The Narratives of NonTraditional Nelle {3}: <br> Pushing My Limits

The Narratives of NonTraditional Nelle {3}:
Pushing My Limits

The problem with knowing it’s time to go, is that you give yourself permission to be absent, before you’ve actually left.

Or at least, that was my mistake.

I knew with no uncertainty that I was going to end my relationship, break off my engagement, give up the first house we were weeks away from owning. And right next to that was the fact that I had a very real, pressing deadline rapidly approaching that the rest of the world deemed as “more important” – my doctoral defense. I was to defend my doctoral research on Friday, June 8th. I had worked tirelessly to get to that point, and it was true that I had to give it my all just to get by. I told myself, fine, I will give it my all, I will put my focus there, and then…I will go.

I started having that conversation with myself after that night in Connecticut. I started telling myself it was only a few more weeks before I would start the next, real chapter of my life. It was only a few more weeks before I was going to undo everything I had put together ever so carefully in the past 10 years…

And because I was so focused on all of that, I really didn’t even see her coming. At least, not like I would have thought.

The months leading up to my defense were insanely stressful, but also filled with celebration – as very dear friends were getting married that April – in Puerto Rico! Although I was close with the couple, I really had only met them through friends of the groom. So when all the pre-wedding festivities began, I met several of the bride’s friends, and She  was one of them. We crossed path a few times, but really met at the bachelorette weekend in Newport, RI – and immediately clicked. Maybe because I was surrounded by so much “heteronormative” adult behavior (marriage festivities, buying houses and the like), I just assumed we were going to be great friends. Nothing else crossed my mind whatsoever.

We did become great friends, and fast. We exchanged numbers when we were in Puerto Rico (to make sure we all knew when we were leaving and going to group events, obviously), and from that moment on we basically never stopped texting each other. Harmless really, maybe a little suggestive or flirtatious had my mind entertained that possibility. It wasn’t until one night, left alone by our exhausted male counterparts, that we opened up a different level of deep conversation. And after that conversation, I knew we were both women who were open to the fluidity of sexuality on some abstract level.

But still, I didn’t it let it be about us. Not yet anyway.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t smile to myself more when I thought of Her in the weeks that followed our sexuality conversation than I had the weeks prior, but I didn’t know what that meant really. Or maybe, I didn’t want to know, because I had him, still. The week before Memorial Day 2012, She invited me to hangout with her and her kids that Saturday. She said it was a long-shot, that I probably had plans (it was a holiday weekend after all), but her husband would be at a bachelor party late into the night and she would love the company. I don’t think I have ever agreed to something so quickly in my life.

I suppose I should have known by my own behavior that there was something different with Her, but for once I was wildly self-unaware – perhaps more on purpose than I’d realized at the time.

I told him that I was going to Her house that Saturday to hang with Her and the kids, to keep Her company while her husband was away. I didn’t talk to him about it, I told him my plans. I didn’t usually do that, because that’s not really the way relationships work.  But again, I had given myself permission to check-out of my relationship…while I was still in it.

I can still remember getting ready to go to Her house that afternoon, choosing a casual summer dress I’d worn a million times, never with a bra (I’m a braless kind of chickie in the summer – or whenever possible), and asking him if I should wear a bra with that dress. His puzzled expression and question, “aren’t you just going to hang out at Her house?” to which I quickly replied, “yea, no, I know, right…” was a clue that I was thinking along different lines for the first time.

And then I couldn’t help but wonder in my own mind, why did it feel like I was getting ready for a date?

I brought a bottle of our favorite rum from PR, she made me dinner. We had champagne and wine, a lot of it. Every way I looked at it, it looked like a date. But we weren’t talking about it.

The kids went to bed, the beverages kept flowing, and we found ourselves talking late on the couch in the basement, the same place we learned about each other’s fluid sexuality.

And suddenly the conversation was absent of words. And suddenly she was kissing me. The most gentle, soft, life-changing kiss.

She stopped to ask me if that was ok, and even though on a thousand levels it wasn’t (I wasn’t actually unattached), I found myself saying yes…

{to be continued}

Be sure to join the Love List to get the next piece of the NonTraditional Nelle Narrative sent right to your inbox! 

When We Shouldn’t Hold Both

Years ago I learned Glennon Doyle’s principle of holding both – the pain and the joy – all at the same time, in everything we do. It has helped me heal, helped me feel less alone and alienated, and helped me connect with countless others who are in the midst of the highest highs right next to their lowest lows. The pain of loss is always holding hands with the joys we gain. Goodbyes with new beginnings, hurt with growth. But recently I’ve started to question if there are sometimes when holding both can be dangerous.

Can we hold both about a person? Can one person be both the holder of our greatest joy and creator of our greatest pain? I can answer quite simply that yes, one person can be both of those things. But then I wonder, should a person hold that space in our lives?

