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  • Nell


Updated: Jul 6

“I have this dream,” Anna says to me, “about Ryan.”

(Ryan is her ex-boyfriend whom she has been trying to leave for over a year but is stuck in the toxic oscillating cycle of their relationship.)

“We’re running down this corridor holding hands, but he keeps tripping over stuff and disappearing through these doors….when I go through the doors to find him, I am suddenly falling,” she pauses, “then I wake up and am overcome with sadness.”

”What do you make of your dream?” I ask, subtly checking the clock to see that we have exactly six minutes left of the session.

“I don't know,” she shrugs. She stares at me. I know she knows. Even my ten-year-old could interpret this dream. We are currently playing therapeutic chess. She knows deep down that this relationship is unhealthy for her and is a pattern she has known since childhood - it is the only thing she knows, and we have spent the last eighteen months talking about it.

“When was the last time you saw him?” I try a different approach.

“Um…", she’s buying time, I think to myself, “…probably…”, more time, “...about a week ago?” She looks at me as if I was there and can confirm this. “We’re ok, yeh,” she continues, responding to a question that I didn’t ask. “We had a chat and we’re…going to see how it goes.” She and I both know that this is a big deal that can’t be masked with an inflection.

She’s gone back. Again.

Don’t be judgey, don’t be judgey, don't be judgey, I say to myself over and over in my head. It’s not your life, it’s her decision. Don’t be judgey, don’t be judgey, don’t be judgey.

“That sounds more...positive?” I try in my hopefully non-judgey way. She doesn’t say anything. The silence is killing me. I need to say something. No, I don’t. No I don’t no I don’t no I don’t.

“In that, you…have made a decision. You’re giving it another try?”. Turns out I do.

She starts to cry. Fuck.

“What’s upset you?” I ask gently after watching her ride a wave of sadness. She gathers herself for a moment. “I’m just so frustrated!’ she says. “At myself, more than anything!” She throws her head back against the cream armchair behind her, the blow softened by the big brown blanket that looks like a trophy from a hunt. “Why do I need to have another go at it?! Haven’t I done this to myself enough!?” she rhetorically protests.

The part of Anna that had found a voice in our sessions, and that was starting to accept her reality, after having had it denied by all around her since childhood, was saying: We have well and truly had enough now my love, we've reached our limit. But the attachment junkie in her was saying: Is it worth a shot though, just one…last…time?

“When will I be done? “ She looks me straight in the eye. “Actually, DONE?'. It’s like we’re playing poker and I’m the dealer in a game of Black Jack. I trick myself momentarily that the answer I’m about to give isn’t the same one every time someone asks me this question.

“When you’re done, you’ll just be done.” I stare at the fire, take a deep breath in, and then exhale just as purposefully. I look back at her. “You won't be mad. You won't be upset, not in the same way as all the other times. You won't want revenge. You won’t stalk him on social media. You won't stare at his photos. You probably won't have any photos.

You simply won't have any more time for it. You’ll be done and you’ll feel it. Not in a broken way. In a way that is accepting and strong. If you can’t feel it yet, then you’re not done.”

Falling out of love, it turns out, is a lot like falling in love: when you know, you just know.

"You have to do the work around self-love - you have to show that you’re ready for the moment when you let go before the moment can present itself to you. You won't be ready for this moment when you're still afraid of what's on the other side of that decision," I continue.

Despite toxic relationships being dysfunctional and harmful, to possibly both involved, there is something far more fearful for an attachment junkie, the love addict, and that is the fear of being alone: forever. I spent a huge part of my life running from that fear and sometimes, late at night, I can still feel it lurking outside my window, trying to get in.

When you’re in a toxic relationship the love can feel bigger than the universe. Ethereal somehow. It’s beyond perfection. It’s the kind of love that does something to your soul, something permanent that transcends time. After the relationship is over, and you move toward recovery, you probably will never want to feel that kind of love again. Not because it hurts so much when it's over but because there’s no way you could feel it with someone else; the feeling itself would always remind you of him.

