Holding yourself to the binary distinctions you’re convinced define you brings nothing but painLisha Zhong

I started my first year of university with the conviction that romantic love wasn’t for me on a number of different levels. Three weeks later, I was in a relationship.

My whole life has been a series of hidden love affairs and late night encounters with the local kebab shop down the road, a questionable group of friends and the knowledge that what I was doing felt wrong. I was never that adventurous. But secretly peeling off layers to reveal bare arms and the occasional patch of pale brown leg (I could never quite shake the guilt of baring a whole leg to the world), learning how to smoke a cigarette and taking a sip of a friend’s vodka in the middle of the school day felt simultaneously like taking control and blindly letting go of everything that I knew to be me. In short, it felt like tumbling slowly towards a series of pits labelled “identity crisis;” an inevitable reality no matter which way I turned, yet with no real clarity of what the hell was going on.

“God meant a lot to me, and so did my parents, and I knew neither would approve”

That’s kind of what love felt like, but if tumbling became falling and the pit became a gigantic canyon of confusion; more messy, more tumultous and far more shattering than the faux, non-existent rebellion of my teenage years. Love wasn’t the same as going on a night out, or smoking a joint once every two years, or forgetting to pray five times a day. Those things I felt guilty about, but was able to repent for and mostly avoid in the future. God meant a lot to me, and so did my parents, and I knew, or thought, neither would approve.

Love, on the other hand, was constant, and something I actively worked hard to maintain. Love started as friends, and then a crush, and then unexpectedly and all at once – something more. Love did not take the form I imagined it would if it ever came into my lifebut was rather the complete opposite in every sense; it had different beliefs, different experiences and did little to resemble what I was expected to, and wanted to, have. But it was love all the same, in a way I’d never experienced before.

“I can’t pretend the dark underbelly of my relationship is not one of limited time for both of us”

And so I let myself indulge in it, like most of us would, but the reality of doing so was far less romantic than I like to think it was. I reminded him daily that this couldn’t last, that we should probably stop whatever was happening before things got ‘too deep,’ that he was wasting his time with me and that, ‘by the way, just so you know, we can never have sex’. In hindsight, that should’ve been enough for him to run for the hills, I know I would’ve. But he didn’t. And neither did I.

Instead, he gently reminds me to pray five times a day, listens intently when I speak about experiences he’ll never have and supports me in ways I didn’t even know I needed. That’s not to say it didn’t take a lot to get this point, because it did. The weight of emotional labour, no matter how ‘woke’ you think your partner is, never fails to exhaust me, and my unreasonable demands and unhealthy outlook on love laced with abuse never fails to exhaust him, I’m sure. But to have something that feels unconditional and reciprocal and so patientis something that is both terrifying and comforting in so many ways.

“This gulf of contradictions is my home, and the most significant part of my identity”

And so made up train schedules and quiet phone calls pretending to be elsewhere became a regular part of my daily routine. The familiar dance between love and lies weaved its way through my life blissfully, as I fluctuated between gratitude to God, to praying for something or someone else that made more sense, and brought less anxiety. But if I’ve learnt anything it is that love is a choice that I made, albeit not a simple one. Love was not thrown at me or given to me as a gift, it was cultivated and worked on in a way that made sense. There were many times I could have turned my back on it, but I didn’t.


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Fast forward three years and this gulf of contradictions is my home, and the most significant part of my identity in so many ways. I can’t pretend the dark underbelly of my relationship is not one of limited time for both of us, as we slowly move towards a ‘point’ where I either conduct the big reveal of someone I love deeply to those I’ve spent my life with, or put an end to it all together. Living in the moment has amusingly never felt as real as it does now, as I tentatively take time to breathe and hold myself in between two homes. To feel the simultaneous responsibility of your family’s happiness, and your own, on your shoulders is a strange thing and not one I have yet learnt to navigate effectively. But if I could tell my younger self one thing about her coming future, it would be that holding yourself to the binary distinctions you’re convinced define you brings nothing but pain. You are so much more than that. The love you have to give, and receive, is so much more than that.

I’m yet to make sense of how I feel about so many Big Things, but holding myself with love, and being held with love, feels Big in itself. I think back to the first time we met, and I wonder whether I should’ve walked away whilst I could, to avoid the emotional turmoil of making a nonsensical choice between two things that cannot be done away with. And, honestly, that’s not something I think I can answer, nor something I want to answer. But I know that it doesn’t really matter. There is no healing or pain like that of love in whatever way it presents itself, and right now, that is enough for me.

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