On Approval

On Thursday, I announced that my memoir will be published in 2017 by HarperCollins Publishers. I have been tremendously joyful about this, but life can still be tough.

For so many years, I was afraid to dream.

I have had too many disappointments, and I am tired. 

In the past few years, I have cracked open. I feel again after years of numbness. It would be easier not to feel, but I know that is not the life I want.

I am publishing a book with a major New York publishing house. I have a talented editor who has edited Pulitzer Prize winning books. I have an editor who believes in me, and my talent, and my story. The first time I spoke with this editor, I knew that I wanted to work with her because she sounded kind. 

I crave kindness. Kindness is what has sustained me through the darkness. 

I am not good at being kind to myself.

This past week, I did something thoughtless, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. Still, from the amount of apologizing I did, you would have thought I had killed a kitten. I wondered why I felt such a need to apologize to someone I barely knew, and to whom I owed nothing? I finally realized that what I really wanted to say to this person was, “I was treated very poorly for many years. I am just looking for you to tell me that you still like me.”
Tell Me You Still Like Me could be the title of my book.

My best friend told me after an argument, “Kelly, I am not Caleb. I love you unconditionally,” and I felt this weight lift. I needed to hear those words.

This weekend, I was in Morgantown–the town where I used to live with Caleb–and I saw my friend soothing her baby. She had him tucked over her arm, and she swung him back and forth. His eyes drifted shut, and I said, “I wish that someone had been able to do that to me when I left Caleb.” I meant it. I felt so alone when I left Caleb. Even my parents were absent, but what I had was a best friend who said, “Kelly, I love you unconditionally.” 

I am trying to learn how to give that to myself.

I have not been back to Morgantown since I moved. I have tried to return, but have never been able to bring myself to do it. Morgantown was the setting for so much trauma. 

Still, recently, some of my friends from my graduate program proposed a reunion, and it seemed like an opportunity to return in a way that felt joyful. I knew that I should return to that town at some point. I knew that I needed to face those demons.

So, I went.

It was hard. On Saturday, I went to have brunch at some friends’ apartment. Their apartment was located close to the hotel where I used to stay to when I would try to leave Caleb. As I neared their apartment, I looked for the hotel, but I didn’t find it. I remembered the woman who worked the front desk, who recognized me, and who knew that I was local. Her eyes told me that she knew my story. 

I thought of how I sat on that hotel bed inside of those cinder block walls and graded papers because even though my life was falling apart, I still had a job to do. 

As I drove closer to where the hotel was, I started to tear up in the car, but I wouldn’t let myself cry. When I arrived at my friends’ house, they hugged me, and fed me so well, and made me laugh, and they were so genuinely happy for me about my book news. 

They also told me that the hotel had been razed to the ground. 

I wish I could have stood there when the wrecking ball hit those walls. I wish I could have watched those walls fall.

I think of ghosts. I think of the ghosts of selves. There is a ghost of me in the space where that hotel was. There is a ghost of me in the house that I owned with Caleb, the house where the porch is now painted a godawful shade of baby blue, but everything else is the same.

There is a ghost of me in Morgantown. 

There is a ghost of Caleb inside of me.

Caleb is nothing but a ghost to me now.

After brunch with my friends, I went to the coffee shop I used to frequent. I bought my favorite coffee–an iced Americano with a little bit of maple syrup and a splash of cream. I left the shop, drank my coffee, looked up and saw the English department building where my office had been. The taste, and the walk, and the view: they catapulted me back into that place. That place when Caleb and I used to walk on that sidewalk together, and laugh, and talk, and genuinely enjoy each other. 

Caleb used to get me a sandwich from that coffee shop and bring it to my office. We would sit at my desk and eat lunch together. He could be so thoughtful. He nurtured me so well when he wasn’t hurting me.

It was the same desk where one of my best students, an adorable smart, redhead who has since stayed in touch with me and who follows my writing, came to see me. Caleb was there, and when he left, she said to me, “I can’t believe he is your husband. You are both my favorite teachers!”

