Meg Zulch
April 27, 2016 9:01 am
iStock / andipantz

My parents’ compassion for me was often measured by the amount of time I went without expressing much emotion. With that knowledge in mind, I tried desperately to suppress my feelings from a very young age. Time-outs, harsh words, and the occasional comparison to my more well-behaved younger sister was the only way they seemed to know how to respond to my overwhelming anxiety and fragile stability. That attitude toward me continued into my teenage years, when mental illness and an unknown and painful chronic condition simultaneously racked my body.

Childhood emotional issues were now amplified by a mysterious decline in my health, and I found myself feeling full of anger. I often screamed until I ran a fever and passed out. I’d throw myself around until my body was bruised and ached even more than it already did. I released my utter confusion over what was wrong with me as I became increasingly more disabled in the only way I knew how: screaming, crying, and begging for the attention of those around me. I felt my body dying and growing more frail with every breath I took, with every energy-draining scream I released. Instead of trying to keep me afloat and remind me of some hope that may or may not in all actuality exist, my parents took my anger very personally. They’d lash out at me in response to my fits of anger and confusion, yelling at me about the pain I was causing, nose to furious nose. Clenched fists and jaws, they told me every nasty thing they could think of out of hurt when I loudly lamented over their inability to comfort or understand me. I remember being pushed to the ground, hit with a pillow, and even hit with my own IV pole as I was having a home care infusion administered from my bedside.

These explosive reactions led me to believe that I had something truly terrible inside me, and that I must do whatever I could to wrangle it into silence so as to protect myself and everyone around me from pain. The notion of being mentally ill, of having an affliction that I needed to care for rather than shamefully suppress, was not something I could grasp at the time. So every morning, I smoothed out the wrinkles of my clothing and practiced my smile in the mirror, and prepared for my daily masquerade. With white knuckles, I desperately held my feelings inside and enjoyed super peaceful and warm interactions with my family. But as soon as I faltered, as soon as the carefully orchestrated mask would fall away, my ugliness was revealed once again. And I’d tearfully march back to my room, scolding myself for what I had done and quarantining myself until I could get it back together.

I recovered from my illness, and my mood improved considerably. But I still was not better. Wearing the mask every day didn’t get much easier. Not until after I moved out of my parents’ house did I get acquainted with the idea of an anxiety disorder or posttraumatic stress existing within me. I slowly began to pull the layers back on myself, exposing all of my weaknesses and conditions which I grew to become so compassionate for. But I was as shaky and helpless as I am on roller skates trying to navigate what to do with this information, and how to begin to feel better. Since my parents’ idea of a good relationship with me still involved keeping me silent and sedated, I had no one to lean on through my self-exploration. Meeting my current partner, Skylar, was my crash-landing, and I’ve been able to find my footing more steadily and confidently ever since.

Towards the beginning of our courtship, I skillfully hid my swinging emotions and dutifully bowed out of the room to cry in private when the mood struck. I was so proud of myself for doing this relationship thing “right,” for bottling up my feelings like a pro as they played into the palm of my hand. I held my breath in our relationship for what felt like forever until Skylar told me to breathe. To breathe not only for my own sake, but because they wanted so badly to hear my natural exhalation, my every thought and fear. This wonderful and terrifying request was baffling to me. Do you know what would happen if I were to speak? This would all be over! But because I liked them so much, I took foolish baby steps towards “being myself” around them.

And the steps stopped feeling “foolish” pretty quickly based on their response. One night, I told them about my illness, a topic I usually managed to avoid, and cried hard and long after their departure at the night’s end. Never in my life had I had someone so eagerly listen to what I had to say, yield answers to thoughtful questions that never even occurred to me, and validated my fury when my voice accidentally reached an octave too high. I felt cleansed, relieved, brand new. I learned that night that talking about your feelings doesn’t always come with negative consequence, and that they have the power to compel two people to care for one another even more deeply than before. My display of emotion didn’t hurt them or make us fight — I was relearning the world and my feelings’ evolving role in it.

We shyly exchanged our love for one another soon after this discussion. Fast forward a year and a half later, and I’ve told them everything. I told Skylar what happened to me two years ago that causes our sex to sometimes end in frustration and tears. I told them everything about my parents, and my complicated relationship with them based on my ability to “behave.” I’ve shared my anxious thoughts with them, and recently the fact that I might have a mood disorder. And it seems the more that I share with them, the more we grow to love each other. Amazing! They ask me how I’m feeling multiple times a day, they help me through anxiety attacks, they held me through night terrors when it felt like my attacker was in the room and on my body. They remind me to take care of myself and help me overcome my fears on my weakest days. And they share absolutely everything with me. Each day, I fall further in love with them. And each day, I grow as a person and feel increasingly more valid in my emotional existence, with or without Skylar in the room.

My relationship with Skylar taught me about “unconditional love,” something I thought I had possessed previously but didn’t. My parents showed me love only on the condition that I behave. That I don’t lash out or get anxious or cry. They punished me for getting angry, anger that stemmed from suppressing emotion and hating myself. Anger that stemmed from my parents’ inability to deal with the child that was born from their own mood disorder and mental illness. I didn’t believe my feelings had the right to exist and take up space until I met Skylar, a human who loves me without any conditions whatsoever.

I’ve been told various times that my relationship with Skylar isn’t healthy and that we spend too much time together. This observation mostly stems from the fact that I share my feelings with my partner only, when I used to use my emotional strife to connect with friends on the daily. But when they’re the only person in my life who has shown me unconditional love, it only feels natural to confide in them exclusively (especially considering everything I’ve been going through mentally and health-wise).

Since I still maintain friendships that revolve less around talking about my feelings, I don’t believe anything about my relationship is actually unhealthy. It’s just that Skylar gives me exactly what I need in my current state of change and self-realization, something I never had the privilege of experiencing in any other human. Sometimes, we just need someone there to remind us to breathe and coax us out of our shell — and that’s okay. And until we are showed that compassion, we can never truly know what it is to love and be loved unconditionally.

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