I am too old to remake myself.
Rebirth is only for the young. For those with fresh faces and smooth skin. For those who can pack up an old car with everything they own and start over in a brand new place.
I feel, though perhaps it isn’t true, that if this ugly fate came to me earlier, I’d’ve remade myself with the energy and vitality I still possessed as a twenty-something or even a young thirty-something.
In the same way Ben wishes he was a babe-in-arms to avoid the pain of loss, I find myself wishing I was twenty years out rather than knee deep in the muddy trenches of the present. If Eric died twenty years ago, the sharp edges of this pain would have dulled by now, and I would be someone else. Someone stronger.
I would have, perhaps, felt like time was on my side rather than working against me.
Now, I look at myself in the mirror. All I see is my dull skin, the fine wrinkles dragging down at the corners of my mouth, and the way my breasts sag unevenly. I see how empty sadness and crushing sorrow erase whatever beauty I had left. And I wonder. How do I do this? How do I remake and rebuild at this stage of life?
It feels impossible.
It’s not that I want to find another companion. The mere thought (usually planted by someone else telling me I’ll find love again [please stop saying things like this to the bereaved]) makes acid rise in the back of my throat. But there’s this idea in my head that because I am no longer validated through marriage (or rather, through knowing that someone thought I was good enough and wanted me in spite of my flaws), the only way to prove that I’m okay is to look like I’m okay.
Not just to everyone else, but to myself.
Enter: My disordered relationship with food.
If you follow me on instagram, perhaps you witnessed my mania earlier in 2020 as I tried very, very hard to self-diagnose and heal from a long history of disordered beliefs about food, my body, and my worth. It was one of the most divisive things I’ve ever done (aside from posting about police reform and #blacklivesmatter). Family and friends unfollowed and blocked me, and I spiraled. Because if I couldn’t be real about these things and feel safe, what did I have left? (Note to spiraling, past-self me: You had everything, because you had Eric.)
I haven’t eaten much since Eric died. Part of that is a normal grief response. My appetite has vanished. Foods I once enjoyed have lost their appeal. I don’t want to eat anything I ate with Eric.
All the books I’m reading tell me this is normal and that it will eventually settle.
But there’s more to it than that. There’s a darker undercurrent that snakes around my midsection and winds its way up past my ears. It whispers the insidious lie that the only way I’ll feel better about what has happened is to wake up and find I am twenty-four years old again. Because that is the last time starting completely over from scratch felt possible. That is the place where I can rebuild a whole new life without him, because the life I had and this loss I feel won’t exist anymore.
I tell myself what I told Ben. That of course I don’t really wish that. I wouldn’t erase twenty years with Eric, not even to stave off all this pain. Grief is the price of love.
But my brain still spins its wheels in the mud, trying to gain purchase, trying to find traction. There must be a thing we can do to fix this.
A very long time ago when I was engaged to man who is now in jail for murder, my father drew a line on a scrap of paper. He told me the line was my path in life. He drew another line branching off from the first. He said at the fork in the road, I went left. I chose another path and that the choices I was making would have lasting consequences. He told me (and I’m sure he’d admit this was terrible, flawed advice today) the only way to get back on the correct path was to return to the place where I turned left and start over. He circled the fork in the road.
I still have that scrap of paper.
That advice haunted me for years. Because I couldn’t go back to the fork in the road.
Because I’d moved to Pennsylvania and met the now-murderer, the boy I would have married if I’d stayed home and stayed in school was engaged to someone else. I made a scene at his sister’s wedding when he broke the news. Because didn’t he understand? There was this circled spot on a scrap of paper, and my life, had it not diverged from that fated path, would have been with him.
After I married Eric, I realized how much better off I was and how much better off the boy who married someone else was. We wouldn’t have been as happy with each other, and though I am envious to the point of rage that his spouse still lives while mine does not, I am glad he did not listen to me and return to the fork in the road.
But the idea that I had fundamentally screwed up my destiny stayed with me for years.
And I feel the echoes of that now. My life has forked again.
I cannot build a time machine and travel back to the place where I could avoid this hurt. And because I cannot, and because I feel as though I cannot control anything else, I eat enough to live, but not enough to thrive (though I’m working on this and I’m doing better).
I’ve lost over thirty pounds in two months. (The disordered part of my brain is positively beaming. Look! Look what we have done! We cannot fix all of these terrible broken things. We cannot heal this sadness. But we can do THIS.)
And it’s so difficult to unpack, because I don’t think my frame particularly enjoys carrying around the extra weight I carry around, and I know I packed on weight in an unhealthy manner while having manic spirals on instagram. I know bodies come in all shapes in sizes and I celebrate and honor those bodies. But I feel so disconnected from my own that I don’t know what she is supposed to look like anymore. I don’t know where she feels her best. All I know is that right now, I have swallowed ground glass. I am buried in it, and every which way I move, the tiny little shards embed themselves deeper in my stinging skin.
I know, despite the disordered noise, that if I someday weigh what I once weighed, my body will not look the same. The parts of me that I once felt proved to the world I was worthy will still be middle-aged. Nor will the loss of physical weight magically heal the emotional parts of me that are broken.
I could weigh nothing and I would still feel like a bewildered tourist in a foreign skin suit. I would still wake in the night, reaching for Eric, only to clutch empty sheets and empty space.
At least I am aware. I can call the disordered things disordered. I can recognize the lies my own brain tells me. I can use my own awareness as a flashlight; shining the bright beam into shadowy corners. But it does not illuminate an ‘off’ switch. I cannot turn these feelings off. They are here. They are loud.
I am unmoored. Drifting through dark, troubled waters without my anchor—what I would give to feel his hand solidly in mine. His presence alone was enough to give me direction and hope; without it, I am lost.
He didn’t say my whole name often. It was usually, “Let’s ask mom,” or “Hon,” or “Honey.” He usually only said, “Jessica” if I hadn’t answered after several attempts.
But I can remember how it sounded on his lips. I replay it in my mind over and over.
I can imagine him saying things he was never able to verbalize in life; the things he was only able to show me though his actions. I imagine his oft-tied tongue is freed now, in the place where his essence must still exist. I imagine him saying, You are enough, Jessica. You always were, you just couldn’t see it.
But it comes to me in murky tendrils, incorporeal and immaterial. I reach, but like my searching arms at night, I come up empty.