My sister may be the very first example I ever encountered exhibiting this principle. Four years my senior, I’ve never known this world without her in it. Until November 1st, 2016, the day after she took her own life. At 36, she had been holding both inside herself since she was a little girl. As passionate and intellectual as she was, she was an addict suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. She held both in a way that I will never understand, and that at times I don’t think she was able to understand very well either. And she held both in my life, too.

For years she was my highest highs, my biggest laughs, my greatest joy. She was the breath of fresh air, the rush of excitement, the very best part of being alive. But as we grew up, I was faced with my lowest lows right next to those highs. She’d take her intellect and make her words into daggers, shredding my values and my character. She’d feel her passion and tear me down for feeling differently. She knew just the thing to say to send the tears streaming down my face, to take away my ability to respond. She knew what would hurt me, so she did.

I struggled to understand if having her, holding both this joy and pain, was necessary. If this was something I had to endure, or if there was room for me to walk away. We were family, we had memories that no one else shared, we knew parts of each other no one else knew. I would be losing parts of myself by losing her. But what if my holding both was meant to be the pain of letting go of her while holding on to the joy we were once able to share? What if having her hold that space in my life wasn’t ok for me anymore, what if I didn’t want to be subject to that kind of pain again and again, just so that I could feel that joy with her still? What if I could take the joy with me and walk away from the pain…

Six years ago, that’s exactly what I did. I told myself it wasn’t ok for me to let her hold that space in my life anymore. That as good as the good was, the bad was so much worse. That while I might love our shared laughter, I didn’t want to miss the signal and suddenly be faced with her rage. I wanted to protect myself, for myself. I wanted to be in control of my own joy and my own pain.

That’s a funny thing to say, even as I write it, I wonder if it’s an impossibility – to be in control of our own joy and pain. Certainly we can’t control when either rise up, I suppose we can only control how we respond to those feelings once they are present. But maybe we do have some say on who is responsible for causing us pain and joy, because maybe we shouldn’t allow people to hold the space for both.

I’m starting to believe that just because we have someone who gives us our highest highs, doesn’t mean we have to accept the lowest lows from them. I don’t think that is the equation of love. We work tirelessly on our relationships (because we know that real love takes work), but that work should not inherently equal pain. At some point trying and trying again turns into expecting a different outcome from the same approach, putting a square peg into a round hole, forcing a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit…doesn’t it?

Or, if we stop trying, are we giving up?

I’ve never been able to decide, I still don’t think I can.

With my sister physically gone from this world I can’t help but wonder, as so many do who have lost a loved one, if not letting her hold both in my life meant I was giving up on her. I will never know that now, and it weighs heavy on my heart, affecting the way I approach all of my current and future relationships.

I have always said that when having someone breaks down the very best parts of who we are, that person is not a healthy force in our lives. Yet, the person who challenges us, makes us stop and question even our deepest beliefs, can also be a welcomed source of growth and learning. And so maybe that’s why I hold on, until I literally just can’t anymore.

It’s not a selfless act in any way, and perhaps these relationships are equally parasitic in some respect – we may take as much as we can from each other, trying again and again to see if we can survive as one, until we are both devoid of value, empty, and ultimately alone. And maybe it’s just because we are afraid to walk away until we’ve learned all we can from each other, or maybe it’s because we’re too scared to lose the highest highs.

All I know is that at some point, holding on so tightly to the person that holds both feels like holding on to a trapeze when there’s no net below. We are desperate to make it to safety, barely able to enjoy the flight, and yet hoping we never have to touch the ground.

What We Never Expected

She sat on their bedroom floor (a floor that would later become ours) and cried, her head in her hands. He sat across from her. I stood by the door, behind them both, paralyzed.

He had told his parents what was happening. That his wife had fallen in love with a woman, a woman they’d met several times, and they were separating.

It was the most real anything had been since the day I broke off my engagement, over 2 months prior. We’d all been scared of this step, none of us knew how it would go, and none of us knew what it meant about how we’d be moving forward. He assured both of us that his family would be ok, and that if they weren’t, he wouldn’t let them speak badly of us. That he was on our side. That as heartbroken as he was, he knew we hadn’t planned this, hadn’t looked for it, hadn’t meant for it to happen. He was on our side, he told us as he hugged us and left the room earlier in the evening to make the call.

That’s how we were back then. The Good Crew, we called ourselves. Trying to figure out this crazy, beautiful mess we’d landed in, one day at a time. Trying to cause as little hurt as we could, trying to help each other heal and grow as best we were able. Knowing that the outside world didn’t understand how we could be so close. Some days, we didn’t understand it either. We put the kids first, always, but we tried to protect each other too. We celebrated birthdays just the three of us. Called on each other in case of emergency, like a flat tire when you’re home alone with no spare. Asked each other questions and actually listened to the answers. Celebrated major milestones, like making partner. We knew that it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to anyone else. And it’s why taking the next step to tell anyone else felt so scary, for all of us.

