This past is a teacher I meet with gratitude

At least this time it wasn’t a phone call.

And with the mere tap of a key, I could erase him. Quietly, decisively, without being forced to engage in an onslaught of wrangled hope or cunning play for my compassion.

Last week, I received a Facebook friend request from my ex. While some part of me was actually surprised that it had taken that long for him to use Facebook to try to get in touch with me, I was mostly stupefied. It had been almost two years since our last conversation — and that is a word I use loosely.

ED and I, as I’ve previously shared, did not end well (hence the Epic Disaster acronym). When I left him with a surprising measure of calm and resolve in 2004, considering the anguish and tumult of previous breakups in our five-year on-again-off-again saga, I did not expect to be friends or even acquaintances.

I had finally woken up to the grand dysfunction of our dance — the one in which I blindly sought to fill up a heart historically resistant to love while he willfully sabotaged every chance at a normal relationship with calamity and chaos — and so I walked away certain, and almost relieved, that this was indeed the end.

And it was. For lest I waver in my decision, in the wake of our split, I inadvertently learned of a series of betrayals and reckless behavior that had swirled furtively beneath the frayed edges in those last months of our togetherness. ED, in subsequent attempts to maintain some kind of connection with me, neither acknowledged nor apologized for any of it, and I clearly saw what many had warned me of all along: that, sadly, he would never change.

But where I saw how my steadfast belief in his goodness and the possibilities for a bright and fulfilling life had been to my detriment, he apparently clung to my once-determined optimism as a talisman for our future.

When he called me out of the blue in 2008, it was with the confidence that he could win me back. Never mind that we hadn’t talked in at least three years or that I’d blatantly ignored him when I ran into him downtown at a concert once or that he had no idea of the shape and substance of my life, and how I had come to thrive in his absence. He swore he would do whatever it took and that I was the only woman for him, failing to hear my assertions that I had moved on and that whatever residual feelings he may have for me was something he’d have to work out for himself. Deliberately obtuse, or perhaps relying on the generosity that I’d always displayed with him, he called back even when I hung up, insisting I take his number.

I didn’t, of course, and after I deleted the follow-up voice mail that he left, I never heard from him again. Until last week.

There was a time when such an intrusion would have rattled me, when just the sight of his name would have stirred a rush of anxiety and trepidation and even cracked open a sticky shame at the contortions of self I’d once made. I can still remember stomping around the block after he dropped by my office one day long after we’d broken up, so angry and agitated that I had to take a walk to clear my head before I could return to my desk.

That I could remain so impassive — though admittedly bewildered by his audacity — in the face of that phone call and more recently his friend request, as innocuous as it may have been, showed me how far I’ve come from that place of bitter woundedness and self-recrimination. Both instances also reminded me to be grateful, for our snarled and stormy past and for the opportunity it presented me to confront not only the pain of our relationship but the ways in which I’d perpetuated its unhealthy cycle.

Recently, a friend lamented the news that her ex was getting married with the observation that his readiness to commit, while she continued to remain single, only highlighted her chronic failure at relationships. When another friend shared her discovery that her ex had welcomed a baby boy within the last year, she admitted that she couldn’t help feeling piqued that while he’d never wanted to have kids with her, he’d somehow found the desire to do so with someone else. Yet her irritation was fleeting as she herself is now happily married to a kind and adoring man and expecting their first child in March.

While one friend is struggling to see how each “failed” relationship is one step closer to the ideal, another is proof that every disappointment holds the seed of promise. Rather than beating ourselves up for our poor choices, I’ve come to believe that our bungled and botched steps have as much to teach us about what we don’t want for our lives as what it is that we do.

While I do not wish to revisit the heartbreak and misery I experienced with ED — and not discounting that we did share some genuinely beautiful moments — I know I would not be who I am, and where I am today, without that relationship. I also know that were it not for how challenging and disastrous that relationship was, I would not appreciate how effortless it feels to now be with my boyfriend Zane. While we have had our own hurdles, even including a brief separation, the way we so naturally inhabit a tender, kind and playful space with each other has often moved me to tears. Sometimes, even the simplest gesture — choosing the movie I want to watch when he’d rather an action flick, offering me the best bite of whatever he’s eating, assuring me of my cuteness when I’m being whiny or ridiculous — takes me by surprise. In those moments, it’s as if some fragile, shrunken part of myself, once deprived of such small acts of thoughtfulness, begins to uncurl to the light.

After years of tirelessly trying to conform to the chafing confines of a relationship that was more about ED than it ever was about me or even us, I am learning the value of my own needs and wants. And all those mistakes of the past are the very things that have taught me to speak up for myself, claim my space and trust that who I am is enough without going through any crazy gyrations of proof.

There is no doubt that sometimes the past can serve as a painful reminder, its unexpected encroachment on the present yanking us back to feelings we thought we’d released, wounds we believed had been healed. But sometimes, the intrusion can also be a gift. Rather than an invitation to backtrack, it can be an opportunity to assess how much we’ve grown, and to give thanks for the person we’ve become and the life we’ve created from a fecund suffering that brought us to freedom and peace.