I don’t have a memory of love before I was twenty one.
True, I grew up in a close-knit family where the words “I love you” were regularly spoken. But, for me it was a statement of fact or obligation. It was not the joyous, deep body feeling that I now know as love.
The person I dated for a over a year in college was rightfully angry that I told my friends and family that I loved them, but I never said it to her. It is only in hindsight that I see how immature I was. I didn’t know what love was really, what it felt like, or that I was responsible for it. I thought it was a thing that would simply come to me, like Tinker Bell, and sprinkle me with a magical dust. I worried that I would never love someone, that something was wrong with me that rendered me undatable and incapable of love. For years, I was comforted by Melissa Ferrick’s “Love Song.” She sings: “How strange at twenty one, never even had one.” If Melissa Ferrick felt this way too, maybe I was ok.
The first time I felt truly and overwhelmingly in love was after my college graduation ceremony. My family had come from out of town: my parents, already divorced and agreeing to be in the same place again, my sister, my grandmother, my aunt. We went out to dinner after the graduation ceremony. Seated around the table, I remember looking at their faces over dessert and wine, and feeling my heart warm and almost bursting.
* * *
Years after that moment at graduation, I fell in love. That first love was glorious and lasted several years and two cross country moves. Eventually that bloom of love could not contend with the winter of day-to-day of life. It ended, and I was devastated and depressed. I lacked appetite for everything that had nourished me. I tried to take good care of myself. I bought expensive pre-cut fruit (one of the few things I was up for eating) and sets of new sheets. But I heard songs and had stories I wanted to share; I missed him.
I realized that one thing I missed was pouring love into someone else. The breakup highlighted for me how much I love to love. Slowly, I learned to direct some of the love I’d put into my failed relationship back into myself. I found that I could actively love myself too.
I sought solace in the bathroom at work, which was the only place in my sea of cubicles where I could really be alone. I would turn off the light for a minute and soak in the calm, cool darkness. I’d wrap my arms around myself, take a deep breath, and whisper “I love you.”
It was a ritual I needed then, a reminder that I was both loved and capable of love. It was a symbol that I could support myself through the breakup.
* * *
Love is extremely personal, but I know I’m not the only person contending with these feelings. A friend wrote to me about his experience saying “I love you,” sharing that he has found it harder and harder to say as he gets older.
It is not because I don’t feel love and desire to share it with others. If anything, this desire has grown. It has more to do with the fear or hurting someone down the road if the love doesn’t last forever. Like if I say those three words to a partner, I am officially attempting a lifelong voyage of commitment.
This is, of course, absurd.
Love should be given freely; we don’t run out. It seems the more we love, the more we have a capacity for love. I didn’t consciously understand this as a child, but I acted this way naturally. But as breakups have accumulated and I have felt the pain of separation, my pace to “I Love You” slowed.
I would like to get back to my younger ways of loving more often. Over the past year, I have said I Love You to my friends and family as often as is semi-appropriate.
This puts me at a greater risk of being hurt. But that is fine with me. The feeling of connection is the feeling of being alive. Being safe and closed off is not a life I want to live.
* * *
It took me a while again to risk my heart to another person. When my current relationship was just starting, my stomach churned with a mix of anxieties. It felt like a child had made a kitchen concoction, and I’d been forced to drink it. I had too much baggage to simply be excited, and my body couldn’t distinguish between reasonable doubt and fear borne solely from a urge to protect myself from repeating past injuries.
But I also felt the warm and growing sensation of love– and I realized I could choose. I could have let the anxiety rule and end the relationship. But I didn’t. I told him that I was anxious, unsure what I was feeling and wanted to move slowly. Lucky for me, he stuck with me. I chose to encourage the warm, loving feelings.
It is still a choice to be made. Sometimes I catch myself feeling the warm glow, the pull towards another person, and in that moment, I need to decide to let it stay– to let the warmth linger in my chest, to let the tingling work itself out in my toes. Too easily, unwittingly and out of habit or fear, it is chased away and I have moved on too quickly.
I need, too, to chose to continue to love myself. I can quickly summon loving feelings for others, and in moments of joy, I will automatically think of how lucky I am to have my loved ones in my life. It takes a more deliberate choice to count myself among these blessings and to pour that joy and contentment inward. If this sounds selfish or egotistical, all I can say is that I think it helps me love you more too.
Image: “Love Poem” by Hans Hofman (1962)