Emotional Isolationist

I was deeply honored to be asked to participate in Lit Crawl by the head of Limina Magazine— an online journal of women writing about faith that will have its inaugural issue in January. Because the piece was supposed to be about faith or spirituality in some way, I needed to write something for it rather than pull something from here. I took a deep breath and, without thinking too much about it, wrote a piece that was more vulnerable and frightening to me than any other piece I’d ever written. It was about how I had become an emotional isolationist, and how that functions in my life.

God, I used to just hand my heart out to people like passed hors d’oeuvres. I look back on it with astonishment. And it was just a few years ago, which is even more astonishing, because it feels like a distant, foggy past. I had an intensely shocking, painful experience, and the whole machine just shut down. There are a few people I still confide in, people I knew from Before, but even with them, even with people who’ve demonstrated trustworthiness for years, I’m guarded, fearful. This event knocked the emotional wind out me, and I still haven’t gotten back up.

I understand why it happened. Sometimes it takes strength to do the right thing, and not everyone always has that strength. People will lie to make themselves look better because they can’t stand the disapproval of others. They create casualties to stand on to get their heads above water instead of learning how to swim.

I once handed my heart out, invested myself deeply in the people around me, and gave of myself lavishly. I was, in a word, an idiot.

I told myself I was just pulling away from the two people responsible. Instead, I just . . . shut down.

So now I’m an emotional isolationist. A different kind of idiot. This is the story I read for Lit Crawl about it.

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“I want to go home.”

This phrase pops, unbidden, into my head at least five times a day, almost always when I’m at home. Fives times a day. For over two years. You can only respond to yourself, “You ARE home, dumbass” a certain number of times before you’re forced to acknowledge there’s something happening to which attention must be paid.

Homesickness. Longing. Loneliness. Ah.

A few years ago, I had an experience so full of high school-style drama nonsense I’m cringing as I write this. I knew a young woman in a bad relationship. She and her boyfriend both confided in me regularly about their unhappiness. She was naïve and confused; he was troubled and controlling. They were both miserable. I loved them both expansively and did my best to help them. I trusted her. I trusted her so deeply and completely that it never crossed my mind that there could be any other possibility. And then, in order to save herself from his disapproval and shift blame for something, she told a series of horrible lies, accusing me of something monstrously unethical. My trust in her impeded my ability to understand what had happened, and it took me weeks to put it together. She told him I had done something monstrous. He believed her (of course!) and accused me, angrily. She told me she had said no such thing. I believed her (of course!) and accused him, angrily. My relationship with both of them shattered. Not only did these lies destroy our friendships, but they also completely destroyed my ability to trust. She has a very sweet, caring personality that no one could have predicted contained within it the capability of such intense betrayal. If she, of all people, had been hiding the ability to commit such an act, who was not? I stopped trusting—everyone. I became incapable of trust. I locked myself down and became an emotional isolationist.

Like everyone, I live on the internet. I have a whole network of friends I talk to every day, people I would truly consider friends, people whose lives, whose triumphs and failures mattered to me. And of course I shared with them my day-to-day ups and downs, my own triumphs and failures. But the deep secrets, the true face of my soul, I showed no one. My husband and I had been through a rough patch (like everyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship) that left us further apart than we wanted to be, and with a difficult pathway ahead to re-establish connection. Instead of reconnecting, I went further into myself. I had pulled my innermost, vulnerable self deep inside me and locked the door.

Then it started: “I want to go home.” At first examination, I took it as a sign that I was done living on earth and ready to check out. When that idea occurred to me, it felt right. I’m a firm believer that we must live out all the life we’re given, and that my continued existence means there’s some part I’m playing in something bigger than myself. I believe that we’re all interconnected and that our life’s work is service to others, so my continued existence was, must be, about someone else’s need. My children. My father. The young artists who work in my company. My continued existence was proof that my service was still needed. So I began to wait. My life became about waiting for my service to be over, and wondering what the last act, the one that would release me, would be. I filled my days with tasks. I was ready to go home.

