“All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. … Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through your veins. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.” Brené Brown, The Midlife Unraveling
“Geteiltes Leid ist halbes Leid.” (German proverb: “a trouble shared is a trouble halved.”)
The past ten days were a rollercoaster. I arrived back in New York on the 19th and signed a lease for my new apartment on the 27th. In between, I got un-fooled about love, spent a day weeping, watched new friendships blossom, and finally grasped the beauty and power of being vulnerable. I feel raw, exhausted, and grateful.
Before jumping in, I want to apologize. My move back to New York has been, and continues to be, an enormous time sink. I sleep on an air mattress and tried to write on a picnic table with Starbucks wifi. I’ve upgraded to wework, so at least my infrastructure is back on track. And I never expected my love life to become part of my Twitter or Substack, which used to be “strictly business.” So, I understand if this all comes a bit out of left field for you. However: being more open about my emotional life, writing about it, sharing it, feels like one of the most important personal steps I have taken, ever.
Last week, I posted a thread about a moment of intense pain. And, frankly, shame. I was a complete mess. I sat on a bench in Central Park trying to hold back tears. People stared. A guy randomly came up to me: “who’s dun you like dat?” Even the manager at my seedy little hotel asked me if I was okay.
I felt shame for being so overwhelmed, so emotional. So useless. I had opened the door to my deepest emotions, stuff that I otherwise carefully lock away. I got flooded, swept away. I held on to a piece of wreckage and let the waves take me while listening to Kanye.
Waves don't die
Let me crash here for the moment
I don't need to own it
Waves don't die, baby
Let me crash here for a moment
Baby I don't, I don't need to own you
Let’s back up to last summer. My life in New York had hit the wall. I had lost my job and saw no way forward in my career. I decided to return to my hometown Tübingen to be with family and clear my head. I was going to leave in September. On a whim, I went on a date in early August. My worst best decision ever.
I was upfront about leaving. But what started as a summer fling quickly turned into the most incredible two months. We squeezed in everything, including a coastal weekend getaway and tripping on shrooms.
Then came the crash. The day of my flight arrived, and I had no idea if I was going to return. I left her behind with a broken heart.
I spent the next half year around family. Slowly, I came to accept myself as someone better at writing than spreadsheets and analysis. I also realized I had become a stranger in my home country. In spring 2021, I gained some conviction that maybe there was a path to make money writing. To return to New York even. There were several reasons to go back: I missed my friends terribly. It would be an inspiring writing environment with a library packed with research resources. And other professional opportunities might open up. I put my stuff back into storage and booked a flight.
She and I started to text again. We talked over the phone. The conversation was easy, natural. Almost like no time had passed. She even gave me some advice on my upcoming apartment hunt.
We met a few days after I arrived. Rather than spend the evening together, she took me to a party hosted by her friends. A townhouse filled with strangers. I was anxious as hell. And confused. Her guard was up. Sure, we hugged and briefly kissed. But she kept distance between us.
Last summer, we had been two magnets. There had been no way to keep us away from each other in close proximity. Now, I was the magnet and she a plate of smooth steel. She was the life of the party, at the heart of a new world I didn’t understand. Suddenly, the eight months felt like a very long time.
I had one real moment with her. On the roof, at 4 am. She asked whether I really thought we would just pick up where we had left off. I said no. But it was exactly what I had been hoping for. She told me she had been hurt too much, that she didn’t want to jump back into it. She wanted to take it slowly.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” Richard Feynman
I always liked that quote. I just had no idea how true it was. How capable I really am of fooling myself. How painful the un-fooling would be.
Because in that moment on the rooftop, I was steamrolled by clarity. Lost in the most perfect eyes, I found truth and beauty. And all the feelings I had locked away. I got un-fooled with the force of a midnight freight train.
I got un-fooled about my motivations. I had pretended she was just one of many reasons to return. Nonsense. I was still crazy in love. Desperate to rewind the clock. To undo the pain I had inflicted with my departure. I wanted to jump back into the fountain of life.
And I realized the depth of my feelings. My world broke with one long, mesmerizing gaze. How often does someone hook so deeply into your soul that you find all the world’s truth in their eyes? That locking eyes with them is pure bliss, is all you’d want for the rest of your life?
It had happened to me only once before. With the woman who became my ex-wife. I could still paint her eyes from memory (if I could paint, that is).
I left the party at 5 am while she stayed behind with her friends. In a new world, where I had been but a guest. An echo from the past. The next day, I just broke down. With feelings of guilt and regret. With fear and jealousy. I felt rejected, was confused by the distance she maintained. I had wanted to touch the sun, but it melted my waxen wings. Down I spiraled and crashed.
In the past, I would have kept all of this private. My life was closed off, even to my family and friends. I didn’t want to burden anyone with my problems. Whatever issues I had, they were mine alone to deal with (ok, mine and a therapist’s). I could handle it. I didn’t need anybody!
