I am accepting Love by accepting Fear.
I am thirty-one years old, and I have been in Love (or something like it) three, maybe four, times in my life. To me, Love feels like playing with fire: Mesmerizing, warm, inviting, but ultimately erratic and dangerous. Love makes me raw and exposed and happy and broken and safe and terrified all at the same time. The more she opens me, the deeper I cower. The more she envelops me, the faster I run. The more she sees me, the more I hide. Love always shines a light on Fear—of getting hurt, of losing control, of being too seen—and I struggle between blindly walking towards the light and getting the hell out before I burn.
This struggle between Love and Fear has been especially acute for me lately, given how everything at home now seems to be a seesaw of extremes. There is no such thing as balance in a pandemic. Quite literally overnight, my Boyfriend morphed from my Significant Other to my COVID Everything: My quarantine-bubble-king, lover, roommate, officemate, life coach, co-barista, co-dishwasher, co-apartment-cleaner, co-haircutter, co-masseuse, co-Netflix-binger, co-workout-partner, co-house-hunter, co-toilet-paper-inventory-manager. We had met just ten months before COVID blanketed Manhattan and were only tip-toeing around the idea of a future together—intending not to rush things, planning to discuss every possible step of how we would merge our two very busy lives if and when the time came. The time came anyway. It was then sink or swim, all-in or all-out.
Since then, this Everything version of our relationship has been my lifeboat and kryptonite in equal measure. On one hand, sheltering-in-place in our own private ecosystem has provided blissful, unpunctuated stretches of time for my Boyfriend and I to grow and laugh and cuddle. Nowadays, he can effortlessly read my rhythms and moods and body. He taught himself how to cut my hair (layers and all!) and spoils me with breakfasts in bed (he has mastered the art of the French press) and patiently lets me cry on his shoulder whenever I feel overwhelmed (which has happened more often than a “grown-up” should care to admit). He still somehow makes me feel beautiful, even though I no longer bother to brush my hair or apply any makeup or wear non-pajamas. I love soaking in every little detail about him—the way his tongue sticks out to the side of his lips when he dances, the way he slurps our daily post-lunch lattes, the way his disheveled hair mops over his forehead when he awakes. Our COVID life together has been filled to the brim with the truest, most magical moments—from dancing in the middle of a thunderstorm and experimenting with new soup recipes to making love under a meteor shower and holding his teeny newborn nephew for the very first time. We spice up our routine with at-home date nights and Peloton workouts and DIY facials. Nowadays, it is hard to believe I actually lived a full three decades of life without him. My every sun now rises and sets with this man, and I am utterly at home.
But as much as I have Love, I too have Fear. Our quarantine bubble offers nowhere to hide—especially in our one-bedroom Manhattan apartment / office / coffeeshop / gym / restaurant / barbershop / yoga studio. And being this intimately seen and known feels scary and uncomfortable and painful as hell—particularly for someone like me, who has traditionally been all too quick to hit the panic button whenever things in a relationship got too tough, too intimate, too exposed. For the past six months, my Boyfriend and I have had zero escape from each other’s anxieties and mood swings and dirty dishes and pet peeves. So, as much as Love glues us together, Fear also tears us apart… mercilessly. We have bickered over everything, from where we should live to what kind of COVID precautions to take to who should fold the damn laundry this time. We have gone to sleep on polar ends of the bed more times than I am proud to admit. We have stormed off on each other in blinding frustration. We have cursed. We have cried. We have had such bottomless oceans of silence between us that I sometimes feel unable to breathe. Alone together, in our secluded bubble, we have borne witness to the weakest, pettiest, cruelest parts of each other—the parts that float to the surface when we feel unsafe, when we are scared, when we are at wits end about all the weird pressures we are now under without an end in sight. And when those times come, I equal parts despise every part of him and want nothing more than to run into his arms. When those times come, I equal parts miss him and want to flee from him as quickly as possible. When those times come, I am utterly terrified of Love—of how tightly she grips onto me and how easily she folds me to my knees in Fear.
When those times come, Fear is very quick to take charge and do the same thing she always does. Fear is easy to understand because she’s loud, predictable and loyal. She relishes the spotlight and knows exactly how to reel me in. Her monologue is always the same: First, she plays the highlight reel of all my mistakes—all the hearts I have broken in my past, all the ways I have hurt and disappointed others, all the ways I prove over and over again just how much I plainly suck at Love. I was supposed to be married with kids by now, she sighs—need she remind me that I am officially in my thirties? Instead, despite nearly two decades of flirting and kissing and crying over boys, I have ended up with nothing but a closet stuffed with skeletons: Ghosts of ex-boyfriends past, discarded boxes of cheesy Valentine’s Day gifts and overpriced lingerie and exotic vacation pictures, dozens of meaningless dates, two proposals, two pregnancy scares, and one traumatizing UTI. I have failed over and over again in this pursuit of Love, Fear tells me. What in the world makes me believe I should keep trying?