I’ve been fascinated with religion my entire life. I was raised Jewish by very Reform Bay Area parents. I’m the fifth generation of my family to live in the Bay Area, so we were a long way from the Old Country. I belonged to one of two Jewish families in my school in Fremont, so I was detached from any kind of Jewish community as such. From the moment I had heard of such a concept, I longed for a female deity. I had been told the Greek and Roman Gods, all the Pagan Gods of old, and all the Gods of existing polytheistic religions, like those of the Hindus living all around us, were “pretend,” and I was bitter about being denied female divinity, and suspicious about why a male God was “real” but a female Goddess was “pretend.” I envied, intensely, my Catholic friends’ ability to pray to Mary. I prayed to her in secret—not because I thought she was the mother of God; I didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus—but because I thought she could hear me. She was a kind of Goddess—a Jewish woman who sits at the right hand of God. This appealed to me. I wondered about people who felt they had the authority to make the decision about which Gods were “real” and which were “pretend.” I would sit in the backseat as we drove past the rolling hills of the East Bay, and I would see them between imagining and believing as the curves of a Goddess lying asleep beneath the blanket of the grass. When I was twelve, I finally decided that all religions were “the same song in different keys”—that was the phrase I used, and still use sometimes. My Goddess was real; she was in the hills, she was without question in the ocean, she was in the trees, in the earth. I sat in her cupped palm like a baby bird.

I got older and discovered that there were people who were practicing Pagans, even Semitic Pagans, and that my need to understand at least some aspects of divinity as female was not at all unusual. I found meaning in why one of the primary words for “God” in Hebrew, “Elohim,” was plural, and what I believed the Shema was actually about. Even now, as an adult, no Jewish (or, for that matter, Christian) explanation of why “Elohim” is plural has held water for me—it’s plural, they say, but not really. There’s only one God, therefore it has to be singular and we’ve been jamming it into singular sentence structure since the Torah was written. OK. Neither Judaism nor Christianity have ever been much good at monotheism. “Who was this Asherah,” I asked myself as a child. But I already knew. Christianity in particular always seemed to me to be overt polytheism, and I mean that as a compliment. Elohim: This made sense to me. The Shema is the central tenet and most important sentence of Judaism:  Hebrew Listen, Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Even as a child, it seemed unlikely to me that the central declaration of our entire faith was just, “We’re monotheists.” There had to be more to it than that, I thought. Distanced as I was from Jewish community, I had less than no clue about the intricacies of Jewish mysticism. I had to sort it all out for myself armed with my wits, such as they were, and what I could find in the Fremont Main Library. Discovering Paganism snapped the Shema into place for me: The mystery of unity, of The One, where all aspects of God unite in one divine element that connects all living things, where all Gods and all Goddesses become the same God seen from different angles, sung into focus in different keys by people who were both part of and apart from that divinity. Separate and the same and connected and apart. The central mystery.

When I was a child, I also liked to hide in closets. That dark, quiet hiding spot meant safety. If no one could find you, no one could hurt you. I would hide in closets and be alone with my thoughts about God. I believed solitude, quiet, and darkness were sacred, and I knew they were safe. And now, decades later, I’m doing exactly the same thing, only instead of hiding my body, I’m hiding everything else. I sit every day with the divine, this all-encompassing Goddess, her counterpart, the God, the earth, the sky, the air, the flame of a candle, the electricity that animates my cells, my blood, my breath. I created a sacred solitude of the soul, a safe place, and made it a prison. And I do want to go home. That phrase is still part of my daily inner monologue. But I’m ready, or maybe I just want to be ready, to step away from this isolation and learn how to trust again.

I experienced an event that destabilized my ability to fully experience my web of connections to the people around me. I didn’t choose to become an emotional isolationist. One day I realized that it had already happened, past tense. One day I realized I was alone, and I had created that solitude, and although it’s safe, and sacred, it’s not enough. We experience our personal connection to the divine both as individuals AND through communion with others. Separate and the same and connected and apart. The central mystery. In retreating to this safe, sacred space, I’ve cut myself off from experiencing the sacred that exists in true, deep, intimate connection with others. The sacredness of the world I live in is overwhelmingly beautiful, but it is half a world. Stepping away from solitude and back into the world has to be a deliberate act, and I don’t know what those actual actions entail. I love to bake. There are many recipes I know so well I can bake them almost without thinking. Step One: Get the big bowl out of the cabinet. I want to trust others. I want communion. Step One: who knows. Maybe Step One: Open your mouth and pour out your story? Maybe.

Eventually I will find the door out of this sacred, dark room or it will be shown to me. I won’t be left here unless I refuse to leave. I love sacred solitude, and I want to be able to come back here, often, but living here permanently is not living completely. There has to be a way out. For now, I’m still in the dark closet, safe, sacred, and close, like the womb of the Goddess. I don’t breathe. I don’t talk. I just wait.

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5 thoughts on “Emotional Isolationist

  1. Sending you hugs, and sunshine, and the beat of the Mother’s heart against your cheek.

  2. Christi says:

    It takes courage to write about emotional isolation in this way. Thank you for sharing this with us!

  3. Gorgeous. Thank you. I understand.

  4. Amy Seham says:

    Brave and beautiful, Melissa. Thank you!

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