At 28 years old, the business I had started four years ago was thriving. I filled what I called my free time with routines like making cash flow analyses on the whiteboard in my living room. I was organized, my apartment well put together and my appearance business professional.
Still, I felt lacking and lonely. I wondered if passionate love could be the answer. Could I be as engaged with another human as much as I was with my own work?
I used to say, “I want push me against a wall and…” well, you get it, kind of love. And from the day we met, Adam got it.
The first time we met at a brunch with friends, he had has opening lines ready. Questions about a book he heard I was reading from a mutual friend. “Is Zero to One worth the read? Are you intrigued by Peter Thiel and his investment decisions, or are you reading it more because it’s about startups?” It took less than an hour for our conversation to make everyone else in the crowded room fade to background noise.
By the time the Uber I called for him came and he slung his mimosa-drunk body into the car, my decision was made. I wanted to be this engaged all the time. I wanted another person’s words to catch me and pull me along, like a rake dragging rocks through the dirt.
After eight months of seeing each other at social gatherings, Adam and I began to spend time alone together. We found our mutual love for pizza and conversation and spent hours eating and talking. I loved that Adam taught me things. Most of the time I felt like I needed to have a Google search page ready and a dictionary on hand to keep up. “I share a lot of random facts, but they’re really not random, they’re a part of something bigger,” Adam once told me.
With Adam, my brain took a rest from thinking about, planning and analyzing the business I’d built. It departed from worries about clients and meetings and what conference stages I’d get on next. Now there were mornings, middles and nights with greasy boxes on the floor.
It’s never been easy for me to leave anything on the floor, especially a pizza box filled with breakfast. But now that didn’t matter. On my favorite nights, we were on the floor too, with the cardboard box by our side.
Five months into our relationship, things changed. By then, instead of just keeping up with his wit and intelligence, I was fighting to keep up with his manic mind and moods.
In retrospect, I see there’d been signs. A few weeks after our first “I love yous” were exchanged, my phone rang at 3am and I heard his voice on the other end of the line. “Tell me what you like about me,” he said. He had woken me from a dead sleep. I didn’t know how to respond. “I don’t know, Adam. I like so many things about you.” I thought of the scars on his arms knowing he’d hurt himself in the past, but convinced myself that’s all it was — the past.
“But you can’t tell me anything. You can’t tell me one thing.” His voice that had started in an anxious high-pitched plea was now yelling. “I like that you’re smart and fun…I like that you teach me things.” I wasn’t doing a good enough job. I said, “I can’t do this right now.” he hung up the phone and I laid in my bed staring up at the ceiling fan knowing I’d failed.
Now, as an adult, I know that the roles we play in our families as a child, even the most unpleasant, can feel comfortable at any time during life. As a kid, I worked to create any distraction that would stop my parents from fighting — my alcoholic dad always threatening to leave and my mom always threatening to call the police. Create a distraction. Stop the screaming. Solve the problem. When my parents divorced and my mom went back to school, I took the lead on raising my little brother. I felt like the only person capable of doing the job. I got him ready for school in the morning, wrote notes to his teachers about how he should get his lunch, and called him in for dinner at night. I was the caretaker in my family, and now I was with Adam.
Some mornings, his first words would be, “I’m bad.” At night, he would tell me how he felt like he hadn’t accomplished anything and that he never would — his greatest fear. His need for reassurance became a daily habit. I wanted him to know that he was great in so many ways. I wanted to articulate how much I loved about him. I wanted to be the person who helped him see his own worth — the worth that I saw so clearly. I took the job as his caretaker with the responsibility I take with everything in my life.
One June morning, I woke up before Adam as I always did, something that he never grew to appreciate about me. By now, my work happened in the margins, those times when I didn’t sleep and he did, in the space that wasn’t consumed by our relationship. I realized that it was late enough in the morning to order a pizza and I thought it would be a fun surprise for when he finally woke up too.
When I heard him shout “Liiiiizzzz” from the other room, I put my laptop down and went to lay by his side on the couch. “What have you been doing?” he asked. “Well, I answered a ton of emails and…I ordered us pizza!” He groggily rolled over and closed his eyes. “When do I have time to do my things? When do I have time to be productive?” he said. I felt a lump grow in my throat.
When I got up to leave, he began thrashing around like a kid throwing a temper tantrum. I went over to grab him and give him a hug but he jumped up and walked away. That’s when I saw blood on the floor.
My eyes trailed up his naked body starting at his feet, legs, and finally torso. He had cut himself on his chest and belly. I remembered back to the night before seeing his multitool on the bookcase by the couch. I had even thought how I hated it was so casually laying around.
“What did you do?” I screamed. I meant to both himself and to us. I wasn’t just worried about his life. I saw our whole world fade away.
Seven hours later, during visitor hours on the 16th floor of the hospital, I sat in the orange scoop chair in the common room — the TV blaring beneath a plastic case hanging high on the wall.
“How many stitches did they give you?”
“Can I see?”
He lifted his shirt. The self-inflicted slices that were wide open that morning now sewn shut.
I was numb. He reached for my hands and said, “I love you, Liz,” his blue eyes casting a pitiful gaze into mine. It wasn’t a statement, it was a question, a test to see where we were. If I’d still say it back.
I responded with a gentle hug, careful of his newly placed thread.
I moved my chair closer but wrapped my arms around myself. I wore his stale, black Kiss t-shirt that I hadn’t changed from the night before.
The shirt was now stiff in spots of his dried blood. Here we were, spending a sunny Sunday evening together boxed in an unnatural yellow glow.
Seven days from now we’d sit on the grass outside of the hospital. He’d look at me and say, “Well, now I can say that every member of my immediate family has been institutionalized.” He seemed proud of his rite-of-passage. I was terrified. Two days later, I’d see his prescriptions in the trash.
I’d eventually say, “If you’re not going to do anything to help yourself, I can’t do this anymore.” It was a plea for even the slightest commitment. Help me. Do something, anything, to save yourself. Today, I haven’t heard his voice in over eight months. The plea is now silent, but it’s still there.
But in that moment in the hospital, my dedication to showing up hadn’t wavered. My mind searched for how I could make this right. He broke my thoughts by grabbing my hands; my instinct was to pull away. With the orderly attending to another matter, Adam slipped something into my hand — a contraband ketchup packet. Adam could charm me with the most insignificant gesture. I felt a leap in my heart.
I keep the ketchup packet as a reminder that the kind of crazy, irrational, all-consuming love I wanted does exist. Sometimes, it’s still what I crave, but it’s not what I need.
By Liz Presson, illustrated by Liz Flores; from It’s Not Personal
Liz Presson is a freelance writer and business owner living Brooklyn. She has written for Fast Company, Inc., The Muse, Mashable, and others. She writes about sex and relationships, mental health, and elevating the voice of women in business. Follow her on Twitter @HeyElleCP or on Instagram.
Liz Flores is a Chicago based painter and illustrator, primarily working in black and white. She is fascinated by the art of storytelling, and all the emotional stuff surrounding creativity. You can read more about her journey of living life on her own terms on her blog, and follow her daily musings on Instagram.
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