For a long time I felt like an enemy in my home town. That was the best verbiage I had to describe the feeling of always being on guard, always feeling ready for an affront. Always jumpy and distrusting.

Strolls down the milk aisle were hurried and vigilant.  More times than I can count I ran into people with whom I didn’t know where I stood. Other times I’d run into people and knew where I stood: on the road of their wounds — I’d helped lay the bricks. On their Most Wanted posters — yet they were vigilant in their avoidance.

I only had one person tell me to leave, but by the time she got to it at the end of her list, it was a question not a statement. “Why don’t you leave?” she said sadly, honestly wondering. “I don’t feel released yet.” I said.

And it was true. Life was a very dark, very lonely hell in my hometown for several months. But there were a few people who stepped into my life during that time who said, “we’ll walk with you,” “we’ll sit wherever you sit,” “I’ll be your friend.”

To be completely honest, I needed them, relied on them, but I didn’t trust them.

I didn’t know then how hard it would be for me to trust anyone new in life for the next years. It’s still not something I do well. I can count on one hand the number of people who have slowly but surely broken into my life after I was trying to rebuild, and who have stayed long enough to earn my trust. It’s not really about those people, it’s about me.

The people who stepped in during my time of need were trustworthy, but when I ended up finally feeling like I was “released” from this town that I had loved — that I could move away with peace and that it would both be healthy and not for the sake of running away, I didn’t leave well.

I tend to be a bad leaver. When I leave an event or a place, I don’t announce, “Hey, I’m taking off, bye everyone.”

I don’t go around and say all the proper goodbyes. I used to. But now, I’m less certain of myself. I’m less confident that people care if and when I go. So I don’t make a big effort to find out. I tell those that are nearby, “hey, I’m heading out,” and then I go without fanfare.

It’s not rare that people follow up after a party, “When did you take off? I looked for you and then you were gone.” But still, I do this.

I did it when I left my hometown. And I left some kind people in the dust who had made a sacrifice to be with me in the darkness. I’ve never had the nerve to go back to them and say I’m sorry for that. That that was a really crappy thing to do. That I really, really, really did appreciate their grace and their friendship when no one else was there. That it lightened the weight on my chest enough to be able to breathe with pain, as opposed to continuing to suffocate all the way.

And then I came back to that town this month, and I saw a couple of these people, and they were gracious, and made sure I knew that I was always still invited to be with them. An invitation I’d become uncertain of — just as I am uncertain of the weight of my leaving.

When I left, it all happened quickly. I got a job offer, a week later I took a 10 day long road trip, and then a week after that I was gone. I was coming back often to see my family, so I had underestimated my need to announce my leaving.  It felt anticlimactic to announce “I’m moving, but I’ll be back once a week for a chiropractor and family dinner.” So I just didn’t, and I left, and then drifted.

Then I tried to leave the same way from Rocklin when I moved to Denver, and people intervened, and said “We’re going to have a birthday/goodbye party for you.” And I cried, and apologized to them for not letting myself get closer to them than I did. I apologized that they got a crappy, in-transition version of me while I was there, and they were gracious, and uplifting, and seemed genuinely sad to see me go.

With each move, I think I am getting better at being known, and better at announcing my goodbyes, but the reality is, I’m bad at them, partly because I’m too good at them.

I’ve said too many goodbyes. And so the real estate in my heart preserves itself because the attrition rate is bad. It says goodbyes quickly and gets the heck out of dodge.

And I’m afraid I’ve left a number of good, kind, gracious people in my wake sometimes.

Sometimes much more than others. Not that I’ve been such an important person to them to be able to hurt them so — but because I act like an inconsiderate person, and I leave without proper closure on the ways they’ve reached out to me in my times of need. They were willing to be reciprocal friends and I took their kindness and left.

I’m good at being an anomaly. I’m good at being a one-hit wonder that comes in, a flurry of fun and adventure and then is out the door the next day.

But I don’t want to be that. I’m a bad leaver because goodbyes, when done well, hurt my throat and they hurt my heart.

In Denver, it’s been different. The friends I’ve made through other venues have been great, but short-lived because most of them knew I was only living there for a time — that I was on loan so to speak. I have left them in a crappy way similar to before.

But I’ve lived with one of my best friends, for the third time in our lives. I’ve lived upstairs from two guys who have wiggled their way into my heart through lots of games and honest talks and time spent hanging out on the porch together. I’ve gotten to spend considerable amounts of time with one of my cousins who I had literally only met twice before I moved to Colorado. The overall friendships have been fewer, but the deep friendships have been deeper and more real. And my goodbyes are hurting my heart more this time, because I’m really trying to do them better.

My hope is that I do less and less leaving in my life. But I’m trying, really trying, to get to a point where, when I do have to leave, I leave well. I’m sorry if I’ve been a bad leaver to you. I’ve been protecting my heart. But it’s been on the bench recuperating long enough. I’m letting it back in the game, slowly but surely.


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Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

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