Abuse and Selfishness

Mid-March, freelance writer Richard Greenhill contacted me to discuss a Reddit post I made about my then boyfriend, as he was interested in writing about cuckolding and hotwife fetishes.

If you’ve read my blog, you already know from some of my earlier pieces that my ex of three and a half years was obsessed with sexual fantasies involving me and other men. (You can read Your Bulimic Girlfriend, Wedding Bells, and/or The Bulimic and the Sex Addict if you want more insight.) While having particular kinks is not bad by any means, my ex took things to an entirely new level, where our sexual activities included (almost from day one) demands for me to change my body (get implants, plastic surgery, dye my hair, get my nails done, do my makeup so it’s “sluttier,” and all sorts of things), as well as his articulation of strange and dangerous scenarios at gas stations, glory holes, and more. I didn’t enjoy this; we fought often about his inability to talk about any other subject. Sometimes I had the nerve to bring up how sexually unsatisfied I was, my needs and wants elided by his all-consuming fetish, only to suffer through the same one-sided sex talk later that day. To make matters worse, he never respected my boundaries, or when I told him “no.” He would continuously beg me to help him get off, whining and needling me, and not allow me to go to sleep until he got his way. Whenever I dug my heels in (which wasn’t often), he’d become increasingly manipulative. He would tell me that rejecting him made him feel unloved, especially because I was so terrible at showing my affection in any arena outside of sex.

Looking back at my Reddit post, where I asked for relationship advice and reassurance that his behavior was not OK, I cringe. Writing the above, and knowing that I endured his sex addiction despite the pain it caused me, makes me feel like a fool. My post to Reddit wasn’t even completely honest: I wrote that our relationship was fine aside from our sex life. Well, it wasn’t, even aside from the relentless sexual coercion I faced. I developed Bulimia during the course of dating him. I was financially dependent on him, having gone back to school at his urging, and was reminded every day that I should feel lucky and grateful to have his (or his family’s) roof over my head. Prior to leaving for residential treatment at Renfrew for my eating disorder, he had cheated on me. He was still talking to the girl when I came back, hiding that he had a live-in girlfriend.

Even during my time at Renfrew, when I was supposed to be healing and focusing on myself, he’d ask anytime I called him if I told my therapist about “how we are sexually.” I didn’t even tell my truth when in the best setting to do so, as I subconsciously knew that my treatment team would likely intervene. (My therapist was already concerned I wouldn’t do well in recovery, given that he was such poor support, and that was without her knowing the more gruesome details of our relationship.) Worst of all, when I left for residential treatment, we had promised we’d both work on our compulsive behaviors – and while I took the steps I needed, he spent my two weeks in a psychiatric unit for damaged girls and women watching cuckold porn and talking to the chick he cheated on me with.

These are not details I discussed with Richard. His Vice article, published earlier this month, focuses on when the cuckold and hotwife fetish puts strain on a relationship, and uses my story as one example (among a few others). After writing about my experience at Richard’s request, the part of our conversation he featured in his article is the conclusion I came to as I tried to answer some of his questions. Cuckold/hotwife fantasies differ from other fetishes because they involve the objectification of both your partner and the relationship between you. (Striped socks have nothing on this kink.) In understanding this, I also understand how many red flags I ignored as I fell deeper and deeper into a shared life with a sex addict. I could rattle off the list, but they all suggest the same thing: he didn’t see me as a person, and he was selfish.

While the men featured in Richard’s article were able to identify wrongness in their obsession (even if they couldn’t overcome it), experiencing – much like my ex – an inability to be intimate with their significant other, my boyfriend of three and a half years was unable to acknowledge the damage he inflicted. Not just on me, but also on himself. As part of his unwillingness to handle his sex addiction, he lied and cheated and manipulated. When we ultimately broke up, the story he told didn’t include three and a half years of sexual harassment. He didn’t tell people how he made me feel insecure by constantly demanding that I change my body, how I dress, and even how I do my makeup. No, the story he told was that I was a crazy girl with an eating disorder. Because disclosing my medical history (even the “crazy” part) to everyone we knew mutually (and those he met afterward) was more OK, and more socially acceptable, than acknowledging his role in destroying my sense of self.

