The Woman on the Bus

Photo by Flo Karr on Unsplash

Riding the bus to campus this afternoon, I sat a seat apart from another woman around my age talking on the phone. Her conversation seeped into my consciousness and held on to my attention.

“When we were dating, he was so codependent,” she said. Then she continued to mention how “he” was 26, about to finally graduate college, and how he was finally getting his life together. And that she found out that he was in a relationship with another woman, and that she was worried about him. She was worried because right now, it was such a critical time in his life, and him being in a relationship was dangerous for him. Because of his codependency, the relationship ending would break him. The woman he was in a relationship with might leave him and hurt him, and especially in this particular important time in his life where it is important for him to be focused, it was imperative that he wasn’t in a relationship. It was important that he remained focused, and being in a relationship right now at this time in his life was too risky for his future.

The woman said that while she didn’t want to be in a relationship with him again and that she didn’t love him romantically, she still genuinely cared about him. She cared about him and wanted to look out for him, she wanted him to reach his goals.

She was terrified for him.

She said that she knows that he’s not supposed to be in her life and that she’s not supposed to be in his, but she was still scared– because she still cared nevertheless. She knew that she couldn’t control him or make decisions and choices for him, and that she wasn’t supposed to be invested in his life, but she was worried nevertheless.

Tears pooled into my eyes as the bus stopped near the library. I contemplated saying something to the woman, telling her that I’ve been there, and still go there sometimes. That I got it– that I get it. But she was still on the phone, and I didn’t want to interrupt.

The pool of tears disappeared as the woman and I parted ways, my thoughts about the person I was in a relationship with still lingering in my head.

You can’t make somebody do something, my therapist back in Richmond had told me the day Robin* broke my heart, saying that he wasn’t suitable for me because of some problems he had that he was good at avoiding. I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but after that therapy appointment and with time apart form him to reflect, these “problems” became clear to me.

I can do my best. I can put almost my all into someone. I can invest tons of energy and effort into supporting and helping and pushing Robin, or anyone I care about, to stop harming themselves and to take care of themselves– but at the end of the day, they have to make a choice for themselves. It doesn’t matter if I put 10 percent in or 110 percent in toward helping someone I care about. If they’re not going to help themselves, I’m just going to be depleting myself and my potential for a bright future.

And I shouldn’t do that.

With Robin, the only man I have ever dated and loved romantically so far in my life, I was so oblivious and naive. The extent and significance of his sufferings, having to do with his mental health, trauma and substance abuse, only started to become clear to me this past summer after we had been seeing each other romantically for several months. I knew that some of the behaviors he engaged in that I personally abstained from were not healthy and I tried to encourage and support him to quit them. And there were points where he would tell me that he thought of me and would abstain from certain behaviors. I wanted to help him even more.

But the problems were far more complex and more dark than I had expected and comprehended. Even now, I cannot comprehend them and what he went through and goes through because I myself have never gone through them.

Whenever Robin hinted at his struggles and things that he’d done in the past that he was/is ashamed of, I assured him that I would not judge him. I really wanted him to know that and to really feel that– that I was a safe space for him– a safe person he could confide in. Someone who would listen to him and accept him without judgment, someone who would consider his situations. Someone who would genuinely be on his side. Someone who would be home for him. I tried to communicate to him that I was only trying to get him to stop doing certain things because I cared about him and because he was such a beautiful person, and I wanted him to not destroy himself. With each cigarette, with each bottle of wine, I was– the world was– losing him, bit by precious bit.

I didn’t want to lose him. Maybe there was that selfishness in me to motivate me caring for him. Perhaps my selflessness and caring for others can be chided for being rooted in selfishness, where I am criticized for caring for the other person for the sake of my own comfort because it hurts me for them to hurt themselves. Because it hurts me to lose them.

But isn’t that for other human beings as well? Is selflessness and love and care for others ultimately rooted in selfishness, at least to an extent?

Robin would take a step forward and then retreat. He would express tips of an iceberg of his sorrows to me, but once I started to explore deeper, he would cut me off or change the subject, telling me he didn’t want to talk about it. It was him who brought it up in the first place, not me. But nevertheless, I respected his boundaries and didn’t try to push him. Who was I, or anyone, to pressure him into revealing personal details of his life that only he had the right to decide to share or not?

