When love feels like carbon monoxide

I studied literature at university, but poetry was a genre I never managed to get into. Not that I disliked it, but my enjoyment was hindered by the fact that, most of the time, I didn’t understand the imagery nor the symbolism in poems. In the past year or two, however, I’ve been trying to enjoy poetry as a way of learning new ways to express emotions. This week I checked out a Sylvia Plath book from the library, Ariel, which she wrote in October 1962, only months before taking her own life.

I choked when I read A Birthday Present. I read it aloud two, three, four times, taking in each word like a deep in-breath, finding resonance in every turn of phrase. I was left in a flood of tears, wishing to embrace the spirit of Sylvia, in solidarity as a fellow female. It’s generally believed, at the point of writing the poem, Plath had already decided to die, and it certainly makes for grim reading, but her words resonated with me like nothing else I’d read before. (For the complete version click here).

“[…]If you only knew how the veils were killing my days,
To you they are only transparencies, clean air,

But my god, the clouds are like cotton.
Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide.

[…]Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it go whole? 
Must you stamp each piece in purple,
Must you kill what you can?
There is this one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me.

[…] Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were death

I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.
I would know you were serious. 

There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter

Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.”

I was a total novice to Plath’s work. All I knew was that she’d committed suicide by gassing herself in the kitchen, that her husband, poet Ted Hughes, had left her for another woman, that she had mental health issues from a young age. I’m also aware many blame Hughes for her death. Knowing that his lover Assia Wevill, with whom he had a daughter, also killed herself and the child in a similar manner to Sylvia, and knowing that Hughes had numerous lovers in the meantime, I can’t help but feel sheer rage against a man, whose autocentric behaviour led to the destruction of so many women’s lives. Did he think he had special privileges for being a well-known poet? Or just for being male? Did he see all women as mere objects of his lust? If a poet cannot hold love sacred, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Of course no one really knows what happened within the Plath-Hughes marriage. But as a woman who understands what Plath means when she refers to ‘carbon dioxide’, a silent, lethal grief that kills you slowly yet savagely, I chose to side with her.

In Sylvia’s name, I swore loudly at Hughes: “Bastard!”

Sociopathic relationships

While raging at Hughes and his treatment of women, I was reminded we live at a time when sociopathic behaviour abounds in the area of relationships. This is the era of swiping right or left to indicate whether you like someone or not, when it’s permissible to end a relationship by simply unfriending or blocking someone on social media. One day the relationship is there, the next day it’s gone. There’s even a word for it: ghosting.

No one believes in commitment any more because commitment, they say, spells trouble.

I can almost understand 20-old-somethings behaving this way on the excuse that they haven’t yet learned what a mature relationship is about, but people in their 40s and 50s with half a century’s life experience?!

Dating sites are full of middle-aged men looking for “new friends”, code for no-strings-attached sex friends. There’s nothing wrong in men or women wanting to get laid, if that’s all both parties wish. But I’m sick of feeling like an aberration for insisting on believing in old-fashioned romance and devotion, where partners inspire each other to be better people in order to, together, be greater than the sum of the parts. What happened to, “No matter what happens, we’ll overcome it together.”

Commitment has become such an uncool, taboo word many women refrain from using it in front of a man for fear of rejection. We fear if we honestly ascertain what we want, the man we esteem will leave us and there’ll be no one else for us. The truth is, by not being honest at the outset about what you want, you’ll lose the man anyway but suffer months of degrading humiliation in between.

Misdirected compassion

I’m guilty of it myself. For the longest time I pretended to be okay with outrageously disrespectful behaviours within a toxic relationship with a man I thought was ‘it’. It led me to spiral down and culminate in a nervous breakdown and the worst bout of depression I’ve ever experienced.

What drives me insane is realising I constantly made excuses for his fear of commitment and misogynistic attitudes, looking for traumatic events in his past that would justify his abhorrent treatment of women. I ‘enabled’ him, as you would with an alcoholic. I encouraged the behaviours to continue by tolerating them, and, in the process, I grossly disrespected myself.

In trying to be compassionate towards a broken man, I spurned compassion for myself.

Mind games

It was, using Plath’s words, like carbon monoxide I breathed in slowly, gulp by gulp, slowly annihilating my self-esteem until there was nothing left of my former self. Toxic men have the uncanny ability to continuously behave badly, then turn the blame around on you so it looks like you were at fault, not them. Such insidious mind games can make even a normally sane person feel suicidal over time.

The knife that enters, not carves… Yes, kill me. KILL ME! For killing me would be more merciful than torturing me in this manner.

And yet it was I who abused myself by not laying down boundaries, by not saying “this is not acceptable”. Having survived one abusive marriage, I’m struggling to come to terms with this truth and forgive myself for having allowed such abuse to happen…once again. Was one lesson not enough?


In my parents’ generation, people sat down to talk things over, couples believed in fixing what was broken, not giving up at the first crisis. People weren’t deletable; they were more than icons on a computer screen. If you erred, you apologised. You owned up to your behaviours. Couple got married in churches because their promise to honour and respect each other – not an easy one to keep for life – would stand a better chance if placed in a scared context.

Commitment isn’t another word for marriage, which is altogether another story. But it does imply looking after someone you love in good and bad times, caring for their feelings beyond your need for self-gratification. It means thinking twice before doing anything that could hurt another, no matter if you consider it right.

Because loving someone means you do care how your actions will affect them.

The other day a male friend I greatly respect bought me a drink and asked me about my love life. I told him about my broken heart and bemoaned men’s unwillingness to commit. His response was unexpected:

“Commitment is not a dirty word, you know?” he said. “Commitment is good. Don’t be afraid of wanting it. It’s okay. It’s after you commit that the fun starts.”

So it wasn’t my fault. It’s okay, he said, it’s okay. I went home and cried, hugging myself in bed.

“Let down the veil, the veil, the veil.”

The end of suffering – part 2: parting with the story

“Relationships are a hospital for the soul” is a quote I love from A Course in Miracles.

We all carry wounds and weaknesses within us, but relationships are where two souls are given maximum opportunity to grow and heal. This is why your loved ones always manage to trigger you the most, drive you nuts and make you show the worst of yourselves. Within a relationship your unresolved issues come up from the darkest recesses to meet the Light, be healed. It is meant to be that way.

I don’t have a religious faith, but I’ve always sought in spirituality an explanation for all things I could not understand with the rational mind. Since my divorce, followed by a long period of depression, I’ve dived even deeper into the wisdom of some of world’s greatest spiritual teachers trying to find peace within and unlock the secret to the end of suffering.

Eckhart Tolle‘s The Power of Now, which I read years ago, opened my eyes to the importance of living in the present moment and recognising the Ego Mind as separate from the consciousness that “knows” when you’re thinking. Since then I’ve read a vast number of books by other authors, listened to their talks, signed up for online courses: Dr Wayne Dyer, Anita Moorjani, Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching, Marianne Williamson, Neale Donald Walsh.

Stripped to the basics, the lessons from all these spiritual teachers boil down to the same principles: that love is all there is, the only thing that’s real. That love is God, and God is love. That there are only two emotions, love and fear. That what is not love is an expression of fear, or “a call for love”. That we have a choice, at every moment, to act from a place of love or from a place of fear. That what we want to manifest in our lives we need to give freely away as if it was already here.

I applied the lessons in my own life; they brought comfort when I was in pain, clarity when I needed clarity, hope when I was in despair.

I also read every self-help book on relationships under the sun and became acutely aware of mistakes I’d been making in the dating game. Now I know making the first move, or pursuing, is a masculine role which, if taken over by a woman, makes the man lose interest. Sex, many say, should only happen after a man has agreed to commitment and exclusivity (well, we may all have to go celibate then, as very rarely does a man want to commit early in a relationship). The books also said, if it won’t happen unless I didn’t make it happen, then let it not happen because this means the man doesn’t have the personality structure to maintain a relationship…which of course was my case. Ouch.

