‘Will I Ever Stop Being So Needy?’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

For as long as I can remember, all I’ve wanted was to feel loved and cared for. Any goal I’ve ever had has been in service of this. When I say love, I don’t just mean romantic love, but any kind of loving relationship or community where we are all willing to extend ourselves for one another’s growth, as M. Scott Peck put it (discovered via bell hooks). 

I’ve never felt this sort of love. I grew up in a home that was authoritarian, emotionally neglectful, and devoid of warmth. I spent a lot of my teens and 20s in relationships that mirrored this environment until I figured this all out. Since then, I’ve done so much therapy. I feel like I’ve healed a lot.

Still, when I think of my goals in life, it’s all about love. I feel like I have a deep, dark well inside me that has, thanks to therapy, finally a healthy level of as much groundwater as I can give myself, but which can only be fully filled from the outside. Some people might say this is a sign that I need to heal more, but I firmly believe in humans as social creatures who can’t thrive unless surrounded by love. 

I’m not lonely. I have lovely friends and some family members I’m close to. But it’s never enough. The well can’t be filled by the spoonful. I need — I’m sorry, I can’t think of another metaphor — buckets and buckets of love to fill me up. My relationships, both romantic and platonic, always seem lopsided because what I need from them is more than fits the nature of the relationship. It’s not fair to put these expectations on people. Unfortunately, this also makes it harder to appreciate the relationships I do have, because I always feel this lack of fulfillment.

I’m not sure what to do. These are the two options I see: Keep up hope that finally, eventually, I will meet one or more people who can finally heal me, which would put a lot of pressure on the relationship. Or I can finally give up hope that this can ever be fixed and accept a pain that will never go away and that seems to put a damper on anything I do, because without love, what’s the point?

Empty Well

Hey there, EW!

Phew, I really felt this letter.

If you’ll permit me, I’ll link it to something going on in my personal life right now. Not that I’ve ever asked for permission before, but regardless. It’s an event that’s made me reflect more profoundly on love — the forms it can take, how we experience it, and how we appreciate it. I promise to bring it full circle to your predicament.

Before we get to that, I’ll say right now that I’m like you. It feels like no amount of love is ever enough for me, despite me having plenty of it, both from family and friends. It seems that I’m constantly seeking a more explosive, more fantastic sort of love, the kind of love that sneaks up on you and makes life feel altogether worth it. I tend to dismiss the love I already have as ordinary and less spectacular. I’m not crazy about this trait of mine, and it’s something I had to confront again recently.

A few days ago, I lost my abuelito. It wasn’t a sudden thing. He was 91, struggling to walk, and his personality in his waning days was a mere echo of the robust, cheerful man who helped raise me. I’d been tracking this change for some time. It felt like his true self was slowly packing up and moving out from behind his eyes, and I suppose I gave myself a long runway to process his death.

When I got word that he’d passed, I felt sadness, yes, but also guilt. I should have been even sadder, I thought. But I’d worked ahead and long ago made peace with this eventuality.

This was a man who’d held me as a baby, who’d given me nicknames and taught me lessons and took me on long drives, a man who had been as everyday a presence in my young life as the mountains behind my house, and yet his departure felt to me almost like a formality.

I was pretty hard on myself over this, and I connected it back to this unsavory trait of mine. Sometimes it feels like I’m not feeling enough, or like I’m unable to appreciate the things I already have in my life, the ordinary things, like an abuelito who was always, always there, because I’m only interested in the extraordinary. I’m frivolous, shallow, cold.

But then I took a step back from being uncharitable with myself, and I decided instead to accept what I was feeling, and to reflect on why I was feeling it without judgment.

What I found was a lot more love, both in him and in myself, than I first thought. Sometimes, in regards to love, it’s not that we’re failing to find it, but instead, failing to recognize it.

My abuelito was a hardworking man. He came from a very poor family, but he was dead set on getting an education. He became the very first person in his family to do so, which made him a huge outlier in the Hernandez clan. It’s hard for me to truly appreciate what a seismic shift this was for one person to make. Going to college, for me, was not an achievement. It was like simply entering the next grade after senior year of high school. But that sense of normality, in and of itself, was the result of his efforts, efforts that, for him and for his family at the time, must have registered as herculean.

All three of his children, including my mother, pursued a college education, and all three of them became educators themselves. My mom was my high-school English teacher my freshman year. My auntie teaches computer animation at a high school in Dallas. My uncle was the director of the Museum of the Great Plains in Oklahoma.

As for me, his grandchild, I read without thinking. I write as confidently as I breathe. I have the same urge to help people, to share things with people, as a teacher might. When I look at my life, when I study the anatomy of this very moment, sitting here in a coffee shop in front of a Google document, perfectly content to be weaving words together for a stranger, when I really look at it, I see him. I see in the typically invisible architecture of my life the impact of his efforts, his gifts, his love; love for his children and his children’s children before any of us even existed.

And you know, EW, I don’t think I’m at all unique in this way. I think there is so much love built right into the ordinary things, the things we rarely stop to consider. It doesn’t have to be a grandfather or a parent or a friend or a partner. So many of the things I enjoy and find value in exist because someone out there, more often than not a complete stranger, cared. Someone thought it was a fight worth fighting, a dream worth pursuing, to bring something into this world that someone else would benefit from in some way.

I think of the people out there who become teachers, despite the low pay and lack of thanks from our culture, because they want to shape lives. I think of libraries, quiet havens for knowledge that people can access for free, and I think of the people fighting to keep them that way. I think of writers, artists, creators who bring color to my life. I think of my own capacity to bring goodness, both great and small, to the people I live beside, whether I know them by name or not.

That, to me, is love. It’s not the kind of love that novels tend to focus on, the kind in the movies or the kind that romantics like you and I yearn for on gray, lonely days. But it’s everywhere, if you resolve to see it.

I understand, EW, what you’re looking for. I’d like to find it myself. I can’t pretend otherwise. I hope you find more friends and a partner, and that they bring you warmth and happiness. But this feeling of emptiness and discontent is something you can bring with you to those relationships. It can, and often does, persist, even if on paper we have everything that we thought would fix it.

I’ve felt it while dating. I’ve felt it while surrounded by friends. Sometimes it’s not about what we have or what we don’t. It’s about shifting our perspective.

And I think that being able to look at things differently, being able to appreciate things better and being able to source our happiness in more reliable things, is a great skill to carry with you into any new relationship, platonic or otherwise. Yes, it takes work and it takes unlearning and relearning. But in an unstable world, I think it’s worth it.

On my worst days, when everything feels unbearably still, I try to remind myself that love travels. I remind myself that as well as the capacity to receive love, I have the capacity to give it, to share it, to express it to the people who are already in my life. It might feel small, and it might feel a bit quiet compared to, say, the operatic nature of a fiery new romance.

But in my experience, it’s the quiet love that moves mountains.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published December 7, 2023.

Purchase JP Brammer’s book, Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘Will I Ever Stop Being So Needy?’