The Road To Freedom

Genexhibitionst by Maya Dexter

Image: Modern Age by Charlie Lemay

I REMEMBER very clearly a day a few weeks before my wedding. It was late in April, one of those rare perfect spring days, and I was sitting eating my lunch in the grass in a park near my office building in downtown St. Louis with a friend who was going through a divorce. I asked him if in retrospect he had known all along that it wouldn’t work out, if he had had any inkling at the beginning that he had valiantly tried to deny. I felt a little embarrassed by my thinking, but dismissed it as pre-wedding jitters. Turns out it was more like an inkling.

For the past few months my marriage has undergone a painful, slow-motion disintegration, like one of those buildings that explosives implodes that seems to come down so much slower than you’d think it would, and yet before you know it it's down, but the work has only just begun. It began easily enough. We got married three times: the courthouse in January, a Beltane handfasting, and a traditional June wedding for the family. I used to joke that we couldn’t possibly be any more married, that we did it three times just to make sure it stuck. It didn’t. It couldn't have. I didn’t know who I was. But I thought love was enough, like love was sugar you could measure from a bag to get the right recipe. Making love (the emotion, not the aerobic activity) is a lot like making sugar, though; it is a magical process that we can barely comprehend in which a substance is transformed into another version of itself, and it would probably horrify us just a little if we knew exactly what the standard process entails.

I was a twenty-three year old mother when we got married (twenty-two the first time). One of the first orders of business upon our return from our honeymoon was a serious discussion in which he told me I needed to get a clearer sense of myself and not make him the center of my universe. To please him, I attempted to comply and set out to get a life. That was how completely unformed as an adult I was -- I had been like a personality Xerox machine with everyone I had ever been in love with, becoming them instead of relating to them. I have spent most of my life being and doing what I thought would elicit the best response, with no real consideration for my integrity, or anyone else’s for that matter. It was all about getting praise and validation. I didn’t think I could bear the isolation of rejection, the feelings that I didn’t fit or somehow wasn't right. I needed certainty. And since I didn't have any within me, I sought it from those around me. As time passed I collected a larger and larger repertoire of ideas from which to draw in experiences, trying them on like hats, carefully watching faces for approval. Being myself was something I did when no one was watching, or when I thought I could get away with it. I thought I was sparing people the pain of dealing with someone who could never really fit.

So in one sense I am so grateful to him for imploring me to get a life; it was probably the best wake-up call I ever got. He was the first person to tell me that I was entitled to my own identity. But in another, it was the first brick in the wall that would eventually completely obscure us from each other. I internalized his criticism deeply. Unconsciously I took in the message as "you are trying to get too close to me and I don't want to merge with you." At that point I began to try to hold back and contain my need to connect because I felt it was perceived as too much, and if I gave all of myself it would be rejected. I felt I was somehow too much and not enough all at the same time. My sense of isolation began with that discussion. I remember it like a snapshot; I know exactly where we were standing, what the sun felt like on my skin.

But I don't guess you can really hold back the need to connect to another person. Love is powerful like water and can barely be contained; it will always find its way out of any weakness in its container. I fell in love four times during the course of our marriage. I don’t want to imply, though, that these loves are a singular result of some deficiency in my marriage. I just love people. They are like shells or flowers, something so beautiful and perfect, so completely unique that I cannot help but revel in the miracle of them. And in picking such a thing up and holding it to the light, I feel the thrill of touching the source. And damned if I don’t fall in love with that time and time again. The problem is that I was lying about it, not just to him but to myself.

Right as Uranus made its ingress into Pisces [on March 10], a friend pointed out to me that I was cheating on my husband, a fact that had somehow eluded me for the past several years, though it has taken on several increasingly dramatic incarnations (for more information, see this list).

It reminded me of the first time I realized that my pupils dilated when I was a kid. I spent hours staring into the mirror one sunny afternoon, making sure that I was really seeing those little black circles change size. Then I panicked and cried and ran to my mom to show her, because I thought surely it meant I would die. Likewise, the more time I spent with my husband after that moment of realization, the more I became aware that there was a huge wall between us, and that I had not only laid the bricks, but had built them with my own two hands, and that the real, deep intimacy I had craved with him was not to be possible as long as I continued to fortify the wall with all the lies I was telling by way of not revealing my true self and by keeping years worth of secrets. So my choice was, essentially, follow the yellow brick wall of my marriage to its inevitable end, or knock it down and risk losing the very relationship I wanted to blossom. It stuck in the back of my throat like a popcorn kernel for weeks, becoming increasingly unbearable.