But with the awareness of where I’d gone wrong, came even more pain, not less. Was love so complicated that I needed to read this many books just to get it right? And how do I stop hurting for having fallen for the wrong man yet again…?

That’s when I came across The Work conceived by Byron Katie.

There were no how-to rules, no God talk, no courses to be taken, just a ludicrously simple and practical exercise consisting of four questions you ask yourself starting with “Is it true?”and their turnarounds. I was astounded by its simplicity and power in deconstructing the beliefs that form the basis of our suffering.

Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is and I Need Your Love – is that true?, discovered one day that the way to stop suffering was simply to stop believing her thoughts. She realised her thoughts were not reality but mere illusions, like watching a movie your mind runs continuously in your head. When you choose to believe the movie is true, you suffer. When you remember it is just a movie, not the truth, you set yourself free. Enlightenment suddenly descends in a huge a-ha moment that radically changes your perception of life.

Videos of Katie doing the Work with different men and women are available on her website and on YouTube, but it is designed so you can do it yourself. You can download her “Judge-Your-Neighbor worksheet” free of charge for doing the Work on any issue you feel stuck on.

I loathe corny self-help BS, so I approached the Work with total scepticism. But when I was watching the video below, something opened up for me, and once the understanding came, more and more started falling into place in a domino effect… I realised that, like the woman in the video, there were truths I’d been concealing from myself about my relationship, truths that completely changed my story so far, where he was always the baddy and I the flawless, suffering on-and-off girlfriend, as you’ll have read in my previous post.

It suddenly dawned on me this man, let’s call him Mark, had told me already on our third date that he was going through a phase, in which he felt unable to make any deep emotional connections. He’d broken up with his previous girlfriend because she had wanted him to marry her. He had further warned me he was “a cad” (his words) but he did not wish to hurt me, as I was then newly divorced.

I chose to believe otherwise, as women do…because I was smitten with him. I chose to believe he was exaggerating, that he’d change when he got to know me. We were a match made in heaven, of course he’d adore me, he’d want to commit to me, he’d never even think about another woman.

He’d become quite reticent after our first date, despite having told me I was a special woman on many levels. Knowing what I know now, I realise he was choosing to stay away from me, as he knew he was incapable of giving me what I wanted. But I kept nudging him into asking me out again. Every time we broke up since, it was me who’d tried to bring us back together. He had written saying I deserved much better than what he could give me and he was sorry. Once more I decided to ignore the truth he’d made known to me.

This moment of revelation liberated me and allowed me to finally let go of my suffering. The volcano-like anger that had been spewing from inside me suddenly went quiet. Mark never intended to hurt me. I had hurt myself by believing the stressful thought that he was withholding from me what was my right to have.

Why Mark chooses to behave awkwardly towards women is a story that probably has deep ramifications in his past, and it’s not up to me to judge nor try to change. But I can never accuse him of having been untruthful towards me because he wasn’t. It was me who insisted on believing in the fairy tale. And don’t we all? We always know when something is amiss in a relationship, but we turn a blind eye because we don’t want the illusion to end. We hold onto the impossible dream and by doing so we chain ourselves to suffering.

I also realised that on the soul level Mark’s soul loved mine, and my soul loved his. That is why we find it so hard to extricate ourselves from each other. If we were stripped of our human Egos and became pure souls, we’d be One and our love would run deep, for eternity.

But we’d come together in our earthy bodies to present each other with a gift, a lesson, a chance to heal and become better versions of ourselves…

The thought “he doesn’t care about me” wasn’t true. I was hurting because I was believing it. Doing the Work, I came to the conclusion Mark does care. He cares enough to warn me off him. There were also plenty of instances in the past when he was truly kind.

The statement “he shouldn’t treat me disrespectfully” also wasn’t true. He should and he will. The concept “disrespectful” was coming from my head because, to keep my illusion alive, I needed to believe he owed me love and respect when he owed me nothing. I owed myself that.

Our Egos love to be self-righteous victims, so we can blame others instead of examining our own behaviour. Wasn’t I disrespecting myself when I pretended not to see the red flags he had waved in my face so many times? I was demanding respect of him when not even I could respect myself.

Truth can be hard-hitting. But if embracing the Truth could stop the suffering, would you not be willing to do it?

Bryon Katie says:

“Until you can see the enemy as a friend, your Work is not done.

“This doesn’t mean that you have to invite your enemy to dinner. You may never see the person again, you may even divorce him or her, but as you think about the person, are you feeling stress or peace?

“In my experience, it takes only one person to have a successful relationship, and that is me.”

If that doesn’t stop you dead in your tracks and make you re-think everything you ever believed about relationships, I don’t what will.

Enlightenment rocks.


The end of suffering – part 1: the story so far

A couple of weeks ago, while at a concert hall, I bumped into a man I used to date. It was bound to happen one day: we always loved the same composers and frequented the same venues.

It is hard enough to meet a man in my age group who enjoys classical music as much as I do, let alone one who’s also tall and handsome, highly educated, erudite and speaks several languages fluently… He had read all the classics, his bookcases were brimming with beautiful leather-bound editions. He could talk eloquently about operas, composers, literature, poetry, theatre. His idea of hot sex was doing it to the sound of Maria Callas blasting out a passionate aria in the background.

Even the many synchronicities seemed to indicate we were meant for each other. A poster of a Paul Klee painting hung on the wall of his lounge, and Klee is my favourite painter. He had a published book, in which the main character had the same name as my ex-husband. His ex-wife’s name was the female equivalent of that of a man I had deeply loved in the past. We had studied the same subjects at university. We had both survived cancer, and of the same kind. We liked the same foods, even the same types of pudding. We had the same thoughts at the same time. How could I not fall in love with him. Suddenly I was the happiest woman in the world; I couldn’t stop smiling. In the autumn of my life, I had finally met Prince Charming.

Or so I thought.

I had sat the first half of the concert having solo use of a box seat overlooking the stage, which I’d been offered at a discounted price by a nice ticket office lady. I was in a good mood and had joined the ice-cream queue during the interval when I first caught a glimpse of him coming towards the direction of the ice-cream stand.

It’s funny how the mind works when you go into a state of shock. In a split second three distinct thoughts raced through my head in no specific order, “Damn, do I have time to duck away?”, “His hair has grown!” and “Please don’t tell me he’s with that woman.”

It was a fight-or-flight moment, but I was as pathetically equipped for escape as a rabbit caught in the headlights. By the time I had registered he had a date with him, he had registered I was standing there, looking as if I’d seen a ghost.

We’d had a falling-out a couple of months before…one of many in the time we’ve known each other, during which we broke up and got together again, broke up and got together again, as if we had a vicious addiction to each other neither of us could permanently break. I had told him I wouldn’t contact him again, as his unexplained periods of total silence, the inconsistency in his behaviour, his hot-and-cold games were driving me insane.  I had told him, if he ever wanted to do a programme with me again, he knew where to find me, but I did not want to continue making a fool of myself.

Yet, here I was, on the brink of losing my dignity again. Was this woman the reason for his silence or did the woman happen as a result of our latest rift?

In the same split second in which I had the three thoughts above, I also gave his his brunette a once-over, checked whether they were holding hands (they weren’t), whether either of them looked enamoured (they didn’t), the pace at which they walked (too fast to indicate romance; couples in love walk slowly and enjoy each step they take together), the distance between their bodies (more colleague-like than lovers).

I checked her fashion sense…as you do: girly dress, black high heels, glossy black clutch. Trying waaay too hard! Maybe a first date? I was in skinny blue jeans from Uniqlo and a Cos navy-and-white stripey tunic. Ankle boots, medium heels. Smart casual. Understated elegance. One-oh.