Don’t mistake writing about my ex as dwelling on a situation I’ve left behind. While it’s only been a little over a year, I normally don’t think of him outside of trying to create a poem or some prose based on a period of my life that was emotionally rich. There are triggers, of course: I’m angered whenever I feel like someone is controlling what I can say or do, since my relationship also involved trying to control how I dressed and behaved outside of sex. There are also areas in which I’ve grown as part of my experience, as much as I hate to admit it. I’m not quiet when I feel wronged, and I’m learning how to express myself. I stand by my opinions. And I am likable this way, even if my ex made me fear that I’d have even less of a life simply by being myself, that I needed to be quiet and demure to be both loved and liked.

As much as I attempt to move on, however, I’m in recovery. It means that even if I’ve put the past behind me, I’m still dealing with how a sexually abusive relationship affected this present version of myself. Due to my abusive father, I went into my adulthood with an inability to distinguish healthy relationships from unhealthy ones. And then I stumbled into my ex after a relatively OK marriage (where the man I was involved with made me feel lovable and worthy of love for the first time in my life, even if things ultimately ended between us). My ex undid a lot of the progress I made, and he undid it gradually. So when I decided to leave him, I was somewhat lost.

Although I’ve attempted to rebuild my life instead of allowing it to fall apart, I’ve made mistakes. I thought being upfront about my past would protect me to some degree. I wanted to know what it was like to have fun, to live. I also didn’t want to get hurt. So I was fun, and I tried to weigh the risk of being vulnerable and being hurt against the reward of finding love. In the trysts I fell into since, I learned that being hurt and finding that you’re still capable of being vulnerable enough to offer your heart to another are not mutually exclusive. But it’s also scary, sometimes, to see how little progress I’ve made in identifying my own boundaries. I only see evidence that they looked at the partial picture and intentionally avoided the strokes that didn’t fit their fantasy after the fact. I’ve let the reasons they used to justify their bouts of selfishness be the seeds of doubt. I’m not good enough.

At this point, nearly fourteen months after leaving a relationship I thought would culminate in marriage, I want my core belief to be that these people were not good enough for me, leave alone worth the time I invested in them. This is the benchmark of recovery, the thought that will let me say, I’m an abuse survivor, and not an active victim.

LCD Soundsystem

Vibrations travel through the heels of my boots, intermittently and inconsistently interrupted as I take a few strides. I pause more often than I’d like to find a direction that will bring me back to Mike. The venue is crowded; what little air exists between and above the bodies of LCD Soundsystem’s fans is cloying. Whenever I can’t uncover an opening between the throngs of people, I stop, pivoting to change course. Part of me considers simply abandoning my date and enjoying the show on my own: I’m not sure he’s worth the trouble of discovery. But he drove us to Brooklyn, and I don’t trust that I’ll find my way back to Harrison on my own.

I commend myself for recognizing my own discomfort, for not pushing away the bits and pieces that tell me to enjoy myself but to not let this man into the interior of my life. I count two accusations of lusting after other people that I’m not sure are jokes, and one awkward conversation about our feelings on political correctness. (He’s not a fan, he told me. Most white men aren’t, I’ve found, and I’m not surprised.) Still, I can be polite and enjoy a good show. So however much it tests my patience, I continue through the venue, eventually finding the balcony’s stairway.

The way he looks at me doesn’t hurt. I may not think he’s handsome, but I could tell from the moment we hugged how pleased he was to see me.

If I were to be honest with myself, I’d admit that it’s intoxicating to know that I’m desired, even when I’m certain that I don’t want them. My high is a positive correlation, in terms of the lust in their eyes. But it’s the most innocent of my addictions, and I’ve worked on myself enough for the year.

So rather than dwelling on my inadequacies, I decide to enjoy this version of myself. This is me in my element, I think, finally reaching the upstairs balcony. A year ago, I wasn’t in a position to brave the crowd brought in by Brooklyn Steel, locked away with girls and women terrified by the relationship between their death wish and the calories they (had not) consumed. And on this exact date, Scott visited me with his mother. Today, on December 26th, I remember the impatience that infested his bones like termites, his leg jumping as he sat on my therapist’s couch. I can even remember Nicole’s assessment of my then boyfriend after our session, nearly verbatim: As hesitant as I am to tell you this, I have my own fears that you’ll go home and not succeed. Both are memories I recall more clearly than his appearance. In a way, I’m pleased.

