When I was 21 years old, I fell in love with a fragmented woman.
She was beautiful, brilliant, generous + kind — with Frida Kahlo’s artistic sensibility (and striking eyebrows), Florence Nightingale’s compassion, and a mind packed with more zany ebullience than a Monty Python marathon.
She was the love of my life — everything I could have ever wanted, poured into one human vessel. Oh, except for one little hitch — she was caught in the throes of mental illness.
When she was well, life was a swooning medley of picnics, slumber parties + unadulterated sweetness.
But when she was unwell, debilitating depression, cutting + hospitalization became routine elements of our relationship.
She asked me to marry her, in a treehouse tucked away in a tropical jungle. I said “no.”
Then I said “yes.” A few months later, I said “no” again — this time, for the last time.
I knew that breaking off the engagement would upset her. Deeply.
I also knew that she might harm herself. Again.
It took every ounce of my resolve + conviction to express my decision.
I had no way of knowing how she’d react — and of course, I feared The Worst.
I didn’t feel “brave,” telling the woman I loved that I wasn’t willing to be her partner — that I wasn’t willing to spend the next 80 years wondering when the next episode … the next downslide … the next hospitalization was going to come. No, I didn’t feel brave.
I felt cowardly & cruel.
Wasn’t I supposed to accept any perceived “flaws,” without question? Wasn’t I supposed to cherish & adore her, no matter what?
Isn’t that what LOVE means?
It took me years to realize that sometimes, saying “I love you, but no”
is the kindest — and bravest — thing you can do.
It’s a lesson I continue to learn, every day — in tiny, vital ways.
I am courageous when I say “I love you, but no” to friends who need time & support that I’m not (always) in a position to give.
I am courageous when I say “I love you, but no” to clients who ask for things I have no desire to provide.
I am courageous when I say “I love you, but no” to myself, when my inner toddler is demanding vast oceans of attention & instant gratification.
I am courageous when I say precisely what I think + feel, without apology or circumvention.
And for what it’s worth — my almost-wife? She’s doing beautifully — living in a city she loves, building a career that inspires her, and taking exquisite care of her health.
Courage is what happens when LOVE crashes up against “unpleasant circumstances.”
Courage is LOVE, under pressure.
And while it can feel crushing, painful + damn-near impossible in the moment, true love always leads into the light.
This story will be featured in CULTIVATING COURAGE — a new e-course & online community devoted to baby steps of bravery — from Andrea Scher of Superhero Life. Find out more & register for the October 2012 session, here.