I never got over my first love

40 years later I'm still thinking about her

By Cary Tennis

Published July 26, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am a male in my mid-50s. As a young man during my late teens, I dated a beautiful girl for several months and we both fell deeply in love with each other. But as fate would have it, my family moved literally across the country and our hearts were broken. We kept in touch for a year calling and writing each other. We hoped to get together again after high school.

Then the letters and calls ended abruptly from her end and I heard from a friend that she met another man, dated, and even became pregnant. She lost the baby and eventually broke up with him. That was the last bit of information I had heard about her even to this very day.

I was devastated, to say the least. I was madly in love with her and it was like a knife was pushed and twisted into my heart. I suffered in a deep depression that lasted at least 10 years. I tried to bury the memories and kill the pain with alcohol and drugs.

I eventually pulled myself together and realized I was on a path to self-destruction that needed to stop. In a nutshell, I sobered up, met a woman, got married, have children, and have a terrific job. But now I am older and I have not ever stopped loving my childhood sweetheart.

I have thought about trying to find her and getting in touch with her again. In this age of the Internet, easy information and access to a private investigator, I may have a chance to find her if she is alive. I have some faint hope of rekindling a relationship.

My question for you is: Should I lay this notion to rest? What are the consequences of finding and contacting her after all of these years? Am I just a person in a futile quest for a relationship that cannot be reciprocated? Am I in for another bout of disappointment and depression? Is it a venture that will only destroy my family and marriage I have now?

I guess I want closure and/or an answer before I die. A friend has told me it is like a junkie trying to get back to the extreme feeling again of the first-time high of a drug. It ain't going to happen. I say it is not the same. Hope and love are celebrated by writers and poets. But they have eaten my heart and soul.

Thanks for listening.


A Love That Will Never Die    

Dear Love That Will Never Die,

Think about it: You fell in love and it was the most glorious and exciting thing you had ever felt.

Then your parents moved you away and there was nothing you could do about it. Nothing.

Think about it as though it were happening now: They don't hear you or they don't know what you're feeling; they don't take steps to reassure you or recognize your first true love; they don't arrange for you to be able to visit. They don't give you a forum in which you can talk about how much you love this girl. There is no structure that lets you work it out. Or maybe they do offer to talk about it but no way in hell you are going to talk about this with your parents or with a school guidance counselor or minister or anyone, not even your friends. You are crushed and don't know how to deal with it.

You say things to yourself to make it better or to make sense of it but it still stays like a lump in your heart.

So you drink and do things to make it go away but it doesn't go away. Maybe you blame people for it. Maybe you blame your parents or her parents or her, or life, or society, or God or fate. But it never goes away. It fades like a worn nickel but it never goes away.

So you tell a story about what happened. The story takes the form of a romance that was never consummated.

We men often tell the story of unresolved loss in the form of a grand adventure that was never completed. We wonder, wistfully, if we could ever go back and complete the journey. We feel a nagging dissatisfaction with things as they are.

We think about maybe moving to Tahiti. But it's not about maybe moving to Tahiti. It's about facing what we lost. We're holding grief at bay. We're holding anger at bay. Then one day we realize we have been telling ourselves the same sorry story for 40 years. We're on the fringes of recalling the original loss. But we don't go there. We stay on the fringes.

Why are we doing that?

We keep returning to it because it is full of pain. It is a signal that we need to face the loss and the pain and let it become part of us and live with it.

The romance that was never consummated is actually with your own grief. That is the romance that needs to be consummated. Your own hurt self, that's what's calling out to you now for love. Your own hurt self needs love. Your own hurt self needs to be heard and cared for. Your own hurt self needs to heal.

Pauline Boss, Ph.D.,  has written a book called "Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief." This may be a book worth reading. It may help you understand your own suffering and longing.

I still carry unresolved loss about my family moving and separating me from my friends and the town I had grown to love when I was 12. Sometimes I fantasize about how things would have been if we had stayed there, how maybe I wouldn't have become a dysfunctional student and a drug addict and alcoholic, how I wouldn't have felt lost and angry and depressed during my teen years. When I begin to fantasize like that, I try to accept what is really happening: I am feeling sadness about my loss. I am grieving for a loss.

Out of this grief can come some emotional realism: Face it, I am a grieving man. Face it, I was hurt. I was hurt and nobody came to protect me. Nobody came to nurture me and help me through it. I acted like I was not hurt because I had learned that a young man acts like a man; I watched my father and followed the models of behavior that were available -- the men I admired. And they were tough and they did not talk about grief or loss.

They frigging got on with it.

So that's what I did. I frigging  got on with it.

And I have been frigging getting on with it for the last 40 years and at times it is killing me.

So I go into my psychiatrist's office last week and I think about my childhood and I just start crying. Not anything in particular, just me bawling away in my psychiatrist's office about just nothing in particular, just childhood, just loss. Just sadness. Just the whole thing right there. Not some big trauma I remember. Just loss. Just grieving. Maybe grief for the world. Not just me. I'm not like the only one. Of course not. We're all grieving for something.

Personally, I don't think contacting her right now is a good idea. But maybe you could write her letters and not send them. You could write in the form of, "Here is what happened to me after I lost you. Here is what I felt and what I did. Here is what my life has been as I have lived with the loss of you all these years." You might write like that. That way, you would be telling your story and it might help clarify what happened and how you felt at the time.

Your adolescent self who still loves her might want to write, too. Go ahead and rekindle that wonderful and pure love you experienced so long ago, that love whose loss led you into rage and destruction. Go ahead and let all those feelings come back.

It's OK. Nothing can harm you now. You are a strong, adult man with a wife and family who love you and look up to you. But you still carry this boy who was hurt. It's OK. As you have parented children, you can parent this bereft teenager you once were.

Also focus on the beauty of it, how amazing it was, and how that amazing capacity for love still lives in you. You did not lose that. You are an amazing man for being able to love like that. It was amazing and wonderful and you are still capable of it.

But you must grieve this thing. You must enter into this unresolved loss and let it take you over for a bit. There may be some crying involved. There will be stages. Perhaps it is best to do this with a knowing therapist, someone to sit with week after week as this awful thing finds its shape within you and makes its home within you, as you find a place for it and know the truth of it, and let it be, not as the somewhat worn story of a girl that got away but as your true story, the true story of a young man who loved a woman who was taken away from him and never seen again.

Cary Tennis

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