You know the high of human connection, right? The one where you’re eyes are fixated on theirs– an unwavering invisible strand tethering you two together. All your secrets tumble out of hiding. The words are clumsy but meet sound with ease. The billions of cells inside of you are aglow. Oxytocin is surging and you just feel light. It’s never been like this before.
This is the closest thing to magic we mortals get. It’s addictive. This life can be a ruthless furnace, a bitter landscape, and somehow, in the middle of it all, we find each other and bloom. But there is a downside to this. There is a drawback to this high (just like all others) which is that we can abuse it. We make safe spaces out of people and level them out flat in the process. We milk the connection for all its worth until our listeners are drained. I write from experience.
If you’ve read my writing before, you know I am candid about my experiences. My short life has often been the collateral damage for someone else’s war with themselves. I don’t say this to canonize or elevate myself. I say it as a data point– I happened to be in the line of fire, and while I will likely tend to the wounds I incurred for the rest of my life, rarely do I believe they were intentionally directed at me. I think I was the closest thing to the weapon. Nevertheless, I don’t feel safe a lot. I speak with the assumption that my vulnerabilities will grow spikes in someone else’s hands. I believe my experiences will be used against me. I anticipate betrayal. It is always the other shoe, and sometimes, it drops.
I’m still grappling with a healthy way to combat my thought process. Meanwhile, the best thing I can do for my own peace of mind is to be kind to others. I want people to know that their stories are safe with me, that even their darkest chapters won’t be condemned by my ears. I think people know I’m a safe person. I think that’s palpable. And I am honored to hear everyone’s story. I am.
But I am not your free therapist. I am not the shallow grave when you lay all your sins to rest. I am not the summer camp you vacation at when your hometown is too hard. I am not this option in the distance awaiting the possibility of your attention (because I don’t value it all that much). I am a person. I am a woman made of mistakes and boundaries and time that is all her own. I do not owe anyone my compassion.
I command the unbridled confidence of a daytime talk show host (ya know how Wendy Williams talks about something and she’s totally wrong, but by golly does she believe it? She and I share that trait). “Nobody gets over Marisa McGrath,” I snort to friends. They roll their eyes. It isn’t that people are hopelessly in love with me. I am not a famed beauty. I don’t hail any special allure. What I mean is that when I connect with people– friends, dates, etc– they never really leave. They don’t want me. They don’t want Marisa the person. They want the listener. They crave how special I make them feel and all the details I retained about their family, their hobbies– idiosyncracies about their lives that normally dissolve in the memory of others. They don’t want to get over my free emotional labor. It is cheaper and easier to abuse my softness than to wrestle with their own demons. I am not a priority to these people, just more a pair of ears than feet, which is to say that I don’t leave when things aren’t pretty. That is to say that I hear the best of you and the worst of you and choose both.
It’s taken me such a long time to arrive at this place– one where my value doesn’t rest upon how much use others can extrapolate from me. You might be rolling your eyes at me right now, and that’s valid. I’m twenty-five. People ride out their lives as a host for others to latch onto. I get that I’m this obstinate young woman spouting notions that are probably outdating themselves upon delivery. But I also know twenty-five years is long enough to do something and know that it doesn’t work.
It worked for so long because I never valued myself. I only knew how to exist as a tool for others. I hated myself so much for so long, and when that high of human connection offered a reprieve from feeling like shit, I took it. I took it and multiplied it. For me, there’s a bizarre and irrational grief in no longer being indebted to my own self-loathing. I used to bend so far I broke, and I didn’t care if I mended. I used to chase people– run after them until I was breathless and heaving. All of my hours were theirs for the mangling. I don’t feel that way anymore. There’s an ambivalence now to everyone who treats me like I am temporary. I am through pedaling my worth to others, ever and always hustling for the maybe of acknowledgment. The magic of awakening to yourself is that you grow roots. I stopped searching for some sacred ground and became it.
I started valuing myself, and as an extension, my time. When I started valuing myself, I didn’t need external validation much. I became more ok with people leaving when they found me useless. That’s a comment on them, not me. I cannot offer you every hour of my day. My emotional labor is no longer universally dispensible. I am more than what I can do for people, and my value is not synonymous with my usefulness. When I started hearing the compliments I gave to others, I realized how many of them were tied to use. People are not goods we exhaust– they are human beings. So, I try to affirm characteristics, traits, things that even if they could not get out of bed I would still celebrate.
We glorify the erosion of boundaries. Professionally, the mantra “be the first one in and the last one out” is touted as a mark of exceptionalism– as if we never deserve to depart from our labor. And that labor pours over. To be good friends, partners, parents, we melt love and sacrifice together. They are not the same. Giving so much of ourselves that there’s nothing left is not love– it is self-abuse. Love involves sacrifice, but I’d argue it hinges more on honor– “I love you so much that I am honoring your space, I am honoring your needs”. Love is trust and respect. There is more to love than the tolls we pay for it.
We can still be there for each other. We can revel in the high of that connection. I am not saying that love and connection do not involve sacrifice but that there is more to it. I’m saying that we need to stop taking kindness for granted. Before unloading onto our loved ones, it is healthy and necessary to ask, “are you comfortable with me sharing this?” Go to an actual therapist. Read self-help books and listen to Brene Brown’s TED Talks. Charge into the arena with all your demons. Allow your loved ones to be your loved ones– the cheering section who is still supporting you. Because I am here to listen. I am here to root for you. I am here to love you so loud it deafens every insecurity you’ve ever had. I want to be good for your mental health. But I am not your free therapist, not your therapy dog. I am more than the safe space where you drop all your burdens. I am more than a caretaker. I am my name, my values, my horrible taste in movies and obsessive sweet tooth. I am more than what I am used for, and I will not settle for less.