Reactions from other people always make things more real, they make us question our own choices, consider other perspectives. This was no different. We had found some sort of strange, nontraditional groove in the way we operated in those first two months. It was painful at times and yet full of complete joy at others. We knew bonds were breaking and others were forming and we knew from the outside it seemed like someone wasn’t being honest with themselves. We talked about it endlessly, but we always came up with the same conclusion – we were the only three that understood what was happening between us, under this roof, and for that we had to rely on each other on some fundamental level. So we did.

When it was time to share our story with the next tier of people, it changed everything. We knew that it would, on some level, but you can’t really prepare yourself for what you have no experience with. There wasn’t anger, as so many were waiting for from the start. There was deeper sadness now, as more people’s lives were being affected, more recognition of the hurt our choice was causing. And at the very root of it all, was the loss. We finally had to admit that there were parts we were all losing now, parts we couldn’t get back.

And yet, I remember when his sister told me that she didn’t feel like she was losing a sister-in-law, but rather gaining one, as we sat around talking and watching all the kids play together. I remember hugs from his mother and questions directed at me about what her grandchildren were into these days. I remember feeling a level of gratitude I had not experienced in this lifetime, as our Good Crew was included in a way I never, ever expected. Holidays, birthdays, school events, family experiences. It was better for the kids this way, we all agreed. But no one would have blamed them if they felt otherwise.

And some did, feel otherwise. And we never blamed them. We always recognized that it was their reaction that we anticipated, they were what we thought the norm would be, what we were ready to face. Our explanations for how we ended up in this situation were rarely good enough for them, but that was never our intention anyway. We weren’t looking to win anyone over, we were just trying to move forward in uncharted territory, one day at a time.

When I stood there by the doorway, watching them – her crying, him silent – it felt like in an instant our world was collapsing. He looked at me and motioned to sit next to her, and so we all sat there, not saying much, just holding space for this moment of change. We couldn’t pretend anymore that everything was fine, that this was normal, that we were just figuring it out. And yet, on some level, that’s exactly what it was. I knew those tears were questioning if his family hated her, if she’d ever be able to see them again, if they’d ever want to see her again, if any of this could ever really be ok. We didn’t know then that it would be, we only knew what we knew – that we had been through hell in the past two months and somehow could still sit so close to each other now. So we did, for as long as it felt right, and maybe even a little longer after that.

When “I love you” were the hardest three words to hear…

There were four of us in a cab leaving the city to crash at a friend’s for the night. It was the first “girls night out” since Jess and I had been outed. We’d had a great night, tons of laughter, good conversation, maybe even a bar-top dance or two, and we were all headed our separate ways after lots of hugs and goodbyes. We had promised to call home to see how the night had gone with the kids before ending the night. Typical conversation when we called home (“how did baths go?” “did they eat enough?” “what time did they go down?”), but this time with an ending I’d never heard. Just as quickly as Jess started the phone call, I heard her final three words as she hung up – “I love you”. And just like that, the wind was knocked out of me.

When we had parked in the city earlier that night, Jess took off her wedding ring. It was mid-August, a little less than 3 months into our big change of heart. She had stopped wearing her engagement ring early on, but didn’t take off the wedding ring around the neighborhood. She wasn’t ready to answer the questions from the increasingly curious neighbors who seemed to have their eyes on everything. I’d gotten used to it, as used to living a lie as you can, anyway. But that night we knew we’d be seeing our girl friends, for the first time as a group, since everyone knew what was going on – and without her ex there. She told me it was important that they knew how serious we were, that we were moving forward with our new life.

The night was filled with all the usual catch-ups, old stories, and future plans. There were a handful of awkward moments as a result of our new couple-hood, but mostly harmless comments that we chalked up to it all being ‘so new’ for everyone. Including us. We had never been on a girl’s night out…with our partner, either. We were navigating how “couple-y” to be, if being affectionate was ok, what friends wanted to know, and what should be kept between us.  I was anxious about a few friends’ reactions, how they really felt underneath about our choice to change our whole lives and be together. I wanted them to see we weren’t playing around, this was as real as anything, and our decision wasn’t one we made lightly. We weren’t uprooting everything for a fling, we were betting on forever.

And then there, in the cab, with two of our friends next to us, she tells him she loves him.

Every part of me knew why she said it and what it meant. I knew the very basic part of it that was a habit – that it’s how she always ended conversations with him, just like she does with us now. And that it was habit on a deeper level too, that as his wife she would tell him she loved him when they said goodbye, because that’s what you do. And then that she did still love him, in a way. Not in the I want to be your wife and sleep in bed with you kind of way, but in the way she had grown to love him in the nearly 10 years they’d been a couple, sharing and building a life together. I knew it was a complicated undoing, I knew that when she would tell other people that she would always have love for him, it meant that in many ways, for at least a long while, she would still love him, period.