As he passed and said hi, looking embarrassed but resigned like a little boy who’s just been caught by his mother masturbating in his room, I was drawing the conclusions of my audit, “Friends only, no sex… Yet.

“Hi.” I spoke fast, without smiling.

He took two steps forward as if he’d carry on walking, probably going through the same thought process as myself, do I ignore do I not ignore. Then he re-traced his steps to stand squarely in front of my terrified self, first looking behind to check his date’s reaction, or maybe that was his sign to let her know he needed to talk to me privately.

“Hi. How are you?” he said.

“Good.” I sounded like a mosquito had spoken, if mosquitos could speak.

“It’s good to see you.”

I said nothing but he was smiling widely to stress how happy he was to see me, suddenly turning from naughty boy into Casanova.

“I hate you so much,” I thought. 

I noticed my mind noticing how lean his body was, and how hard and strong his chest looked underneath his yellowy sweater. Regular gym training was obviously paying off. He looked youthful, healthy. Virile. Trying to impress women, you fucking philanderer! I want you to die. And you need a haircut too!

“I’ll be in touch soon. You know…about…about various. I’d been thinking of contacting you anyway, so I’ll be in touch.”

Liar! Liar liar liar. Die die die!

“Fine.” I blurted out almost too abruptly, putting a full stop to an increasingly awkward conversation.

I wolfed down my ice-cream without tasting it. I read the programme three times and didn’t take a single word in. After the interval, I melted into Brahms’ Second Symphony, as if Johannes (that’s Brahms for you) had written it for me. I clapped so enthusiastically my hands hurt.

I was delirious. I prayed I had ruined their date. That the brunette had asked him who I was, that she got jealous and had gone home in a huff. Or..that..if she’d been stupid enough to end up in bed with him regardless, he’d have accidentally called her by my name.

That evening I dreamt I was puking. I was puking and puking non-stop.

(continued in the next post…)

The five stages of heartache

Brazilian author Martha Medeiros, whom I greatly admire, has written a wonderful column called The Pain that Most Hurts. Here is an extract I have translated:

“Heartache is not knowing. Not knowing what to do with the days that now feel longer, not knowing what activities to take up to keep you from your thoughts, not knowing how to stop the tears that flow on hearing a song, not knowing how to overcome the pain of a silence that nothing can fill.”

“Heartache is not wanting to know. Not wanting to know if he has another, if she is happy, if he is now slimmer, or if she’s become even more beautiful. Heartache is never wanting to know a thing about the one we love, yet being unable to cease the pain.”

Heartache – the pain that results from ending a relationship, or when you’ve had a rift and stopped talking to each other. In a way the agony is worse when you lack the certainty it was the end, when it might be a temporary lull, or a lull leading to an unofficial ending. It is like having cancer and being told by a doctor of your “chances of survival”. You could have weeks, months or years up to a normal lifespan. Where do you place the hope?

What is “the end” anyway? Is it the last day you ever spoke to each other, or is it the day you no longer feel any love? And if you can’t stop loving them…is there an end then?

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross famously defined the five stages of grief experienced at the loss of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The word “stage” is misleading, as these emotions do not necessarily emerge in progression, nor does everyone go through all five of them, but it seems like a fairly accurate description of heartache as a form of grieving.

Heartache to me feels like someone has turned off all the lights and all the sounds in the room. Sometimes it feels like being injected with a hallucinogenic drug that makes me fantasise scenes of tearful reconciliation interspersed with those of uncontrolled anger and cold-blooded murder as punishment for the pain I’ve been put through. Then come the prayers in a desolate world where even God seems to have turned his back on me (bargaining)? Upon which thoughts of ‘if only I had not…’ (guilt) arise. Finally I plunge into a never-ending abyss, a fall that can’t be broken by anything or anyone until you reach the very end, until you ‘bottom out’ (depression). One has to break first before the healing begins.

I catch myself picking at my food, my appetite gone. I notice I’m not smiling, I don’t make small talk any more. I notice I pushed a woman on the commuter train as I walked past her to take a seat causing her to make a snide remark. I notice I’m not happy sitting squashed between two large men in the middle seat I got; I hate middle seats. When I disembark, I notice I’m walking fast down the street, not just fast but furiously, head down, noticing patterns on the pavement, noticing my shoes are hurting my feet, why the hell did I wear these stupid shoes today? I arrive at work, and I notice someone has cleared away the stash of clients’ business cards I had stacked on my desk. Why did they remove them, why would anyone even touch any of my belongings without my permission. The volcano is about to erupt. I cover my mouth with my hand to stop myself from saying something rude, as my conscience warns me it’s not a professional thing to do. I am hot, why are the windows not open, why is the fan not on? I feel the heat building up in the corner of my eye. Oh dear, am I about to dissolve in a soup of hot flushes, but it is not sweat, I notice, it is a tear…

Hospitals of the Soul

Marianne Williamson in her latest book, Tears to Triumph, says “relationships are the hospital of the soul”, an analogy I love. Two people meet, not as randomly as you’d have imagined, but because they were meant to help heal each other’s wounds. People get far more triggered by people they are emotionally invested in. We always show our loved ones the worst part of ourselves because relationships work like a detox diet: the toxin we carry within needs to come up so that it can be banished by the Light. In other words, we play therapists to each other: I cure your neurosis, you cure mine.

In assessing a relationship, we often take the stance “I am not getting what I need from it.” When we don’t get the behaviour or the words we were expecting from the other, we go crazy – we complain, we blame, we criticise. The very fact that we let our needs dictate a relationship means our love is conditional to what we want, never mind what the other person needs or wants. Even when the object of your love is a pussycat, you want it to come and sit on your lap and purr. You feel hurt and offended when it shuns your company.

When we get mad at a loved one, we’re masking a feeling of hurt. It may be pain that we’re not getting enough love, or evidence of love, pain that we’re not being heard or understood. It hurts because, deep inside, most of us are afraid of rejection and abandonment. We think if you really loved me you would only act the way I wanted you to, so maybe you don’t (love me).

The good news about heartache then is that it makes you aware of your own weaknesses. You realise you didn’t mean to say, “you’re an arsehole for not keeping your word about calling me”, but “I feel insecure about how much you love me and am scared you may leave me one day.” It brings you to these a-ha moments that shift your perspective of the situation. Maybe I projected my neediness onto them and called it their selfishness. Maybe I could have communicated my needs in a different way. Maybe I need to work on not being so dependent on someone else’s attention to feel whole.

Ego’s friends

We women love to seek another woman’s shoulder to cry on, but I often find girlfriends are the worst possible support network you can count on at times like this. They hear your side of the story, it reminds them of a similar situation they’ve been in, and they show support by making mincemeat of the offending partner for his errors, adding fuel to your anger, egging you on to end the relationship or somehow punish him. Your friends can inadvertently act as your Ego’s reps and reinforce your imagined reality. Your Ego is constantly looking for reasons to sustain your belief that all men/women are useless/egotistic/insensitive/controlling/[enter your own bias here]. It is like the evil stepmother in fairy tales: it’s only interested in making sure you fail…every time. Consider this: it is more comfortable for us to live with familiar failure patterns than to face the power and infinite possibilities of non-ego-led love.

This is why I’ve stopped sharing about my love life with even the closest of friends. They care about me, I know, but there are lessons I need to learn on my own, even if they hurt. When I cry these days, it is not so much because other people have hurt me but because I’m grieving my own realisation that I acted/reacted from a place of fear rather than love and acceptance.

Recognising I still carry wounds from the past makes me aware of limitations in my own ability to love the way one should: with acceptance, with compassion and gratitude for even apparent lack of love.

Just The Way You Are – really?

It is ironic that Billy Joel sings “I love you just the way you are” when in reality our ability to accept another is so restricted. This is not to say we shouldn’t have boundaries and say ‘no’ to abusive or disrespectful behaviour, and certainly ‘no and good-bye’ to violent behaviour. But anger only begets more anger in an endless loop: you have hurt me so I get angry; you get hurt by my anger (because you feel guilty) and get angry back at me, which in turn deepens my hurt, and now we’re both hurt and sad and angry and we’ll probably never talk again. The End.

