Bringing Both Feet in – Love & Mental Health
by Kavita Sarmah
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“Your flight has been delayed another hour.”
Not the sweetest thing to hear when you are at the airport on time for a flight that has already been delayed a few times since you booked it. It is especially un-sweet when your partner, who you are about to meet in person for the first time, has already arrived to an unfamiliar Indian city in the middle of the night. “It’s funny that I am coming from Pennsylvania and getting there before you,” he texts you. Your friend arranges for a local cab to take him to the Airbnb. He meets your friends before you. He unpacks, alone, in the room you will soon share, takes a shower and opens a window. He sends you photos of many a passerby; a fruit seller, men talking on their cellphones, slow yellow Ambassadors. You finally get on your flight from Bombay and land in Kolkata. You and your sisters meet at the airport and take a taxi to the Airbnb. You have time to think; you have never not used time to think.
It’s funny how, just as you somewhat start to identify as an avoidantly-attached person, you fall in love with someone in a different country and bravely decide to spend your life with them. You are utterly joyful in your own company and not looking for a partner one moment and suddenly in the sweetest, warmest little relationship the next. Your sisters chat away about the mundane; you sit in the corner, half-listening, half covered in clouds of bright, bright excitement and multi-coloured anxiety.
Cars, people, and bushy green trees become a blur outside the car windows.
Gabe and I met on Instagram. He found something I made online and I found something he made online and we found … each other. I remember making a post on Instagram about a suicide prevention documentary that he created and him messaging to thank me for my kind words about the film. I remember emails upon emails upon emails. I remember admiring him, platonically. I couldn’t possibly fall in love and expect anything from this person who lived in a completely different country. We couldn’t possibly fit in each other’s worlds. He was in the middle of the big-and-smalls of his life. I was in the middle of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the upheaval it brought. Well, not all my life is PTSD, but it does have a significant impact on how I function.
I have always dated; seriously and casually. I have always talked to people and told them that I liked them. I have made them hand-drawn crosswords and oil paintings and bought leather jackets and gone to sleep with them and watched them make morning-coffee and late-night noodles and shared silly stories at coffee shops and gone on drives with the windows down and sat at a lake and on a flight and introduced them to my sister and walked into bookshops, grocery stores, and seasides. I have always loved connecting with the human-human parts of someone. And, in one way or another, I have loved and been loved.
And yet, for some reason, every time I have imagined the grand scheme of my life, I have found myself by myself. Whenever I have sat down, closed my eyes and imagined an older Kavita, I have seen a small early-morning apartment, music playing from some room, a kettle on the stove; swirly steam fogging up a closed kitchen window. I have imagined an older Kavita bringing out a single cup, one plate, one pastry. I have imagined reading Mary Oliver in the living room by myself; curtains swaying from side to side. Even in the middle of sweet and promising relationships, I have visualized myself peaceful, small, and alone. I have never wanted to call it “commitment phobia” because that is just so … simplistic. But even in my moments of brave loving, I imagine there has been some fear; fear that kept me at a manageable level of commitment or love or relationship-ness. A protective part of my brain that said, “Hey. You are feeling too much; this is not safe. Back away. This is not small. This is big and dangerous.” So, I have backed away time and time again.
There was something extraordinary about how I felt around Gabe; in emails, photographs, and voice-messages. Maybe it was the years in therapy or endless self-work or just the sparkly mumbo-jumbo of the universe but, when I fell in love with Gabe, I slowly brought both my feet into our little world and let go of my desperate grip at the hinges of the door. As much as I would like to believe it was the crashing of the stars in some galaxy or that mercury was upside-down at the right time, I think I see why Gabe and I fit so wonderfully together.
I started going to therapy about six years ago. I was twenty years old, extremely moody and numb at the same time; struggling to sleep; struggling to feel. An MDI, MCMI and several other evaluations later, I was diagnosed with PTSD and a few other vague, less significant yet “fun” things. To be honest, therapy and childhood trauma were both equally life-changing for me. Only that, therapy took the pieces that scattered from a childhood-storm and slowly started putting them together. We worked on Kavita in my therapist’s office. But, I believe, more than the work in the office, therapy showed me a way to continually work on myself throughout life. You see, it is hard for children in dysfunctional homes to grow up without any scars. Childhood is a delicate and powerful time. My childhood did not make me a self-assured, optimistic, and emotionally healthy person. I grew up utterly scared of everything and endlessly protecting myself. I carried that into my adulthood. I am terrified of everything, still. So, wandering into a young adult’s world by myself, I felt colourblind. The red flags and green flags all looked the same. So, naturally, my brain went, “Let’s stay away from everything, just in case it’s a red flag.”