I knew all of that, because I was living it with her everyday. But they didn’t know that. Our friends in the cab with us didn’t know that she could let “I love you” slip out as she was hanging up the phone and it didn’t mean that she didn’t love me, that she wasn’t sure about sharing her life with me, and that she didn’t have regrets about her choice. They heard those three words and immediately wondered if maybe she wasn’t ready to end a marriage, break up a family, and run away with me…

Well, I didn’t know that that’s what they wondered…but when I heard those three words, my heart sank because I wondered if hearing those words come out of her mouth made them wonder. I had felt so confident that we had had a good first “showing” with our friends. Our love, our connection, our thoughtfulness about every choice we were making on full display. And with those three words, it felt like it came completely undone. Now they had doubts, now they had questions, now they wondered how real our love was. Or so I questioned.

I was immediately quiet, Jess looked at me as soon as the words left her mouth and she closed her phone. She mouthed “I’m sorry” with a look of panic in her eyes. I couldn’t keep her gaze, I just looked down. Our friends were quiet.

As vivid as every moment of that phone call was, I can’t remember how the night continued on after that. I was hurt, I was disappointed, and those emotions were enough to cloud over my memory of what happened next.

I know Jess didn’t mean for those words to come out that way. I know she had no intention of hurting me or having our friends doubt our relationship. So I didn’t need to say much. I remember feeling like Julia Roberts in the scene from Pretty Woman when she looks at Richard Gere while she’s attempting to leave, standing at the elevator, tears in her eyes, and says “you hurt me” to which he acknowledges “yes” and her response is the only sentiment I needed to convey as well – “don’t do it again.”

Jess never said “I love you” to him again. Or at least, not that I heard (though I’m pretty sure not at all). She never put her ring on again either. She told me it was more painful to hurt me than it was to let go of those securities from her past. And I knew she meant it, even as scary as it was for her – for both of us.

It’s nearly 5 years later and those 5 minutes still stick with me. I have no idea if our friends remember that cab ride and I haven’t brought it up to Jess in years. But just recently I was telling a friend about this experience as she is currently navigating her own brutiful beginning, and I was honestly amazed how immediately I could place myself back in that cab.

The beginning of a big change of heart is both beautiful and brutal and in that beginning was the hardest lesson I am still learning every day. We hold both, always. We hold the past with the present. The love for him and the love for her. The fear of change with the excitement of what’s ahead. The sadness of loss and the joy of new love. And only when we’re ready, we let go of the parts we don’t need anymore.

The Narratives of NonTraditional Nelle {2}: <br> Ready, Set, Go

The Narratives of NonTraditional Nelle {2}:
Ready, Set, Go

When we hit that 3 year mark and I, for the first time, questioned everything – I remember my initial feeling: complete panic. I looked around and thought – how can I undo all of this? Our lives were so intertwined. Everything was him. Pictures, friends, family, routines…all of it was him. He took up so much space in my life, I couldn’t breathe when I thought about the idea of undoing all of that. The idea of separating my entire life from his…was unimaginable. And it was clear. I wasn’t ready.

At the time I thought my unreadiness was a sign that I still wanted to be in, that I was still in love with him. It might have been, or it might have been that my fear was winning out the truth in my heart. Maybe I just wasn’t strong enough to face the music. Maybe I knew I should, but I didn’t want to admit it. I don’t know completely, all I know is that I wasn’t ready. And knowing that meant that if I was going to stay, I better be all in.

I never told him what I was thinking that summer. It was probably the first time I had ever withheld any of my feelings from him at all. I told him I wasn’t happy with how we were, but I never went so far as to say that I had thought about leaving or that I had even planned how and when I would break up with him (that just seemed like salt in an open wound). So he moved along unassuming, as he should have. And I moved right along with him.

He never did anything wrong. I don’t think he ever did, really. Yes, he frustrated me and we had arguments from time to time, but only the kind that comes naturally from sharing your life so intimately with another person. There were things that bothered me that I would tell him time and again, but ultimately those were not the reasons that caused me to leave. The reasons I left were separate from the reasons we weren’t perfect.

I was never sure, and I’m still not, how much he knows that or believes that – that truly there was nothing he could have done to change the outcome of our relationship. It was just that we had run our course. We loved each other well for a good long while. And for me, that’s as far as we were meant to go. Maybe it was already written in the stars, maybe it was set to be that way.

The 7 years that followed my initial questioning were filled with a lot of people. People that really made me think about the kinds of relationships I wanted to have in my life – romantic, friendships, and family. Although I probably knew this somewhere in my heart for my entire life, I wasn’t someone who could handle smalltalk – I was a “get into the meat of it” kind of girl. Dive in deep, get to know a person, and enjoy the ride. The people that I kept in my life throughout those 7 years I really knew. No repeat surface conversations. No Disney-perfect lives. We knew each other’s ugly and we loved each other anyway. And through those relationships I realized something very important…my relationship with him looked nothing like that.\

I talked, a lot. I shared everything that was on my mind, exhaustively. It was like I had a lifetime of thoughts to get out and “now” was the time. He listened, really, really well – sort of. He let me talk, tirelessly. He didn’t necessary retain all of what I said (not that I blame him), but he was a definite sounding board. I knew I needed that, being the middle-child that comes with the territory. But what I wanted was more than that. I wanted an equal sharer. I wanted someone who would bare their soul right back with me. I wanted the kind of open, raw honesty I had with my friends and family to show up in my relationship. But it just wasn’t.

