My thoughts of the past are tormented by the present!

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAY 16, 2005

I’m finally ready to deal with a long-lost love, but a recent breakup seems to be all I can think about.


Dear Cary,

I recently went through a breakup of a very short affair. Three months after it began it was completely over, by her choice.
I went into this believing it might have a long lifespan. Mostly I was drawn to her because being with her reminded me of the life I’d previously led, a life with a wonderful soul mate who died many years ago.

This fling woman (she is newly out as a lesbian, and I was her first physical relationship with a woman) behaved badly while breaking up with me. I’m not faulting her for that. My problem is that the grief that has surfaced with this breakup is clearly tied to the lingering grief of losing my first and only love, long-ago soul mate, a man who died of AIDS. When I try to bring up how that original loss feels, so that I can deal with old feelings of losing a boy who A) was in my life for 18 formative years, B) I lost to a devastating battle with AIDS, and C) whose death has colored my entire life, I find only this fling woman comes to mind.

How do I reach past this buzzing annoyance and get to the harder, still half-buried, deeper grief? Why am I allowing myself to dwell on a short-lived mismatch? Is the harder stuff so painful I can’t bear to look it in the eye? Can anything so old (two decades now) be so strong that I need to avoid it with this distraction, even when I’m actively trying to access it?

I’m ready at this late date to deal with this first grief, yet my mind will only come up with these sloppy seconds.

Tormented by the Present

SoldOut_Jun13-22_2015

Dear Tormented,

Whereas usually it’s the past intruding upon the present that troubles us, in your case it’s the present intruding upon the past. In fact, you are troubled by the fact that the past won’t trouble you enough. You finally feel ready to deal with the past, but it doesn’t want to deal with you. So let’s talk a little about what you are trying to accomplish. What is it about that old loss? Why are you trying to get to that “harder, still half-buried, deeper grief”? I would suspect that if you are not actively troubled by painful memories today, and if it is difficult to vividly recall the poignancy of the loss, then perhaps you have indeed dealt with it, in the sense that it has mercifully receded from consciousness over time, as it should. Your preoccupation with this more recent event may be quite natural.

So what is it really that troubles you so? Perhaps being over that grief is itself a kind of disappointment; perhaps you long to feel full-force that grief once again, because the grief itself is a luxuriant, intoxicating sensation.

Which leads me to ask, at the risk of being presumptuous, if perhaps you aren’t hungry for an annihilating intensity of grief, grief as a drug, old grief, in fact, used to push aside your current feelings. In which case it would be your current feelings that are actually pushing to the surface for good reason — because your mind is telling you that in spite of what you might wish, these are important feelings, that in spite of its brevity, for whatever reason, such are the mysteries of physical love, this affair affected you deeply.

For instance, you mention that she did not behave well but you claim that doesn’t matter to you. You also mention that you thought this affair might really turn into something, but it didn’t. My guess is that what you’re feeling is anger and disappointment over this recent affair. My guess is that you cared for her more than you let on, and that her rejection of you hurt more than you care to admit. So why not permit yourself the leeway to feel these things more deeply? You may need to grieve this relationship with the same intensity that you grieved the other one; that it was short and intellectually inconsequential may make scant difference to the heart.

If you also wish to pursue the neurological phenomenon, to study how the brain prioritizes memories, that might prove fruitful. I have read that scientists are making great strides in understanding the mechanics of memory; those mechanics may have a lot to do with how we end up feeling happy or sad. I myself don’t understand much of that. But it can’t hurt to look into recent discoveries by neurologists. Just don’t neglect the fact that, for whatever reason, you were apparently affected quite strongly by this recent affair. If you honor that, you may be rewarded with a new appreciation of your capacity for love.

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