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I spent month after month, year after year, learning about Kavita. She wants a small life. She does not want to own a car or a house or jewelry. She wants to write and draw and be close to nature. Kavita is afraid of animals, but would like to work on that fear and adopt a dog one day. She would like a fancy coffee machine in her home. She does not want to birth or adopt children. She is not very sure about marriage. She would like to emancipate herself from her mentally-abusive father. She needs the space to be afraid of what scares her. Authenticity matters to her. She would like to be in long-term relationship with someone who makes her feel warm, peaceful, and safe.
I started to notice what makes me run away; what helps me stay; what hurts and destroys my mental health and what feels like nourishment. Through therapy and self-work, I realized I was not mentally colourblind; I was uneducated when it came to emotional intelligence. So, I sat with myself and continued to teach and learn and notice and understand.
I met Gabe at a time when I was deeply invested in my wellbeing. Gabe met me while he was deeply invested in making a healthy and fulfilling life for himself; a decade into therapy. I believe this was the sparkly mumbo-jumbo of the universe. I brought my post-traumatic growth, debilitating anxieties and a melting pot of needs that stem from trauma; he brought his emotional resources, long-standing depression and more anxiety. We built a metaphorical table to put everything on, where it could be pored over and discussed. Not only was there warmth, love, and understanding, but there was instantly a mutual need to make a healthy, nourishing, and honest life together. Because we were both individually working on ourselves, when Gabe and Kavita came across each other, they recognized the green flags with clarity. And, if such a thing as the “right time” exists at all, this was it.
Marriage, the epitome of a long-term relationship, has always been like Indian classical music to me—I appreciate it, but it does not move me. The only difference is that I have never had reoccurring dreams about running away from Indian classical music. It is funny how scary something as simple as loving someone and spending your life with them can look to a traumatized brain. And, subconsciously, I did carry that fear of making a home with someone; not checking the weather, leaving my raincoat at home, running out in the sun and in the rain. But when Gabe and I talked about spending our lives together, for the first time in my life, it moved me. Because there was space here to be human; an environment that encouraged me to be wholly Kavita, my fear-brain could quiet down enough for me to experience what it feels like to truly love and be loved by someone. Meeting someone who understood mental health and was committed to building a safe, fulfilling, and healthy life together was a significant piece in my progress as a person with trauma.
I don’t think, in the push and pull of life-things, we realise how little we know about ourselves. Why do we like the people that we like? Why do we stay in places and with people that are eating away at our joy and sense of self? Why is it so hard to be honest with ourselves and our loved ones? After years of therapy and self-work, sometimes I still find myself to be somewhat of a mystery. But I have noticed how much closer I have gotten to understanding this familiar person in the mirror. I have noticed myself advocating for her, rooting for her, helping and loving her. I have started to ask more questions, striven to meet her needs, and make a sweet, small, warm life for her to live in.
When Gabe, an emotionally intelligent and warm person came along, I was in touch with myself enough to see in him a lovely partner. I knew I had to bring both my feet in and let go my desperate grip at the hinges of the door. I felt held, seen, and entirely accepted. Could it have happened without therapy and years of self-work? I don’t believe so. It’s a shame that I don’t want a wedding because, if I did, I’m pretty sure the only person getting a wedding speech would have been my therapist. If not for her, I am not sure if I would have invested time into making a healthy life for myself. I am not sure I would have known the difference between red and green.
If this essay is for anything, I think it’s to encourage you, dear reader, to invest time in making a healthy and warm life for yourself. If you haven’t been in therapy yet, I think it is an immensely helpful way to learn how to take care of yourself and meet your own needs. I realise that there are myriad ways to work on oneself; this was an important resource for me. It’s a wonderful little thing to know your reds and greens.
The taxi-ride ends and you get to your destination. Your partner opens his arms and holds you in the sweetest embrace. Your sisters meet him; they fall in love with him immediately. You sit together on an Airbnb-bed one midnight and you ask him, “Ey; do you want to propose to me now?” He smiles, holds your hand and slips a ring onto your finger. Kisses. Words. Sleep. You celebrate at a lovely restaurant with your sisters the next day. There is a pastry. There are forks and candles. There is the sparkly mumbo-jumbo of the universe. And there is love. So much love.
EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
See Related Recovery Stories: Anxiety, Depression, Mental Health Aloud, Mental Health First Person Essays, Trauma