Risk: I do not think this means what you think it means
In the past five days, I broke up with my boyfriend, asked my pastor to reconsider the church’s prohibition of women in elder and pastor roles (and in a separate conversation, asked my father to consider the same), and called a collection agency to tell them I couldn’t pay my bill. It’s been an exciting week.
I wouldn’t have dared to do any of these things a few years ago. I would have remained quiet, hoping that they would go if away if I just pretended they didn’t exist, that they didn’t bother me, that it wasn’t all right. I am a very different person now, but the road I took to get to this week, to being able to make these sorts of decisions, was long, embarrassing, painful, and ultimately, necessary. Let me explain:
Let’s jump back about ten years. Voila! I’m sixteen. My parents are divorcing. I’d read enough fictional books to know what happened to divorced families: the father went and got an apartment and the mother and child(ren) stayed at the house and tried to keep going on as though everything were normal. This led to a lot of tears and difficult moments, but in the end everyone made peace with everyone and it was all all right.
Except that’s not what happened.
My junior year of high school, my parents legally separated and sold our house. I stood between each of my parents as they in turn kept asking me, “Do you want the china? Do you want these movies? How about your childhood, are you okay if we toss that out?” It was a surreal experience, sorting through our lives and picking out the things that neither of them wanted, things that I knew I had to hold on to because someone needed to remember. My siblings were married and gone, my parents determined to forget, so it was up to me to be our family’s keeper, to safeguard the knowledge that we had once all been together, and we had once all been happy.
So I stole my parents’ engagement and wedding photos, I kept every bit of my childhood that I could fit into my dad’s truck, and I bottled up every single thing that I was feeling and pushed it way, way down where it could hibernate until it was safe to feel things again. I didn’t quite fully grasp at the time how deeply my parents were hurting. And because I was smaller and younger and dependent upon them in almost every way, I became the easiest receptacle for them to dump their own excess emotions. The pressure was so great I looked into getting myself legally emancipated, but even a hasty budget had me convinced that I could not survive on my own. Thus I remained the largest recipient of my parents’ overwhelming pain. With each stab of their emotion, my own got beaten further and further down into the pit of my stomach, until I had perfected a look of blank invincibility. Go on and yell at me, I wanted my face to say, you’re beneath me. You and your emotions are embarrassing.
When I was a child, risk meant jumping off the swing from too high and possibly scraping my hands on the woodchips when I fell flat on my face. It was something I thought about in a very limited and mostly physical way. Should I slide down this mud-covered metal sheet backwards? No, probably not.
But risk became something entirely different as I grew up. Risk was all about love. My parents had suffered because of it. I had suffered because of it. Love — or its lack — had torn our family apart. My best friend at the time was also going through an extremely traumatic break-up with her boyfriend. Several of my favorite teachers at school (and I went to a very small school) were getting divorced. Everywhere I looked, people were being crippled by what love had done to them.
Since I’d never had a boyfriend or even gone on a date, and since love seemed to be a catching disease with a staggering mortality rate, I promised to avoid it at all costs, so that it would not do to me what it had done to everyone that I, well, loved. This was bad enough, but I took it a step further: I swore that I would not cry. I’d recently watched the movie Spanglish and seriously misunderstood the beginning where the mother tells her daughter that she is only allowed one tear. I took that fictional advice as gospel truth: no crying.
It was a relief to move 1500 miles away for college. I still believe to this day that, if I had not had the two most amazingly kind and loving roommates in the world, I would have glared my way through freshman year. It was not my intention to make friends at college — I legitimately wanted to get my degrees and get out with the least amount of human interaction as possible. But my roommates understood me so thoroughly and so quickly that they threw me an “Over the Hill” birthday party when I turned 19. They knew that growing older depressed me, as ridiculous as it was, and they somehow managed to turn that fear into a celebration that I was willing to participate in.
