How to live in two places at once?

It started with a ‘Facebook Memory,’ one of those blasts from the past Zuck likes to throw into my newsfeed like a perfectly weighted spear straight through my heart. He finally stopped showing me photos of my ex (although I’m still waiting for the dreaded engagement pic), but I still get sideways reminders of the life I used to live. Today’s memory was of something I see every day: my tattoo. Only in the photo the ink was much brighter and the flesh beneath was an angry speckled red – it was the photo I uploaded right after getting the image permanently etched onto my wrist. In a flash, I was back there, in Exmouth Market, standing outside The Family Business and insisting that my ex “tell me, right now, if you’re going to break my heart. Because I’ll be damned if I will get a permanent reminder of you tattooed on my body if you’re just going to –” Needless to say, he convinced me that he was in it for the long haul. Two months later, after months of torturous indecision and tears and screaming, we were finally over.

When I saw the photo, now three years old, in my Facebook feed, I knew I needed to write about it. The tattoo, the poem it represented, the relationship that poem evoked…all of it. It was my writing evening, after all – what better day to see such a reminder? But as I set out to write I realized I’d forgotten some of the details of the timeline: when I got the tat, had he already told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to marry me? Had he yet gone away to France, to his father’s house, promising to come back with a clear idea of his priorities, and returned empty-headed? I opened up my phone and delved into an old text conversation with my brother from the time of the breakup, and as I scrolled up and up, farther and farther back, I felt my insides turn dark, a warning I refused to heed. Before I knew it I was deep in the past, and it in me, those feelings rising inside me like the physical memory of rabies, flaring up again. My brother’s loving but willfully misunderstanding platitudes about ‘strikes and gutters’ infuriated me, and my own attempts to both reassure him that I was okay and show him subtly that I was not okay and would likely never be okay again made me feel like cry-puking, something I haven’t felt in a long time, thank god.

I texted my boyfriend, who was planning to come over for dinner after writing time, to warn him that I might not be very good company because I had fallen down the heartbreak-research rabbit hole and felt awful and hadn’t even gotten much writing done for my pains, and he sent me a supportive response offering to give me space. At which point my anxiety skyrocketed. “I don’t want that either,” I texted, “I hate this so much. I feel like either I punish myself by being all alone with this horrible heart-rot or I bring it into our relationship and make things harder for both of us. Maybe I just shouldn’t be writing this book.”

The minute I sent that text, I knew two things on a visceral level:

  1. I have to write this book. It is clawing its way out of me – it’s leaving me in ragged shards on its way out, sure but it will get out somehow and trying to stop it will only hurt me more.
  2. I have no idea how to both be in this relationship and write this book without one thing destroying the other. But I also don’t know how to be without either one.

The relationship this book is about already illuminates and taints my current relationship far more than any normal ‘baggage’ – my ex is, as my boyfriend says, like a poltergeist, haunting me and too often my boyfriend as well, even three years after our breakup. He’s in the back of my mind (and too often on the tip of my tongue) every time we talk about travel or restaurants or anything to do with medicine…we did a lot of traveling and eating out, and medicine is his field, but it’s more just that I spent seven years with him and he permeates nearly all of my memories of adulthood. So it’s already tough.

But the book brings me back there in a way that is almost akin to time travel. It’s like an emotional wormhole – I go in relatively happy, content in my relationship and confident about my place in my little world, and I come back out feeling torn asunder, furious and in pain and terrified and completely unseated. It happens every time. And it’s a necessary part of the process, but it hurts, a lot. And it hurts even more to see it hurt my partner.

For a flash I thought the solution might be to part from him while I write the book, go live at my parents’ house and be miserable and drunk and let the hole in my heart guide my writing. But I did that, in Italy, and even without a just-fresh feeling of lost love I barely survived it. Who knows if I would even finish the first draft, distracted as I would be by a heartache other than that about which I am supposed to be writing? Besides, I am selfish enough, and at this point self-caring enough, to refuse to let him go, even for his own good.

So the only solution is to find some way to compartmentalize. We will be moving in together at the end of the summer and I will hopefully be spending at least a few hours writing each day, and I’m loathe to have that emotional time-travel cast a pall over our relationship all the time. I need to find a way to be there when I need to be there, and then get back here when I want to be here, without bringing too many cobwebs from the wormhole with me. Advice is very much welcome, as are wishes of luck. I have a feeling I’m going to need all the luck I can get.