I break from my brief reverie when I bump into another concert-goer and hear their “fuck” in response. After I dart to the left, wanting to avoid the assignation of “culprit” regarding his spilled drink, I reach what I had previously identified as the best spot on the balcony. I now see that I’ve caught Mike’s eye, my date standing a few feet away, and a flash of white teeth breaks up his doughy head. His face suddenly reminds me of a dog that has dropped a toy at my feet, the grin akin to the lopsided expression of most canines: even without words, he is able to demonstrate that he’s absurdly and ridiculously pleased with himself.

At the time, I don’t realize that this is the wrong comparison.

 

Trauma is not finite, I learn. This too shall pass, my ex-husband used to tell me. So I wait under Mike’s body, feeling like something of a corpse as his stomach flops against mine.

When “no” ceased to work, I started to distract myself with a variety of thoughts, most of them revolving around dating. The sound his body makes brings me to the absurdity of my own insecurities when meeting men. In addition to sounding like a wet sponge hitting the wall, he’s overplayed his alleged commitment to the gym, his body more Rubenesque than my own. Like many men with thinning head hair, it’s as if the strands that once belonged to his skull migrated downward and then somehow multiplied exponentially.

Scott taught me that it’s easier to give up and give in when a man will not accept your protests. Silence will be easiest, and it ensures he’ll leave. But in addition to feeling dirty, I also feel stupid. Where’s your roommate? he had asked me early on, before we had even reached the venue. When he brought me home and I was ready to leave his car, he asked to use my bathroom. I allowed him into the apartment.

I didn’t think this is how my night would end, sweating under his weight, waiting for his grunting to stop.

And even then. Even then. He finishes and rolls off of me, prone on my bed, likely to leave a large sweat stain on the spot I usually sleep. He laughs. “Girls are so confusing,” he says. “They say no, but they really want it.”

I want to scream. I don’t.

A Weekend in January

I thought about the story my father told me, of when I was a toddler playing with a “shape sorter,” surrounded by plastic figures, a small box with matching holes in front of me. I said my first string of words as I tried to shove a square block against a round opening: “Jesus Christ!” Whether my father’s story was true or not, I had no idea — given his lifelong hobby of humiliating my mother, I was apt to believe the tale was meant to shame her for cursing around his children. Our daughter’s first phrase, a blasphemy! But fact or fiction, trying to fit into spaces that would only reject me was a common thread in my life. I viewed the story as part of my own personal mythology, as it explained something that was otherwise difficult for me to comprehend. Instead of putting effort towards aligning myself with something or someone that fit, I began my new chapters by knowing they’d end in failure — and that frustration would define the space in between the beginning and end.

Gemini to Aquarius

We’re both air signs, I say, expecting you to laugh. You do.

I won’t tell you that I’m trying to find direction in fiction: I’m using meanings arbitrarily assigned to planetary alignments and the quadrants traveled by Mars to better understand your gravitational pull. Part of me wants to explain to you that the stars are more accurate than you’d believe. When our constellations cross paths, we feel a validation of self, an intellectual closeness that falls short in its warmth. I’m flexible and you’re rigid. This doesn’t interfere with your needs, and only displaces one of mine, because we both share the desire to remain independent, to honor the selves we salvaged, however broken. In our friendship and moments of intimacy, we form complementary angles within the spaces we don’t already overlap.

This is a little crazy, so I know better than to tell you that astrology is my latest comfort. For me, it’s always held a place in my heart and mind as my favorite pseudoscience. Horoscopes and the compatibility of signs are also the means of turning abstract thoughts into a narrative, at least lately. Don’t worry, though. Like most things that exist between us, it’s not serious. So I just smile (as I so often do when I hear you laugh). Because even if you don’t love me, afraid to be more than water in a woman’s hands, I can’t help but share in your joy.

Snapshot of a Date

“It must feel like a part of your identity,” I say.

He sips his Diet Coke before answering. “Yeah, yeah. It does,” he says.

Labels are meant to communicate certain experiences. My date is many things, and Sober is one. There’s no similar expression for abstaining from disordered eating, but I relate to what it means to live in an addiction, to count the days you’ve spent on the other side of it. I even have a phrase that I hold on to, that defines more of my life than I ever imagined. The label is “In Recovery,” and the experience it communicates is less rigid than sobriety.

