This morning Facebook offered this up from the archives (circa 2009):
Night Swimming" is on the radio - remembering a dark headed young man and forbidden love. *sigh* Wondering what ever happened to Nick?
I still wonder what happened to Nick, all these years later. The last time I saw him was mid-September 1996.
Today, reading that memory especially hits home because I’m neck-deep reliving 1996 through Ella-Louise’s eyes as I churn through the first draft of What I Left to Forget and her experience of a forbidden love with a dark-haired young man.
It’s not going to end well for her either.
Unlike me, I don’t think she’s got a thing for unavailable men. Like me though, she’s a runner.
(And yes. There are references to REM’s ‘Night Swimming’ in What I Left To Forget.)
Back in 2009 I had a very different understanding of the events that unfolded in those months between May and September 1996 with Nick (and yes, Ella-Louise’s story travels May to September that same year, I realise now.) It wasn’t until I was unpacking my journals in 2015 (having finally taken possession of them, after almost 20 years of them living wherever my Mum lived) that I discovered it didn’t end with Nick how I remembered it.
I was devastated to know I had rewritten it all in a way to abdicate my responsibility. It was a wake-up call on the utter fallibility of memory.
In my version of events, Nick walked out the door after we finally spent a night together. He drove away in his sister’s car and I never saw him again. What was done was done. Forbidden passion finally expended. Sometimes that’s the best way to get over something, right? Once the safety valve releases the pressure, the impetus disappears.
But my journal told a very different story.
I had promised Dave I wouldn’t read any of my old writings. I was preparing the room for my Mum’s arrival the next day, and several decades of journals was a tempting rabbit hole to fall down, given my less than enthusiastic engagement with tidying and organising. And I kept to that promise until the last book fell open, several pages from the end and a few minutes from finally housing them all in the lovely camphorwood chest I’d bought for them. I read a little, thinking it was safe to do so, just a few minutes and then I could close the book, close the lid of the chest, and get on with the next item of clearing and cleaning.
As I read, I wondered who the hell I was writing about.
So, I flicked back a few pages, and a few more, to get context around the ‘he’. And my stomach bottomed out. Because it turns out, Nick didn’t walk out the door and forget me. Instead, he made a huge effort to make something of what we had both longed for and been denied. The last entry about him documented how he’d invited me to meet his sister and was organising to take me to a concert. The entry that follows is ten days later by which time I was back at sea, on the cruise ship I had worked on the previous year.
I cried. Hard.
I looked at all the journals, twenty or more. The fact this had been the last and it had opened at those very pages hit almost as hard as the words I'd just read.
I hated myself for fashioning a different version of events in my head. How was that even possible? a voice inside me screamed. When the hell did I do that?
I felt terrible remembering the last time I saw Nick. I walked into his bar, the afternoon before I caught a bus out of town, and said I was leaving. I’d met someone and I was heading off for a new life. (What I didn't tell him was at sea I fell for a guy, got engaged, fell pregnant, broke it off, had an abortion and met an English backpacker in the tailspin afterwards, and I was following him out of town to escape the mess I had made).
In my version of events, telling him this watered down truth made sense: I found someone else, and I am leaving. Before the true events were revealed, I just remembered the grapevine told me he went back to his old girlfriend. Thus, I was justified in leaving. But in the actual version, it makes it a different kind of awful.
I walked out on the potential of you and me. And now, I'm walking out on any potential left in me.
Back in 2015, part of me wanted to find Nick again and say sorry.
And in 2021, that part of me hasn’t changed, however I have more compassion for myself now.
I better understand what was going on.
Nick and I met at college. He was six months ahead of me in a Diploma of Hospitality at Cairns TAFE. We ached and smouldered at each other from afar (fuelled by my friend Nicola who would cajole me to go ask him for a cigarette—she smoked in those days; I didn’t.) On a random Thursday, in a dead-arse night club, we crossed paths outside of college for the first time. He was drinking rusty nails. I offered him a lift home and on the path outside where he was staying, we awkwardly edged around the fireworks going off between us. Then he told me he had a girlfriend. We did the right thing, we didn’t kiss. I don’t think we even dared a hug. He walked off and I drove back to my friend Annette’s, caught in what would become a well-known vortex of feelings.
This was the beginning of the penchant for unavailable men.
For more than 18 months we awkwardly edged around the chemistry that kept pulling us back into each other’s orbit. Even after I left college and took a job working on a cruise ship (for the first time).
I would drive by his house, which was just a few streets over from mine. And I would wonder if he was home. Everything But the Girl’s Missing became an anthem of sorts. When I was home, I would sometimes drop in to say hi. Other times we would sneak back to his place together only to be interrupted by his house mate coming home. At least once, my oldest friend waited in the car outside, when I went in to say a quick hello. I’m so sorry Ty, I as such a shit friend.