It was also the desk where I had the Stevie Smith poem Not Waving But Drowning taped to the cork board next to a photo of Caleb holding Reed.

I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning.

Many of the English teachers at WVU teach my most prominent essay. I have no doubt that more than one of those students has also been in Caleb’s class when they read that essay. I have no doubt that the students haven’t realized that he is the man in the essay. He seems so wonderful in person.

A woman wrote me recently and said, “I read your essay yesterday morning (the one that made it into Best American Essays), and it made me weep. I felt that I was right there beside you in your indecision.”

I wanted to thank her so many times.

If there was a goal with the essay, it was for people to understand my indecision; I loved him, you see?

Today, at brunch, I told my MFA mentor, “I don’t know why I loved him. I have no idea why I loved him.” 

But that was a lie. I know why I loved him. Even now, it is difficult for me to admit that because I want to be able to rewrite history and turn him into a total monster.

He was not a total monster.

I am part of a support group for women who have survived these kinds of things. Everyone has their own rationalization. Everyone has their own answer as to, why?

Mine is that I loved him. Sure, he manipulated me. Sure, he lied to me. Sure, he convinced me that I was unworthy and awful.

But also, I loved him. I loved him unconditionally. I loved him through his damage, and his abuse, and his cruelty. I loved him because of his kindness, and his humor, and his heart. I loved him through the worst of it, but because of the best of it.

In the end, I loved myself more. 

I left because I loved myself more.
Love should always have conditions. 

Even my best friend’s love, as much as she says it doesn’t, has conditions, and that’s okay because I will always work to earn her love and to love her back equally. I am invested in being a good friend. I am invested in being a good person. I work at this. I will continue to work at this.

But I will never love anyone else unconditionally. That doesn’t mean I won’t love them, but there will be conditions. Conditions are necessary for love to thrive. 

While I was drinking that coffee and looking at my former office, I started to choke up. I thought, “Do not cry. Do not cry.” And then, I realized that I needed to cry, so I decided that, if I could make it to the car, I would let myself cry. 

I didn’t make it to the car; I cried in the parking lot. Still, once I got into the car, I let myself sob. I don’t remember the last time I sobbed like that.

The truth is that, all over again, I was sobbing over the loss of Caleb. I was sobbing over the loss of that love. More than anything, I was sobbing over the loss of my dreams. For too many years, Caleb was my dream.

And this book doesn’t replace my dream of loving him or raising my son with his father. I think that some people think it should, but it doesn’t.

This does not mean that I still love him. I don’t. But oh, those dreams, they had so much power.

I sobbed for a while, and then, I drove to my see my friends. And here is the magic of sobbing: I got it out of my system. 

When I saw my friends from my MFA program, I realized how far I’ve come. And I felt joy. Such joy. We drank champagne. They toasted me for my book news. We laughed. We went to a bar where a very special friend is a bartender, and we ate crappy hot dogs, and I realized how much of Morgantown that I had missed out on when I was married to Caleb.

I spent so little time with these people when I was in the program. Abusive relationships are all-consuming. I had been able to sustain my old friendships, but it had been impossible to make new ones.

While I was in Morgantown, I only cared whether Caleb liked me, so I did not build or nurture other relationships. The truth is that I’m not ever going to be a person who doesn’t care whether people like me (or offer their approval to me). I would love to be someone who doesn’t care, but that’s never going to be me.

So, maybe, for me, the key is having a support system. I need more than one person in my life who can tell me that they like me. This might not be the  healthiest way to live, but it’s my healthiest way to live.

And this weekend, on a very emotional return to the setting of my trauma,I found a lot of wonderful people who support me absolutely, even though Caleb is the person who lives in their town. 

None of them disbelieve me or discredit me. And they’re thrilled about my life, and my book, and my general well-being. 

I don’t need their approval, but it still feels good.