As I sink back into the crease of the couch, I wonder what I’m really doing here. The red cushions are worn, faded in color yet saturated with memories. I scrape off a layer of my Chapstick with my front tooth, realizing that I’m not as happy as I thought I would be.
I drove 4 hours for the damn simple realization that perhaps what was once good for me is no longer filling my needs. You see, navigating the world of romance and friendship is particularly difficult in your twenties. Multiply that times a few hundred if you’re like me, plagued with the persistence of mental illness.
It seems that each individual I’ve encountered the past four years has not merely been a person to walk in or out of my life, but rather a fiber in the Velcro that fastens my life in a fierce security. I remember the girl from the diner last weekend, because she laughed at my stupid joke. I remember your best friend from home. Her indirect compliments were the fuel I needed to push through the evening. A random smile from across a public space. An extended hand. A door held, with a stranger telling me not to rush. Together, these actions form a bond that keep my spirits up and my confidence alive. He, however, he was not a simple plastic thread like the others. He was (and will continue to be) a steel lock whose combination I have yet to decipher.
In books and movies, it’s always a steep plummet into love. With him, though, it was a gradual descent. It was a friendship and a shared sweatshirt. Not date nights and red roses, but carwash escapades and my first hot pocket. It was not an obvious love, but a subtle ombré of sun-kissed color added to my days.
He wasn’t a passing glance or a brush of the fingertips. He was a tight grip while I stomached my third Ensure supplement of the day. A direct stare as he told me “No, you have to eat.” I learned quickly in my years of treatment that such friends are rare to find, and near impossible to hold onto. My diagnoses follow me around, and word spreads quickly. Perhaps it’s my fault for being so open with my struggles in the attempt to help others. Regardless, the DSM is a ball and chain that I would not wish upon anyone. The complexities of my brain and fickleness of my mood drove plenty of friends miles into the distance. Few and far between, though, were the ones who wanted to see me come out at the other end of the tunnel.
For several years, he was my security blanket laced with tears. It becomes awfully easy to cling to a friend who helps you see your own beauty. And it’s frightening how addicting that person’s embrace can be. Not just a “hello, I’ve missed you” hug, but a sobbing into his shoulder hug while I convulse at the thought of finishing my green beans. Sure, it was a romance peppered with duplicity and lacking in commitment. I grew up always eating what I’ve been served, though, so who was I to complain? He has been the hinge on my carousel horse. Yes, it’s a constant rhythm of rises and falls, but I’ve learned to love the strength that pulls me back up after pushing me down.
As I stood there wiping off the condensation rings on his counter, though, I came to an important realization. Perhaps I need to look at this friendship differently. When I was in kindergarten, my grandparents gifted me a beautiful winter coat. I dubbed it my “Eskimo jacket” and wore it with pride. With a fur-lined hood and close to a dozen pockets hidden throughout the fabric, I was in pure bliss every time I wore it. As you may imagine, I soon grew out of that jacket. I can remember wistfully watching my mother put it in a bag of clothing to be donated to our church. It didn’t seem fair, really, that something I loved so much and took such good care of would just be taken away from me. I couldn’t help but wish to be smaller. To not have grown, so that I could still squeeze my lanky arms into those puffy coat sleeves.
I guess it’s kind of the same with this relationship– I can’t help but wish for its return…for the good old days, so to speak. It doesn’t seem fair. To invest one’s heart and trust in something knowingly unstable is a dangerous game, but I don’t necessarily blame myself. It’s hard to see the stoplight turning yellow when the sun is glittering behind it. But to return to such a situation is to jam my arms back into that Eskimo jacket. No matter how much I scrunch up my shoulders or pull down on the sleeves, it won’t work for me anymore. For the singular simple fact that I have grown.
I never imagined that my saving grace would someday morph into an addictive cycle — an unhealthy pill that would take me years to metabolize. But that’s what happens with toxic relationships, they say. It’s exponentially easier to rationalize a stranger’s lace panties on his bedroom floor than it is to convince myself that I’m worth more. An endless cycle of treachery and forgiveness begins to feel like a calming wave. In reality, though, it is an indirect means of self-destruction. It’s tearing down the murals of recovery that I have spent years crafting. So now sitting perched on the edge of that worn red couch, I know why I’m not happy. And lacing up my Keds, I set out on a mission to find a bigger jacket.