She fell a little too much in love with me so I had to dump her, but it could just as easily have been me falling in love with her. This story is about what it takes for us to do what we do.
Oh good. There’s a comfy chair under the window and it’s right next to a cool looking lady. I hustle to doctor up my decaf venti so I can scoot right over before someone snags it.
Giving her a friendly glance as I move into her space, I sneak looks while getting my coffee and laptop arranged. Nice boots. She’s my age — late forties — and pulling off the skinny jeans well with that casual blazer. The fiber looks expensive. And a scarf. She knows how to do scarves. Yoga-lithe and the owner of shoulder-length, artfully gray hair, I want to be her friend.
It’s the middle of the work week, but I’ve installed myself mid-morning at Starbucks, having taken the year off to become a wellness coach. Since my training is online and by phone I have to invent reasons to get out of the house, so I set my office up in coffee shops around town like I’m playing an unemployed writer in a movie. I love it. Getting to devote myself to reinvention while the rest of the world works is an unanticipated luxury.
I catch the cool lady throwing curious glances my way. Maybe she likes me, too?
“Nice scarf,” I say and the chat begins. It doesn’t take long to get right down to business. She and her therapist husband have just moved here from Alaska. He’s running some mental health operation in town. As for her, she is indeed a yoga person. In Alaska she’d been running 2-week-long yoga retreats. Very cool. No kids. Her husband has some from a previous marriage. She’s a bit at loose ends now and just getting oriented to Maine.
I give her my rundown — former PR/marketing person making a big life change and becoming a wellness coach. I’m fascinated by the mind. I have lots of theories about what makes us tick and how to get the most out of ourselves. I mention something about an institute for human potential, an idea I thought of pretty much in that moment. I’ve got Gary, my partner, and two kids in college.
We click. Her name is Sarah. We make a date for the following week. Now we’re Starbucks friends.
Next week Sarah’s already there and established at a table. I wave and get in line, noting she already has her coffee plus a scone. A scone. I do a quick calculation. It’s 10 in the morning and she’s thin. Is this breakfast or a random snack? Is she one of those natural intuitives who eats entirely according to her body’s uncorrupted hunger and desire signals? A really un-messed up person? I, myself, am a highly rigid, structured eater, deliberately overruling nature because nature is not to be trusted. It’s just easier to have a firm plan, bypassing all those in-the-moment decisions about scones. Who wouldn’t want to eat a scone at 10 am? And then again at 2? That’s what my intuition would say about it.
“You’re not having anything?” Sarah asks as I set my decaf down.
“No. No I’m not, but so glad you asked because food is one of my favorite topics. And let me just say your scone looks delicious. Is it breakfast or a snack?” I ask. “It’s always so interesting to find out how people have come to eat the way they do.”
And we’re off. I have much to say, many observations about us as eaters all reinforced by the incredible things I’m learning in my training. I am a boundless, over-enthusiastic puppy of a wellness coach trainee.
Sarah is an indulgent listener and also open to my prying. I want to peek inside everyone’s head and test out my theories. I want to talk about all the books I’m reading and see how they apply to life. I want to get into big discussions about who we are, how we get to where we are and what we can do with ourselves to improve the situation. Sarah seems happy to go along with me. But after an hour of that even I get bored hearing myself pontificate. Sarah, however, doesn’t seem to be sending any such signals. As I start pulling my stuff together, she says, “Same time next week?”
It looks like we’ve got a regular thing.
The following week…that’s when I begin noticing a shift, a deferential teacher/student vibe coming into play. Sarah’s looking at me like I know something plus there are way too many compliments coming my way. Uh oh. I’ve got to get this straightened out. I don’t want some weird situation on my hands.
I try steering us into more general friend territory but she even turns conversations about clothes into appeals for advice, like I can advise her on style when she’s clearly got that covered.
“You’re the one with the great eye. I’ve been trying to copy your look from the first day we met,” I say, trying to get her to see a more accurate picture of who I am. “I am not the one to be advising you!”
“Yes, you are,” Sarah insists. “You always have such amazing insight about everything.”
I see that somewhere along the line a bizarre fiction has started writing itself in her head. This can’t go on.
