Photo of what could have been but wasn't. Julia Hubbel

An old photo dredges up great pain. All such pain is real, whether or not others happen to validate it.

The post for solo female travelers required a photo, so I went searching among the nearly 150,000 photos I've taken over the twelve years I've been doing adventure travel. I'm  not in many, as selfies don't appeal, and I am often alone. So it took some doing. Inevitably I stumbled across a photo which ripped out my soul even as I was so thoroughly enjoying myself with my trips.

Such is the power of forgotten memories.

Like the whiff of a cologne worn by a treasured lover, or a song that you danced to the night you fell in love, it took me out at the knees.

The photo is of a man I loved more than life, someone who dominated my thoughts for fourteen years. Still does. We met on in 2008. What followed was messy, costly, painful beyond painful. He used being too overworked to avoid spending time, and never having gotten to know me well enough as an excuse to break up.

He would pop up again on Clearly work wasn't such a problem as it pertained to finding someone else. Those didn't work out either.

And he would always return. Always. Always. Hat in hand, sorry, sorry sorry. Then another breakup. Twelve times in thirteen years. It boggles the mind. We do what we do, and I am done apologizing.

Sometimes the work we have to do around rejection and grief is to keep getting rejected until it no longer rips us apart. I'm not there yet. Remarkably, it gets easier.

He took  photos for his profile when he was in search of anyone BUT me. They were wonderful. Of course. They were his sales pitch. Warm, smiling, enticing. This was that photo. But that isn't all of it.

The man knew I was animal crazy. He had bought a new puppy. The latest post-breakup Match shot showed him cupping the bulldog pup and smiling in that magnificent way of his for the camera.

He refused to allow me to meet the new puppy.

ANYONE but yours truly, please call me. Be mine. ANYONE but me. You may not meet my puppy.  It was like grinding broken glass into my face, my heart, my soul.

After yet another reunion I wanted my own photos.

I begged him for one; this was what he sent. He was unaware that I had first seen it on his Match pitch for anyone but you, and utterly ignorant of the immense pain it brought me.

I am not privy to someone else's inner world. I cannot know why they do what they do. But I am sometimes leveled by the insensitivity. By the same token I am amazed at the insensitivity I have to my own needs for kindness and caring. I didn't find it this life.

This was all I had. This photo, a combination of great beauty and immense pain was with me on all my travels. Above, the photo is in plastic and attached to the saddle while I am on a seven-day camel trip from Arusha to Lake Natrone.

That photo went everywhere with me. All over the world. At once a beautiful reminder of this man I wanted so much, the puppy he refused to let me meet, the sweet gaze that was meant FOR ANYONE IN THE WORLD BUT ME.

Fellow writer Yael Wolf on Medium, who is some twenty-four years younger than I am, wrote about her journey in this heartbreak of an article about how badly she wants to be held:

The Lament of Women Who Just Need to Be Held
There are too many of us — partnered and single — who are running on empty

From her article:

As I’ve discovered in my own life, you can be partnered and still be alone.My former partners were not engaged in our relationship outside the bedroom.

Truly. This man did in fact move into my house for a few months.  I ended up hiding in a basement storage room from his angry mouth and mean nature. I was recovering from terribly painful rotator cuff surgery and he could NOT be bothered to hold me. Not on your life. He could be bothered for me to hold his dick in my mouth, but not much else.

In terrible pain, I would service his needs. In my terrible pain he couldn't be bothered. I was too "clammy."

Ultimately I could no longer bear to inhabit the house he had marked with his presence for many years, albeit brief. He left again, and left several very expensive gifts I'd given him discarded in my closet. Par for the course.

I burned the gifts, sold the house and moved. And he's back. But many states away. I've not seen him in three years. He's lonely. There's a reason people have difficulty keeping relationships. Some of us, it's because we keep choosing people who are so broken they cannot love.

It is also possible that I am likely so broken I cannot chose someone who can.

My experience is hardly unique. If anything it is vast, inclusive and universal. This photo forced me once again to face my grief about lost love. Fourteen years gone. While not a divorce, still a series of increasingly painful breakups which ultimately left me in the hospital with the kind of physically-altering grief too many of us know all too well.

To that then, this:

After a Breakup, ‘Disenfranchised Grief’ Is Very Real
“After a divorce, soothing platitudes are plentiful. But when a situationship ends, there’s less support to be had no matter how devastated you might feel.”

From the article:

...After a divorce, soothing platitudes are plentiful; when a crush or short-term fling becomes a failure to launch, there’s less support to be had no matter how devastated you might feel. And it’s common enough that there’s a name for this phenomenon: disenfranchised grief.

We never really had anything. Not really. Except fourteen years of constant back and forth, comings and goings, meetings and partings. There was a lot there, and yet nothing there. I aged into my later sixties during those years, the very best years of my life. As I turn increasingly grey, I feel great grief for what I forfeited for this man for nothing in return.

Even some of those closest to me argued that we never had anything, so there must not be anything to mourn. That kind of invalidation makes things even worse.

The young women in the Glamour article are, to me, children. Even Yael, at 45, has years and YEARS to find a partner, should she still want one. I'm perfectly sensitive to the fact that it might not feel that way to her.

I turn 69 next week. The door has largely slammed in my face at this point. I know it feels like that to Yael at times, for her writing speaks to that starkness. I know it intimately.

I am not held. I am not loved. I have nobody to curl my body into for comfort either, for the hurts I bear, the aches I feel as I age, the challenges that never stop. They never, ever stop. I am not single because my spouse died. I am not single because of a late-in-life divorce. I am single for reasons I still don't understand other than I have always refused to carve large parts of myself off to accommodate someone else's delicate ego.

This lovely photo is a vivid reminder of ANYONE BUT YOU. AND NO YOU CAN'T MEET MY PUPPY.

Grief is real. It makes no different if my grief, our grief doesn't seem important to you or anyone else. It's still grief. We were designed to be loved. When men are incapable of it, when they brutalize their partners in one way or another but most especially by withholding the very thing we most need, we have every single right to grieve.

After a lifetime of sexual assault, a history of rape and incest, I have no more tears. But plenty of grief.

Plenty of it. And I am allowing myself to mourn.

Photo by Marek Studzinski / Unsplash