But they were only my roommates for one year, and I would have been isolated indeed if I had not been involved in one of the most interactive majors at the entire school: the film department. No other major required that number of students to work that many hours in that close of proximity. I spent the next four and a half years surrounded by other young people who shared my passions, who were interested and invested in the same things. Quickly, and against my better judgment, they and the professors and staff became my surrogate family. Slowly, I was beginning to feel things again. It seemed as though it might be okay to occasionally feel just a little bit happy. Not too much, because that was dangerous, but a little.
And then: a setback.
I fell in love.
Don’t judge me too harshly — I’d never dated anyone before, and my primary examples for relationships were painfully divorced couples. I resisted dating this particular boy for a long time because I was afraid of ruining the close friendship we had — and honestly, even the friendship was severely pushing the limits of what I felt comfortable feeling. But one night when he was drunk he told me he loved me and I suppose I hadn’t realized until that moment that I was incredibly lonely.
And he said he loved me.
We dated for a year and a half. And though I was unhappy, I didn’t know I was unhappy. I just thought that’s how relationships worked: that everything was mostly wrong-feeling, but you loved each other so you soldiered on. After all, that’s why my parents had done for 27 years.
And even though I was technically the one to call it off, I was not in the slightest way prepared for what ending a relationship — especially my first relationship, and especially one that had lasted that long — might mean. During my parents’ divorce, my identity had crumbled, along with my sense of safety and belonging and home. And I’d rebuilt all of that around my college boyfriend. He had, without my knowledge or intention, become Everything. My sense of happiness was built on the unsteady foundation of Us, every hope I had was based on him, every plan I made was made with him in mind. I believed we were going to get married, even though I’d sworn to myself that I would never marry.
So when our relationship fell apart, everything fell apart.
To make a very long story short, the next two years were, in the understatement of the century, an uphill battle. I was fighting depression, anxiety, academic stress, creative crisis, poverty, poor health, a car accident that should have killed me, self-loathing, and Bad Life Choices. This is where my strict, conservative upbringing actually sort of served me well: while I had the impulse and desire to do terribly self-destructive things, my ingrained sense of obedience to moral law kept me from committing anything too damning, though there were people I hurt and things I did during that time that I’m not proud of.
But a couple of key things began to change: the first was that I moved away from L.A.
There are those will disagree with me, but my experience of the place is that it is a toxic, soul-crushing pit of despair. Much like the Pit of Despair from The Princess Bride, it too is capable of stealing 50 years of your life in mere moments. But I digress.
I packed up my friend’s Prius and drove back to Seattle, moving in with my sister. This allowed several very important things to happen: I got my feet under me financially, improved my health (because I was eating something other than Top Ramen), had the creative space to publish my first novel, and, because I was back in the state where my health insurance was located, I got to go see a counselor very cheaply. Of all the things I changed in my life, this was the most vital.
For the rest of that year, I went once a week to go sort out my shit. I traced my way through my parents’ divorce and identified where I had begun to shut down, and why. I reviewed my relationship with my college boyfriend and discovered how my parents’ divorce had affected it, while also identifying the unhealthy habits we had fallen into, and the dysfunction that we had both been a part of. I took responsibility for the role I played, but did not take on all the guilt, as I am often guilty of doing. I put the past into a perspective that was honest about my shortcomings, but also mindful of the negative and positive contributions of others. I did EMDR therapy while working through the PTSD of my car accident until I could freeze any moment of the memory instead of reliving it over and over again on a loop, until the nightmares disappeared and I could drive next to semis without flinching. I set goals for myself and plotted out steps to achieve them.
I began to feel again. Slowly, and with great caution. But I did it.
Back during my senior year of high school, I had also seen a counselor, briefly, to help cope with the divorce. The counselor told me that I had to love people, because love was worth it. I remember staring at her like she was insane and stating very bluntly that, “No. It’s not worth it.” Because back then, it wasn’t.
But time had passed and I’d begun to grow up. I’d lived on my own, I’d fallen in love and then fallen to pieces. I’d begun to feel, and I couldn’t go back. Or, well, I could, I knew it was an option, but I also knew it was kind of insane. I don’t mean that as an insult to myself during the years when I’d sworn of loving people and feeling things, but there is a legitimate sort of madness that occurs as a consequence. You lose your empathy, surely, and more than a bit of your humanity.
