On Alchemy

Almost a year ago, I was diagnosed with the Type A flu one day before I was set to defend my dissertation. There was no way to reschedule my defense and graduate on time, so the next morning, I woke up, put on a nice top and cardigan—added a little lipstick for emphasis—and defended my dissertation via Skype from my upstairs office.

I passed.

Dr. Sundberg.

I went downstairs, called my parents to celebrate, then went back to bed. I felt my fever rise as I slept. That night, the fever crested and waned. At its peak, it was 103.7 degrees.

I thought, “If I die here tonight, Reed will find me in the morning.”

I thought, “I cannot die here tonight.”


Later, when I told my mother of how high my fever was, she said, “If that ever happens again, you need to go to the emergency room.”

I said, “Who would drive me to the emergency room?”

She said, “Call an ambulance.” I knew then that she was serious.

I could have died that night, but I didn’t.

Still, I didn’t wake up the same


Things were hard when I left Caleb, but once I realized that I was moving on, that I was really doing this, my life became imbued with a sense of purpose, a sense of hope. There was always the potential of what was to come, and what was to come looked so, very bright.

First, I got into the PhD program. Then I started publishing essays and receiving awards. Then I got an agent. Then I got a book deal. Then we sold the translation rights. And so on, and so on.

And somehow, in the midst of all of that work, my personal life trudged along with me. I dated some. I had sex with older men. I had sex with younger men. I dated very casually. I tried to date more seriously and failed.

Others congratulated me on my vulnerability. Look at you, they said. You have been through so much, but you are still putting yourself out there.

I congratulated myself on my vulnerability too. Still, I assumed that because I hadn’t found something serious, I had failed.


4 years ago, I fell in love with a man who didn’t love me back. I loved him for two years, but I told myself that I didn’t love him. I told myself that I was in control.

During that time, I wrote on this blog that he had taught me how to not fall in love.

I thought that, because he didn’t destroy me, I must not have loved him.

Because, you see? Love that didn’t destroy wasn’t real to me.


But  I came to realize that I had loved him. Though he wasn’t in love with me, he was kind to me, and he respected me. He taught me what it feels like to be with someone stable and consistent.

He didn’t destroy me. He nourished me, and though I felt heartbreak when we parted, I left him more whole and more loving.

It didn’t have to destroy me to be real.


It has been over six years since my divorce, and I am still single. I often think that something is wrong with me, even though I have loved, I have dated, I have grown, and I am more whole.

When I was home over Christmas, I was out with a friend. She talked of a woman we both know who divorced her long-term husband and was then immediately in another relationship. My friend said, “I keep thinking that, if I divorced my husband, would I be a [insert name here] or a Kelly?”

I was like, “Whoa, I am your example here?”

I told her of the man I had been quietly involved with for months,  and then, while we were talking, I received a text from another man who I had a fling with before. I said, “Just because I haven’t been in something serious doesn’t mean that I am celibate.”

I wanted to say to her: Be a Kelly. Be a Kelly. Be a Kelly.


Be a Kelly. Be a Kelly. Be a Kelly.


I always worry when I see someone rush into dating after a breakup. Where does that need come from? How can someone be happy if they cannot be happy alone?

It is true that I have not met someone who is a good fit for me in the past six years, but I believe with the fullness of my being that is for the best.

Because, you see when I woke up from that flu, I wasn’t the same. My fever dreams had enough pitch and intensity to both scare and excite me. I saw things—not real things—but things, and I woke up from that flu feeling extremely sensitive, heightened, and things—just things—have not been the same since.

My premonitions have returned. My fear of ghosts has returned. My night terrors have returned.

What that fever unearthed for me was my trauma. I had not buried it enough to suffocate it.

I am still deeply wounded—not in my brain, but in my body.

My brain can rationalize with my trauma now, can usually recognize when I’m distorting or overreacting, but my body only knows how to feel from the inside.

At this point, the inside is darker and more unsettling than anything coming from the outside.


Still, there is a certain kind of beauty in the darkness.

I know how dark this world can be, and do you know what a gift that is?

I spent my life fearing the darkness, but it has made me who I am.


I have been speaking to an emotional alchemist lately. A friend gifted me with sessions. It’s like therapy but with a psychic component. Or therapy mixed with reiki. Emotional alchemy is genuinely impossible to describe. It is probably more “woo” than most folks are comfortable with.

The alchemist and I spoke on Sunday, and she said, “Your heart is golden. It is so big and wonderful, but because of that, you feel things on a large scale too. We need to give you some tools for protection.”

I repeated to myself, “My heart is golden.” I believed it.

Still, later, she brought up shame, and I started sobbing. I told her that my abusive marriage had brought out the worst in me, that I had accessed my own cruelty in the process of trying to protect myself, that I worried I was a bad person.

She told me to look in the mirror—to really look at myself—and to say “Thank you. I’m sorry. I love you. Forgive me.”

Forgiveness is alchemy.


I have not found something serious in the past six years because I was not ready, but that doesn’t mean that I have failed. I am alone because I had to learn how to love the woman looking back at me in the mirror. I could not have done that if I had been foisting my love on to a man. Given the choice, I would, again, Be a Kelly.

The truth is that, when I end up in a committed relationship, that person is going to have to be pretty special. They will need to be kind, funny, stable, and emotionally intuitive. And I can’t imagine myself with someone who doesn’t have their own kind of damage. I can only imagine myself with someone whose sore spots don’t rub against mine.

Because—though I like folks who aren’t damaged as much as the rest of us—only a damaged person can understand the beauty in a certain kind of darkness.

I need someone who understands my darkness.

I need someone who understands the need to look in the mirror and say, “Thank you. I’m sorry. I love you. Forgive me.”