And it wasn’t his fault, that’s not who he was, and it’s certainly not what he signed up for. He was hired to be the sounding board, he was good at being the sounding board, he liked being the sounding board…but I went ahead and changed the job description. Solid, stable sounding board no longer required. Heart-centered empath willing to bare it all inquire within. Yikes. I was finally realizing that the person who was filling the position wasn’t meeting any of the requirements. He was showing up every day to the wrong office and giving his best. And yet I was completely unfulfilled.

I felt awful. How unfair, for both of us. He was being himself, and I wasn’t. When I was myself, he couldn’t reach me. It wasn’t that we were suddenly ships passing in the night, it was a complete and utter change in trajectory that neither of us saw coming. And I was the only one who noticed. He might have stayed forever, but I knew I couldn’t. I knew that he would spend his entire life trying to be the heart-centered empath willing to bare it all if I told him that’s what I needed him to be, but he would never be able to be that person. I knew that I could have him as my kind, stable sounding bored forever. But this time, when I looked around, I didn’t feel panic. I felt like I was finally calm and stable all on my own. I knew that who we were for each other would matter forever, but who we were going to be next would be even greater. I knew, with no uncertainty, that it was time to go.

Be sure to join the Love List to get the next piece of the NonTraditional Nelle Narrative sent right to your inbox! 

The Narrative of NonTraditional Nelle <br> {1}: The Knowing

The Narrative of NonTraditional Nelle
{1}: The Knowing

I can still remember exactly where I was standing the moment I knew I couldn’t stay with him. We’d been engaged just under 5 months, together for over 10 years, and I knew we weren’t going to make it through the 11th. In that moment, it was the most sinking disappointment I think I’d ever experienced. I thought I’d had it all worked out, I thought I was doing it all “right”. We were high school sweethearts, he was the captain of the football team (I was a theater girl), we survived separate colleges, we lived together for several years, and we were even about to buy our first home… wasn’t this what they called the good life? How could this feeling – this knowing that this wasn’t the right life for me – hit me so strongly when we were engaged and less than a month from closing on our house. How could I know with such certainty that I wouldn’t be happy in a life with him anymore, that I just didn’t want it anymore. Standing outside on a warm May night in Connecticut, surrounded by friends old and new, I looked into a large bay window to see the person I had said I would marry. And there he was – sitting on a couch alone, disconnected, half asleep, detached from life. And I knew.

If I am going to be honest with myself, it wasn’t the first time I’d questioned how “right” we were; far from it.

When we started dating the summer before our senior year of high school, I was over the moon – both with him and the concept of having a serious “someone” of my own (it seemed everyone else had already had a few chances at this that I’d missed out on). He was my person, and I always wanted to have a person. I had so much going on in my head, I just wanted someone who would listen and be there and love me through it. I talked, and talked, and talked. My family was wild and crazy and his stoicism was appealing. Nothing seemed to rattle him, he would just say “I’m sorry, that sucks” and listen without being affected. That was foreign to me, and a bit amazing. It felt settling, it felt like I wouldn’t come apart at the seams if I was around someone like that. It was a solid comfort. We spent all of our time together – too much time together – to the point where people stopped calling to see if either of us could hang out. But we didn’t care. We were young and just happy to have each other. And for the first two years of our relationship that was more than enough.

When we left for college after a year of dating seriously and believing we would be together forever, we both struggled. I had always been more outgoing than he was, but I found myself with a strange lack of confidence in unfamiliar surroundings. He felt the same way, but he often felt that way. The result? We spent nearly every weekend of our first two years of college together, and without anyone else. We had grown comfortable with each other, we barely even spoke when we were together, it was just being together that seemed to make us both feel better.

It wasn’t until the summer after our second year of college that I started to question what we were becoming…and who I was turning into. I took a waitressing job at a popular chain restaurant and he took a construction/landscaping job. Inevitably this meant that we barely saw each other – I started my shifts after 10am and worked late hours, he started before the sun was up and was in bed before my shifts were even over. Once a week he would come to my restaurant and sit in my section to order a meal before going home to bed. All of my coworkers thought it was the sweetest thing and they loved when he came to visit me. I did too, but I remember wondering what I loved most about it. He didn’t talk much when he came in (he never talked much), he was tired and hungry, so he would eat quick and leave right after. It was sweet, he was supportive, but I also distinctly remember that it was really nice to be able to say that my boyfriend was sitting at table 92. I made some really great friends that summer and they adored him. Well, they adored us together and were envious of his stable love and support. He was the big brother to all the girls and his silence intimidated half the guys, but we were consistent and everyone knew we were an item and that was fun at first.