So, it was give up, or go on.
And in another vital fork-in-the-road sort of moment, I chose to go on.
Which sucked for me because I was really terrible at this whole “feeling” thing still.
You might have guessed that I met another boy. We’d been casual, online friends for several years but had basically never interacted one-on-one. And then one day he posted a song on Facebook. I have an absurd number of musician friends, so whenever they post something, I try to listen to it and share it as a way of showing support, so this was nothing other than me attempting to be supportive of a fellow young-adult artist. But when I heard the lyrics, they stopped me cold:
Sinking in the silence where no one can hear you.
And I know it’s hard when nobody loves you.
But you’re rising out of quicksand, I can
see you making it through.
And I want you to know that somebody loves you.
But she says:
I don’t want to be, I don’t want to be, no, I don’t want to be alone.
I don’t want to be, I don’t want to be all alone.
In one song, he’d managed to sum up everything I’d been feeling since my parents sold the house: the isolation, the sadness, the pain, the loss. I messaged him on Facebook about the song, we chatted for an hour, I found out he lived in Nashville and we Skyped for the next four months. Then he came to visit me in Seattle on a whim and we kissed and it was a good enough kiss that we decided to start dating. After visiting him twice in Nashville, I’d made up my mind: I was going to try this whole “being in love” thing again, and this time I was going to do it right, damn it. The day after Christmas I packed my car up and drove four days cross-country and set up shop in Music City.
And the past year has been amazing. I’ve made friends, stepped outside my comfort zone, went on a national book tour, got violently sick for two weeks and had to go to the ER while I was at Disneyland (but I was at Disneyland, so it still makes the “achievements” list), worked my ass off, and struggled deeply. I also count “struggling deeply” as a positive achievement because that’s what growing up looks like, at least for me. It means wrestling with my demons. It means reconciling what I believe about the world with how I’m actually living my life. And it means being uncomfortably honest about who I am and what I want.
And in the end, that meant saying goodbye to someone I loved.
There was no climactic ending, no string of fights or slammed doors, no accusations or confessions. We realized, rather simply, that we believed fundamentally different things about marriage. And since we had been dating for almost a year and a half, we were definitely headed towards an engagement. There were other concerns, too, but all the type that had the potential to be worked out. This, however, was a deal breaker for us both.
So we ended things. But unlike my previous boyfriend, I felt grateful, not bitter. I’d had the opportunity to know this person, to love this person, and to watch this person grow. In turn, he had loved me, supported me, and helped me work through things that I hadn’t even known I’d buried, or held on to, or been afraid of. I don’t mean to imply that it was all sunshine and roses and perfect — if it had been, we’d be insane to break up. But it was a good relationship. It was healthy and mature. And because of that, we were able to end the relationship gracefully, lovingly, and with the appropriate amount of pain and sadness, rather than with the identity-destroying loss that I’d experienced before.
The very same day we broke up, I’d already had a meeting scheduled with the pastor of my church after the evening service. So even though I was puffy-faced from crying, had a terrible headache (also from crying), and had just seen my ex’s parents at the service (they hugged me and told me they loved me while his mom cried), I sat and waited for the string of a hundred or so people waiting to speak to the pastor to dwindle down, feeling oddly nervous.
After introducing myself, I explained that I didn’t want to start any sort of battle within the church, but that I would greatly appreciate it if they re-opened a discussion on their policy about women in elder and pastor roles, and perhaps might begin that discussion by reading The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight. He recognized the title and confirmed that they had actually already bought a copy of the book based on the same suggestion I’d made to one of the elders a few months before. He thanked me for bringing the issue to him, which felt genuine, and I left and went home and cried some more.
