In mid-February of 2016, my then-partner Benjamin Buell was diagnosed with a very serious liver condition. Just a few months later, he was diagnosed again with an aggressive form of bile duct cancer. And though we had come to the mutual agreement to transition from partners back to friends, I spent the majority of the next year helping him navigate the dizzying labyrinth of the medical system and weather the incredible suffering brought on by his illness. And on this day last year, May 2nd, I received the unfathomable gift of sitting by his side as he gently and peacefully left his body.
From the very start to the very end, my connection with B spanned about four years, and it was unconventional from day one. (It also happened to overlap the shock and awe campaign of my Saturn Return, which disintegrated most everything I’d built in the domains of purpose, career, and identity.) One of the first things he let me know about himself was that he was polyamorous, and always had been. I had never stopped to question some of the underlying beliefs and assumptions I held about romantic relationships, and the notion of consensual non-monogamy opened up some unexplored psychological/emotional terrain that intrigued me. But even more than that, I was drawn in by a magnetism and magic that he possessed, that I had never seen in anyone else before.
Like the frog in gradually boiling water, I can’t point to any discrete threshold where we crossed into the turmoil and unrest that was present for almost the entirety of our time together. But I can say that the youngest, most wounded and unresolved parts of both of us came to the surface in our relationship, and I believe our patterns interlocked in a way that enabled us to re-enact them with each other simultaneously. He was the perfect person to play the role of both the savior who could redeem all the broken and unworthy parts of me as well as the perpetrator who could wound me in all the same ways I had been wounded before. And I was no doubt just the right person to be cast in the roles of his inner drama as well.
What I see now is that we co-created an intensely insecure attachment dynamic and that we continually misattributed our dysfunction to the challenges of open relationship. He couldn’t see the ways he introduced insecurity into our connection, and I couldn’t see the ways that I signed myself right up for it, over and over again. I had precious few templates for what secure attachment or healthy partnership looked like, and I lacked a strong enough sense of myself and what I deserved to receive in relationship to know that it wasn’t good for me.
Of course it was more than just the hook and the drug of attachment that kept us in orbit. I had never known anyone like him before, and I doubt I ever will again. Like most of the people who got close to him, I can say that he profoundly changed me and altered the course of my life’s trajectory. He made a sport out of busting up my limiting beliefs about myself, about relationships, and about life - beliefs I didn’t even know I held. Like the true visionary that he was, he showed me how to think more expansively than I realized was possible and also how to call upon a magic that could bring things together in a more mysterious and elegant way than my little human brain could ever design. It really was like he woke me up from the Matrix and plugged me into a vaster, more playful, more powerful universe.
We cycled through more than our fair share of excruciating breakups and ecstatic reunions, even moving together at one point to Hayfork, the tiny town in Northern California where he had grown up. Every time, it was me who reached the breaking point, and every time it felt like I had to disembowel myself to get away. And it was always he who reached back out, in spite of my requests to the contrary, always with new insights and new promises. To his (and our) credit, things did improve each time. We did learn, and we did give it absolutely everything we had.
Life was a fierce teacher to me in all of this, but I can think of no faster way to have healed up the old wounds, cleared out the debris of old patterns, and figured out my own value, needs, and boundaries. I have a very good coach, many loving friends, countless T-Groups, 3+ years at NLP Marin, all the Buddhas, and two supportive parents to thank for that. My relationship with Benjamin forced me to dig deeper than I ever had before, past countless layers of false, victimhood identity, to recover the original wholeness and goodness I came into this life with. It cornered me, until my only remaining option was to plug directly into the true Source of love, the one that’s within me. I had no choice but to re-forge stubborn beliefs about scarcity and lack in connection and love, for no other reason than they had simply become too painful to continue living with. Here’s the short list of the things I learned inside of this dance with Benjamin:
— It is nobody’s responsibility to know my needs or my boundaries but my own.
— If I don’t know them, or can’t speak them, then the pain I experience as a result of that is also my responsibility.
— The choice to abandon myself (to override my needs and boundaries) for the sake of a connection with someone else, though it may bring relief in the short-term, will always be far more painful in the long-term.
— Attachment bonds are real physiological/psychological/emotional THINGS, as real as any other body part, and it takes two people who are both intentionally tending to that bond in order for it to be healthy and secure.
— If I try to do the work of two people in taking care of that bond, it leads to exhaustion, resentment, and volcanic relational dynamics. Ultimately, it doesn’t work.
— If I’m with someone who is a good match for me and who does their half of the relational work, I won’t need to abandon myself. Feeling pulled from my center is itself a sign that it’s not a good match.
