time it kicks in, it’s often too late and the damage is done.
As a case in point, I had no idea my first husband was sexually abusive until about a year after I divorced him. All I knew is that I was desperately unhappy, so unhappy I terminated an accidental pregnancy because I had no hope our marriage would improve.
Every time I go visit my mother, I’m faced with a framed picture of my 19-year old self in a wedding gown, flowers in my hair, shy smile. My heart breaks anew for this clueless kid who only wanted to be loved.
But this is nothing in comparison to the trauma each visit reactivates. Even though I was away for years, now that I’m back in Europe I still feel duty-bound to go see her. As this Sunday was Mothers’ Day in France, I could not not go.
I’ve never not had empathy for the woman who gave me life although she may well have done so reluctantly.
She too comes from abuse and ended up a single mom, out of choice, once she decided she could no longer live with someone she disliked.
My mother and father are the two most incompatible people I know, polar opposites in every possible way. To this day, I don’t understand why they came together in the first place nor why they had a child.
Thankfully, my father eventually met the perfect partner, gifting me the mother I had always wished for. But my birth mother reverted back to spinsterhood after a string of unsatisfactory relationships.
She lives alone and I doubt she’s ever known love, the life-affirming, selfless, unconditional kind from a fellow human who always has your back.
And I can’t help but keep wishing I were that person.
Much as love is what drives me, it keeps failing when it comes to my mother.
After major depressive disorder felled me in 2013 and I lost five years of my life to it, I had to deploy extreme coping mechanisms to stay alive. Resisting suicidal ideation meant detaching from all that was hurtful to try and protect myself.
I detached from my partner and my marriage because my illness had become a source of ongoing resentment.
I tried to detach from the sense of duty I felt toward my mother because our relationship was the genesis of every single one that followed.
With the latter, I failed even though I finally managed to adopt a demeanor that is kind, polite, but as no nonsense and blunt as I am with everyone else.
She isn’t used to it and resents my newfound assertiveness. But without it, I stand the risk of letting vulnerability overwhelm me and of sinking again, something that has every chance of killing me next time.
This is why I am very guarded with her and don’t get personal as doing so would be feeding the predatory beast that feasts on the weaknesses of others. And those weaknesses will invariably be used against me.
“Why are you even back in Europe?” she asked me last night, knowing full well I’ve upended my life so I could help my father and stepmom navigate the reality of worsening Stage IV cancer.
No sooner had she spoken those words that she asked me why “I had to put up with that.”
Alas, I didn’t even experience disbelief, only confirmation of what I had felt all along.
“How can you have compassion for someone you don’t even know?” my mother asked this morning.
Hadn’t I been sitting down, I would have fallen off my chair as I am very much my father’s daughter, a human who is keenly sensitive to all forms of human distress.
Whether it’s a random person on the street, a relative, a friend, a news report or a fictional character on TV, the only way we know how to feel is deeply. This is why, for all his pragmatism, his wife’s cancer is threatening to kill my father, too, and I’m here to try and hold him together.
I arrived at my mother’s still yearning for her love but I left unburdened by the unrealistic expectations I had harbored my entire life.
To thrive, you need to focus on what you need and want for yourself.
It’s never too late to make a break for freedom and rewrite a personal narrative that started out as awry.
Love is a choice and how you love is something you get to decide for yourself every day.
If love feels unsafe and puts you in harm’s way then it’s never the right choice.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist 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.