What does love look like? I ask that and many people come up with a stereotypical answer of something cliché from the movies. Maybe it’s a big romantic gesture or gift. Maybe it’s a child and parent sharing a moment. Maybe it’s a boyfriend proposing to his girlfriend with a shiny ring we see on every commercial. We think cliché because we’re fed cliché. We see cliché because we’re shown cliché. We desire cliché because we’re sold cliché. We’re expecting cliché because we’re told we deserve it. We’re told this is what love looks like with a bright neon sign. I was sold on that lie for a long time. I constantly sought love next to the bright neon sign and anything that wasn’t bright wasn’t good enough. I cannot fathom how much love I have missed out on while being blinded.
Today, I find love in the smallest of places. Love, I’ve learned, cannot be captured by simple clichés. Love isn’t in romantic cards, it’s not in the flashy gifts, it’s not in the noise of a performance. Love isn’t something you can capture in a photo for Instagram. It’s not something you can throw a filter on. Love isn’t something you do just to photograph and prove to the world I did it. We post a picture of a gift someone gave us, wait for the likes, and then are surprised when we don’t feel satisfied. One like is too many and a thousand is never enough. We keep buying this product sold to us and we keep acting surprised when it doesn’t work. I don’t know about you but I found myself absolutely bankrupt at 21 years old. I found myself unable to buy anything because I had nothing left to give, not even to myself. I couldn’t bother to give myself life let alone you anything more than a glance. Maybe love wasn’t for me. I was always led to believe that if I didn’t have anything good to give, nobody would want to be next to me. My bright neon sign had turned off and nobody would want to see me anymore; I was going to disappear in the background behind the bigger, brighter lights I had been competing with my whole life. I was finally confirming my biggest fears: I am not good enough.
It was there that the movie took the turn for the hero. It was there that the music began swelling as the revelations swept their way across the mind of the main character. It was there that the light began to turn back on but from a different source. It was there that the twist happened. The twist that happens in the darkest of corners, the deepest of pains, and in the midst of the most frightening demons; that was the twist that I never saw coming. I didn’t hear the music, I didn’t have any revelations right away, I couldn’t see the light, and I didn’t know there was a twist. When I thought this was it, something bigger than me whispered I’m not done yet.
As I sat in the corner I had allocated for myself, I tucked my chin on my knee and closed my eyes, embracing the darkness. Something small tickled my chin and I lean back, startled. I thought it was nothing, so I laid my head back down. Suddenly, the same sensation tickled my other cheek. Then my forehead. Then my chin. I start to see little specks of light falling down around me, but I can’t see the source. In the distance, shadows begin to form and I’m frightened, unable to make out shapes. They look like my demons coming to haunt me and remind me of all the times I wasn’t worthy of love and I’m outnumbered. I sigh defeatedly and accept that this was my fate, but the shadows whispered, we’re not done yet. Terror rippled through my veins, imagining the dreaded abyss of loneliness I had been warned of, the loneliness that marked you with shame. It was the scarlet A sewn to my chest that cast me away from the crowd. I couldn’t see the shadows until they had formed into beings next to me. The faces became clear and they were people I recognized. Friends, family, and acquaintances surrounded me and I’m confused, half expecting them to remind me of all of my faults. As they pulled me up, we began to travel away from the neon signs and I can see that the signs were just that: signs. There was nothing behind them like I thought, no gift of fulfillment waiting for me. I had been fooled. I had spent all of me on a faulty product and there were no refunds or exchanges. We sell our soul not to the devil, no, but to the false promises of fulfillment. We don’t stop until there’s nothing left but the game was rigged against us the entire time. The dice were loaded, the table magnetized. There was no winner. Confusion sweeps through me as I begin to walk away from the flash I had been chasing my entire life and I take a path that looks much more boring. I see people doing small acts for each other that don’t capture my attention; they’re small and ordinary. There are people helping others with chores, giving hugs, writing notes, and all the things that aren’t neon sign worthy. There were no spontaneous trips around the world, no bouquets, no flashy rings, and no filters. You can’t put a hashtag on reality, you have to experience it. That’s scary for a lot of people. I know it was for me.
