Over the past two years, I’ve lost quite a bit. Most of it on purpose. Nearly all of it with a good deal of personal effort, intellectual honesty, and soul searching.
But even when something is toxic, the absence of its familiarity aches. The comforting cloak of invisibility an overweight woman in her 40s wears, for instance. It can shake you to the core to be noticed again once it’s been removed. For people to smile at you for no reason. To be appreciated for your appearance after years of being overlooked, well, it’s startling, to say the least.
Letting go of unhealthy relationships is worse. That pain holds you to the ground, locking your feet into place, preventing you from evolving and becoming the person you know you wish to be – losing that burden is terrifying. The terrifying weightlessness of it. I don’t know about you, but spontaneously feeling like I’m flying isn’t on my top 10 list of things that don’t scare me.
The thing about an unhealthy relationship – whether it hurts you directly through abuse or neglect or codependency, or whether it provides you with the tools you need to rage at the world or tear yourself down piece by piece - is that it freezes you into a kind of skip loop of doom. There is no healing because you will not allow yourself to be healed by letting go of it.
Even if you let go of the relationship, if you can’t let go of its effect on you, you’re still frozen. Only now you’re frozen and alone and missing the comfort of the consistent, painful weight gnawing at your ankle.
Because letting go is a form of loss. And you grieve for it until you finally take that first step. And until you stop grieving its loss, you will continue to hurt and rage and live in an insulated bubble of your own pain.
When I was a child, my father and I would take an annual hike into the wilderness of the Bitterroot Mountains in my home state of Montana. My favorite hike was Big Creek Lake. Ten miles up a winding mountain trail through old growth forests untouched by human hands.
At the halfway point, there was a beautiful falls. Big, pillowy boulders, warmed by the summer sun surrounded by pools of icy water that was still snow just a few weeks before our arrival. When I’d take off my framepack and my hiking boots, I felt weightless. Felt free. The cool air on my sweaty back, the cold water on my aching feet. It was bliss.
From that point forward, my father had a strict rule about breaks: the backpack stays on; because it would only get heavier every time you took it off and returned it to your shoulders. There is a metaphor in that: We get used to the burdens we carry, no matter how heavy, and eventually we forget that we carry them. Until they’re lifted – either by our own effort or the intervention of someone helping to bear their weight for a little while.
I’ve lost things that I needed to lose. Things that were weighing me down both literally and figuratively, but sometimes, in moments of weakness, I miss the comfort of that pain like an absent limb. And it’s as disorienting as setting down a familiar object and forgetting where you placed it.
Then there are the losses that you don’t anticipate, expect, need, or desire. That’s when your mettle gets tested. When a dear friend falls asleep and just doesn’t wake up without reason or warning. When a little piece of serendipity ends in heartache and much too soon.
And you feel that familiar tug at your ankle formed from all the past pain you’ve let go; weighing you down and holding your feet fast to the earth.
Looking back on my summer trips with my daddy, I still remember the internal burst of joy I felt when we arrived at Big Creek Falls and could stop for lunch before the final climb to the high mountain lake. But I also remember how tired I was. How my shoulders ached, and the horseflies swarmed around my legs. How I’d turn up my Walkman and pray that somehow the Joshua Tree would have some hidden form of frequency-based pain deadening effect.
Until I heard it. The thundering, rushing crash of water, filling the falls and tumbling down the mountain. I’d turn off my Walkman and take off my headphones and sigh with relief. One hundred steps to go. The truth of it is that I never reached a hundred as I counted my steps. It was always much closer than I remembered and it was always a surprise when the sparkle of water appeared between the trees.
As I sit here writing this, I am feeling the discomforting weight of my most recent losses. And it hurts because I’ve felt weightless for so long. But going back isn’t an option that’s possible for me. It’s not my choice, this new weight I’m carrying, but it’s only temporary. It has to be temporary because I’ve grown accustomed to flying and I like it. And I’ll get it back.
One hundred steps. The falls are just around the bend, just out of sight, hidden by that stand of cedar trees ahead.
One. Two. Three….