As I mentioned briefly, I’d gotten violently sick over the summer, sick enough to go to the urgent care four times and the ER once while on vacation with my mother and grandmother. My mother paid for the ER bill (mostly because I told her that I wasn’t going to go to the E.R. because I couldn’t afford it and she told me I was being stupid and that she would pay for it because I needed to go), but that still left me with four urgent care bills, as well as bills for blood work and cultures and a few other procedures that I had to have done for a completely different health issue. Unfortunately my whole year went to hell very shortly before this when my relationship with my publisher fell apart (another relationship falling to pieces!). Income I had been planning to have from sales of my first book were not coming because I had misunderstood my contract. The advance that I had been planning to receive for my second book was also not coming because I was no longer publishing my second book with that publisher. Scrambling to get more part-time work, my fall and winter turned very lean, even more so with Christmas travel and gifts and not working for the two weeks I was gone for the holidays. In short, I couldn’t pay my medical bills.
Thus it came to be that I had a lovely little collection letter waiting for me when I got home. I asked my mother how bad collection letters were and she told me me that were pretty bad, and that I should call them. So, Monday morning, bright and early, and only twenty-four hours after I’d both ended a very important relationship and brought a very important issue up to the spiritual leader of my church, I called the collection agency, preparing to be yelled at, emotionally manipulated, scolded, attacked, and otherwise shamed into paying my bill.
Except that’s not what happened. A very nice woman answered the phone and directed me to another very nice woman who was handling my account. I explained to her that I couldn’t pay my bill immediately, but that I should have the money to them by the end of February. She told me that that was perfectly fine, and wrote down that I intended to pay and that she, apparently, believed me. Because I’d called them instead of ignoring them, they weren’t going to have the late bill affect my credit. She gave me her direct line in case I had any questions, and we ended the call wishing each other a good day.
Three confrontations down, zero to go.
At least, so I thought.
Two days later, my father called me to ask how I was doing, since I’d e-mailed him to let him know about the break-up. He asked me for more details on why we’d broken up, knowing only that it had something to do with differences in what we believed about marriage. My father is a very traditional, conservative man. I know most of his beliefs about the church and the world. I knew that I should not tell him what I was about to tell him, but because he’d asked so directly, I didn’t see a way around it. So I explained that we’d believed different things about the spiritual and structural leadership roles of men and women in a marriage (and in the church). And quickly the conversation turned from “How are you doing?” to an argument about theology and, well, women. Hurting still from all of the things that had recently transpired, I did not handle the conversation quite as well I am (now) capable of. And when I did not find myself wanting to explode angrily back at him, I found myself slipping into my 16-year-old defenses: shut up, let him think he’s won, and just take it until it stops. Play dead.
I almost went through with that strategy. I almost simply said, “Okay, Dad.” I almost fell back into that smoldering but silent teenage hostility and resentment. But, ungracefully as I did handle the conversation, it ended with me asking this instead: “I actually have been doing some research. I read this book called The Blue Parakeet. I would love to hear what you think about it. Would you be willing to read it and discuss it with me?”
He agreed to try and get a copy. The next day, he asked if, in return, I would read a book that he recommended. I said that I would absolutely do that. He told me that he loved me, and I told him that I loved him, too.
So here I am, sitting in my kitchen less than a week later — and I’m okay. I’m poor (as usual), alone (again), and up against people who are bigger than me and stronger than me who believe different things than me. Years ago, I would have simply crumbled, cowered, or resented them silently. But today, I’m okay.
It’s difficult. I don’t wish to make any of this sound easy. Having the conversation with my boyfriend was painful. Meeting with my pastor was nerve-wracking. Asking my father to enter into a theological discussion might well be the most terrifying thing I have ever done. But I’ve learned something in the past ten years. I’ve learned that yes, feeling things and loving people is a risk. It’s absolutely a risk. But my high school counselor was right (if not particularly effective in communicating this concept with me): love is worth it.
And not because of some bullshit truism. It’s because people are our life. You cannot avoid them forever, hate them forever, or disdain them forever without either going off to live on a deserted island, or resigning yourself to an exceptionally poor and bitter existence. I know this from experience, not theory — I was there.