Was I being selfish with wanting Robin to quit what he called “bad habits,” but which I knew to be things far more serious?

Yes and no.

Even when Robin would often hint at him having problems, but he would often deny help and reject advice for therapy or professional help. He would say that he felt that because it was he himself that got himself into his situations, he should be the one to bring himself out of them. It seemed like he wanted to be independent, that he didn’t want to depend on anyone to fix his problems for him.

But why does accepting help from others have to be mutually exclusive with helping yourself?

It doesn’t have to be.

In fact, in human nature, independent tasks and efforts are not done by a single person. Even when a student succeeds in a class, she doesn’t retrieve that information all on her own. Her teachers/professors and authors of her textbooks provide her information. Yet, she is still independent in learning the material for herself and formulating her own ideas and creations. She is independent in working hard– in producing new things and ideas from the ones she explores. Exploring itself is hard work. When someone makes money, whether that person is a barista at a coffee shop or a CEO of a large corporation, they are dependent on the business transactions in which the customers provide money to them. Yet, their hard work is still independent– the energy they choose to invest, the brain power they use to complete their work. The ideas and communication that comes from their efforts and actions.

When someone seeks help from therapy or emotional support from a friend, that doesn’t take away from their independence. In fact, taking an initiative action to help yourself is an independent action on yourself that reflects your accountability and responsibility. In addition, it’s a commendable thing to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open about your own personal struggles.

Why does emotional support often entail an extent of shame on being dependent on others that other types of support do not entail as much? Not to say that people aren’t hesitant to ask for help in anything that is not related directly to emotions, but why does there seem to be an extra layer of shame and hesitance when it does concern emotions?

Anyway, as hard as I tried, there was no getting through the Robin. And I would often ask myself if I should have tried harder. If I should have been more patient. If I should have stuck through with him if I really loved him, if I truly cared for him. If I should have been more aggressive. I asked myself if I should have been different in my approaches of support.

If I should’ve been different.

Or rather than “should,” I think it was more “what if” that I wondered. “What if” I did this instead of that? What if I acted this way rather than that way?

But I knew what I always did– I didn’t have the responsibility to take care of him. But I wanted to. I wanted to help him– I wanted to help him help himself.

Of course I didn’t have to help him. No one really has to help anyone or do anything for them. But for the people we love and care about, we want to– and there’s so much beauty in that choice, in that decision to act with and out of love.

But perhaps he didn’t want that– or perhaps, he didn’t want enough to to help himself.

And that shattered me.

And just like I was never obligated to help him, he was never obligated to help me.

He knew the former, and I knew the latter.

This man really broke my heart. And my anger toward his actions and disrespect is justified. My feelings are valid. Yet, even amid the anger, I cared. And I still care. Perhaps I don’t love him romantically like I used to, and I do not care about him as deeply as I did when I loved him. But I still care, and I care genuinely, nevertheless.

I still pray for him. After I finish ‘Asr and/or ‘Isha salahs, I rest my forehead on my prayer mat in front of God, and I request Him– beg Him. Please guide and save Robin.

But at the same time, I ask God that I do not go back to him.

I refuse to sacrifice my own well-being and my aspirations for the sake of someone who will not even go halfway in efforts and commitment toward me. Even in the raw heartbreak that he caused in the way he manipulated and discarded and disrespected, my heart cried for Robin and his darkness. Of course I ached throughout my whole body from the aftermaths of him grinding my heart into pieces, but even through my justified hurt and anger, I couldn’t help but crave for his well-being.

Even now. Alhamdulillah, I have come such a long way. It’s not that I don’t care about him. I want to be able to say I don’t love him anymore, but I don’t know how to measure that yet. But I definitely do not want to be with him. Still, I prostrate in front of God after my salahs and ask Him to guide and save Robin.

I care— I just don’t care as much. And not in the same way– not out of love, but out of human compassion. The care I have for him is closer to the care I have for another human being that I am familiar with in my life but do not know too well than it is for a man I used to love. Less than the love I have for a close friend. But more than the love I have for a peer in a class that I lock eyes with but never talk to.

