There is a Totoro pillow next to Linda, my therapist's, door. This is a new addition to her dim, but warm office. Totoro, a Japanese animated character from a Hayao Miyazaki film, is painted in blue-green hues on an ivory canvas pillow. I think Totoro is a bunny? I keep breaking eye contact with Linda to look over at the pillow. The colors remind me of the ocean on a summer's day. The ocean is something that has always brought me comfort. I need comfort now.
There is a boulder caught in the pit of my stomach today. A boulder I've fashioned myself, built out of fear and self-hatred. It sits in my belly, where I thought all of my intestines were supposed to be housed. It must've crushed everything inside of me.
Linda has a shrill, tight voice and she speaks through her teeth. Right now she is nearly yelling at me. I look towards Totoro, towards the door, wondering if I can bolt. The boulder inside me weighs too much. It anchors me to the couch.
"You are beautiful and intelligent and accomplished and you don't see it!" she says. My brain, faulty with negativity, discards the compliments and latches onto the phrase, "You don't see it." It clings to the part in the sentence where I have failed and reasons that since I don't see it, I must not be as beautiful, intelligent, and accomplished as she thinks I am. My brain turns everything I am into a failure.
"You are self-sabotaging," she says now. She is so impassioned that I wonder idly if she's experiencing transference. I wonder if it's really me she's talking to, or if she's talking to herself, or her daughter, or her friend, or some amalgam of important women in her life who have no sense of their own worth. "It's a shame what society does to women, women like you. How it makes you think you're not good enough."
I want to break her diatribe and say something. I resist the urge to raise my hand, like a student in a classroom waiting for the teacher's permission to speak, and wait for a pause in conversation. It doesn't come. She keeps talking.
"Your boyfriend sees how wonderful you are and you can't. You're afraid that you're going to get hurt in some imagined future, but you're making yourself miserable now."
The boulder in my gut expands, crushing my lungs, knocking the air out of me. I start to cry.
"They say jealousy is healthy in small amounts, but you don't want to go overboard. People are going to find your partner attractive. It is what it is. If you assume he is cheating on you, you might end up looking for proof that he is. You never want to be the girl who feels the urge to check her boyfriend's phone. Then you'll really seem crazy. The only way to learn how to trust someone is to trust them."
I start shaking now, trying to choke back sobs. I stare at my lap, where my hands are carefully clasped. I try to keep them still and steady because every other part of me feels like it's falling apart. I am crying because she's right. I'm crying because I already knew everything she's said to me.
"Are you happy with him?" she asks. I look up from my hands and she locks eyes with me.
I think about Michael and my heart swells in my chest, tamping the boulder down. I think about the way he scratches his face with his thumb. I think about how he always serves me food before he serves himself. I think about his laughter, loud and unencumbered. I think about the way he smiles at me sometimes, more with his eyes than with his mouth, a smile that I've always taken to mean I love you. For a moment, the boulder disappears.
"Yes," I breathe.
"Then why are you trying to push him away?"
"I can't say I loved you then, but I knew that I wanted to love you." Michael says this to me while we're on the phone one night. I am lying in bed. He is somewhere in Arizona, 400 miles away. We are talking about 8 years ago, when we were co-workers. Friends. "Does that make sense?" he asks when I say nothing in reply.
"Yes," I say.
That might be the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me. Somehow, it's even sweeter than I love you itself. Loving someone, to me, is danger. People are fallible and clumsy. To willingly put your heart in the hands of another person seems reckless.
For Michael to have wanted to give me his heart back then--when I was oblivious to his feelings and confiding to him that I was dating another man we'd worked with--means something to me.
It means he saw me as worth the risk. Worthy in ways I'd never seen myself.
For him to actually admit to falling in love with me, 8 years later, even after I cried on our first date and confessed that I regularly feel like running away from him, leads me to believe he still sees me as worth the risk.
He makes me wonder if loving someone is not reckless, but brave.
Why are you trying to push him away? I let Linda's question hang in the air between us, even though I know the answer, and I know she knows the answer.
I push him away because I've never been brave. I have always been shrouded in cowardice. I have always hid, made myself small, sat quietly in the corner hoping no one would notice me. If you go unnoticed, you cannot fuck up.
I push him away because I think I am too damaged to be loved, that I am not worthy or deserving of such a good, kind, loving man. I push him away because I think I'm protecting myself. I think I'm protecting him.
"I know I'm a self-fulfilling prophecy," I say, finally. "I know that I'm so scared of getting hurt that I'm trying to hurt him so he'll hurt me and it will justify my belief that I am unworthy of love. And it is making me miserable."
"Then you have to stop," she says. "You have to challenge that tape playing in your head telling you you're not good enough."
"But it's so hard." I sound petulant.
Linda stares at me silently.
"I know I have to do it," I say, breaking the silence with my exasperation. "I know. You're right."
I start crying again. I am afraid of getting hurt, yes, but I realize in Linda's office that I am more afraid of losing Michael. I am afraid of hurting him, of ruining the good thing we have.
I'm not sure I know how to be brave. I just know I have to try.