That expression has been tragically misinterpreted all along.
It's been a couple of years now since my marriage fell apart. I've done my best. I've tried to be patient with the churning in my guts. I've moved through the stages with varying amounts of grief; some flow through easier than others.
Maybe it's all down to how much experience you've had with goodbyes in your life. Some people seem way more certain about staring a long love affair directly in the eye as they point the barrel, as they squeeze the trigger on once upon a time.
I'm not one of those people, though. I wasn't ready to let go of my marriage. But maybe that's all there was left to do; I'm not sure. Common sense and rationale are things of beauty in this world. But me, man, I'm the foolish dreamer sort. I have little use for the brain or the mind. So when it came to love, I was only ever good at believing in its soaring eternal powers.
Ha. What an assh*le I was, huh? They should bury my bones inside a Michael Bolton song when I die. That's how much I sucked at the whole "If you love someone, set them free" thing.
You get better at wallowing in your own sh*t after a while. It's human nature. You adapt. You learn to live with what you can't control. And after a while, by the time you hit your 40s, you learn that you can't control a lot.
We are raised to believe in the majestic power of our own devices. If we work hard and save enough and plow through misfortune with an unwavering work ethic, nothing can stop us. But it's all bullsh*t.
Because what you never realize — what they never tell you as you're climbing out of your teens and slipping into your 20s — is that most of your life will be spent wishing that so much of your life was radically different. So with that in mind, it occurs to me every now and then that I'm probably not all that different from most of my fellow humans when it comes to love and heartache.
We all just have varying methods of dealing with it. Most people want to feel safe in their relationships, but when you break it down they actually don't have any clue what that would even mean or feel like. So most of us want something from love that we fail to recognize even if it's already there.
Understandably, it almost always becomes easier to "set someone free" when you can't figure them out anymore. We can turn our attention elsewhere. Newness is less complicated.
I have loved three women in my time. The first two, we broke up and I moved directly into a new relationship. I took no time to chill. I spent no time on my own. From the time I was 25 until the time I was 42, I was never single.
I'm embarrassed of that. I don't know what I was thinking. I guess I kept falling in love.
But when you've come out the ass-end of three romances, the last one being a nine-year marriage that produced three lovely kids, you tend to do one of two things at age 44: You plow forward and smile as you Tinder and OkCupid your midlife crisis away without ever even realizing it's there OR you look back and wonder why you've done what you've done. You try and figure out if any of it was right before slowly accepting that you'll never really know.
It's all been different this time around for me, though. I haven't been able to move straight into a new relationship. I've stared at myself in the mirror way too long. I've tried to make peace with a raging war inside of me. (You ever done that? It's exhausting as hell. And nothing comes of it.)
You can dig deep back into your own eyeball until your fingernails claw at the backside of the inside of your own skull if you want. But it's useless, trust me. I never unearthed any answers.
All I did for two long years was waste time. But I don't regret it. Know why?
Because you can't feel good about setting someone free unless you know you loved them. Otherwise the release is just another lateral move — and we all know that lateral moves are a dime a f*cking dozen.
There have been times when the heartbreak would wake me in the night just so it could watch me watch myself suffer. Like an evil horror flick ghost, my own heavy heart would bitch-slap me awake at 3 AM and then lay out all the pictures of us when we were at least pretending that our love was real.
I started feeling like I was being watched as I moved through all my blues. I started feeling like was a camera on me and I was wired up to all of cyberspace.
Bored rig workers off the coast of Australia, teenage zit nerds hurtling through a thousand webcams an hour, English fetish freaks combing for thrills, old high school classmates I'll happily never see again — all of them were staring at me from the comfort of their own unseen zones out there in the wide open world. And all of them, it felt to me, had to be watching me pass through my stages of grief and shaking their heads at what a slow son-of-a-bitch I had become.
The pain, I suspect, began to morph into paranoia.
This might sound extremely strange to the fortunate among you who possess the power to move on fast from things, but hear me out. Looking back, even to just a few months ago, I might have become so adjusted to being lost in all of the divorce sadness that I began getting off on the very thing I was supposed to be wishing away.
I had lost so much of my identity. I had been a husband. I had been a married dad. And now huge stretches of that land were scorched. So I took on the identity of the only thing I was able to identify: I became the goodbye. I became the goddamn heartbreak.
And if you ever want to know how to freeze a moment in time, well, become that moment. I did. I ended up like one of those tacky gift shop rattlesnake heads in amber glass: Fangs out. Eyes ablaze. But dead as sh*t.
Time does help. It's the cliché of clichés, of course, but it's earned the right to be that. Time wants to move on. So I have no choice, really. It isn't even up to me anymore.
I begin to set her free then. Not just the girl, but the whole shebang: the marriage, the dreams, the convoluted comfort level that comes with a familiar way of living even if it's broken and hurtful.
I loosen my grip on so much of my life so that I can live out whatever I have left. I have to; we all do. Sooner or later we all have to let go of so much more than seems fair.
That saying "If you love someone, set them free," has been tragically misinterpreted all along. Because you're not really doing it for someone else. You're never setting someone else free so that they can flourish and fly away on the wings of some godforsaken Michael Bolton cloud of puke. That's not your concern anymore. It can't be. Ain't nobody got time for that.
You're setting them free so you can finally set yourself free, too. And there's something kind of badass in finally admitting that to myself.