Just like when I ran to my mom about my pupils, I went to everyone I knew to tell me what to do, or at least make me okay again. And I got some really surprising advice: "stop looking for validation. Turn off all your sources and go in until you find only you." And I saw the point, though it ached, though I wanted nothing more than to avoid being alone with myself. When I put the responsibility of what to do next on someone else, I am still not being myself, and the identity I began to seek so many years ago still eludes me.

So I told my lover and my friends that I would talk to them on the other side, unsubscribed from my email lists, turned off the stereo and tried to listen to myself. Myself resisted mightily. My brain worked double-time to keep me distracted, thinking of scenes from really bad movies, random conversations, anything to avoid the silence, even though silence was what I said I needed. I was hoping to find my center, as I rolled about in the darkness of some shapeless void trying to find what is true. But there was no truth to be found, no center. For every idea there was a way to refute it, and for each refutation there was a counter-argument. I could find no certainty beyond how I feel right now. I could find no perfection beyond my current truth, which is only perfect because it is where I am, and will inevitably wear out and cease to serve me. Somehow I had to have faith in this?

But what choice did I have? I had to come clean and either develop the intimacy I longed for with him and be accepted for my whole truth, instead of just the parts I thought would make him comfortable, or I had to build a world where I could be. I can't promise that I won't keep falling in love with people; it just seems to be part of who I am right now. So we either need to adjust our boundaries so that it’s okay, or we deserve to find lives that suit us completely and don’t leave either of us feeling as though we are stuffing ourselves into a box in order to accommodate the other. This was all the certainty I could muster. It was time to come clean. I thought about what I would say, I thought about how he would react. I imagined anger. I imagined tears. And I still felt how I felt, scared though I was.

But there never seemed to be a right time, always homework and things to do and a family reunion coming up. One night I thought of how hurt he would feel when I told him the truth and I just started crying and couldn't stop. After we put our daughter to bed I told him pretty much what I’ve told you. That there were a few people I had fallen in love with over the years, that I had struggled against myself, that it just seemed to be the way I was, and that above all I was hoping that it would be okay and that we could make something from this. He didn’t seem to want details. I was grateful for that. He didn’t get angry. He just asked why. I had no real answer. All the justification I had built over the years had vanished like the illusion it was. He said he felt hollow. Nothing in all my experience could have prepared me for the agony of hurting someone I love so deeply. I promised myself then and there that I would never ever sacrifice honesty again.

The week after that was a desolate wasteland of going through the motions and trying to hold onto some semblance of normalcy while all that made us feel safe and secure blew away on the fierce spring winds. Life continued, but all the color was gone. I had to stop myself from the little affections I took for granted, like sitting on his lap, kissing him on the way out the door, saying ‘I love you.’ It ached every day. I fought against the feeling that he was punishing me, which of course he wasn’t; he was just blindly feeling his pain. I practiced letting go of my expectations again and again and again, taking what solace I could find there.

Finally, a long and agonizing week later, he was ready to talk. He said he still loved me. That he was sorry for his distance, but he needed space to think. And that he just didn't believe in the philosophy of polyamory, and even though he wanted to give in so that he could be with me, he couldn't compromise his beliefs that way. And that he knew he couldn’t ask me to do it either. We agreed that we both deserve to be met on our own terms. So for maybe the first time in our relationship we stood clearly in our truths and found that we couldn't reach each other from within them. We had a good long talk about many things we should have talked about long ago. It's amazing to me how as soon as you have nothing to lose, your communication immediately becomes so clear and honest. How can it be that we have erected these grand structures in order to shield each other and ourselves from the truth, and not notice them? I felt that I was witnessing the first of the ancient ancestral bricks of codependency crumbling around me. Unfortunately, it's a solid city that's going to take time to dismantle.

It turned out all that unbridled honest communication held a strong erotic pull. The following week wound up being a blissful ground of rediscovery, wallowing in reverence for the good things about each other, feeling immense gratitude. I felt so good about having the courage to come forth with all of this.

Of course, we quickly discovered that it wouldn’t be that easy. The next round of discussions began with him telling me that he rejected my premise that polyamory was a valid lifestyle; that it was a copout to avoid intimacy and that this whole thing was really a result of problems in our relationship that could be fixed if only I were willing to focus on him singularly. I remained firm. I don't feel that my beliefs are a problem that needs to be 'fixed'. However, I absolutely did concede that we have a lot of work to do in relating to each other and wanted to do that work. The anger and tears commenced again.

