I had another one of those dreams last night, only it was fear, not anger, that swept through me. I woke up feeling like I was drenched in fear, so absolutely sopping wet with it that if I shook my hands it might fly off my skin in fat drops. This wasn’t horror movie / serial killer / running-for-your-life kind of fear, though. It’s a special blend of dread, anxiety, and self-questioning that is deeply familiar to me. My life used be to governed by it, or, to push the metaphor a little further, saturated with it.

I suppose the timing of that dream and this emotional aftereffect makes sense, since I’ve been (intellectually) coming to terms with the truth of how powerful my fear was until just recently. It’s one thing to consider the past with detachment and acknowledge I made those decisions because I was driven by fear. It’s quite another to dream yourself back into your past life and to feel that nauseating emotion overpower you once more. Detachment and calm just don’t seem possible anymore.

Not long ago my grandmother told me about my cousin’s wedding, and his new wife. She’s well-spoken, but quiet and thrifty and clean, grandma said. Very respectful. Not like that *thing* he went out with before. That *thing* was J’s first real girlfriend, who was loud and stylish and confident and a little lacking in social graces. She was unapologetically a teenager (they both were at the time) and my grandmother hated her. Loathed her, you see, to the point of demoting her from  human being to simply a *thing* in her mind. J’s new love, however, hits all the right notes for her – quiet, responsible, and non-threatening. In short, invisible.

I’ve never met J’s wife, so what fascinated me about this conversation was how clearly it articulated those traits that are worthy of approval in my grandmother’s eye, and those that will render you an outcast. I mean, I grew up with those values, I spent most of my life to trying to play the game of  how to win your family’s approval and love but at the time, it always felt so nebulous, so difficult to define. I had a running stream of thoughts in my head: “Oh, I did something right, wait, what was it? Oh no, I did something wrong, how can I never do it again?” When I spoke to people, I wasn’t always listening to their words – I was asking myself “What does this person want from me? How can I give it to them? Who do I have to be for them to like me?” You could see me standing there in front of you, but the real me was invisible. To this day I’ll stop and wonder if I really like something, or if I only think I like it because eons ago I decided I did to please someone else.

And so in this dream I found myself back in a relationship that ended long ago, a relationship that was so miserable and incompatible that it left me suicidal. For years something deep inside of me wanted to LEAVE, to get the hell out of it, but I ignored that drive. Hell, I was ashamed of it. How dare I be unhappy? Knowing how very flawed I am, I should be thankful that any man would want to be with me! No one will ever love me again, and it would be MY FAULT for having left. Who do I think I am to reject anyone? You must have a pretty high opinion of yourself, girl…

And so I played the role of perfect girlfriend as best I could, my mind roiling with these thoughts and with that fear that I couldn’t leave and that if I did leave it would be even worse. Every now and then I would let my guard down and tell the man I was living with that I was afraid, that I was miserable, that something had to change – and after hours of screaming and crying and sulking and more crying, we would both come to the conclusion that something was very wrong with me. Our problems as a couple were obviously all my fault and if I could just be happy already, things would be perfect.

I can’t say I left him in the end, because that phrase carries so much strength. She left him has this feeling of packed bags, of resolution and a brisk pace out the front door. Thwack! That’s the sound of a screen door slamming on that relationship. Over and done. No, I limped away. Once I’d decided to go it took me another two months to even articulate it, and then another month or so to convince him that I actually meant it. And then I had to find an apartment.

I think of the night, a month or so after I’d told him I was moving out, when I was reading in the spare bedroom (in which I was living at that point) and he pushed open the door and asked if he could come in. I’d barely said yes (I didn’t want to say yes, but such is the power of politeness) when he rushed in, climbed on the bed and lay down practically on top of me. He just lay there, heavy, and seemed to be ready to fall asleep “cuddling”. I was frozen, absolutely repulsed, feeling paralyzed and wishing I could say GET OFF GET OFF I DON’T WANT YOU HERE but I was unable to speak. The words were in my head, but I couldn’t get my mouth to speak them. Smothered by the smell of him, his awful weight on my body, I was mute. After letting him lie there for a while, I remember quietly asking him to please move, I was uncomfortable….? Of course that made him angry at me and he stomped off in a huff.

Or the time his sister came to visit soon after and he told me he hadn’t yet informed her that we had broken up so could I please not do so until he had a chance? But of course he had no intention of telling her and so I was stuck acting like we were still a couple, and there she was sleeping in my bedroom, of course, and where was I going to sleep? You can’t sleep on the couch, she’ll know something’s up! Please, just sleep in the master bedroom with me, it’s only one more night, and so there I was lying next to him *again* feeling caged and trapped and stifled and waiting until he fell asleep so I could crawl down to count down the hours til morning from the floor beside the bed.

Ugh.

That is the place I went to in my dreams last night. It is a reminder of how it feels to deny your own needs/wants/desires because those of others are far more important. C’mon, be a sport, do it for me, why do you have to be so difficult? And frankly, this old emotion is why I fear dating, because I worry I might lose myself all over again.

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