Near the end of that summer, just before our 3 year anniversary, I felt the pull for something more. I had felt alive all summer with my newly acquired friends and regained confidence, and it was the first time I’d felt that way since…high school ended. That alone was a sad realization. I didn’t want to lose the energy I felt again by being around people that I truly enjoyed! I had a couple harmless “work crushes” that summer, but nothing that made me want to be with someone else, it was more that I was questioning if I could really be happy staying with him. I knew he wasn’t the extraverted, energized type – he was my kind, stable boy who loved me with everything he had in his own quiet, calm way. I just didn’t know anymore if that was the kind of love I was looking for. I wasn’t sure that it was the kind of love I needed anymore. When I finally put words to these feelings at the end of the summer, it was my older sister and best friend that heard them. I told them I wasn’t sure I could stay, that I thought it was time to end things, that I wanted to beak up with him. And both thought I was crazy. He was one of the few good guys out there, they reminded me. He wasn’t like “other guys”. It was just a rough patch because our lives were so mismatched, it wasn’t a reason to end a 3 year relationship. And even though I already knew how and when I was going to have the conversation with him…I listened, and I thought – maybe they’re right. So, I stayed.

The next few years were somewhat of a blur when it came to our relationship. Life got busy and we just drifted along together. We finished college, moved in to an apartment together, I started graduate school, he eventually found a job in the city, and we just kept going… I didn’t have time or energy to stop and think about why. I had something to lean on, someone to fall back on, and amidst all the transitions, that was good enough. When I felt unhappy, I took full responsibility – it was my family drama, grad school stress, my weight, etc… It was something that I could work on and fix and it was always outside of us. So I put in the work and used him as a support all the while. I learned, grew, and changed tremendously as I unraveled myself from the family drama, succeeded in my graduate studies, tackled my weight…but eventually all that change led me to a place where I wanted more. My life was full of all of the things that mattered most to me – family, great friends, good career path, health…everything was growing and yet my relationship was stagnant. And looking into that bay window that May evening of 2012, I knew I had outgrown my relationship. I knew I was leaving.


Be sure to join the Love List to get the next piece of the NonTraditional Nelle Narrative sent right to your inbox! 

Be Beautifully Brave

A little less than 6 months ago, my character was put under severe scrutiny (and it’s been confirmed, bad things really do come in threes).

There were repeated questions –

Were my intentions pure?

Was my heart in the right place?

Was I really the open-hearted, non-judgmental, loving person I claimed to be?

I wasn’t expecting it, didn’t feel I deserved it, and definitely wasn’t prepared for it.

The month that followed was the hardest of my life for many, many reasons…and yet, I just kept hearing people say, “you’re doing better than I would have thought.”

This of course led me (and everyone else) to question whether or not I was truly healing and if I was actually ok…or if I just wasn’t dealing with what was actually happening. I checked in with myself constantly, but I kept coming to the same conclusions –

This pain is great, but I am too. 

Almost 5 years ago I made a choice to follow my heart and trust myself. And that choice was a choice to always trust myself. I didn’t overthink. I didn’t second guess. I trusted myself to know what I needed. To know my truth. And once I owned my truth, I couldn’t take it away.

I learned the value of being myself – always

I thought I had been being me for a good long while. I thought I had fully come into my own and that I wasn’t afraid to be me, to choose me. But this was different. This was unabashed, unashamed, untamed authenticity.

And after that moment, that moment I made my choice – the choice that I knew without a doubt was right for me – I knew no other way to be.

So this is me, this is what you get.

And I’ve learned, by watching myself and countless others, that once you make the choice to live authentically – there are no other choices to make.

There’s no undoing. No going back.

Being is all you know how to do.

And the best part? You never have to question your own intentions. You know. From that moment on, you just know.

Now, sometimes, we forget this knowing – for just a minute. And about 6 months ago, that’s what happened to me – for a moment.

Once, twice, three times questioned…I almost forgot what I knew. I almost forgot my truth. I almost forgot that I know no other way to be than exactly who I am – genuine, transparent, compassionate.

But then, I remembered.

The thing about living your truth, is that it takes beautiful bravery.

This is in no way the absence of fear. It is trusting your truth and doing the hard stuff – even when it’s terrifying – because you know no other way to be. It is acknowledging that no one knows you better than yourself. And it is recognizing that all you are is open and honest and share your truth with the world.

And if anyone questions that…well then,  that’s on them.

We are not free from pain, scrutiny, and questioning when we choose our truth. Sometimes it feels like much the opposite; like everyone is coming for us, because they can’t possibly fathom that someone would share themselves so freely.

Don’t let their fear derail your purpose.

Choosing you is not selfish. It is self-preservation.

Know yourself first, it is the only way you will ever truly be able to connect with anyone else.

And we the people? That’s all we want. It’s what we crave. Deep, pure, human connection.