Whenever I would have the urge to reach out to him, I would remember the resulting pain that would come. Again and again and again. With him hinting at a false hope of consistency, to him doing a one-eighty and cutting me off again with no explanation. The resulting pain that came with me sending him text after text to make sure he was okay after a rough night or trial, only to get cold-shouldered or brushed off in response. Only for him not to give a damn whenever I reached out to him in need when I would reach out to him without even having to ask me. I wanted to know if he was doing well. He only pretended to want to know. I could be dead, and he wouldn’t know. Perhaps he wouldn’t even care.

After all, how can I expect anything more, any more ounce of care from him, after he left me in a time of need? How could I even think of the possibility of him caring? How could he be the cause of that pain in the first place? How could he leave me in the darkness he pulled me into and just abandon me, with no remorse and a lack of shame?

I wanted to care more. But I had to help myself. By trying to help him, I was destroying myself. By trying to support him, I was hurting myself. He never asked for my help, anyway. But at the same time, he did. He knew my kindness and my craving to care for him— and he took advantage of it. He lured me back in after I got out, making false promises and giving me false hope. Leading me on when he told me that he didn’t want to. Taking advantage of me after telling me that was something he didn’t want to do. Showing himself to be a hypocrite when he told me that it was the worst thing to be one. He broke me and broke me until I was left to my last piece of emotional strength— his betrayal took any confidence, any hope, any trust I had left for him out of me. He played with me like a toy— winning my heart was just a game to him. A source of validation.

He forgot that I was human, too. Or he just simply disregarded it. Perhaps he thought his feelings were more valid and more important than mine.

Maybe he was trying to find validation through being able to break me. Or maybe he kept hurting me because he thought that I would never break– maybe he didn’t realize how much he was hurting me, not matter how much I told him and showed him that I was.

At the end of the day, he hurt me. He disrespected me. He took my love for granted. He thought that I would sacrifice myself for him. He expected it.

I’ve had enough.

He often told me that I was a very good person, and that I made him want to be a better person. That compliment was always flattering, of course– may God make and keep me that way. But did he think that me being a good person constituted me letting him walk all over me? Did he believe that because I loved him I would be willing to risk destroying and unloving myself?

If so, he’d been dead wrong. His confidence was an inflated balloon which deflated just a little bit every time I tried to leave our relationship, but rose higher than the previous time whenever I would come back.

Until it popped his own undoing of hurting me in a way that no one ever hurt me before.

My goodness that God has given me derives from me loving myself and from the way I choose to dignify, love and respect others. And if I wanted to maintain and increase that goodness with God’s will, then I must avoid my self-destruction in disrespecting myself to help someone else.

I’ve had enough several times before I walked– no ran— away completely from this relationship, but I matched my actions, or lack thereof, to my thoughts once I directed any ounce of love I had left for him away toward other people who deserved it more– including myself. And it definitely did not happen overnight.

It took long days and nights, depression-laden months where I could not run like I used to, where I had put on twenty pounds. Where I would feel good like I had not in a long time, only to be overcome with grief of heartbreak as tears suddenly rolled down my cheeks when I’d just been smiling and laughing with joy earlier.

My love for him eroded, and only compassion toward him for being a human being remains.

I choose to love myself like I love a friend. And I refuse to sacrifice myself for someone else, just how I would not sacrifice a loved one for someone who does not treat them right and with dignity.

Healthy love of healthy relationships inevitably requires compromise. But when sacrifices are made where one person or both people are being destroyed, the relationship is unhealthy and toxic. One person doing all the compromising is self-sacrifice– something you should never subject yourself to.

Never risk destroying yourself for the sake of saving someone else– it won’t work and most importantly, you deserve better.

So to the woman on the bus, I get you. But he’s not your responsibility. He’s not your obligation. But you yourself are your own responsibility and obligation. I know you have compassion for him and that is beautiful. And the compassion I have for someone who hurt me too is beautiful. Our situations are somewhat similar, but also very different– and I only know a fragment of your story with him. And let’s keep our compassion for these men– but let’s not venture into trying to make others help themselves, because that is a choice only they alone can make.

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