Try a Little Bitterness

Sometimes people send me messages -- women, mostly -- to say that they're in pain, that they're experiencing heartbreak or in the shattered aftermath of a divorce or some traumatic variation thereof. They write to me, they say, because they've been reading my blog and finding some comfort there: finding they aren't alone in their loneliness, that they're part of a community of solitary sadness, even if my loneliness and sadness is in the past, on the page, in retrospect, while theirs lives and breathes.

I got an email of this type yesterday, from an anonymous writer clearly in a lot of pain. This is what it said, in part:

You don't know me, but I have experienced a strange sense of comfort in reading your stories of grief and loss on your blog… 
I can't exactly articulate why I felt compelled to write to you. Because maybe I want to believe that you understand my grief by having experienced grief of your own. A stranger who understands, or who I desperately want to imagine understands. And maybe because I feel like I've had no outlet since this all began... And so here I am, trying to heal vicariously through your writings, and e-mailing you. It probably comes across as pathetic.  
I'm sorry if this is weird or creepy… I do not mean to suggest that we have been through the same things. I'm just going a little crazy, having kept this all inside for so long. I feel like I am going to explode from carrying with me all of this anger, pain, sadness, secrecy, and shame. I've lost it completely.

The letter was familiar, as I said, but it oddly upsetting to me. In part, I think, because it sounded like something I would have written in the days after my divorce. Or rather, to be honest, it sounded like something I *did* write: first, before the split, to an advice columnist, desperate as I was for someone, even a complete stranger, to tell me everything was going to be alright, and second to a woman from my ex's past. I had this almost unstoppable impulse to tell her that I finally understood what she had gone through, that I finally understood who he really was, that I was sorry for any part I'd played in her unhappiness.

I didn't send the latter, of course. The advice columnist had invited me to share my pain, and could react to it without having anything to do with it. The ex's ex, though -- she was an innocent bystander to my madness. What good could come, for her, of my pushing her back into a past that she had left behind? That one I deleted, that narcissistic impulse I quashed. One of the very few moments of clarity I had at that time.

Who could I tell? Who could I talk to? Those days in the aftermath, I felt like I was constantly veering between being a ridiculous discretion -- as if everyone didn't know what was happening, some of them even before I did -- and a terrifying oversharing. I didn't know -- probably didn't care -- where the lines were drawn. I needed to talk, I needed to work out what I was thinking (and for me, the talking is the thinking: it's the only moment that my thoughts become formed). I needed all that anger, pain, sadness, and shame to find an outlet. I didn't trust anyone, or at least I believed that everyone who knew us both would think that I was to blame for my own unhappiness, that I had brought it on myself, that I'd never deserved him in the first place, that this was a karmic retribution for every way in which I'd failed as a human being. And yet, even suspecting that the whole world would be unsympathetic, I couldn't stop talking.

Polite society dictates that you don't talk about your pain. I was far from polite, for sure: I was emotionally messy, I was not compartmentalizing my personal life effectively enough, I was unable to put on a tight smile and go on as if nothing had happened. Most people (friends) would just edge away from me, I think, but some of them felt compelled to offer advice: don't talk about it, they said. Be discreet. Be mature. Handle it like an adult. Keep your secrets, keep his secrets. It's better for everyone. If you don't, you'll end up looking bitter, they said. That's the worst thing to be, they said, the bitter ex.

This struck me as being both inarguably true and monumentally unfair -- why was my job now to keep these secrets, to protect and guard them, when those were the very secrets that had caused me so much hurt? Such a raw deal. I complained about it to my friend Lisa, who said "You know, living gets a lot easier to tolerate when you come to the realization that life is fundamentally unfair."

The bitter ex. The last thing I wanted to be, and yet the thing I had definitely become.

Bitterness will eat you up inside, we're told, but more to the point it will leave you lonely. It will make everything coming out of your mouth sharp and disagreeable and off-putting and repellent. Evolution has made us sensitive to bitterness, it seems -- it's the most recognizable of tastes, often because it warns us off toxic compounds in the things we eat. Maybe bitterness also warns us off toxic people, people who want to drag us down with their unhappiness.

So. My bitterness may well have been the sign that people should stay away, not be poisoned by my unhappiness. But bitterness (at least in food, if not in heartbreak) is also therapeutic, as it turns out, cleansing the body, purifying the blood and the liver, calming nausea, killing parasites. Think of the foods that are bitter, and see how necessary they are in your life: greens and most raw vegetables, coffee, cocoa, citrus peel. In the right measure, the provide complexity and interest and pleasure, maybe even balance.

To the woman who wrote to me I responded, more or less: don't be afraid to talk. You're not responsible for keeping his secrets, this man who hurt you. You don't have to be silent. Don't be afraid of your bitterness. It's part of life, too. Be bitter, at least for a moment, and let it wash out the pain. And if other people find it distasteful, so be it.

Compote of Dried Plums with Lemon
Makes about 1-1/2 c

This is a strange recipe, but utterly addictive. Essentially stewed prunes -- the food of old people, let's face it -- but not stodgy at all. The lemon adds a hit of bitterness to the rich sweetness of the fruit, keeping it from being cloying. I have loved eating them with yogurt in the mornings, but they'd also be good on their own with a dollop of cream.

1 c dried plums
1/2 large, thin-skinned lemon, very thinly sliced
2-4 TB sugar (depending on your taste)
1 cinnamon stick

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan, add water to cover, and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Lower the heat and cook for about 45 minutes until plums are meltingly soft and the liquid has formed a syrup. Cool and store in the fridge; they will keep for a week or two.


monixa said…
How to tell you my dear that you say the things we need to hear? and also please feed me some day.
I will feed you whenever you want, Monica my dear.