I am leaving out a thousand important details in relating the kaleidoscopic unfolding of this process to you. I could bore you with the minutiae for endless pages. The past few months have been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, the thrill of denial and the ache of remembering. Separation and pain and anger, followed by communication and connection in our love and pain, falling back into each other's arms, remembering that we are family, until I admit to wanting to spend time with my lover or explain that I haven’t changed my mind despite our renewed connection. Then the cycle begins again. Every time I am confronted with our pain we are each so tempted to give in and just go along with the other’s beliefs, just to escape all of this suffering. But I know that I can’t live happily in shame and guilt for my natural inclination to connect with people. If I give in now, we will only be confronted with the whole situation again later. And he can't live my lifestyle if he doesn’t see the point, that would only create resentment and again, we would be confronted with this whole situation again later. We have no choice but to let go. I feel like a ship moving slowly away from the shore.

I realized lately that I had started sacrificing honesty again, not telling all the details of my life to him again just to avoid the pain of another turn on the roller coaster. I think it’s part of why I can't find my joy right now -- I’ve forgotten to be true to myself again, started avoiding feelings again. I guess sometimes you have to revisit a place you thought you'd moved past of just to remember why you left in the first place. It seems more unbearable than ever, makes me even more anxious to get a life where me and my truth are okay. This strange mixture of hope and desolation has settled into the pit of my stomach and lately I have moved through the world like a ghost, barely able to cope. I am struggling to find my joy and purpose again in the rubble of this tremendous loss. Comfort is pretty elusive. Grieving takes time, I guess.

There was never a place in my reality for failure. Broken dreams are for people who just didn't have enough faith. But here I am, with all the faith I can muster in the world and still we can’t reach each other from across this abyss.

So now we are discussing living arrangements, how to support our daughter, what to tell people, and other mundane details, with love and pain still shining brightly in our eyes. I don’t know what comes next. We both want to be friends, we both want to heal the rift of trust between us and work on our relationship as one human to another, not just in the context of our marriage. I hope we can pull it off. There's still a lot of anger and fear to sift through and I’m scared to death we won’t make it. I don’t want to be strangers trying to raise a kid together.

I remember when I discovered the phrase "to have and to hold" in a legal contract at a start-up company I was working for. I felt so disillusioned to realize that my marriage was founded on contractual verbiage based on material possession. I knew then that I didn’t want to be possessed. It was around that same time that I was introduced by Eric to this concept of open relating. I gave it some thought and built up the nerve to ask for it in my marriage. The first answer was yes, followed by a weeklong elation, after which he denied that he had said yes, but had meant, rather, 'yes, we can discuss it'. We never really did. I felt like he had put me off to avoid really discussing it. When I brought this up recently as we work through the years leading up to now, he told me that he thought it was purely academic, not that it was something I legitimately want to try. It so amazes me the way we are capable of rewriting history in order to protect ourselves. It makes me question not only his version of history, but my own, and I have to constantly remind myself that this is not a contest of whose truth is Truer, but rather a chance for us to both live fully in our own truths. We have each grown from that first discussion three years ago, and I can no more hold him to his escapism at that point in time than he can hold me to mine. We are simply not those people anymore. But it does not stop us from feeling the echo of unexpressed pain reverberating through time.

I guess if there is one thing I have learned from all this, it is that all feelings avoided will wait patiently for their turn. There is no way to avoid difficult feelings. All of this began as a fear of rejection. In order to reclaim myself I wound up having to live through rejection after all. Of course, I guess you could say that the fear of rejection stems from a fear of loneliness, which I am also feeling despite a lifetime of avoidance. There doesn't seem to be anywhere to run, so I might as well just stand still. I seem to have no choice but to feel each emotion as it arises. The less I resist, the less it hurts and the quicker it passes. I'm not deciding what's okay to feel and what to stuff anymore, especially what is or isn’t okay to other people.

I’m focusing a lot of energy on just trying to be who I am right now. This perspective is strangely barren of all the validation I have needed in order to be okay. I'm walking blindly, guided only by my intuition, toward what I hope is freedom.

This road to freedom is a labyrinth littered with hidden entrances and hedged by false boundaries. It is the ultimate practice of living in the moment; it is not until I completely address that which is before me right now that I may advance a single step. I cannot say that I will ever reach it, there may always be more to do to be free; it may be like the concept of 'infinitesimal' in math, where you can never get all the way to absolutely zero, but as you approach zero, the confines of the decimal point crack open the numeric universe like an egg and suddenly you reach infinity. Even from this deep well of my own grief I think it's an ideal worth moving toward.

To be continued.

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