The first time I blacked out from drinking, I stayed at a friend’s place. I puked on the dance floor, and, after my friend had stored me horizontally in the backseat of his car for a few hours, I woke up on his couch the next day. I was embarrassed, sure, but given all the funny stories my friends told me, I didn’t feel all that bad about it.
The second time I blacked out from drinking, my friends brought me straight back to my mother. Somewhere in the haze of semi-conscious memories, I remember her sitting next to me on my bed, holding me and patting my back while I sat there with a bowl, waiting to throw up, stammering: “Never again. Never again. Never again.”
That second time is where blacking out went from almost being cool to being something I am so deeply ashamed and vulnerable about that, to this day, I cringe every time I recount any one of my unfortunately-more-than-two blackout events, even when I think the situation is important enough to go out on this limb in the first place.
The difference is unconditional love: Someone who loves me (and who I love in return) was extremely worried for my wellbeing, all because of actions I had taken. Despite having every reason to admonish me and letting me face the pain alone so I might learn a lesson, they set themselves aside and helped me anyway. That’s unconditional love.
We always say parents can’t help but feel unconditional love for their children, but as many a wealthy yet emotionally scarred heir proves, it is actually a choice – a choice you’ll have to make again and again.
The third time I blacked out from drinking, I landed in the hospital. I was all alone. I woke up straight into a Bourne movie, with shadows passing me in the hallway where I was parked on a stretcher, a kind nurse handing me a bottle of water, my phone at 10% battery, and my jacket and wallet missing. It was the scariest situation in my entire life, and if my mom had been there, she’d have done the same but different: Help me get home, help me get healthy, then remind me to not drink too much.
Unconditional love will have to look different every time you choose to give it. There can be no conditions to your offering it, sure, but the conditions under which you offer it will differ. “I’m going to help you through this, or we’ll both die trying.” That’s the kind of deal you’re making, and at such crazy terms, it surely is a choice.
You can’t turn on some unconditional love switch, and kindness will keep flowing forever. Even for the most smitten parents, that only lasts so long. Humans change dramatically on their own accord, and when you factor in outside factors, like how others changing changes us, you’ll see that whoever you choose to love, you’ll have to keep choosing to love them through a million changes and then some.
It’s a nice idea, this “unconditional love forever,” and I’m sure in a few rare cases, it both works and lasts. For us mere mortals, however, the choice offers freedom: You don’t have to be enlightened to love. You can do it imperfectly.
Your love needn’t be unconditional each time. Sometimes, the very conditionality of it is what makes it human. Fragile. Precious. Like us – especially when we’re too drunk to find our way home, in dire need of someone who’ll choose to love us against the odds.
The “against-the-odds” part makes unconditional love more special, not less. Beat the odds whenever you can, but don’t blame yourself when you can’t. It’s hard work, lifting someone out of the gutter. You can only do it so many times before you’ll start falling down yourself.