Sober. In Recovery. While I think of the strength it took simply to recognize a need for less maladaptive coping mechanisms when I hear or read these words, I know others sometimes see a different meaning. I’ve been broken in the eyes of a loved one, pitiable from the perspective of friends. Even those who call me strong would be wary to include me in their life: recovery is ultimately the suppression of chaos, and the empathy they demonstrate acknowledges a struggle for control rather than success.

I wonder if this means we’re meant to be alone. Or perhaps together with people like ourselves. Even though I don’t find my date attractive, when he tells me that he drank too much in the past, I immediately feel a strange sense of kinship, a desire to get closer. You’ll understand me, won’t you? I want to ask Bobby (such a child-like name, and not the one that comes to mind when I imagine an alcoholic) for insight – he’s a lot further along than I am in controlling the chaos, and probably more successful too – but I need to stop leading with the reasons people should run.

So I don’t tell him I am a diagnosed case of Bulimia Nervosa. I just listen, overwhelmed by the sadness I now feel. I want to reject the realization that creeps up on me, but I can’t. He is me, in a way. I’m sitting on the other side of a conversation with myself, and the discomfort that I feel is a knot of emotions and thoughts.

The conclusion is simple, though. That’s the only thing that doesn’t come as a surprise tonight. It’s just clear to me, all of a sudden, this truth I always knew. Even I have a right to find happiness, but I’ll never deserve another’s love.

A Brief Humiliation

My first impression of Nick was that he was too thin. Even as he closed the distance between us, a casual gait carrying him forward at high speed, his frame remained the width of a rail, his legs more narrow than my wrists. (I expected him to be thin based on his pictures, but I had to admit that the reality was somewhat unsettling.) Already, I could tell that he was one of those men that didn’t realize the importance of clothes, particularly the way they fit on a slender frame. The boyish voice of Scott popped into in my head, reminding me that slim guys need a slim cut. Otherwise we look like skeletons, I recalled my ex telling me on our first date. While I still hadn’t come to terms with the pain Scott caused me, I couldn’t help but smile at the tangential thought of his obsession with fashion. Maybe this was the right beginning – this Nick guy clearly wasn’t fixated on the fit of the oversized polo shirt he wore. Of course, Scott was right: my date looked like he belonged in an anatomy class, suspended in the corner by a pole.

My date waved from afar, strolling past mothers who were emptying their cars of children and lawn chairs and food. From what I could tell, the park I selected was hosting a softball tournament for preteen girls. Aluminum bats, leather gloves, kids with their hair pulled into high ponytails served as the park’s backdrop.

“Amber?” he asked, now close enough that I could hear him.

“Yup,” I said. I hope I look enough like my pictures. This was the same thought I always had when I met anyone from a dating app, moderately terrified I would be told that I’m bigger or uglier than my profile suggested.

“Nice to meet you, Nick,” I continued, reaching out to shake his hand. Dates were like an interview, after all. And just like I would with any hiring manager, I made sure to hold his hand firmly. I’m assertive!

“Nice to meet you,” he said, pulling his hand away slowly. The only word I could find to describe his voice was “blunted.” There was hardly any inflection. I’m in for a treat, I thought, expecting to be bored by the lanky stranger I had agreed to meet.

“I think the trail starts there,” I said, pointing towards the paved ground ahead. This wasn’t the hiking trail I had been hoping for, but he was yet another guy that forced me to figure out the details of meeting up for the first time. I was tired of getting drinks — alcohol made you fat, like so many other things — so I opted for a physical activity and a location halfway between the two of us. I didn’t put a lot of effort into these things.

Given our lackluster greeting and the questionable impression Nick made, I didn’t expect our first date to clock in at over thirty hours.

**

I’m not the first person to recognize that they’re in love with being in love. Of course, I believe that the concept of being in love with being in love is simply a generous way of reframing, “Hi, I have an addictive personality.” Maybe I’m just being cynical. I do know that I’m projecting, independent of my prior insight’s validity. Personally, I see love as another dirty habit I engage in. Losing myself in a new romance or a friend is as numbing as alcoholism, and it kills time better than my usual vice of choice. (B-U-L-I-M-I-A. I think it’s a funny word, but it’s still hard to say aloud.)