So I dare you to show me your beautiful bravery. And hold my heart while I show you mine.

The BIG changes that come when you choose to live authentically and no longer hide in an unfulfilling life are incredibly challenging.

Choosing to prioritize your own happiness can sometimes feel selfish, making you feel guilty or undeserving.

But – when you know your truth and you live each day with that truth at the forefront, you have no reason to feel anything but serenity.

I know it feels like your ground is shaky when you first start to realize your truth. And as you start to make it known to the world, you might even lose your footing from time to time. But once you’re there, living in that truth every day, embracing who you are and what you want in life, nothing can shake you. You are grounded.

You no longer have to question if something is the right decision or not, you will just know. You will no longer wonder if you should do something, you will just do it. You will no longer worry about the future, you will just live. You will trust yourself, first and foremost.

The authentic journey isn’t easy, there is pain and hardship all along the path, but the security that comes from knowing who you are and never having to question yourself – is unparalleled.

Authenticity is hard, but do it anyway – and watch yourself be relieved of anxiety, shame, and unworthiness.

Yes, the struggle IS real, but it is so worth it. ❤︎

This Bonus-Mom’s View

“Nellie, do you think you’d rather be called an extra-mom or a step-mom? I don’t think I really like the word step-mom…” our daughter asked, as we all sat in the family room playing and hanging out.

I immediately smiled big because this was an easy question for me and it has been for a long time now.

“Well, I prefer “bonus” over “step” or “extra”, personally. A bonus is something you don’t expect to have, but that you’re really happy you do have! And that’s why I’ve always considered you my bonus-kids! I didn’t know I’d have you all in my life,  but I am so lucky that I do!” I told her, and she smiled just as big.

“Perfect she said, you are my bonus-mom!”

Years ago when my bonus-kids first entered my life, we didn’t really think in terms of labels or definitions. Our sons were just a year and our daughter wasn’t even four yet, they didn’t ask these kinds of questions so we didn’t need to define what role we played. I never really thought much about it, the label that is, and I still can’t even remember the first time someone referred to me as a step-mom.

I remember knowing it was of course a true statement, in that our society has termed any non-biological parent entered into parenthood by a relationship or marriage as the “step” parent, but never feeling very connected to the term. “Step”, I imagine, was to signify one step removed, and in this case, the biology specially removed. And while I understood that part (of course these children did NOT grow in my body), I never felt in any other ways removed. I was fully included; having a partner who was a SAHM and working full-time out of the house myself, we were both with the children nearly all day, every day. I helped parent in all the ways any parent would, and I never felt removed from much of anything.

Regardless of my involvement or how included my partner wanted me to be in our kids’ lives, I know that for me, being a bonus-parent has always had more to do with my own outlook on parenting than anything else.

I grew up in a blended family and I learned at a very young age that blood isn’t necessary for love. I watched my half sister call my biological father “dad” for all the years of our childhood, even though he was technically her “step” father. I became incredibly close with my step-siblings at the age of 12, after knowing them for only a short period of time. And as an adult, I formed a lasting connection with my step-siblings’ mother and saw her as another mother-figure in my life. These were all nontraditional family roles, but they all provided the same love that my biological family members provided. For me, it was always about the bond, not the blood.

As I started thinking more about the kind of family I might want as an adult, I realized that I had a yearning to be a parent, but that was all that was important to me – that I would have children I could provide parental love and guidance to, learn from, and enjoy. Biology never entered the equation.

So when I found myself in love with a woman who had three biological children when I had none (biological or otherwise), my feelings were simple. I loved her, and they were an extension of her, so I loved them just the same.

I know that for many adults who find themselves in relationships with single parents, the feelings aren’t always quite so simple. Whether because of the age of the children, the situation with the other parent, or already having biological children of their own; some adults find bonding with someone else’s biological children – especially when those children have two biological parents in their lives – extremely challenging. And despite having an incredibly complicated situation in many ways, perhaps in this respect our situation was not so complicated. I had parental love to give and no children to receive it. My partner had children who were receiving parental love, but who she believed could always benefit from more. So we always loved freely, openly, and honestly.

Now, that is not to say that being a bonus-parent hasn’t come with it’s own unique challenges. Our children have two biological parents across two households, and time is and will forever be shared with our children. That alone, I believe, is the most difficult part of being a bonus-parent. We are granted a beautiful gift, but it is not a gift we are able to experience everyday. Yet, although we may not be able to see our bonus-kids each day, the amazing part of parenting (bonus or otherwise), is that our children are, in some way or another, always with us. Their presence in our lives means that they are forever present in our hearts and in each moment of all of our days.

And this is a lesson all parents learn as their children age and go off into the world, but maybe it’s a lesson that those of us who share our children are forced to learn earlier. And although it may be challenging, I choose to see it as a benefit of this experience. We are forced to appreciate the moments we do have, because those moments without our children show up like clockwork.

