The man walked into something like a cave and saw stalactites hanging from the roof. But these weren’t normal mineral formations. Each one contained the face and memories of someone important from his past.
I heard the man’s story this week in a book about experimental drug-assisted psychotherapy. During the experience, his unconscious was creating symbols for things it was pushing into his consciousness. And the man could have conversations with these people from the past, in a way that felt completely real to him.
I found this story oddly frightening. I imagined what it would feel like to encounter such people from my past. It gave me shivers, but it’s hard to explain why. All I can say is that when I close the door on someone from the past, I prefer not to re-open the door to something dead. I’d rather allow the memories to stand on their own.
And I’ve lived something of a waking nightmare for the past couple of days — as I’ve vividly experienced conversations with women who have been dead to me.
I don’t remain friends with someone who I had once loved. For me, that’s just not the way love works. If I could have an intimate relationship with a woman and then back off to “just friends,” it would only mean that I hadn’t really loved her.
If I am in love with you, I will pursue you in every reasonable way I know how. If we don’t end up together, though, I will eventually close the door — quite firmly. I’m not going to be your friend.
Because of this, every past love is like a mental box that’s been closed and stored away. If I get to the point that I can do that, it means I’ve gotten over the feelings of love and I’ve come to terms with whatever happened between us, for good or bad.
By that point, we’re not friends. We’re not enemies. We’re just strangers who have some shared memories.
I’ve successfully done that with every past love so far, except one. (That’s one which obviously needs to be put away for good, too, but I haven’t been able to seal the lid on it. Not yet.)
For the last few days, those boxes have come off the shelf — one at a time — and I’ve had emotionally difficult inner conversations. Strangely, they’ve left me wishing that I could really do such a thing — have a series of last conversations to say things that should have been said, some things which I understood then and others that I’ve come to understand since.
The least emotional conversation was with Gail. She was my first love. She meant the world to me for about a year and a half. But things started going off the rails. I understand now that I was growing in ways that led me away from her, but I was scared to break up with her. The truth — which I didn’t understand at the time — is that I feared nobody else would ever love me.
In our imagined conversation, I apologized to Gail for not having had the courage to end the relationship when it was clear that I needed to. I let things drag on for more than a year after it should have ended, forcing her to end something which I should have done for myself.
I don’t even know now who she is. I barely remember who she was. And nothing about me today even vaguely resembles the person I was at 21.
The shortest of these conversations was with Shelly. I told her that I was angry about how she had handled a lot of things. I told her that I understood she was hurt and confused by her previous abusive relationship, but that her fears didn’t excuse the way she pulled me close and then closed the door without explanation or apology.
I told Gina that I sometimes miss her. I don’t regret that we went our separate ways. She and I both handled some things about the end poorly, but I genuinely liked her. She was enjoyable to spend time with. I don’t regret that we went different ways — or that she eventually married someone else — but that doesn’t stop me from missing the enjoyable times that we had together.
The longest conversation was with Lydia and that would have been true — I suspect — if these had been real-life conversations. She’s brilliant and complicated and mercurial. My fears about her led me to pull away from her in a way that hurt her. Her eventual reaction to that was dishonest and led her to hurt me. We were two flawed people trying to navigate difficult emotional waters and we didn’t handle it well.
But Lydia and I could talk until we were both too exhausted to stay awake and never come close to exhausting the things we were curious about and cared deeply about. Her brilliance, curiosity and insight made her a perfect discussion partner for me. We could talk about anything — intellectual, emotional, psychological, theological, whatever — and we would both come out of the conversation smarter for what we had experienced together.
We won’t have those conversations again. I don’t think they would be wise for either of us. I miss the exhilaration of loving her, but I don’t miss the damage that it did to me inside. I apologized to her for my part in the pain between us — and I wished her well.
I asked Anjhela why we never allowed ourselves to turn an intensely emotional connection into a real relationship. In this conversation, she said it was because each one of us was scared of the other. Neither of us had experienced something this emotionally intense and each one of us had enough baggage — fears about not being loved — that we were afraid to trust in something which felt that powerful. Even though my own unconscious guided those words, I suspect it’s exactly what she would say if we were to talk. And I think she’s right.
There were a few others, but there’s no reason to detail them all. I feel emotionally exhausted by all those imagined conversations, but I also feel that they were worthwhile. In some cases, I have more of a sense of closure than I had — something which I’ll never really have in real life.
In the metaphor that my unconscious created, these women and the memories about them weren’t stalactites. There was a locked compartment in the side of a vast wall that reminded me of a vault. I’m the only one with a key to that vault. Inside the vault were shelves with boxes — one for each of these women.
As this process happened, I would pull a box out and place it on a long metal table. Then I’d close the vault door and open the box. Opening the lid was like opening Pandora’s box — each one containing all the memories about that particular woman.
There was one other box in the room. Even as I dealt with each of the loves from the past, that one emotionally loomed over everything else. I didn’t open that box. I didn’t even touch it. I wanted to open it, but I wasn’t ready to let it go. Not yet.
I locked all the other boxes in the vault. I left the remaining one sitting on another table. As I got to the door of the room, I looked back at that one box.
“I still love you,” I said. “I shouldn’t love you, but I still do.”
And then I turned the light off and closed the door.