It’s occurred to me that I’ve never really addressed the issue of romantic relationships after traumatic injury. Probably because I would never profess to be any kind of expert on the subject, but I think this is something that most of us will probably struggle with, so I’ll attempt to discuss this today.
the characters of love
Partly why it’s so complicated to tackle the concept — and this isn’t unique to just survivors of traumatic injury — is because inherently tied into the pursuit of romantic love is the issue of self-esteem. In addition to insecurities that are likely already there, and this is particularly applicable to women, which often sabotages relationships in the first place (c’mon, I can’t be the only woman to have gone through the “bad guy” phase, or as I affectionately refer to as the affinity for a-holes), having suffered from a traumatic injury that flips your self-image upside-down can be a heavy new challenge that gets in the way of your love life, whether you did or did not have a partner already when you sustained your injury.
I can’t speak for those who do have a romantic partner at the time of their injury, since I was single at the time of mine. But I would like to share with you today an essay I wrote last year in response to the Real Simple magazine Life Lessons essay contest, of which the theme was “When did you first realize the meaning of love?” (Though I didn’t win, I still think it’s worth sharing.) Since the piece was not written specifically for this blog, there are definitely facets left out that are still worth exploring, and I will get to them in later posts — however, let’s plunge forth with the basics. I’ll warn you, it gets raw, and quite personal, but my mission to help others through my own experiences is stronger than my pride.
Back when the World Wide Web was just spinning itself into average households, it was rather stylish among my schoolmates to mass e-mail self-involved surveys laden with inconsequential questions typical of our age group. These questions would on occasion be existential, and one of these particular questions has stayed with me, some thirteen-odd years later: “What is your definition of love?”
I recall one girl replying to the query with her expert opinion, an epic paragraph of romantic ideals. You know the type — the result of growing up on annual Disney movies and a plethora of romantic comedies. This was the age of She’s All That and Ten Things I Hate About You, not to mention Ever After and other saccharine products of American media that we teenaged girls absorbed and assumed we’d one day live.
Like most youths, we thought we knew it all, even though it would take a life’s journey for us — or at least me — to understand what love truly is.
Fast-forward to my twenty-third year, when I met my first serious boyfriend. We were written in the stars, a veritable Romeo and Juliet: He was even Italian, and I, a repeat exchange student. Despite our differing passports, mine a navy blue crested in gold by the United States of America, his a regal crimson equally gold-lined; despite my expiring student visa; and despite the improbability of longevity, I was so cocooned in my love for him that I knew he was The One — as essential to my life as oxygen, someone the fates had woven into the fabric of the rest of my days. I came just short of naming our future children, probably because somewhere tugging at my intuition, I knew I was fighting gravity.
You know the ending to this story, too. When it ended, the majesty of my entire conceivable future crumbled. In my head, the faceless silhouettes of the kids we might have had threatened to vaporize. How was it possible that he didn’t want to be with me anymore when he was their future father?
With his fateful farewell, I was left gasping for the air that he was to me. And I wouldn’t accept it. Not for my own sake, not for his peace of mind (he wasn’t a monster; he still cared very much for me, which ultimately dragged out my recovery by years), nor for my friends and family who eventually tired of my seclusion and anxiety. Denial became an intimate companion; I couldn’t even call him my “ex,” for fear that the name would make it true.
After several months and no sign of my depression lifting, my very concerned Taiwanese mother left work to come sit me down and give me a serious talk.
“In Chinese, we have some different characters for love,” she said. True to her renowned mastery of Chinese calligraphy and language, she swiftly penned a pair of complex characters. “This one represents the love and bond that exists between, say, a mother and her daughter. This is profound and everlasting. It’s also the kind of love between great friends. You know that no matter what, you will always love each other. The other one, however, is the kind of love that often exists between a man and a woman.” The word looked similar to the first, at the root of it the symbol for heart. “While this type of love can transform into the other kind, it is usually delicate and fleeting.”
This ancient wisdom was right on, but, I’d gradually come to understand, in its simplicity, incomplete.
Because there’s the most fundamental form of love — possibly the most important one, and its absence renders the other prototypes false or at least pathological. It is the love and respect of oneself, which was the most formidable feat of heart I’ve ever had to undergo. And in this exploration, I had to also learn what love was not.
If we reel the timeline back to July 2003, when I was 19, we’ll see me, an actress/dancer/volleyball fanatic, lose my pride and youthful athletic body to a sudden stroke. There had been an abrupt and massive bleed in my brain that erased the entire left side of my body: I couldn’t move my fingers, toes, or even that side of my mouth.
I was in the hospital for two and a half months, during which my family never missed a day to visit and be with me. My mother, realizing she had to once again take care of an infant — this time, with full-grown dimensions — bathed me, combed my hair so as to not disturb the fresh scars on my head from surgery, and fed me. My father, typically stern and authoritarian, transformed into an unrecognizably sweet companion. “He never left her side,” says my neurosurgeon even today, regarding my dad’s devotion.