When I accept people fully, I understand that sometimes they make mistakes too, say things they shouldn’t have, or in an unkind tone. But what we say or do in a moment of thoughtlessness does not define what we, or they, really are.

What we must remember is that we always have a choice in how we react to other people’s unloving behaviours. Mistakes call for understanding, not judgement. Consider this: as we are all human and we all have defects, by condemning someone you love, you are ultimately condemning you.

When my heart is aching, what helps me is taking myself out on a string of solo dates: theatre, concerts, these events I dreamed of going with someone else are all places I can perfectly go to on my own and still have a great time. A man or woman who can enjoy their own company will always be great company to others, as they don’t come loaded with expectations; they know how to have fun on their own.

There was a time when I thought finding a random date on a dating site would be a quick-fix for a broken heart, but dating because you find being single embarrassing is like stuffing your face with junk food not as a response to physical hunger but to fill an emotional void: it will only make you fat but not nourish you in any way.

A time for sadness, a time for acceptance

Time can be a great healer for heartache but, as with any loss, sadness can grip you unawares, casting a long shadow even when you stand in the light.

When I was a child, my mother used to hide away all sweets in the house in a large tin and place it in the tallest shelf in the kitchen cupboard so my brother and I couldn’t find it. We always did of course, although it took some acrobatics on the kitchen table.

Sometimes you need to put your sadness away inside a tin on a top shelf, moving it higher and higher everyday until you can’t reach it anymore. One day you’ll open the tin and discover it was empty from the start, for even sadness is an illusion, a belief we attach ourselves to that things should not be the way they are now.

I love whom I love regardless of there being a relationship or not. They were unique as an experience and not replaceable by anyone else. I may never know whether I contributed to the healing of their wounds, but the tears I shed today awaken me to which of my “attitudinal muscles” I need to strengthen to be a better lover in life, and of life.

When I find love everywhere, love will find me.

Christmas for one and the John Lewis penguin illusion

Every Christmas I wonder if cases of suicide go up during the festive season. Because every year it reminds me of how inadequate I am/my life is in comparison with others’. The crux of the matter is exactly this: the comparison.

Shopping for Christmassy meals for one at Marks & Spencers’ on Christmas Eve, alongside couples pushing trolleys brimming with festive food and Christmas crackers, instantly turns me into a self-pitying Bridget Jones. It makes me wish M&S sold at their tills, alongside their mints and chewing gums, one-way tickets straight into Dignitas in Switzerland so I can be put out of my misery once and for all.

Was that a look of pity I saw on the cashier’s eyes, as she scanned my single dessert, my single breakfast bread roll and my single nut roast without any accompanying side dishes? Maybe it was out of compassion she didn’t wish me merry Christmas, but I was relieved she didn’t, as my Christmas was about to be anything but merry.

At home I scroll down Facebook, and predictably feel nauseated at everyone else’s sugar-coated photos: Christmas trees laden with decorations (it was my childhood dream to have a large Christmas tree, as I never had one), families posing together, kids being cute, husband being cute, cat being cute, couples saying “darling I love you, thank you for a wonderful year” followed by a few hundred “likes”. Can people not love each other in private any more?!

Of course not all you see on social media is true. People only post what they want others to see and believe. Couples on the brink of divorce may well have been making an effort “for the sake of the kids”, as says this Huffington Post article on the reasons why people stay in unhappy marriages.

This reminds me of my favourite scene in Love Actually, where Emma Thompson realises on Christmas Day that the expensive necklace under the tree she thought her husband (Alan Rickman) had bought for her was in reality for another woman. She cries in private with Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now playing in the background, yet she regains composure and keeps a happy façade in front of the children. Conclusion: not all blissful-looking families are what they seem.

The enforced joviality of Christmas can push any existing tensions to breaking point. If there already was any friction in the relationship with your partner, parents, in-laws, or friends, the social pressure of behaving as if you are having fun can be the last straw that makes that taut string snap.

Out of curiosity I googled to check if the Samaritans received more calls during the festive season and found out last year 244,000 people called in the UK and the Republic of Ireland during the Christmas period, many of whom were men, who felt their families would be better off without them. In other words, men who felt lonely and excluded even when they had wives and children.

Boy, did that make me feel better about spending a solo Christmas! I may be alone, but I am not lonely. Loneliness within a relationship is utterly soul-destroying.

This year’s was the second Christmas I spent on my own since my separation. The friends I had intended to hang out with turned out to be all away, and I wasn’t organised enough to have a plan B so I got stuck with myself.

Being a bit of a sociophobe  – I didn’t even attend the company’s Christmas party – I am perfectly comfortable not having company. But Christmas is simply not meant to be spent alone. As Michelle Hanson says in this Guardian article, “there is such a thing as society, and it doesn’t seem to like people being alone at Christmas.”

Facebook in particular can be a poisoned chalice: when the entire world seems to be posting photos of themselves being jolly with their loved ones, including your own family abroad, it is hard not to feel like a total failure in life. What is wrong with me that I do not have friends, a partner, nor kids for that matter?

I also have a massive Christmas hangup from childhood. I grew up in a Catholic country in South America, where Christmas was celebrated in a big way, whereas my family, being Asian immigrants, did not even bother with a tree, nor presents. If we were lucky, mum would cook us a big meal, and that was it. As a little girl, I used to spy through the door’s peephole as guests arrived next door laden with presents, and hear the excited voices of small children with a pang of envy. Once school re-started, I had to suffer my classmates bragging about the many presents they had got for Christmas, when I’d received one, or none.

I always resented my parents for denying me the experience of Christmas. I used to think it was every child’s basic right to have a ridiculously fun day, to believe in Santa Claus and presents being delivered through chimneys. I always looked forward to the day I’d leave home behind to start my own life, live it the way I thought was right. I’d have my own family, and we’d have many presents under a beautiful shimmering Christmas tree.

This never happened of course. And now, I realise, it may never do.

Tibetan Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön says in her book When Things Fall Apart that in order to stop suffering you must give up hope. Again and again I have sat with that thought, trying to understand how that can be possible. In theory I can see what she’s saying: unattainable dreams only make you feel more miserable. But without dreams, what joy is there to live for?

Sitting alone in a silent living room, with candles lit in every corner and no other decorations, my flat looks more like a venue for a wake than for Christmas. That was the most festive I managed to get. I’ve given up on my dream Christmas. I am no happier as a result but I at least stopped feeling envy, that is, as long as I log off Facebook for a good few days.

It also occurred to me that a perfect Christmas Day may be an illusion itself. Over time Christmas grew larger and larger in my head like a mirage that looks alluring exactly because I can never own it, but I’d probably not appreciate if I had it every year.

Two years after my new departure as a single woman I am finally starting to feel like I could contemplate a new relationship. At the same time, I am steeling myself for the possibility it may never happen, like that Christmas tree of my dreams. I might die alone and forgotten in some old people’s home, without anyone to even hold my hand. Isn’t this giving up hope?

The idea terrifies me though, and to counteract it, I decided I can always choose to jump off a cliff and get it all over with, if it gets too much. It may sound morbid, but for me it is the only way I can face life these days: knowing I can put an end to the darkness by plunging into it.

Give up hope or give up life – does it really have to be this radical? There must be a solution, somewhere in between, which allows me to live with not having the things I wanted to have, and still attain some level of satisfaction.

It doesn’t help that this week I happened to see a couple of Christmas photo greetings from men I once loved, each with their wife and two beautiful kids, looking like they couldn’t be happier if they were in heaven surrounded by singing angels. It made me question what I have done wrong that they achieved what they now have, and I lost everything, including the chance to be happy with them.

