By Catherine DiMercurio
One of the strangest facets of my existence in the past ten years has been the recurring sensation of unfamiliarity, and how dizzying it can be at times.
When I was married, I enjoyed the feeling that I knew my partner better than anyone else in the world, and I felt was as known to him. Toward the end, that changed, and it began to feel as though he was becoming a different person; the reasons are varied and complex and I have never truly understood how much of that I should allow myself to write about candidly. Suffice it to say that after it was over, I felt as though maybe I’d never known him at all.
In the relationships since, each ended before I’d arrived at the familiarity I craved. I also moved at the beginning of the pandemic, and my youngest went off to college, all of which contributed to the sensation that nothing in my life felt familiar to me any longer. Not my home, not my community, not my solitude, not my self. So much of who we are, at any given moment, feels rooted in place and people. When we look at ourselves extracted from those relationships, it can be disorienting, and it takes a while before we can take advantage of the opportunity it offers.
During my relationships, I was so afraid of loss that I had become someone other to myself, someone who allowed herself to be sloughed off, little by little. I found myself in a dangerous pattern of letting go of little pieces of me, the ones that might get in the way of the relationship succeeding. In the hazy aftermath of it all, after the last one ended, I realized that I did not know how to be in a relationship without this happening. The reason, I began to learn, was that I’d drifted too far from the shores of my own sense of identity. I had forgotten—or never knew—that I was the safe harbor I’d been looking for. The pattern of self-abandonment for the sake of the relationship, for the sake of loss mitigation, had become so familiar it provided its own comfort. It felt easy and good to mold myself into the type of person it seemed my partner wanted me to be. But when things got comfortable, when I was comfortable enough to relax and be myself a little more, it was understandably jarring, and I would back pedal. How much of myself do I get to be, and for how long, became the guiding principles of my behavior. Though there are a lot of reasons things didn’t work out with my past relationships, this is the part that I have to own.
I’ve spent the last two years trying to undo that damage. Some of the rage and grief I still feel over the decade’s losses are rooted in this loss of self—and my own role in it. At the same time, I exist alongside a frustration with time. When I imagine potentially building that sense of familiarity with a new partner, I remember that you can’t create twenty years of history with someone you just met. It’s hard to make peace with what feels, at times, like running out of time. One of the balms for this particular type of bruising the heart experiences is trying to nurture those relationships with friends and with family with whom a history does exist.
But here we encounter another wrinkle. People change, all of us do. And we might find that people who once seemed very familiar to us no longer do, and maybe we don’t seem familiar to them either. And change is such a slippery term, right? It rarely looks how you think it will, in ourselves or in others. To put it more baldly: it hurts. Sometimes it simply hurts to watch people you love become someone else. And our own evolution can hurt, too, when we choose to know and honor who we are. Growth is prickly, painful, and nonlinear.
For a long, long time, the idea that guided my writing was informed by a similar exploration of familiarity and change: do we become more or less of who we are as we get older? Are there essential facets of our true nature that get stripped away or clouded over, or are we growing, feeding that true nature so that it blossoms in a thousand beautiful ways? There is much to think about here, but it seems to me that despite whatever we are doing internally to nurture and protect that truest self, there are external forces acting upon it too. There are people who feed our soul, those who seek to crush it, and those whose aims are more difficult to see, who, for whatever reason, see what is beautiful in us and cannibalize it, because it soothes their own wounded soul. And sometimes we can’t even see it happening, because we are busy being our loving and generous selves. But we are mistaken to believe this is anything other than trauma, and there is wisdom and growth in waking to that knowledge and repairing the damage.
So how do we reconcile this need for familiarity with the fact that everything is always changing? For me, it has become a practice of asking myself new questions. Why am I drawn to the familiar in the first place? What am I truly looking for? The answer is usually comfort. Something needs soothing. All the things that had me craving something familiar—the ending of a relationship, having moved to a new house, my kids moving out—left me disorientated and lonely and I wanted to sink into something that felt like being held. But there was nothing to hold me, so instead, I sifted through old familiar things, held them: photos, books, trinkets in jars, stones from beaches gathered on trips I’d taken with my children.
But one of the most amazing things that has happened in these past couple of years is that I’m learning to accurately identify what I’m longing for and how I can soothe that longing. Not everything that feels like loneliness is loneliness. Sometimes, when the hum of routine has me feeling under-stimulated, I’ll seek out art, nature, company. Sometimes there’s too much happening, and all I want is for everything to slow down, so I’ll do something slow, like bake, sit in the sun, read a book. When I’m longing for connection, I’ll reach out to the people who understand. And sometimes I do genuinely feel lonely and I let myself feel it, knowing that it is a price I willingly pay for peace.
I long to layer all this thinking with some kind of metaphor that captures the feelings I want to convey, but it’s hard because change isn’t always for the better, doesn’t always seem to lead to growth, not when we get stuck in certain patterns. It’s like going through all the trouble of dissolving ourselves in a chrysalis but never becoming a butterfly, when sometimes all we really want to do is be a caterpillar anyway, happily munching on leaves all day. Maybe we do the whole thing over and over again in a lifetime, or maybe we’re always part caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly, all at the same time, with different parts of us transforming in different ways. I think though, at the heart of it all, is a truest self, always longing to be seen, to show us the familiar and changing way back to ourselves, lighting the way like a little firefly in the night.