My best friend, upon hearing the news, immediately hopped a plane from Phoenix to Chicago to see me. And an old classmate I was only minimally close to back in high school visited me every single day for probably a month.
This was clear evidence of that first version of love, the love everlasting. My friends and family, ever-present and supportive, who dropped the routine of their quotidian lives to accommodate me, naturally gained my equally everlasting gratitude, presence, and support in return.
That was Life Disaster Number One. Number Two, you’ve already met. It manifested as a passionate and sensitive, beautiful Italian man who sang the seductive song of the Latin lover, who left his conquests suffocating in loneliness and fallacy.
Instead of placing the blame on my ex the way mythology does on the sirens for the men’s ruin, though, it took a journey of nearly three years for me to recognize our relationship for what it was: in short, nothing like the movies had portrayed love to be.
I inhaled texts on healthy relationships, observed married and happily coupled-up friends to see just where it was that we had taken a wrong turn. Dysfunctional tendencies with my father were identified. I ceaselessly searched for the answers to my insistent questions about what romantic love was truly about. It then became clearer that disrespect and self-sacrifice had poisoned our relationship; the more I toiled and pulled at him to return to me, the farther he actually became. In the ordeal, I had transformed into a needy waif no one, not even I, liked. This dependence on him sucked away at my life and snuffed out who I really was. At last, I came to see that it was no way to carry on. Because, invariably, all roads led to the love of self.
These Life Disasters also worked in conjunction with a positive experience that overlapped them both: Life in Italy, the perfect blend of chaos and beauty that I swear was molded for precisely me. My hospitalization had inconveniently tied me to home base; I had been preparing for a year abroad in Florence for the academic year following that pivotal summer. Not to be deterred, I postponed the trip to the next year, even though I was still relearning how to bathe myself. I may not have been walking independently yet, but I wasn’t about to toss this experience to the wayside simply due to a traumatic brain injury! (I was still a teenager, after all.)
My year in Florence was unlike any other year of my life. I limped across the cobblestones with a brace and newfound determination and learned to accommodate my new lifestyle with a significant disability; this empowered me. It allowed me to truly be on my own and defend myself to the world. I’d nearly died, but in the city of the Renaissance, I’d reclaimed my life. The fascinating marriage between the modern and historical (needing to stop by a grocer’s and a butcher on the same run for food, for example, or passing the intimidating yet intricate Duomo every day) kept me constantly awash with wonderment. I left my precious Florence in 2005 with salty streaks down my cheeks.
Somewhere in the midst of my semesters back in America I realized my restlessness there would not subside if I didn’t return to Italy. With a heart that beat for pasta and rolled Rs, I was so antsy that I made a third semester abroad happen.
I lived in Bologna this time, where my dramatic relationship with the infamous ex ignited. Armed this time with fluency of the language and a grasp of what life in Italy is like — inconveniences and disorganization abound — this second sojourn was less of a honeymoon. I saw through eyes more akin to a native and recognized where I didn’t before where Italy flourished and where it failed. In other words, I saw it for what it truly was, no different from any real entity: lovely, but flawed. And loved it anyway.
Which was where our flame had fizzled. My ex-boyfriend and I had not accepted each other. He hadn’t valued me for me, flaws and all; it wasn’t my fault I was inconvenient and needed him to walk slower. What he’d spoken was not the language of love but of judgment and condescension. In turn, I did not love him for who he was, but for what he represented: an ideal. I share the blame for his mistreatment; I’d let him. I’d put his needs above my own, so in some warped perversion of martyrdom, I tolerated the abuse in the name of love. And were it not for my stubborn attachment to who I thought he would be, our story would not have lasted into nearly three years of emotional torment. It was that unparalleled craving for his love — seeing him as my oxygen and not just a partner — that ultimately was my undoing.
Though these experiences seem isolated on their own, they actually occurred in a perfectly laid succession of events that converged into one complex lesson in the relationship we have with ourselves, as we never grow without obstacle.
Today I still fight for my body; it won’t get stronger otherwise. I now respect myself enough to no longer tolerate drama and emotional abuse, as I’m now with someone with enough heart to accept me as-is and not look at me as defective. And I’m able to do the same, since acceptance of others only comes as a result of acceptance of self. The inherent nature of recovery and self-healing, both physically and emotionally, is a tremendous exercise in self-love that I’ve been blessed to have lived.
With every tedious repetition I force on my affected left side, every deliberate effort I make to appreciate the less fiery but infinitely healthier nature of my current relationship, and every day that I pass with the conscious assurance that I need nobody else to be me, I am actually bowing to my heart-center and living love: the partnership between the self and others that forgives both parties their downfalls, with irreverence to fairytale.
Any thoughts or comments to my essay? Please leave a comment below and start a discussion.
To our healing,