So I can’t say that my love for our children is the same as a mother’s love for her biological children. I can’t say that my love for our children would be the same if I had biological children of my own. I can’t say those things because I simply don’t know, and I likely never will.

What I can say is that these are the children in my life, these are the children I have chosen to love, and these are the children who receive all of my parental support, guidance, and advice. These are the children that take up so much real estate in my heart and who I fiercely love and protect, every day. Whether in front of me or off making their mark on the world, I am forever grateful for the imprint my bonus-kids have left on my heart.

Why Elizabeth Gilbert and I are the Worst Lesbians Ever – Answer: Because We’re Not Lesbians

On the outside, it looks like Elizabeth and I “came out” when we realized we had fallen in love with a woman. And the questions that followed – “did you always know?”, “were you hiding how you really felt?”, “did you ever really love him?” suggest that most people assume we weren’t really our true selves or in love with our previous male partners at all.

But here’s why that’s wildly inaccurate (and I can speak quite confidently on this part for myself and even for Elizabeth too, as she has so eloquently written her emotions and experiences for us all to read).

We were never hiding our sexuality. We weren’t faking our lives or our love. We weren’t living a lie.

I know that for many women, this is the case. For many women who realize their sexual orientation at a very young age (6 seems to be the winning number), it wasn’t easy to simply be the person they knew they were – whether because of fear within themselves, fear of family acceptance, religious beliefs, etc. And for those women there is a very real sense of “coming out” when they are finally able to do so – emerging as who they really are, free to live their authentic life.

But Elizabeth and I are not those women. 

I grew up in a very liberal, emotionally expressive family. My mother’s best friend when she was a child was gay and growing up I had countless gay “aunts” and “uncles” (that’s what happens when your parents meet doing theater together). And I don’t remember much about being 6 other than my first grade teacher’s name (Mrs. Kilpatrick) and sneaking my Smartfood out of my desk before snack time (certainly nothing about sexual tendencies). Truthfully, it wasn’t until I was in high school that I even learned ‘being afraid to be gay’ was a thing people felt; it was such a non-issue in my life and my family.

And in the last year I attended my all-girls summer camp (that I had attended every year since I was 9), I distinctly remember wanting to be a lesbian, because so many of the women surrounding me were and it just seemed so cool – they were so sure, so confident, they belonged. So at 14 I settled on saying I was “bi” and open to anything and anyone, that I was more about the connection with another person and that physical body parts had little to do with that connection for me.

And so even though I looked like your average heterosexual young adult from age 17-28, dating the captain of the football team and eventually accepting his marriage proposal, I still always had my open-mind – and more importantly, my open heart. I didn’t expect that another woman (married, with three young kids), would walk right into that opening and fill it all the way up to the tippy top. But she did and she has.

And although Elizabeth knew Rayya for years and she even took up the very big, important space of “dearest friend”, I imagine she walked into Elizabeth’s open heart in much the same unexpected way.

Truthfully, this experience is less about admittance of who we were all along and more about becoming. As Glennon Doyle Melton says, we are always becoming. And for Elizabeth and I, the current state of our becoming just looks very different to the outside world than where we were before.

And the thing with labels is that they never capture the becoming, they never capture the full story. If I met someone today, with my fiancée and our three kids, they’d likely label me a lesbian and ask which one of us carried our children. They wouldn’t know about my past or hers or how we came to be, but they would believe they knew so much just by applying that label.

But let me remind you, Elizabeth and I are terrible lesbians. 

We aren’t disregarding the relationships we previously had with our male partners, we did love them, and it was a real love for that time in our lives. It wasn’t forced, or fake. It wasn’t because it was what society told us to do. It was because that was part of our becoming, and it felt good and right to us at the time. And it was.

So it’s likely Elizabeth will never shout from the rooftops that she is a lesbian. And you won’t find me up on any rooftops either.

Sexuality is more fluid than most people assume it to be and I am not the first to say that. And I am not the first to recognize that we assign labels to help us make sense of the world, but I always like to remind people that what we think we know from any label or outward appearance isn’t ever the whole story.

If we see a happy heterosexual couple out in the world with two children, we don’t know if those children are theirs biologically, if they’re adopted, if this is a second marriage, if the children are visiting their aunt and uncle, if there is severe illness at home, if they are afflicted by addiction, etc. And because there is still so much we don’t know when we have a label, I have truly never found very much comfort in labels.

Because it’s what we don’t know from the label that creates the honest connection, it’s the story behind the outward appearance that tells me whether you’re my kind of person, or someone I don’t have space for in my life. It’s what I learn after the label has been applied that keeps me wanting to know more.

Although I have been public with my same-sex relationship for over 4 years now and Elizabeth has only publicly announced hers recently, the most important part of both of our stories is that we are happy. Elizabeth and I may never tell anyone “I am a lesbian”, all we are saying is that we fell in the biggest, boldest, most beautiful love, and that she is everything and more ❤︎