In what I thought was the ordinary was a gift beyond all measure. The fulfillment I had been seeking hadn’t been behind the flashy neon lights. They had been in front of me all along. Experiencing love from people around me was a transforming process. I had never accepted that kind of love before. I thought I was good at giving it but you can’t give what you don’t have; even if what you’re giving is a good replica, it doesn’t mean you have the original product. I could give knockoffs that looked so good it was confused with the real thing, but deep down the logos were off, the material wasn’t genuine and it wasn’t real. I remember bracing myself, ready to be hurt by love when it was first given to me. I remember readying myself, thinking I would have a big debt to pay off. I was like a frightened animal hiding in the corner of the cage from the person that rescued me off the streets. They saved me, but I was afraid they’d turn around and hurt me when all they’re trying to do is take care of me. I was so used to the knockoffs, I was terrified of the original. Change was terrifying because it required effort on my part, and I know I prefer the devil I know rather than the devil I don’t know. I got ready to scream with fear and pain but when the love came my way, I found it didn’t hurt. What hurt the most was the grief that hit me. The grief of pushing the real thing away for 21 years of my life, the pain I had put myself through, the way I had sold myself short hit me harder than anything I had ever been afraid of. I remember weeping. I remember really weeping, not just shedding a single tear but putting Niagara Falls to shame kind of sobbing. The hurt was wide and the well ran deep. Throughout my grieving process, I was dying to myself and it hurt. The facade I had lived was melting and I was losing the reality I had built for myself. The people around me continued to do small acts of kindness for me I failed to recognize the worth of. It wasn’t until the burial of the old me did the acts of kindness begin to fuel me. I started to say thank you to compliments, to say yes please when someone offered me help, to let someone carry the load with me, and to accept a hug when offered one. Kindness wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be.
The funeral for myself was over and I could breathe easier. The tombstone read, “Here lies a woman who couldn’t love herself or others.” I had always imagined a better, more exciting tombstone but that was the legacy I had built for myself in my short 21 years. Fast forward 19 months into my journey of sobriety and my tombstone will read, “Here lies a woman who loved with everything she had and embraced it all.” In just 19 months, the legacy I have built for myself is already the most meaningful it could ever be. How blessed I am to have discovered love for what it really is at 22. Love is different for everyone, I know that, but for me, it’s in the details. The grand gestures are sweet once in a while, don’t get me wrong, who doesn’t like flowers once in a while or some chocolate? But the moments that take my breath away are the ones that are considered ordinary, small, and even forgettable to some. Here’s what love looks like for me today:
Remembering a sobriety milestone and celebrating with me whether it be via quick text or cards in the mail. Sometimes flowers too.
Texting me back to let me know you’re thinking of me even during a busy day. Calls make me smile too.
A hug after it feels like the day beat me down.
Hiding a snack I love under my car seat and surprising me with it halfway through a road trip.
Staying up late taking silly quizzes and laughing at the enormous workload of the upcoming days.
Reminding me it’s okay to be hurt when I want to cry and reminding me it’s going to be okay when I forget.
Remembering little details I mention and using it to be thoughtful in the future.
Bringing an extra coat because you know I forget mine.
Ordering anything ahead whether it be a movie ticket or food so it’ll be easier for us.
Being willing to go out for a drive at midnight and blow off deadlines for a while.
Letting me read you my writing even though you’re tired.
Editing my boring essays because you can see how stressed I am.
Smiling at me and letting me ramble on because I need to get it off my chest.
Love is all the little things put together into one big thing. The extraordinary was in front of me tucked in the midst of the things I once found ordinary. There are too many incidents of love to list in my life but I know that there are an infinite amount of ways to show and receive it. We’re all different and that’s okay. Some people may think love is like a pie with only so many slices to give. You have to hoard as much as you can and give away as little as possible in order to have as much as you can hold. I find that silly. Love couldn’t be captured by something so simple or restrained. Love is moving and powerful. When you love someone or something, you give away a part of yourself. When you love more things, you continue to give away parts of yourself, but you’re not losing anything. With love, there’s expansion. When you love, you allow your heart to grow and when your heart grows, there’s more of you to give away. Love multiplies onto itself and doubles over. It triples over. It’s infinite. The more you love, the more you have to give. Love never asks you to fight for it. Love never expects you to work hard for it because there’s no limit on it. Love doesn’t ask you to do anything except receive it.