My 1996 New Year’s resolution was to give up Nick McKinnon.
We ended up together on a beach the following evening after we were two of the dozen people in the night club on New Year’s Day. A man walking his dog at 12:30am interrupted us.
It was mad. We were entangled. And the harder I tried to get him out of my system, the harder I was drawn back to him. That emotional ‘equal and opposite reaction’.
I have deeper compassion for myself now about that dynamic and why it ultimately imploded when things shifted.
We finally got together when on a random Monday night, I walked into his bar and discovered he had broken up with his girlfriend. He asked if he could come over after work. I said yes. Several hours later, fantasy road-crashed into reality, with the help of a bottle of wine and a very generous nudge at bottle of port we always had in the house. I wish I’d been sober and I could remember something other than the gut-wrenching anxiety I had waiting for him to arrive (and that Pearl Jam was on repeat). I do remember we talked and talked (about what, who knows?) before we finally went to my bedroom.
That night the rules of engagement changed. We were free to be together. And from my diary entries, he grasped that opportunity with both hands. It was abundantly clear he wanted us to have a relationship and was doing everything in his power to make it happen.
I on the other hand freaked out. Melted down. Ran away.
In coaching, we learn about secondary gain. Or if you’re a former tarot client of mine, or have used any of my tarot spreads, you’ll recognise the question: what is the pay-off for staying stuck. Secondary gain lives right beneath conscious thought and kills all attempts to get to what we want. In my case, I really wanted a relationship with Nick; but deeper down, I was prepared to do anything to sabotage it.
When Nick was with his girlfriend, and we were stuck in what we could not have, I was safe. Trauma in my mid-teens and early twenties made me fearful of being vulnerable or in an intimate bond with men. Previous experience told me I couldn’t trust men in this kind of arrangement.
But I was not consciously aware of any of this.
So the moment Nick was free, and I was free, I was no longer safe because I would have to be vulnerable. I would have had to surrender into a true intimate bond, or at least be open to one. No matter what my heart said I wanted, a deeper, primal, hyper-vigilant part of me knew better.
I sabotaged what I had waited for more than 18 months for.
I ran away to keep myself safe.
My heart breaks for my 22-year-old self, for whom things got progressively more fucked up, difficult and traumatic from there.
Digging into my own history of secondary gain earlier this year, gave me an awareness of how trauma often begets more trauma. Or as I’ve said in the past, how one day we wake up and realise we are lost, how all these micro navigational tweaks we made to get to our destination or to problem solve storms, ultimately take us off course and now we are so far gone, we don’t remember where home is, much less how to return. And as for the destination, who the hell bloody knows any more?
John Locke believed that the defining feature of voluntary behaviour was an individual’s ability to postpone a decision long enough to reflect or deliberate upon the consequences of a choice. I know my trauma and my own personal foot locker of personal narratives made me reactive, especially in my 20’s with fewer responsibilities to hold me in place. I never contemplated the consequences of a choice; not when I just wanted to be safe. I still struggle to create that space of postponement to make true choice an option over reactivity.
I wish I could send a missive back to 22-year-old me and say: sit with the pain. Face what you’re really afraid of, because it’s what’s standing between you and what you really want. Nick cares about you. You’ll regret this if you run.
In my 20’s I became really good at running. It’s a hard habit to break
when it becomes a tried-and-true method of finding the next moment of safety. I continued to adapt my pattern of running when geographical relocation wasn’t an option. It is still hard to remind myself to stop and be in the moment; to not abandon myself.
Even after I became aware of my attraction to unavailable men, I kept drawing them to me. Until finally, I met someone who was willing to take me on my own terms, and give me space to unfurl my trauma (and I’ve been doing that now for 19 years). I'm not convinced it is entirely out of my system though.
Only time will tell.
What and how we remember things has a powerful effects on shaping our future. I read recently that memory has a way of shaping our expectations and I absolutely believe there is more than a nugget of truth in that.
Causal determinism, one debate within the free will argument is the concept that events within a given paradigm are bound by causality in such a way that any state (of an object or event) is completely determined by prior states. Reading that, as part of research for a future novel project, made me realise trauma as an ‘event’ negates free will in fundamental ways. We do not have space to postpone a decision. We lose our ability to choose. We are completely bound to the past because we are just trying to stay safe in the present.
We often don’t even understand what’s happening, the process is so hardwired. It happens without us even being consciously aware.
Trauma becomes our compass, our map, our reality and our future reimagined through the same smudged and broken lens.
My teacher, Lhamo, says a different map arrives if your compass is fear compared with love.
There will never be a time when REM’s “Night Swimming” comes on and I don’t remember Nick, or wonder what happened to him or wish there was a way to say sorry. The difference is I no longer blame him and within a different context of truth I hold myself with greater gentleness, kindness and compassion.
I remember I am not my trauma. Not anymore.
Image: Amir Esrafili via UnSplash