I wake up gasping for air, my body soaked in sweat. The recurring nightmare is visiting with increased frequency and it’s so vivid, I’m disorientated when I return to consciousness. I shuffle down the stairs, turn on the kitchen light and pour myself a glass of water. As I go to take a sip, I notice my hands are shaking.
The scene unfolds in precisely the same way each time; David comes home and tells me he’s leaving me. Internally I collapse and start screaming silently, “Don’t go!” I want to take his face gently between my hands, look into his eyes and ask, “But why? What can I say that will convince you to stay? How can we fix this?” Only I never do. Instead, I go upstairs and into our bedroom and I pack a blue leather suitcase I don’t own with clothes I don’t recognise, before going back downstairs and kissing him gently on the cheek as I walk out the door.
He cannot leave me because I left him first.
I used to do this; for a long time after my first marriage ended, I left people I loved because that way they couldn’t leave me first. I did it to protect my heart from being hurt, but of course, it hurt anyway.
I don’t know when the nightmares began – but I’ve always known instinctively that they have nothing to do with David or our relationship. I’m not afraid of him leaving.
At the beginning of autumn, I went to stay with a friend outside of London. One day we packed a picnic lunch, put on our hiking boots and walked and talked for several hours.
I’m not sure how we got onto the topic, but we agreed that neither of us is competitive. The conversation made me hesitate, I tentatively voiced my thoughts, “Maybe I’d like to be a little bit competitive. I’m beginning to wonder if I have a tendency to go the other way; to withdraw from engaging or participating because I don’t want to even appear to be in competition with anyone, because I’m afraid I’ll lose, or that what I have to offer might be rejected”.
We stood side-by-side for a moment, before walking on.
That conversation and the dream would visit me repeatedly in the weeks that followed. I could sense a connection.
From the edge of my subconscious, a question broke free, “Who am I leaving this time?”
I pondered my reluctance to engage and participate; I considered all the ‘reasons’ I’d been telling myself I wasn’t doing certain things that are important to me in terms of the contribution I want to make with my work and my writing and the ideas and thoughts I want to share; I’ve been busy with the home improvement project, there are so many other things I must get done this year, I need a haircut, new clothes, new photographs, a new website and to clean my office. Besides, does the world really need more words and who am I to say these things anyway?
I’d hesitate to share my work or my writing, be inconsistent, leave things undone – knowing full well what I was doing – but I finally began to understand why. Despite how far I’ve come and the lessons I’ve learned – I was repeating a pattern; neglecting to do or leaving things undone that are important to me, or refusing to engage or participate, as a way of protecting myself from being hurt.
It’s impossible to lose or be rejected, abandoned, fail or be disliked or ignored if you refuse to be seen; if you or whatever you do or create barely exist in the world at all.
Except that whilst I may have been trying to protect my heart from being hurt, it hurt anyway.
Because when you don’t do the things you long to do, that hurts.
So much of this was subconscious; manifesting itself as an uneasy feeling in my body. Yet when my doubts and fears did rise to the surface I’d override them, rather than exploring their origin and the stories they were creating in my head.
I believe it’s human to avoid uncomfortable feelings and truths; and we can only recognise those pieces of ourselves we claim not to know once we’re prepared to surrender and make peace with them. We must be ready to meet our true selves, to own our destructive patterns and self-sabotaging behaviours, before we can truly heal.
What I feel now is a profound sense of relief. Recognising the flawed ways I try to protect my heart means I can now move beyond them, for good. I’ve been able to return to the heart of why I wanted to do this work and write and share my words to begin with: To contribute and help others and to dare to tread my own path, in a way that feels meaningful.
I look at my old, destructive pattern of behaviour and I know it’s time to let go. Surrendering isn’t easy, but staying in the same place is much harder. I open my heart to a new way of being; my fear will no longer define me. I know bravery requires patience and practice. I’m ready.
© 2017 Esther Zimmer