It can be hard when two people speak different languages of love. One person may want a hug but the other person needs love letters to feel special. There are famous books on the five love languages: quality time, acts of service, gifts, touch, and words of affirmation. I personally think food should be included in the list but that’s just me and my empty stomach talking. As amazing and valid as I think the famous love languages are, I think the authors are forgetting one crucial point and this is the language I love the most. The language of adaptability. Love languages can make one feel trapped in certain categories causing them to dive deeper into their assigned labels and neglecting the others. People find stability in their labels and decide to close themselves off to the other forms of love, convinced that their category is the only one for them. They spend their lives looking for someone fluent in their love language and are frustrated when they discover nobody else speaks it. How could they? It’s your own. The way I would want to be loved is by someone who speaks the language of adaptability. This is the person that doesn’t lean into their label. They recognize it and embrace it, but aren’t afraid to change their settings to listen and understand your language. It’s the person who gives love through love letters giving you more hugs instead because they recognize that’s what you need. It’s the man who helps you with chores instead of buying you flowers because he sees that’s what means a lot to you. It’s the woman who puts her phone away to listen to you speak because she knows quality time is what means the world to you. It’s the person who sees your language, recognize it, puts aside their desires and way of loving, and learns to speak your language. People aren’t programmed with your language from the beginning but those who are willing to learn it are the ones who deserve it. I know what my love languages are, but when I’m expressing love to those I care about, it doesn’t matter what my languages are. What matters is your language and I want to learn it.
My dear friend told me about the passing of a family member. The walls around her were high and thick. I know what I would want to be done for me if I were to go through this tragedy but I hushed my narrative and listened. I knew what I wanted to do for her wasn’t what she needed. Too often, people in pain are forced to push aside their grief and put a show on for someone trying to play the hero and in the end, the pain is multiplied and repressed. There wasn’t going to be any acting for me. That’s not why I’m there. I don’t want a medal for cheering you up, I want to see a smile. Instead of doing what I wanted, I actively paid attention to her language and it was one of the best nights we’ve ever shared. We started with caramel pudding and worked our way to a gourmet meal of ramen noodles we had purchased at 11 pm at night. Yes, it’s a school night but on nights like these, school can wait. The school will be there the next day but the window to grieve and express love is only open for so long. After our exquisite meal, I listened to her share and we made a safe space. We are pushed too hard in society to save face and suddenly the world is a battlefield where we have to prove how well we’re doing. It’s exhausting and you know what? I’m tired of acting. There was no acting that night. I looked around the room and we cleaned it. From putting away the clean laundry to picking up the dirty, from picking up spilled peanuts to organizing the closet, from doing the dishes to wiping the desk, from the quick hug to dying the hair blue. Things that I normally would not want to do and probably wouldn’t. But tonight, I learned her language and we spoke loud and clear. Cleaning may not sound like a glamorous, cliché flashy sign of love but it doesn’t have to be flashy to be deep. The words I love you are meaningful and I love hearing them, but seeing the words come to life means even more. Cleaning the peanuts off the ground was saying I care about you. Giving a quick hug said I’m here. Organizing the closet was me expressing my sympathy. Playing music she liked in the midst of a cleaning spree was saying it’s okay to be upset. Dying her hair blue was saying I love you just the way you are.
Love is different in all kinds of relationships. Today, I illustrate a small example between two friends. It may not sound like much to other people, but I know for me, it was one of the greatest nights I’ve shared with a friend. I am so grateful for the gift of love today. I don’t feel as afraid to give love because the love you get in return from the shy glances, the simple nods, the quick blinks to avoid tears, and the grateful tired smiles will never cease to make my heart explode from my chest. Society tries to convince us that moments like these aren’t important and that the big flashy signs are, but unfortunately for society, I can’t see the signs anymore. I’m overwhelmed by the enormous amount of love I already have in my life. I’m no longer bankrupt, I am overflowing with love and more joy than I’ve ever experienced. Love is not a commodity to buy and sell, it is a gift to give and receive. Price tags don’t do it justice. Love looks like blue hair and old peanuts on the ground. It looks like caramel turtles hidden under a car seat. It looks like a shy glance away because I’m not brave enough to say the words yet. That’s something money could never buy. Love looks infinite.