Will I ever get over this?

After 10 years I'm still as anguished as the day his car pulled away from the curb.

Published April 27, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

in 1997 I set free a beautiful man to live the rest of his amazing life. We'd met about three years previous on one island here in Hawaii, then followed his work together to the island I still live on. He made it clear, and I certainly thought I understood, that his career plans would take him away for his Ph.D. eventually. About two years into this relationship I became very accidentally pregnant. Neither one of us wanted a child and so I had an abortion that I don't regret, but I have this odd suspicion that this connection somehow "fused" me to him on some level I can't quite explain, and that might be mammalian and purely chemical.

At any rate, knowing him as I did, I realized he was brilliant and inspiring, charismatic and soulful, and seemed to be one of those people that just sort of attracts luck and fortune and light. I knew his life would be a humdinger. I knew I'd hear about him even after he'd gone off to finish being the fleshed-out version of himself. He was about 25 when he left for the rest of his life, with my blessings. I was 33. I thought we were being very adult and realistic about it all.

I went back into the house after seeing him off to the car that would drive him to the airport, and there I proceeded to go into the kind of stunning grief that you see on TV after suicide bombers destroy children. I shrieked, I wailed, I clawed at things and sobbed and fell apart in a way that astonishes me to this day when I think about it. Remembering it still frightens me. The confusing bit is that I had no idea that would come. None. For months after this I did all the things you do when you're trying to commit suicide and don't have the balls to just slice yourself open. I stopped eating. I fucked everyone. I careened around being terrible to people. I thought I was handling it just fine -- there was, after all, nothing to handle, right? We were adults, and it was all agreed.

It is, what, 12 years later? I have dated and slept with and semi-loved many men since then. And there's no peace in my heart and I can't let him go. Cary, I don't even know what it is I can't let go. At 45 I realize that neither one of us is the person we were then. He has been in a relationship with a very well-matching woman for years now, they own a house together, they teach together, they're on freaking National Geographic programs together. He's done, he's found it, he's got his life. It's as perfect as I knew it would be.

And my God, it hurts still. It hurts like hell, like a burn right on my heart. I am just not healing. I'm duct-taped together and lurching forward through life like some kind of patched-together zombie, but I'm not healed nor healing. His high profile -- not only in my field (we have so many people in common, even now and even though he lives in California) but also on the Internet and TV and magazines, yadda yadda, makes it nearly impossible to just move on. I can purchase a poster of his partner through the National Geographic bookstore if I so choose. There is nowhere to hide. People who don't know I know him e-mail me links to the great things he's doing. The world loves him. I knew it would be like this for him.

And still, I guess my question is, how -- other than digging to the center of the Earth and dying there -- do I just get past it and move on? I'm in love with him. With the past him. And I didn't know it then until the car left the curb for the airport. And now look at this mess.

In case you are wondering, we have spoken very few times since he left and not at all for years and years. My sudden and overwhelming reaction scared the crap out of us both and he more or less fled it, feeling responsible and guilty, I think, in a way that he didn't expect to feel either. His father, who is older and sometimes needs my help, still lives near me (and looks like him), his brother is a friend and visits the island every couple of years. When I'm with them I feel like I'm in the parallel universe I was supposed to be living. Friends tell me to avoid that situation, but I don't want to punish people whom I like, who like me, because I can't get over myself regarding their son/brother.

I asked a friend of mine whose husband died, after years of tight teamwork, how to heal, how one heals. They'd been married and working together for years and years and had that kind of symbiotic partnership that just leaves you agog, like one person in two bodies. He died very suddenly a few years ago and so I got very brave recently and asked her how she healed from something like that, though my situation can't compare. I thought she'd give me something to hold on to. Her answer to how you heal: You don't.

I don't expect you to have an answer, but I just don't know how to think about this anymore. I don't know how to feel for anyone, or stop feeling for him, or stop feeling like an idiot.

Not Getting Over It

Dear Not Getting Over It,

Well, I think you do get over it. People say you don't and I know what they mean and this is a long time. But you do get over it.

It doesn't happen automatically. You have to do things.

This is your first step. You have to reach this point first. You have to reach this point where you are ready to try anything.

Then you take it down to zero.