Risk is frightening because it puts something in jeopardy. But when it comes right down to it, the thing that you’re putting in jeopardy is usually a false sense of security or comfort. Most times, we’d rather live with a dysfunctional or even dangerous relationship or circumstance than risk the whole thing blowing up in our faces. But sometimes you need to tear things down, to deconstruct them, in order to understand what the problem is, where it’s coming from, and most importantly, how it can be fixed.
I lived in stasis for years. I lacquered myself in an impenetrable shell of isolation and thought that I was better than everybody else because I no longer required emotions to function. I wasn’t happy, certainly, but I also wasn’t anything else.
I have to admit, I avoided speaking to my boyfriend for a while. I was comfortable in our relationship, I liked things the way they were, even while I recognized that if we were going to stay together, we needed to have some honest conversations. I was afraid of losing him, even while I wasn’t certain we should stay together. It tortured me. But when we finally did sit down and talk things out — honestly, carefully, compassionately — it was worth it. Even though we broke up, it was worth it. Why? Because I love him. I risked our whole relationship by starting that conversation, and in the end, our relationship ended. Except that it didn’t. The romantic aspect came to a close, but our friendship did not, nor did our care for one another.
Likewise, it would have been easier to not talk to my pastor. To simply accept that this was a part of the fabric of my church and that no institution was perfect and though I didn’t like it, I would just have to live it. Or, I could have simply left and found a new church. But there was so much about that community that was good and beautiful and healthy, I couldn’t walk away, and I couldn’t simply pretend like it was something that I was okay with. So I risked a confrontation with my pastor — an authority figure, a leader, and someone that I truly respect. And he listened. He responded positively to my request. And while I have no idea whether the church will change their stance, I stepped forward and spoke. I did not stay silent, but neither did I explode or accuse or throw a tantrum. I quietly and respectfully brought my concerns to my church. And I was heard.
With my father, it is my default to stay quiet. I’ve been doing that all my life, and as a consequence, I haven’t had a serious conversation with the man in years. He knows very little about my life, my goals, or my beliefs, because it’s so difficult for me to engage with him without becoming overwhelmed and upset and panicked that I simply don’t tell him about anything other than the most surface-level, non-inflammatory details.
But I love my father. I respect my father. And though I don’t expect to change his mind, changing his mind is not my goal. My goal is to have an honest conversation with him. To lovingly discuss the issues that are important to me and to him. To love him fully by engaging him fully.
That’s what I want for all my relationships. That’s why I’m willing to risk. Because I understand now, that people are worth it. I’m worth it. And dishonesty, defensiveness, lies, control, faux submission, silence — that’s all the false comfort that actually gets in the way of feeling things fully, of loving fully, and of living fully.
I’m still learning all of this. I still suck at it most of the time. Hell, I can’t even pay my bills right now. But I’ve shifted my perspective about what’s important, about what has value, from controlling as much as I can so I don’t get hurt, to embracing potentially risky conversations and situations so I can love.
Sixteen-year-old me wouldn’t understand. She would be appalled that I’d be stupid enough to trust other people, to count on them or rely on them in any way. But 16-year-old me was in a lot of pain. And she didn’t have a context for anything that was happening. She didn’t have a method to deal with it. So the only thing she could do was shut down. So I forgive her. I forgive that version of myself for being something of an idiot, for getting it all so completely backwards. I learned a lot from being her. And there were some truly shitty years in there, but if I hadn’t gone through that, if that time hadn’t been so dark, I would also have no context for what I have now. I would not be as grateful for my life, collection letters and all.
And I am grateful. I am grateful for it all: the pain, the people, the process, and the opportunity to love at all.
T. WEST studied mythology and contemporary narrative fiction at Oxford University and has a B.A. in English and a B.F.A. in Cinematic Arts from Azusa Pacific University. Her work has been published in literary journals, she has presented papers on science fiction and fantasy at national conferences, her screenplays have placed in national writing competitions, and her debut novel hit shelves on May 12th, 2015.