This is what Christmas does to me: I was perfectly content until it arrived.

We are such idiots. We half believe the twee penguin tale of this year’s John Lewis’ Christmas commercial, and think the magic of the season should make everyone fall in love with everyone else, all rifts healed. This is the fairy tale we all buy into, the one we so desperately want to believe. I doubt the world looks that rosy past the Bank Holiday, once alcohol and sugar have been flushed out.

I don’t know which is worse: not having Christmas, not having a family or not having hope. But I decided 2015 will be the year I live as if it was my last. If I only had a year to live, what would I do, where would I go, what would I say and to whom? We are all slowly dying, we are mortals, in case you forgot. Living intensely is the only way I can think of to obliterate pain and death.

Everyday will then be Christmas.

The age of digital love: why we cheat, stalk, break up and make up online

Banksy's Mobile Lovers

Banksy’s Mobile Lovers

If you have a Facebook account, I bet you are familiar with the thrills of stalking an ex-lover or an old flame online. You may not like to admit it, but we’ve all done it at some point, let’s face it.

You don’t need to be “friends” with anyone on Facebook in order to stalk. They may be the type that post status updates as “public”, or, even if their account’s privacy setting is tighter than a gnat’s chuff (excuse the vulgarity), they are bound to leave comments on someone else’s public “wall”, giving you ample glimpses into the goings-on in their life… One of their friends may have tagged them in a photo with their current partner, so by checking their friend’s Facebook photos, you can see what they’ve been up to, and, most importantly, whether they seem happy or not (with someone else)… The camera never lies.

At least that’s my personal methodology.

Social media is a stalker’s paradise. Twitter is mostly public, although some people have stalker-proof accounts with “protected tweets”, and on LinkedIn you can check daily who everyone is connecting with on a professional level.  Many people like to upload their photos on Flickr, which may show you where they’ve been on holiday; their Pinterest pins will reveal topics they are currently interested in; Spotify and Last Fm can tell you what songs your “friend” has been listening to lately while GoodReads will give you a list of books they’ve been reading. And should they have a blog…my…you’re in for a treat, as you will also know what is going on in their minds.

I have often wondered whether I am a freakish creep to be so proficient at cyberstalking…but this Telegraph article made me realise that, when it comes to digital espionage, I am still, thankfully, an utter amateur.

The article lists at least four “stalking apps” that can be used to spy on your significant other’s digital activities: Mobile Spy, Mobile Stealth, StealthGenie and mCouple. For between £25 to £50 a month, these apps allow you to “view every text message sent or received by your partner’s device”, “get access to each other’s phone book” and “keep you informed about all Facebook chats”. Apparently even deleted messages can be checked and read by these apps, so once the spying software is trained on someone, there is no escaping.

What amazes me is that these apps are being used by couples in steady relationships. Obviously steady may not necessarily mean trusting, but why on earth have we grown so paranoid about what our significant others get up to when they go online that we need to bug their phones and eavesdrop on them 24/7?

Washing Post article I read this weekend partly explains why. According to the piece, we live in an age of increasing digital infidelity, where men and women in a committed relationship, will flirt online with a potential “back-up partner”, or a former lover, to make sure they have an alternative, or a plan B, in case their current relationship goes belly up.

I will not play innocent and say I have never flirted online with a married man or one with a girlfriend, but then I am currently single, and each time I did it, I was only teasing a little, not seriously trying to provoke or suggest they cheat with me on their partners.

Having grown up in a Latino culture, I find flirting tremendously fun. To me, it is nothing more than a form of compliment a man can pay a woman or vice-versa. Social media, SMS, WhatsApp, Snapchat and the like have made flirting even easier because we tend to be bolder when we don’t have to confront someone face to face.

But not having to look someone in the eye when we talk, have also made breaking up that much easier to do via text messages (remember the breakups by fax in the old days?), as well as having the follow-up conversation trying to make up, or not, afterwards.

While chatting to a colleague, well, messaging her on Facebook, she confided in me she had “talked” to her ex-boyfriend about their breakup. When I said, “Really? When did you two meet?”, her answer was “We didn’t, this was all on What’s App.”

When we say “talk” these days, most of the time we do not mean we called someone, and it is even less likely we actually met them in person. Our concept of “talking” has shifted from sitting opposite each other across a table over a cup of coffee to frantically typing with one finger on our phones and tablets. We text talk on trains, buses, and from our work desks, hitting ‘send’ as we go, even when the subject involves emotions that can be easily misunderstood because written text, even when accompanied by the now ubiquitous emoticons, lack the emotive messages only body language can convey.

Which one of us haven’t at least once said on an email or text message the exact opposite of what we really wanted to say, either because we were too proud to tell the truth or because we were too hurt, or too afraid to say we loved them or missed them, or that we were truly sorry we had hurt them.

We miss out on the opportunity of sensing the other person’s true essence because we rely too much on phones and apps to communicate feelings that may make or break a relationship.

Are we becoming so superficial and lazy in our communication that love’s fate, the beginning of love as well as the end of it, is now dictated by a handful of texting apps, and directed by what what we see or don’t see in each other’s Facebook ‘Wall’ rather than on their faces?

I am not above any of this myself. I ought to stop stalking the man I long to be with and go see him in person for a drink. We would be able to hug each other tightly in real life; I would probably shed a few tears because I’ve been missing him so badly for so long. I would be able to ask him directly whether he is happy, and listen for the answer, with my eyes on his eyes, as well as my ears.

But I don’t do it, and I do not know I ever will. Maybe I’m afraid of what I would then see, so I hide behind a Facebook ‘Wall’ and become Peeping Tom instead.

We are scared to death of vulnerability, of being hurt, making fools of ourselves, and yet, without vulnerability, relationships cannot flourish.

We are hopeless cyber-cowards in the age of digital love. We find dates online, indicating our interest by swiping right or left on our phones; we fall in and out of love with avatars, we sext to seduce, have arguments on messages fired off on the move; we send smileys suggesting friendliness but don’t smile as much when we meet.

I don’t know about you, but I feel nostalgic about the good old love letters of yore.

“Dearest You, How are you… I mean, how are you really?”

“Would you date a guy with kids?” – box-ticking in love

Photo credit: Aspire

Photo credit: Aspire

“Hey, I have a dilemma,” my colleague texted me during her morning commute. She’s an attractive, tall, Eastern European blonde in her early 30s. As of late, she has taken to consulting me for all matters related to men.

“Would you date a guy who’s got two kids?”

Her question amused me. She hadn’t even gone out with the guy once and was already inventing excuses to make him unsuitable. The texting went on like this:

“Why not? You’d be dating him, not the kids.”
“Prefer someone w/o kids. Sounds like a lot of hassle.”
“You don’t know that. You haven’t even given it a try!”
“He isn’t divorced, just separated.”
“SO WHAT?! So am I. Separated is fine. Divorce takes time & energy, not as easy as you think. Is he nice?”
“Very interesting. Reads Murakami.”
“Hmmm, intellectual type? Liking this.”
“But he may not want to have any more kids.”
“Oh FFS!! One thing at a time!”

No baggage please, we’re single
I arrived at the office ready to give her a good bollocking for auto-sabotaging a potential relationship with a nice man before giving it a go. But I was surprised to find out most other female colleagues in the same age bracket would also turn down a date with a man with children from a previous relationship.

In evolutionary terms this makes sense: if you’re a woman at the peak of your fertility, you are consciously or subconsciously thinking about procreation; therefore you want a man for whom the protection of your offspring, not another female’s, will be top priority. Other women’s kids are unwanted baggage.

Unfortunately, for men looking for a date with a young single woman who does not yet have her own children, being a dad can be like wearing some kind of blazing scarlet letter of shame on their chests, no matter how wonderful they may be. They become instantly less eligible, whereas women in their 40s, 50s and above may generally accept it as inevitable for their age group.