I am going to pretend that you meditate a lot there in Hawaii. I am going to pretend that you have a good hilltop where you go and sit and get still. I am going to pretend that you already do this regularly. So if you don't do this regularly, I assume you will begin.

You may find when you try to take it down to zero that you don't want to take it to zero. This is, after all, a beautiful thing that is still feeding you in some way; this was your moment. It is still feeding you and you are still feeding it, and we are going to let it die. But we know that. We can let that go. We know it has to die. It has to die so we can let it go.

You find your still center and you take this thing down to zero. Zero affect. Zero remorse. You chill yourself, bring your heart rate down, bring your breathing down, get still and centered and let this topic come to you and let it wash over you and hold your place there in your meditation. Hold your place and let it happen and stay in your meditation. Let it happen. There may be tears at first. Let them go. There may be rage and sadness at first. Let that happen. Just continue day after day meditating for a least half an hour every day. Hold your stillness. Go even deeper into that stillness. Sit and sit still and notice that the sounds around you become like a sphere in which you are floating, wordlessly. After you do this for a while, perhaps a period of weeks, you are going to find a place from which this thing that has tormented you seems very distant, very tiny, or does not exist at all. You will find that you have been sitting and have not thought about this thing for several minutes. Expand in that place. Expand those minutes. Keep meditating every day for at least half an hour. Find that place and get to know it. Settle in there in your meditation. After a while you will find that you have not thought about this thing for several days. It will come to you as a surprise, because you are used to thinking of this thing every day. Do not marvel at this. It is normal. Keep meditating.

Let go of what you believe about this. Let go of thinking about it. Let go of your expectations. Let go of what you think people ought to give you as a reward for your suffering. Let go of your hurt and your desire for rescue. Let go of your wishes for him to have some awful mishap. Let go of your thoughts about his mate and whether she deserves him or not. Let all these thoughts run through your head as you meditate and let them go. Name these things and let them go, in the same fashion in which the yoga instructor names our toes and knees and ankles and calves and asks us to let them go. Name these things one by one and let them go.

In the state of openness and stillness that you have now achieved through daily meditation for at least half an hour (use your kitchen timer) on this good, warm hill in Hawaii, begin to toy with the fantastical notion that it's possible this thing never really even happened. We know it did but allow yourself to imagine that it did not. Build a terrain, a theoretical terrain, in which it did not happen at all. Collect a life around the absence of this thing. Allow yourself to imagine a life for yourself in which this thing did not even happen. What would be in that life? What happy things would you be doing? Just stick with that for a few days. Shut your eyes and imagine yourself going about your happy life as if this thing had never happened.

As you try to consider this, in purely theoretical fashion, for purely speculative reasons, just to see what it is like, from your vantage point of studied stillness, watch what resistance flares up; watch how this thing struggles to survive and stay present. See if it seems to struggle to stay in your life, as you imagine what it would be like without it. Does it claw and scream and struggle to stay in your face? Does it threaten you? What does it threaten you with? Is there a kind of faceless anonymity that threatens to overtake you if you let go of this thing? Does it threaten you that you will matter less, or not at all, if you have not had this event happen? What happens when you neglect it? Does it cry and wail just like the child you aborted might cry and wail if you neglected it? Does it stamp its feet? Notice its features. Notice how you love it and find it impossible to neglect it. Notice if you feel some urge to feed it.

If you see what I am suggesting, fine. I am not going to spell it out. I have no idea what actually is there. But I suggest that you do this consistently for a period of months.

If you are helped by taking guidance in the art of meditation, then find a group. But do not let the group become your excuse not to do it. It is easy to join a group and then stop doing it once we leave the group. So it will be best if you undertake this yourself, with steely resolve, because it will only work if you do it every day for half an hour. So find some place where you can always go, so you are not deterred by weather. In Hawaii I would think this to be possible, but if not, then find some place indoors. The important thing is that you have access to this place and not be deterred. It will only work if you do it every day.

Keep taking this further. When you have established a good daily practice, try bringing it inside to the television. What would it be like if you were watching TV and this man came on the National Geographic Channel? I suggest after you have been meditating for a while that you turn on your TV and watch the National Geographic Channel and sit still and meditate and when he comes on, if he comes on, watch what happens. Say thanks but no thanks.

Then repeat. Keep doing this. Eventually, it's going to get better.

Tormented by the past? Read pp. 284, and 134, and 149 ...

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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