CN: Allusion to past emotional abuse and suicidal ideation
I rarely tell my partners that I love them.
Well, that’s not true. I rarely tell them uninitiated. It’s easy for me to say “I love you, too,” sincere yet mechanical, in response to “I love you.” Once a relationship reaches the point where “I love you” is a thing we’re saying to each other, that exchange becomes commonplace: the affirming background hum of two people who care deeply for one another. It’s easy enough that just having my love for a person on my mind when a totally different person, jokingly or accidentally, tells me they love me is sometimes enough to bring it out. The mortification that follows is rarely worth the laugh.
But starting that trade is much harder.
There are so many meanings attached to that word. There are more shades of devotion and trust and elation and cozy warmth buried in those four letters than a thousand generations of songs and poems in every language have together figured out how to express. We conjugate that word like it’s an action, but it’s a haze. It wafts in when she starts being excited to share the things she enjoys, it permeates every sip of the hot chocolate she brings you, it warms the air when she looks resplendent in the summer sun, it fills your veins when she feels comfortable in your arms, it’s the elated major key tamping out the wistful sadness of the minor when she starts teaching herself how to make all the food you miss from those places you might never see again because she knows how much you miss it. It’s knowing that she makes you better and you make her safe, that your world and hers are both bigger because of the provinces and towns and dappled glens she brought you and the villages and beaches and steaming forests you brought her. It’s tinkering with your vision of the future because you want her in it, and trusting her to do the same. It’s watching the guilt you feel about depending on her slowly fade as you see her depending on you too. It’s the backlit glow of sunset photos and the intimate chill of long night drives, the sound of her heels on clicking floor and the smell of her herb garden.
It’s here, there, and everywhere. And I don’t know what to do with it.
I don’t know what my partners experience that makes them say it more often than I do. I don’t know what the impetus is at a parting or during illness or all the other times when people have said “I love you” to me. I don’t know what new flutter in the endless warm breeze required acknowledgement then and there that they noticed and I didn’t.
I grew up someplace where rote expressions of love were omnipresent but my emotions were not welcome. I felt more than anyone around me believes, and didn’t learn how to express any of it until years after I fled the country. I received explicit instructions that all of my problems were the result of my bull-headed refusal to be “normal” and I could achieve lifelong ease and greatness if I only found the things that made me strange and wrung their helpless, cringing necks. I tried to get close to people and they found me weird and terrifying and I got used to receiving affection with frozen terror, afraid that if I breathed too loudly I’d scare it away. I grew up angry and hopeless and my most fantastical dream was to have one day in which I wasn’t vibrating with awareness that everything about me and around me and about my relationships with other people was some cruel cosmic joke, and then not have more days because they’d never live up to that one. It scares me to recognize that stony, focused endurance is how I survived my adolescence, and that someone with a more fragile heart than mine would not have made it. It scares me that I was so good at hiding this that I hid it from myself. It scares me that no one saw the short fiction I wrote with that theme, which ended with metaphors for different parts of me violently murdering one another because one of them killed a symbol for my future happiness, as a cry for help.
I heard and immediately grasped the message that “love” means something, but how it could apply to me, I never understood. Emotion at that level is paralytic and frightening. My arms seize and my throat trembles and the slightest disturbance brings on shuddering sobs and I don’t know what to do with it. It took years of deprogramming reflexive terror to let me initiate any relationship, ever, under any circumstances, and most kinds still fill me with dread. I’ve been part of several relationships where we exchanged “I love you,” and I have never been the one to bring us to that stage. I don’t know what to do with it.
I feel every iota of that beautiful haze and that beloved hot chocolate and the takeout dinners I can’t afford and the monumental kindness that is keeping me in touch with my own roots because I don’t know how and can’t even express how much I miss them, and I don’t know what to do with it.
There are times when “I love you” feels trite and misplaced and out-of-character and other times when it’ll never be enough to put a name on the gentle glow that being around people who make this world possible for me puts on the most ordinary, quotidian joys.
It’s there, it’s everywhere, and it is so beautiful even trying to grasp it all is physically painful.
So I share memes like this sometimes, and hope that people understand, and in turn try to tell them what they mean to me in other ways, or in the ways they’re expecting if I can figure out how.