Advice is easy to give when it does not concern your personal interests, but my colleague’s question made me realise that, If I do meet someone new of a similar age, it is highly likely they will have an ex or two, and a couple of kids in their “baggage”. In other words, her dilemma and choice could be my own.

I’ve gone out with divorced fathers before. The relationship didn’t last long enough for me to meet any of his daughters, but it did cross my mind that the day it happened it would be terrifying. You may never be able to love someone else’s child as if it was your own, but how do you build a relationship of trust where you’re comfortable sharing his time and demand for attention with his offspring, who may only see him on certain weekends.

The colleague in question eventually took my advice, went on a date with the father-of-two, but came to the conclusion he was not boyfriend material. He had mentioned the ex-wife and kids one too many times, breaking the golden rule of first dates: do NOT talk about your ex!

Tinder man
A few weeks later, over lunch, my colleague tells me she had signed up for the dating app Tinder and had already arranged two consecutive dates over the weekend. Her first date, a bombastic, wealthy, Porsche-driving Greek banker pushed his luck too far by inviting her to “watch movies” in his home. The second, however, a tall (taller than her), handsome software developer, who was into sport and travel, kept her absorbed in interesting conversation for hours on end, didn’t sound like he was after a shagmate, as many Tinderers seem to be. He had even sent her the obligatory post-date text message in good time as proof that he was keen.

Finally a chap that meets her standards, I thought, when she suddenly blurted out:

“But he has ugly teeth! It’s not like he doesn’t have money to fix them, so I don’t understand why he hasn’t done it yet..”

I nearly hit her with my empty orange juice bottle. Objecting about kids was one thing but TEETH?!

Chatting on Facebook to an old classmate from uni about online dating, I mentioned my colleague’s tendency to always find fault with the men she was seeing. She said:

“Every woman has her own set of standards, but my therapist tells me times have changed and women have become increasingly demanding about what they expect from a relationship. They are no longer financially dependent on men, nor is being single something to be ashamed of any more, therefore they not have to put up with any moron just to say they’ve got a man.”

I can see a lot of truth in that statement – I have my standards too – but if a small physical imperfection can really stop you from falling in love with someone, the world may end up with many frustrated single men and women, who can’t find their Adonises and Aphrodites.

When it comes to meeting your match, there is no fool-proof yardstick with which to measure your potential partner’s suitability, since everyone’s ideals are so subjective and so changeable.

I used to think being with someone whose taste for music was entirely different from mine made no difference at all, until the day my husband erased all my Schuberts from our joint Spotify account because he detested classical music.

In my current world, I would happily turn a blind eye to slightly misaligned teeth, but I may not take too kindly to a lack of appreciation for classical music. My colleague might say that is as superficial as her reservations about her date’s dental appearance, but, for me, beautiful teeth don’t stir deep emotions within, whilst Schubert and Bach do.

Brazilian author Martha Medeiros says in one of her essays that listening to music is a physical and sensory experience that transcends rationality.  It taps into a part of us that is not corrupted by thinking and logic and is therefore pure. When a man and a woman share those sensations together, a wordless dialogue, a communion of sorts is established. It occurred to me that this may be akin to engaging in sexual intercourse, but in a disembodied manner.

Yes, I’d like that.

Ticking boxes
With the authority of an “older sister”, I told my colleague to stop fretting over irrelevant details, as the essence of a happy relationship is not about teeth or hair, even whether a man had kids and an ex or none. But in my heart of hearts, I know that, in practice, our list of tickable minimum requirement boxes for a new relationship to be “right” for us varies widely with time, and from person to person.

They can be grossly misleading too, and our standards can go very high or very low, depending on our emotional needs at any given time. That is why you see so many mismatched couples that make you think, “what on earth is he/she doing with him/her?” That is how I ended up marrying a man I knew from day one I could not be happy with.

Unfortunately, there is no other path to emotional maturity that does not involve suffering and lots of trial and error; really stupid errors too. Often, toxic relationship patterns will be repeated over and over with different partners because you haven’t learned your lesson the first time round, because you keep ticking the wrong boxes, seeking happiness in the wrong places.

Relationships work just like a video game – you can’t play the next level up until you have passed the test of the current one.

Achievement unlocked
The hacker with the crooked teeth asked my colleague out on a second date barely an hour after we had been discussing him, and I had told her, “I have a feeling he’ll want to see you again within the next two days.”

“You’re a clairvoyant!” she squealed, delighted.

I am no such thing of course. But I have not aged in vain; my intuition is sharp.

Hopefully she will discover so many more qualities in her Tinder-man that the appearance of his teeth will become a non-issue.

In the meantime, I am setting up my own Spotify account so I can enjoy my classical music and my jazzy numbers in peace. Because my biggest box right now, I realise, is to have a loving relationship with myself.


Love: could you really give up hope?

Screen Shot 2014-04-21 at 19.47.48I am a regular reader of Oliver Burkeman’s Saturday Guardian column, This Column Will Change Your Life. I haven’t noticed any changes in my life as a result, but his columns certainly give me fodder to ruminate on for the rest of the week.

Last Saturday Burkeman wrote a piece against hope. His argument was that hanging on to hope can actually make us feel worse. The whole debate was triggered by some German statistics published in The Economic Journal, which concluded that reaching retirement age for the unemployed brought them considerable life satisfaction, as those people were finally delivered of the hope of finding a job, which was causing unhappiness in the first place. Similarly, says Burkeman, in trauma, people who lose their jobs take longer to recover than those who were widowed, presumably because widowhood is irreversible: a widow(er) may find happiness again but you cannot bring your loved one back to life so you may as well give up.

I believe the implication is that when there is no hope of changing a situation, we have no choice but to accept the status quo and get on with life, whereas hope, like a carrot dangling from the stick, can string you along for miles on an unforgiving, arid path, which may not even lead to any oasis. Philosophically speaking this makes sense because hope is always linked to an occurrence that may or may not happen in the future. When you let go of hope, you automatically start living in the now, being fully present. It can only be liberating.

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now , would say this is the only way to live, as would many other spiritual teachers out there. It is a way of life I personally believe in and try to practise on a daily basis. But I have been struggling to accept how anyone can possibly live without hope when it comes to love and relationships.

If you are not in a relationship but you would like to be, it is only natural for one to hope meeting someone special, who will make you feel butterflies in your stomach. Or if you are in a relationship but it is stifling you, or for whatever reason it no longer makes you happy, you hope to find an alternative exit route, or a more suitable relationship. Don’t you?

If Fate was a clairvoyant you could actually speak to, and he or she told you there will never be another relationship in your life, how many of us would be able to carry on?

The promise of love and companionship is often the fuel that keeps us going for one more day, one more week, month or year. Having that promise taken away…would that not be tantamount to being told by your doctor that you have terminal cancer and only months to live? Isn’t love the oxygen that keeps us alive, be it love for life, love for the self or love for others? Aren’t we humans made to seek love from the moment we’re born? Isn’t love the purpose of life?

I applaud those who are so self-sufficient, or so enlightened, they couldn’t give a monkey’s whether they have a partner in life or not. I can hear them saying that the most important relationship of all is that with oneself, all the others are ancillary to that one, and they are absolutely correct about that.

But the majority of us still want to embrace that hope for a relationship with another. Even if we know it may not necessarily improve the quality of our lives, or bring us the happiness we imagine it will. True happiness must be found within, that much I know, and I am not so deluded that I fantasise Prince Charming and I walking hand-in-hand towards the sunset in some dramatic happy-ever-after finale. No. Prince Charming will keep me awake at night with his loud snoring and fart liberally under the duvet when familiarity sets in. He will drive me nuts by leaving the toilet seat up, splatter the bathroom sink with dried-up toothpaste, and God forbid he leaves dirty socks scattered all over the bedroom floor, as my ex used to do. We may row about silly things, and sulk for hours, we may even slam doors on each other from time to time, who knows.