Once we unwind my fat reel of failures, Fear then tells me to flee. I can’t trust Love, she says. It’s too dangerous. Too powerful, too extreme. Flee from the light before I get irreparably burned. My own darkness may be lonely, but at least it is predictable. Familiar. Completely and utterly mine. In the dark, my heart is under my control. In the dark, I am never too exposed or vulnerable. It is safer to be unseen, Fear tells me. Loneliness is isolating but no one can hurt you when you are alone. Flee before Love breaks you, she cautions. I have heard this speech over and over again—and, whenever Fear sounded the alarm in the past, I obeyed. I fled. I have listened to her marching orders over and over again, seeking solace in my own darkness because I couldn’t trust the light. If this were actually Love, it wouldn’t feel so terrifying, I reasoned. If this were actually Love, Fear would not exist. And so, I made excuses to keep hiding—to keep fleeing from my own discomfort and pain and distress, convinced that true Love would never make me this afraid.
The problem with fleeing, though, is that Fear always finds me. (And why wouldn’t she, when I have timelessly proved to be her most obedient and faithful servant?) Fleeing is nothing more than a band-aid. Whenever I think I am safe, whenever I think things will be different this time, Fear barges in and corners me all over again. She’s been the cat to my mouse our entire lives.
Lately, though, my relationship with Fear is changing.
I am changing.
Fear still comes by from time to time—particularly on those occasionally chilly nights my Boyfriend and I end up on opposite ends of the bed, together but alone, frozen between our Love and our Fear. And each time Fear knocks on the door, I answer. I sit with her and watch the same reel, nod along to the same speech. But for some reason, throughout the past six months, our power dynamic has been shifting. Something has been keeping me planted right where I am. I remain terrified, but I do not flee. I remain terrified, but something pleads with me to stop getting in my own damn way. I remain terrified… but so does the sweet, devoted man right next to me. Whenever Fear knocks, he too seems desperate for Love and terrified of it at the same time.
So what if Love was supposed to be terrifying? I wonder.
What if Love is terrifying for everyone?
What would happen if I quit fleeing?
I do not yet know the full answers to these questions—I am learning and unlearning all this in real time—but the mere asking of them has at least been a redefining force for me. I used to see Love and Fear as opposing truths that could not possibly coexist together; I ran away from Fear in hopes of running towards Love. But these days, in this new normal where everything is being redefined, it is becoming easier to see just how much of life actually happens in the contradictions. There are so many seemingly impossible forces that coexist side-by-side—and life still marches on anyhow. The world as we know it seems to be ending, but we are still surviving and evolving. We are more isolated and lonely yet somehow more connected than ever before. We are supremely resilient and supremely fragile beyond measure. We are all brave and afraid at the exact same time. My own day-to-day life, including my Everything relationship, has been distorted beyond recognition while also becoming truer, simpler, more rooted than ever before. Nothing makes sense anymore yet everything still makes sense at the same time. Everything is stretched out to the extremes, and somehow, the truth has enough space to encompass it all.
So maybe I don’t choose between Fear or Love, after all. Maybe I choose both. Maybe understanding one is the only way I can truly experience the other. Because maybe Love always had enough space to carry Fear; I had just been too busy getting in my own way to ever notice. Maybe Love and Fear coincided together all along—and maybe accepting this truth is precisely what would allow me to move closer to the light than ever before. Because there is no such thing as fleeing from Fear: So long as I am human, so long as I dare to open my heart, Fear will always find me. So instead of fleeing, what I can master instead is how to face Fear when she comes—to actually embrace her as a raw and whole and natural part in my journey towards true, big Love. I can remind myself that my mighty heart can wholeheartedly Love and wholeheartedly Fear at the exact same time. I can remind myself that Fear is natural, because opening our hearts to Love—truly and wholly—is by far the scariest thing we could possibly do. I can remind myself that Fear begets growth—that riding through the darkest valleys of Fear is exactly what is propelling me and my Boyfriend to new heights of Love, no matter how impossibly contradictory and confusing that may seem.
For the first time in my life, in my Everything relationship, I am accepting Love by accepting Fear. I am seeking Love more than I Fear it. Because maybe Love is supposed to be terrifying and messy. Maybe feeling Fear but choosing to open our hearts anyway is precisely what Love requires of us. And maybe without the deepest shadows of Fear, the light of Love could not shine as brightly as it does for me now.