“Honestly, Sarah, I’m mostly full of shit and don’t have a clue about half the stuff I say. I’m just really excited about what I’m learning right now.”
Sarah just laughs and seems to fall in love with me a little more.
“Same time next week?” she asks. “I should bring Robert with me. I really want him to meet you.”
Huh. A thought occurs. Am I being set up? Is that what this is about? Has Sarah just been egging me on to see how far over the edge she can get me to go with my whack ball theories before bringing her husband, the dog catcher of crazy people, in? But I don’t think so. That’s not the look in her eye.
“Hey, what’s your email address?” she asks. “We should write in between.”
Shit. Just shit.
The following week I get there first. A few minutes later she walks in the door with her husband. He’s handsome; they match. And he seems normal — friendly but appropriately self-contained. When Sarah introduces us Robert looks at me with curiosity; I can tell he’s trying to get a read on me. Sarah’s clearly been talking.
We find seats and proceed to have a nice conversation about the usual things people talk about when establishing common ground, but Sarah doesn’t let this go on too long.
“Tell Robert what you were saying last week about how people change,” Sarah says, like this is a bit I do. “And how you’re fascinated by the almost magical shift that happens at a peak moment of vulnerability when a person is finally able to see or hear something they’ve been unable to see or hear, and this brings on an epiphany which then frees them into taking action, which, in fact, galvanizes them to take action. Finally, sometimes even after decades, something turned.”
It’s like she memorized what I said verbatim.
Robert’s arm shifts ever so slightly, grazing Sarah’s. Then he looks at me and raises his eyes, kindly waiting to hear the amazing things I have to say that have so swallowed up his wife. I like him. And he knows what’s going on here.
I tell Gary about it later that night, how Sarah brought Robert in to meet me, how he nudged her arm to get a hold of herself, how things are getting way out of hand. Gary laughs and imagines Robert coaching her next week while she gets ready for our coffee date.
“Be cool, Sarah,” Gary says, playing Robert. “Just keep it together.”
Next week I have that feeling of dread you get when you know you have to go break up with someone. It’s over.
The thing is, I’m not cool. I’m not cool at all and am constantly mopping up leakages — unruly emotions and behaviors that have slopped beyond the boundaries of my container. In fact, 13 years ago I totally lost it by way of an official nervous breakdown, then spent a year gathering the pieces of myself back up.
The other thing is, keeping it together is a strange and confusing job that changes on a daily, even moment-by-moment basis — and I’m not just talking about for people who have breakdowns. I’m talking about all of us. You’re going along fine, holding it together, holding it together, holding it together. Everything is cool. You feel solid, maybe even unshakeable, then a half a second later something totally undoes you. Maybe someone pushes a button you forgot was yours and you flip out. Or maybe you catch a glimpse of your reflection in a store window that doesn’t measure up to how you thought you looked and you instantly lose your confidence. In the blink of an eye your entire inner landscape re-aligned and you wonder what the fuck just happened? It’s disorienting. It’s like a fart that came out of nowhere. You didn’t feel it coming.
That’s one way to lose it.
Another is the gradual build. You can feel yourself slipping, getting closer to the edge as your energy wanes, your reason and self-composure dwindling with your resources. You hold on and you hold on and you hold on but finally you are there, at the tipping point, and you cross over. You cry in a meeting. You throw a fit over some dishes left in the sink. Your ability to string two sensible words together just timed out. You share a confidence you swore you’d keep. You just couldn’t keep it in any longer.
But gradually losing it isn’t just an external thing; it also happens on a cellular level with our very infrastructure succumbing to the pressure. Your heart gives out. You tip the scales at an all-time high. Your memory fails. Your hair falls out. Your joints break down. Your bones thin. Our body holds on and holds on and holds on and then, like a fart just too much to reign in any longer, it lets go.
And then there is the pipsqueak fart that just got away. You just lose it a little. Maybe no one even notices. (Maybe you even released it on purpose — strategically even after a pragmatic calculation of risk vs. benefit.) It happens throughout the course of the day…a moment of weakness with the donuts in the break room, a snippy comment to your spouse, a little stumble in the parking lot you hope no one sees. It’s a little goof up, then recovery cycle all day long. Goof up, recovery. Goof up, recovery.