The mention of these things brings back memories of my married life (I am separated now) and reminds me of how tough life as a couple can be. But even those daily irritants would have been significantly more tolerable, even ignorable, had there been mutual understanding between us on an emotional and an intellectual level.

I guess it is that understanding we crave for: being with a person to whom you need to say two words and they get four, or six, or eight. Or no words at all, as silence is also a form of language. Long-term couples that know each other well hardly need to speak to sense each other’s wishes, approval or disapproval.

I am not a desperate, lovelorn woman. I love my life as a single woman, I love my own company. I can spend days on end at home without speaking to a single soul and feel perfectly content with life. But, had I been told by Fate to abandon hope, as there will never be another great love in my life, I would probably quit my job tomorrow and go work for an animal charity in the wilderness of some African country, as Jane Goodall did; I have always wanted to be a zoologist anyway. If Fate will deny me love among humans, I shall seek it within the animal world.

Communication among animals, and with animals, is free of the background noise that exists in human communication and, for that reason, much purer, much clearer. When your dog wants food, it tells you it wants food; when it needs a pee, it will tell you it needs to get out of the house; when it is in pain, it will whine and tell you it is hurting. Animals never lie, or feign to be okay when they are not, or vice versa.

Our problem is that we only show others what we want others to see/hear. Yet I know some people are so “present” in their communication, they can see through your mask and hear you through the noise. They will sense your true love and will love you back for you, not for the roles you play in the theatre of life.

Maybe these are the people who had to let go of hope. Perhaps they stopped believing there was anything better to look forward to in tomorrow’s programme and started paying attention to what was available here and now.

I have watched animal documentaries on TV talking about sound frequencies that cannot be captured by the human ear, as when bats navigate in the dark. If there was a way we could recalibrate our ears, we would probably start hearing a myriad of wonderful sounds that are beyond our human reach.

Finding a special someone, who speaks your language and completely “gets” you, may also be a matter of recalibrating our hearts to be more in tune with theirs. That way we will be less blind and less deaf in case our paths cross theirs.

They say special ones are often much closer to home than you imagine. Or hope.

Yes, HOPE. Always.


The life of others and why you can’t have it

Photo credit (c) Jeremy Pushkin

Photo credit (c) Jeremy Pushkin

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the expression “life of others” in the context of grass always greener on the other side. You know when everybody else’s lives seem to be blooming wonderful except your own?

Everyone around you seems to have a lover they gallingly call “my other half”, probably amazing sex lives worthy of being directed by Lars Von Trier, popping babies out like rabbits; they are successful in their careers, getting pay rises and promotions, buying fancy cars, getting mortgages to buy a house, planning their post-retirement years cruising the Mediterranean.

And you..well…you come home to your bachelor or spinster home, eat your frozen ready-made meal from Tesco standing in the kitchen while you check your emails on your mobile phone. Maybe you have a cat to feed, who scuttles off as soon as it’s had its meal. You turn on the TV to watch a mind-numbing programme you are not even interested in, open a can of beer… Maybe you masturbate, maybe not, maybe you fall asleep on the sofa, maybe not, maybe you call a friend, maybe not. You have no plans for tomorrow nor the weekend, let alone next year. Your answering machine says “zero calls”, but then who calls landlines these days anyway? The last three missed calls on your mobile are from your mother, but you can’t be bothered to call back, knowing she will want to revisit the same discussion you had last time on why you are still single.

Okay, okay, my life is not that bad. I cook myself healthy meals every evening, I may watch a film or the news on my iPad (I don’t own a TV), read articles I’ve bookmarked during the day, I may even blog. I seldom feel lonely, as I enjoy my own company and have plenty of great friends. I hate talking on the phone so I never call, instead I email, or text, or tweet. But lately I’ve been getting lax even about replying to emails, not because I don’t want to but because I’ve been too mentally drained to put a coherent sentence together. I tend to shun company and retreat into my solitude for comfort.

These days all I want to do is sleep. And sleep and sleep and sleep. Sometimes I wish I’d never wake up from my sleep, that tomorrow may never come. And when I do wake up, I can’t get out of bed and am late for work everyday. It’s become a standing joke in the office though no one dares criticise me as I work long hours and am also the last one to leave the building. When I told a colleague I had no motivation in my job any more, his answer was, “Yes, I can tell.”

The pursuit of happiness
In reality I can’t find the motivation to live, full stop. The hardest thing about being single and not having a family is that when you are down and feeling defeated, there is nothing else to keep your fight going. When you at least have a child who depends on you, you think twice before slitting your wrists in the bathtub, don’t you?

I am not seriously contemplating any variation of harakiri in the bath, but in the past few months, in my attempt to find self-love while practising selfless love, that is, giving without a desire to possess or control, my emotions have become so torn and muddled I often do not know whether I want to laugh or cry, commit suicide or just stuff my face with chocolate until I’m sick.

They say the more you love yourself, the more you can love others without depending on being reciprocated to achieve happiness. But every time I catch myself smiling and saying “How lovely,” when my heart is breaking inside, I am convinced such valiant actions should belong to the realm of the superhuman alone. They are too ridiculous and impracticable for us self-serving mortals.

After all, isn’t it “normal” for us to desire happiness for ourselves? Why do I congratulate happy events in other people’s lives more often than I rejoice in my own? Or is it just a case of greener grass on the other side…?

The other day, when I had to be tested in hospital for signs of ovarian cancer, I was surprised to find myself perfectly calm at the prospect of a possible early death. So many bad things had happened to me already; one more or one less didn’t seem to make a difference. And if my fate is to die now, I will die happily, embrace death as I embraced life, with total acceptance.

This may sound morbid, but it isn’t meant as such; it is simply a survival tactic. Life has taught me the best way to survive it is to accept each moment as it comes, whether it is good or bad. The lives of others, however enviable they may seem from the outside, are their own script, and have no bearing on yours. Their timeline is not your timeline.

Last week a friend of mine had her first baby, one which was conceived two years after her divorce and soon after the start of a new relationship. At the time she announced her pregnancy to me, I was recently separated from my husband, at the peak of my fragility. As I read her email late at night in a hotel room in Tokyo – I was away on yet another business trip – I felt hot tears streaming down my face (I blogged about it here). Why did everyone else’s love stories have a happy ending whereas mine…I didn’t even have one any more.

Yet, when the news of her baby’s birth came through, I caught myself quivering with emotion. I could hardly sit still; my impulse was to drop everything to be by her side, give her a hug, hold her newborn without any of the resentment I had harboured nine months earlier.

This was her happy moment, and I had no reason to be jealous of it. Two or three years ago, she might have been where I am now, wondering why the lives of others look so much rosier than her own.

Life changes at every moment, as point number 10 of this blog post has reminded me. Have you seen Sliding Doors? One split second is all that’s needed for your life path to shift direction.

“A seemingly innocuous decision rattles our whole world like a meteorite striking Earth. Entire lives have been swivelled and flipped upside down, for better or worse, on the strength of an unpredictable event. And these events are always happening to someone else right this second.”

Knowing this doesn’t make me feel better about my current predicaments, nor does it fill me with schadenfreude in anticipation of a possible reversal of fortune for all those who seem happy today.  But it helps me re-focus on my own story, my own life.

What you have today may not be yours tomorrow; this applies to everything – money, job, property, loved ones, pets, your health. Conversely, what is not yours today could suddenly fall onto your lap tomorrow. Life’s a bit like a lottery game.

An author I once met on a flight back from Bologna to London told me that the sinuous streets in Italy reminded him of how unpredictable life was from one moment to another. “You never now what new world awaits you when you turn the next corner,” he said. The thought made me smile.

I may be a fool. At the next corner there may be a mugger who’ll rob me, a car that will run me over, a banana skin on which I’ll skid and break my back. Yet I have no choice: it is my life, my corner, my turn.