Sounds dramatic, I know. And, well, it is. One long massive oscillating episode of drama, whether it’s passion or conflict, love or hate. That's how a toxic relationship becomes so addictive - for as bad as it can get, that's often how good it can also feel. You know intellectually though that you're in a toxic relationship but you’re addicted to the cycle: relationally, emotionally, and chemically. Your brain, body, and heart are all addicted to loving in this push-pull way, where over time, the essence of who you used to be is so tired and diluted that you don't even recognise yourself anymore.

You might think to yourself: why can’t he just love me enough to change? That is the love addict in you talking. When you take too much responsibility caring for and regulating the emotions of your partner then you are not in your adult place but instead, you are being the child that you’ve always been expected to be - helpful, silent (we don’t talk about Fight Club kind of thing but in this case, we don’t talk about our family’s dysfunctional shit); someone who puts her own needs at the bottom of the pile. Your happiness is connected to their happiness and you hold on too tightly, afraid to let go and love yourself instead.

Attachment junkies stay trapped in the toxic dance, unable to sit down and sober up. Our heads spinning and feeling giddy from moving around the dance floor in a daze, as if under a hypnotic trance. His moves feel familiar; we’ve danced them before; we know them and it feels comforting to dance them again even when we've grown an inner disdain for them.

But something keeps us there, dancing, together. The dance that you have created between you both.

His demons have brought him to this place and so have yours.

You seek belonging, love, and connection from men who need help; fixing or changing in some way. If you could just help him change and be the best version of himself then…you must be worth loving.

“So what can I do to be done?” Anna asks as the ticking of the clock brings us near the end of our session.

“Well, that’s the bitch of it I’m afraid. The only way forward is through it, and it isn’t going to be pretty. You’re not going to like it. It’s the last door that you’ve tried to forget is there.”

“Last door?” Anna asks, her eyebrows furrowed in the middle, obviously having forgotten her dream already.

“Your dream, about Ryan, going through the doors and chasing him and falling” I remind her. “You’ve been through a lot of doors with him so far. You’ve been through Love, Sex, Hope, Denial, Infatuation, Anxiety, Expectation, Loyalty, and Anger. But there’s one door you’ve avoided. Perhaps you've pretended that it’s not there. And it’s true, it’s hard to find. It’s like that tiny little door that Alice finds, so small you could miss it."

“Which door is that?” she asks looking confused.

"It's called Let Go."

She sits in silence contemplating for a moment. Leaning back, she pulls her knees up to her chest, and tugs the brown blanket around her shoulders, as she stares out of the window at the tree blowing in the orchard; the red apples bobbing around in the wind like drunken sailors.

“Why can’t there just be a door called Happy?” she says like a young child pleading with her mother to buy her the toy she so desperately wants.

“That’s the thing," I say, "you don't know what's behind Let Go. Maybe there is one called Happy. What you do know it’s what’s here, where you are. And you’ve been through all these doors - chasing him - and falling every time. You’ve been through them enough to know that happiness isn’t where you are. To go through Let Go you have to accept that you're not coming back. You must make a deal with yourself, the universe, or God, that you are finally choosing you, no matter how much it fucking hurts, or how much you feel like you can't survive this internal pain. Only with that acceptance can you walk through the final door."

I look back at Anna, who is still staring out of the rain-beaten window.

"You don't have to do anything that you're not ready to, "I say. " You don't have to live your life to please others, either. You must decide for yourself how much more you can endure; you, and only you, can answer that. But I have faith that you will know when you're done."

I look at the clock and notice that we have gone over time. "That's it for today I'm afraid. But I'll see you next week?"

"Until next week," she confirms, rising from the chair, reaching for the blanket and folding it neatly on the armchair.

As I see her out and shut the door behind me, I walk to the window that I once used to sit at for hours, staring out onto the rolling fields and hills beyond, waiting for you to come back. What I discovered on the other side of Let Go wasn't a corridor of other doors but mirrors. Rows and rows of mirrors, all different shapes and sizes, which forced me to look at myself, after having been distracted by other people's doors for so long.

Reflections that I had worked so hard to avoid seeing but, as it turns out, was all I needed to keep going. One impossible, heartbreaking breath at a time.

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