What gets me about this — what really gets me — is the confluence of factors creating the particular environment that will, under these very specific conditions, absolutely produce a fart of one sort or another, just like that particular confluence of factors that suddenly make change possible which I had so passionately been telling Sarah about.
I’d been fascinated with this phenomena ever since I walked across the stage of my high school graduation wearing a plain, undecorated graduation robe, no more distinguished than my bathrobe, a graduation bathrobe I’d earned because I had not bothered myself with homework for those four years, instead passing my laziness and irresponsibility off as scorn for bourgeois convention. After all, I knew some big words like bourgeois so surely that meant I was smart.
But a big change was about to take place in my world because though my sister had graduated at the top of her class the year before, it was my illustrious graduation our grandparents drove 1,000 miles to attend. Humiliation and the walk of shame across that graduation stage altered me. Overnight I went from being an apathetic student to a reformed and enlightened one, like a smoker who vows never to touch a cigarette again and then just doesn’t. The next time I walked across a graduation stage it was to claim my magna cum laude honors.
Because this change was so dramatic and so clearly linked to a specific moment in time I was able to see with exquisite clarity that there is a connection between environmental conditions and change — whether that change be positive as in finally shaping up and getting it together such as I did after graduating from high school or that change be the complete collapse of self as in the nervous breakdown such as I had several decades later.
But whether dramatic or gradual, whether you’re pulling it together or falling apart, this internal shift is the product of a collision of particular circumstances and conditions. It’s the mysterious mix of internal and external factors — hormones, neurochemistry, emotions, current events, history, hunger, health, the position of sun and stars and the pull of the moon — in relationship with each other at a particular moment in time. That’s what gets me. That magic mix.
My breakdown, for instance. Why was it that day after day I was able to get up and go to work despite the fact that I seriously didn’t want to until one particular day I wasn’t? On this particular day my body simply refused to carry me forward. So tell me, what specific, mysterious mix within was it that activated at 8:25 a.m. on October 7, 2007, and refused to take another step?
The curious thing about that day..it was usually was my mind saying, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go while my body carried me out the door. But on that October 7, as the minutes kept ticking by and I crossed over into the seriously late category, it was my mind that started screaming, Move! Go! Go right now! My body simply and deliberately walked over to a chair and sat down. That was all it had to say about that.
And what was it that made Sarah turn me into some kind of mesmerizing sage? What were her vulnerabilities at that particular point in time making her susceptible to someone like me? There’s every good chance that if I’d been the one who had just moved to Alaska and had shown up at one of her 2-week-long yoga retreats, I would have been the one falling in love.
Or maybe Sarah just does that…latches on to people, tries to absorb them because of some particular mix of insecurity, invalidation and imagination latent in her which gets activated with certain types of people or under certain circumstances?
Or maybe that’s what she USED TO DO until some mysterious mix of factors came together and now she no longer behaves that way.
Bottom line…we’re a lot to keep track of. For myself, I feel like I spend a lot of energy chasing down parts of myself that have managed to get away from me and leak beyond the boundaries of my container, revealing truths about me I would prefer to keep under wraps because it’s just not cool to see someone come undone or spill over. And every day is a new mix of pressures and conditions that will combine differently in us and produce something. Some days I’m able to sustain the slings and arrows and rise up. Some days I’m not. Some days I’m composed. Some days I have no coherence whatsoever.
However, there is something I always have and it’s this conviction: if we know there is a chemistry of conditions that creates a particular reaction, we can crack the code. We can create the environment that keeps us together through exercise, balance, good nutrition, right thinking, meditation, purpose, harmony, love, reason and wine every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. We can engineer the conditions for success and never fall apart again.
I truly believe this. Or at least I think I do given how I’ve dedicated myself to living in such a way as to maximize my chances for keeping it together.
But the funny thing? The only time I’ve gotten close to seeing the mysterious beauty and depth of my being is when I have fallen apart and then gone through the soul-mining process of putting myself back together.
1980 — Graduated from high school
1984 — Graduated from college
2007 — Fell apart
2011 — Met Sarah
2020 — Wrote this story