Who said love is about finding “the One”?

Earlier this week I shocked one of my youngest colleagues, when she asked me what I thought of the male character in 7.39, a BBC drama in which a married man and an engaged woman meet on their commuter train to London and embark on an affair. I had told her it was not an improbable situation and I didn’t feel at all critical about his actions.

The colleague, who is in her mid-20s, thought it was unforgivable for a married man to be unfaithful to his wife just because he was bored with life/having a mid-life crisis.

When an affair happens, there is usually far more to it than just a man and a woman in crisis seeking solace/refuge/fun; there isn’t a simple right or wrong. In my 20s, however, I would probably have reacted the same way, as I too used to naïvely believe in fairy tale romances, Prince Charming, and the existence of “The One” – the perfect man or woman with whom you will walk hand-in-hand into the sunset…

What a shedload of bollocks!

This excellent article in the young people’s sex ed site BishUK.com sensibly explains why believing in “The One” can make our own lives harder, make us overly dependent on our partners as our central source of happiness and validation, or trap us in relationships even when they are making us miserable.

On days like Valentine’s Day, it can also make you feel like a failure if you are single because the opposite of having “the One” would be having “zero”, as if not being in a relationship was the most tragic things that could happen to anyone.

The One myth
Someone we fall in love with or fancy may temporarily feel like “the One”, but life circumstances are not static, and, most importantly, we are not static, so how can there only be a single “the One”?

The author, Justin Hancock (@bishtraining on Twitter) rightly says:

“[…]there isn’t just one ‘One’ – but hundreds, thousands or millions of ‘Ones’ all over the place.”

We change on a daily basis. We are influenced by what we see, hear, read, what happens in our commute (ahem..7.39), people we meet, conversations we have, what happens at work, things we remember.

Our needs also shift with time. After a complex and difficult relationship, we may seek relief in an uncomplicated one with an undemanding, easy-to-please partner. But over time this partner’s agenda may also change to one where expectations are of a firmer and more demanding commitment, which may then tip the relationship’s balance; what was easy-going and fun suddenly becomes too serious and uncomfortable for the other.

Is monogamy for me?
If circumstances and people are always changing and relationships constantly reach a crisis point as a result, how can anyone ever be happy in a long-term stable relationship, you ask?

Tauriq Moosa points out in this Guardian column, Dissecting Relationships, that monogamy and the one-partner-for-life model do not occur in the majority of mammals in the animal kingdom. That is not a justification for us humans to become serial adulterers, but if you look at those who call themselves polyamorous, with multiple lovers in open, mutually consenting and satisfying relationships, we can conclude that monogamy is not necessarily the only path to achieving happiness in love.

Even knowing monogamy goes against our animal nature, we can still consciously choose to have a long-term, faithful partnership with a single lover, produce children, and be the “happy family” society expects us to be part of. But that decision, in order to be lasting, should be taken from a place of openness, honesty and maturity from both parties.

Moosa says:

[…] this is showing we genuinely care about our relationships and our partners: we care enough to treat both with the proper adult respect they deserve, talking about deep, hard truths – not bombarding with Valentine’s gestures. If a relationship can’t survive such important discussions, then perhaps it’s a relationship not worth wanting – and then we’ve done ourselves a huge favour in seeing that now, rather than later.

The line between love and relationships 
Having been through marriage and separation, I have discovered the following:

1. not believing in a “One” worked against me; when my (ex-)husband proposed, I was convinced there wasn’t a “One” for me. If I didn’t say yes then, I reckoned no other man would ever love/marry me, so I compromised.

2. once you go through an unhappy/traumatic/abusive marriage/relationship followed by a not-so-amicable separation, it takes a long time for you to recover your faith in relationships again.

3. it is possible to love, and enjoy love, without being in a conventional romantic relationship.

Let me elaborate on point 3. Although love and relationships are often used together in the same phrase, and we grow up thinking they are inseparable concepts, I have come to understand, and personally experience, that one can exist without the other.

I thought I was rather abnormal, or at least far too unconventional in my way of thinking, until I read this wonderful blog post, Casual Love, by songwriter Carsie Blanton. It made me insanely happy to find out I am not the only one who thinks it is okay to love outside the context of formal relationships.

Imagine if you could say to a casual partner, “I love you. It’s no big deal. It doesn’t mean you’re The One, or even one of the ones. It doesn’t mean you have to love me back. It doesn’t mean we have to date, or marry, or even cuddle. It doesn’t mean we have to part ways dramatically in a flurry of tears and broken dishes. It doesn’t mean I’ll love you until I die, or that I’ll still love you next year, or tomorrow.”

Despite advocating a casual kind of love, Blanton does not discount the possibility of a long-term commitment:

“…dating, marriage, cuddling, etc – are options, and there are an infinite number of other options (Skee ball, sailing around the world, double suicide). These are all things you can now choose or not choose, as two conscious adult human beings. The important distinction is that none of them is implied just by saying the word ‘love’.”

Love for the sake of love
This ties in nicely with what Moosa says in his piece, basically that committed relationships, marriage,etc are options for grown-up men and women in love, not a compulsory final destination. Why can’t we love for the heck of it? For people like me, still nursing wounds from an emotionally abusive past, the simplicity of it feels like the perfect “groovy kind of love” as Phil Collins would say.

To love in this way is no different from when you love within a relationship.

The other day, while I was away on a business trip, I helped edit a CV for a friend, who I knew had been having a tough time since being made redundant last autumn. I was working all hours of the day and night, hardly managing to squeeze in four hours’ sleep a night, but I still worked on his CV for 15-20 min each evening until I passed out with exhaustion. This went on over almost two weeks with comments and counter-comments going back and forth on email between us until the CV looked shipshape.

My friend – actually an old flame – was so grateful for the help and pleased with the results, he jokingly said I should start an HR consultancy business. “You fool,” I thought, “Don’t you know I only did this for you because I love you.”

He possibly does (know). It doesn’t matter because we have both moved on in different directions, and he is now a father and a husband. It doesn’t matter because time, distance, marriage, kids, none of these things made us stop caring about each other.

I do not wish to ‘own’ him, or claim him from his family; it is not a grasping kind of love. There are no expectations, except I want him to be happy; even if not with me.

Loving casually, loving truly
He is not the only man I love in this way; there are others.

All my life I sought what most people expect from love – loyalty, commitment, attention, gifts, dates – only to find disappointment in the end. The problem was I did not love myself first and was always expecting someone else to meet my emotional needs.

But now…now I enjoy my own company, am happy being single and do not need a relationship to make me feel attractive, valued or wanted.

Loving without following a rule book is liberating and empowering. Relationships become an option rather than a target destination, so you can focus on the love itself rather than on the superficial things that you thought represented love: flowers, sex, meals at posh restaurants, expensive rings, talks about marriage.

I love because I met a guy (this applies to any man) who is intelligent, cultured, and has great conversation, who makes me laugh and thinks I’m funny too; someone who shares many of my interests, my quirks, my dirty secrets. Someone who doesn’t mind my filthy mind and my straight talking. Someone I can be myself with; someone who is always himself with me, and we still like each other like that. Someone I can freely cry and laugh with without feeling ashamed.

I love even though we part and always go our separate ways. I love because even when we’re apart, we’re together, in our thoughts, our energies, occasionally in dreams, and that suffices. For now. I am still healing, still learning to love – and trust – again.

Sometimes I wake up from a dream and cry because I miss him so much, because I miss being in love.

It has been so long since I truly loved. This may be my Sehnsucht, my yearning for the unknown.

The Casual Love blog concludes:

“I suggest we take a page from the casual sex book [….] lift some of the weighty grandiosity off the shoulders of love, and allow it to be what it is: a sweet, ephemeral, exciting feeling to experience and share.”