— When someone shows you who they are, not by what they say, but by what they do… believe them. And remember that the pull to distort reality is very strong when you’re falling in love.
— No single human being (in truth, no thing at all) is my ultimate Source - not of love, or of anything.
— Just like everyone else, no part of me is alien, unlovable, or unworthy.
— Though I may not always see it, I am held in a web of love and connectedness at all times. There is no lack or scarcity, except for when I create it in my own mind.
— When I saw magnetism and magic in him, I wasn’t incorrect. He did possess it. But I was so captivated by it because I had not yet owned or integrated my own magnetism and magic. In this, he was like a lighthouse for me.
On Christmas of 2015, we were broken up in the most final way we ever had been, and in spite of my request for no contact, he sent me a long letter describing the process he had been in since I left. He detailed the intensive, solo medicine work he had been doing as well as his study of the books on attachment theory I had left for him. With my leaving yet again, life finally cornered *him* and he chose to dive more deeply into himself than he had before. As you can probably imagine, he articulated beautifully all of the things I had always wanted to hear, all of the things I had been trying so hard to get him to see. And I believed him when he told me that in shifting his own wounds and patterns, he found himself wanting committed, monogamous partnership with me.
We got to share all of one month together in this, the most stable, committed, loving form our partnership had ever taken, before he began his rapid descent into illness. In that time, we got into therapy and began braiding our lives back together with the most unrestrained enthusiasm I’d ever seen, including talks about marriage. Perhaps most emblematic of the profound shifts we made, both personally and as a couple, is a message he sent me during a short time that we were apart, “Every moment of my day is a movement toward US and an expression of my devotion to you.”
So I have to add one more thing to the short list of what I learned in relationship with Benjamin: I learned what Union is, what it means and what it doesn’t mean, as well as what Devotion feels like and how to do it in a good way. I got to re-fashion my templates about love and partnership. And when I consider the rough ride that my early attachments had in store, I see that it was definitely not a given that I would get there in this lifetime.
But beautiful as this reunion was, we were obviously not starting from scratch. We had a lot of work to do and a lot of healing to accomplish just to create steady ground to stand on. And when his illness came, it became clear that he had no choice but to put all of his time, energy, and attention into healing. So we put our partnership aside and set about the business of saving his life as friends. It wasn’t easy for us, and there was a period in the time before cancer was even in our minds where we again had to have no contact. But when I returned, and all the way up until the moment of his death, we accomplished the most incredible healing, reparation, and resolution together. As life would have it, he once again became my primary attachment, my best friend, and my most trusted consultant on just about everything. He knew me, my story, and my heart better than anyone else, and in the softest, swiftest moment you could imagine, my closest, deepest person was gone.
This past year has been such a paradox. Thanks largely to Benjamin’s influence and the countless ways he supported me, it has brought the most incredible growth and expansion I’ve seen, both personally and professionally. I can say that I am leading my truest, fullest, bravest life. And yet, for much of the year, I’ve lived with the most unsettling feeling that it’s all just a bad dream and that any minute I’ll wake up with Benjamin still by my side. It makes reality seem less real; it makes me seem less real. And so many times, completely without warning, the bottom has fallen out of everything and dropped me right into a place of seemingly endless grief and anger.
It has been so hard for my being to comprehend that he really is gone, that the strongest, most powerful person I knew will never touch me or speak to me again. I’m beginning to realize that I have kept a part of myself frozen in time so that I could stay close to him and avoid fully acknowledging that my time with him, that his time here, is over. And no matter how happy or fortuitous my life’s forward motion has been, this part of me feels sick about and resists the s*** out of leaving him behind. It’s like trying to drive with one foot fully on the gas, with the other foot fully on the brakes.
I’m up here in Hayfork as I write this, sitting at the cafe by the river he used to take me to on the back of his motorcycle. I feel him and our memories so strongly here, but I keep hearing him telling me that it’s time to let go, time to move on, time to allow life to continue to evolve and change - and that I need to allow myself to be fully present for it all. So in the spirit of that encouragement, I’d like to share the short list of what I learned in the process of loving Benjamin and accompanying him on his journey of illness and death:
— Life is more precious and more fleeting than you realize.
— What matters most is the connection and love we have with other people.
— We actually don’t know what death is, and we can re-design our relationship to it however we like.
— Though we like to think we are, we’re actually not in control, and we don’t need to be.
— We can’t say for sure that we know what’s best for ourselves.
— We always get what we need at the time that we need it, though it’s often different from what we *think* we need.