But if the past few years taught me anything, it’s that “nothing’s ever worked out for me with tuna on toast.” That in order to have a different life, I must act differently. That I might as well do the opposite of my natural instincts, one of which is to shut down and hide my emotions – and be wary of open and vulnerable connection.
Back in my hotel room I faced a choice. Keep it all bottled up as always. Or do something different. Writing helped me process what happened. But the truth was still locked up in my journal. I was afraid of what it meant, what it said about me. And more practically, I didn’t know how to handle the situation. I was talking to a couple of friends but there is only so much any one person can do – or should be asked to do. Relationship advice is especially difficult because our individual experiences can be so vastly different.
So, I wrote it up. I shared it all. It was an amazing experience. First, it was a step of self-acceptance. I could embrace the fact that I was human, emotional, flawed. I had been terrified, afraid of embarrassment and ridicule. There were infinite reasons not do it – all coming back to fear. But I survived. I’m still here. Life went on.
"The more personal the wound, the more universal the wound."
I don’t expect everyone to like it. But it feels like I have to write to survive. That without an outlet, I could allow myself to slip back to the dark and lonely place where I wasted years of my life. Where I stewed in self-pity. A hermit kingdom of resentment and occasional suicidal ideation.
I am afraid of that place. It’s a black memory hole of years I barely remember. Worse, at the time it felt like the natural order of things. It seemed inevitable. Just the way things were. I couldn’t see it for the miserable exile that it was. I worry that if I ever found my way back there, I would again interpret the prison door to be a wall. I fear I could spend all my life in a labyrinth of my own making.
That is why I write and share. I can’t hide from the truth when writing. I can tell immediately when I start shaping the story. When I turn the mess into an arc where I can be the hero. Stronger, bolder, less vulnerable. It’s fairly easy to tell myself a soothing delusion. But it’s near impossible to put it on paper. The page stares back at me like a teacher. It berates me. “This is a temple of truth. If you cannot be honest here, you will not find honesty anywhere in life.”
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Ernest Hemingway.
This is where I discovered my truth. Where I find peace. Where I can let the mental whirlwind unwind. Where I take whatever is left and arrange it in a pattern pleasing to the eye. And where in the past week I discovered the magic of being vulnerable. I trust that this truth and connection will be my escape hatch, should the labyrinth ever loom large again.
Brené Brown wrote this amazing essay on midlife as an unraveling rather than a crisis. I was born in ’86 and midlife anything still seems light years away. But this sentence really struck home: “It seems as if we spend the first half of our lives shutting down feelings to stop the hurt, and the second half trying to open everything back up to heal the hurt.”
A friend of mine called heartbreak part of the “honor and gift of being alive.” And I wholeheartedly agree. It allowed me to open up and connect with the world in a way I had not been able to before. I could form bonds with wonderful people who saw a version of me that was neither airbrushed nor wearing an armor.
“Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of importance because it happens to you or anyone who belongs to you.” Hemingway
This was a pain to be accepted, embraced even. But not to be indulged in. It was real, but not special. A shared experience and thus connective. The dangerous temptation is to elongate it. To do what I do well: worry, dwell, ruminate. A friend noted that thinking about “made-up scenarios and things you don’t know for sure” can turn into a “a fantasy world for pain and hurt.” That is a dangerous seduction: to build an identity around our own special pain. Better to feel it fully, to let it wash over us. Then move on.
Talking the situation through with old and new friends let me process it at lightning speed. It was remarkable. I could breathe again, even laugh again. And I received a lot of wonderful advice that set me straight. I realized she had every right to be reserved and guarded. Hurt and angry even. Wanting to take it slowly was perfectly reasonable. It was better to reduce the pressure and expectations and see if something new could blossom and develop at its own pace.
Since that night, we have texted a few times. The distance is obvious. It is the first thought on my mind when I awake. And I ponder it before I fall asleep. It is entirely possible that I am still trapped inside the Feynman quote. That I fool myself over whether the magic can be pieced together. It’s a risk I have to take. While I wait to find out, I want to redirect my attention. I want to be present and grateful and embrace my new life.
I don’t have much advice except that I will always wonder what could have been, had I not left. When you meet someone special, try not to fool yourself. Treat it like the magic moment that it is.
My nagging fear of looking like a fool remains. I still have a part that believes that openness and sharing emotions are signs of weakness. That my pain was not bad enough to warrant compassion. But this week I found new evidence that these voices are wrong. That they are not the ones I should listen to.
Harry Stebbings tweeted this beautiful quote: “vulnerability is the currency of human connection.” When you’re getting crushed, find a way to share. Trust that people will respond to your openness with kindness. Perhaps not always. But on balance. And when they do, embrace them. Hug them, thank them for the honor of sharing the gift of life. That’s what I did. And it made this week the best worst one of my life.