Still, this isn’t the impression I typically make, or want to make at all, which is why I try so hard to be cold and distant at first. Actual love (including the self-directed variety) is too vulnerable. My desire to lose myself in someone else is too dangerous. Given my history, I’m reasonably certain the latter event is inevitable, despite the Ice Queen disposition I’ve tried to adopt. Genuine love, whether it’s for myself or another person, will be sacrificed along with what little personality I’ve scraped together thus far. Because when I open up, the only thing I reveal is that I’m desperate to please – even when that means giving up the bits and pieces that allow me to feel like a person with interests, dreams.

This was the exact lesson I learned from my brief relationship with Nick, wasn’t it? A guy who needs me can save me from my addictions – until reality replaces infatuation, and the cycles I’ve known all my life repeat, tied together in an infinity knot. The threads are limited, representing only sacrifice and survival. Bleak, I know, but the paths I’ve taken in my life can’t be undone, unpaved, unwound. I can almost predict my future based on how and where these lines have traveled, and I’m more terrified to experience something new than I care to admit.

With Nick, I ignored the red flags, telling myself that mine were worse.

Sometimes, I feel like I survived only so that I could relive and replicate the trauma that’s chased me throughout my life. On better days, I consider all the potential I contain, my ability to change this narrative of abuse, both self-directed and externally inflicted by others. I’m not dead yet because I desperately want to find happiness. I’ve made that decision more than once – and acted on the will to seek better for myself, even when it meant facing the unknown. Always, the difficult part is keeping that momentum going. Eventually I fall into filling myself on my addictions; I’m too afraid I’ll collapse otherwise.

I thought Nick was a different path. I was in love with being in love with the change he represented. Finally, someone nice. He was not Scott in all the ways that mattered most. If I lost myself in him, as I had with Scott, I’d be safe.

Wrong. I was a fool to be so surprised when he left. There was a different insight I wish I had made at the time, when I first left Scott and ventured into the realm of dating again. I need to learn how to be in love with myself first.

**

“I know you’re not alright,” my therapist said.

My jaw throbbed. I always wondered if he knew when I was acting on my symptoms. He specialized in treating people like me, after all.

“I have something to tell you about your boyfriend,” he said. “Nothing bad, but I want to hear what happened first.”

He knew about Nick?

“He left,” I said. I was smiling. I did that whenever I felt like I was on the verge of crying -grin like a lunatic, an inappropriate context almost always accompanying the expression. A subconscious part of me equated baring my teeth with protection. “He took everything. He left. When I got home yesterday, all of his shit was out of the apartment. Everything.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I’m sure you have some thoughts,” he said.

“Well… I don’t know, we were fighting, sort of. About a lot of things,” I began. “He knew we were moving in together, but he made some choices that put me in this position – I paid for a lot of our furniture, and used a lot of my savings, and it was just hard to think it was fair… and I don’t know, there’s just so much that came up. I wanted him to be neat, and I think I nagged him too much. I was worried -”

“He’s a hoarder.”

“His parents are hoarders,” I said. “And he definitely has the same impulse to hold on to things. I don’t know if it’s hoarding or more like… that’s just what he knows, after living with them his whole life. But I didn’t want that for us.”

Remember when he told you he cleaned out his bathroom? Nick was practically waving his red flags that day. “I did my best,” he told me as I walked into the room, his affect strange and difficult to describe because it seemed so unlike him. He was sitting on the floor, his long legs folded over each other, head hanging down. I’ve never seen him like this, I thought.

The only progress he made was clearing out one of the recessed shelves by the shower, but even then, he had simply found new homes for the random of collection of items that once lived there. I knew to be gentle in my response – so I told him it was okay, but that we could definitely do better.

“I’ll help you,” I said, stroking Nick’s head, now pressed against my hip, my fingers occasionally caught by tangles in his coarse blond hair. Instead of recognizing that my new boyfriend had a serious problem, I used his dysfunction to satisfy a part of me that enjoyed being needed. I spent what remained of my night encouraging him to throw away excess bottles of suntan lotion, women’s makeup (I was both relieved and disturbed when I discovered that these items were leftover from his half-sister, who had moved out almost a decade ago), and useless As Seen on TV items like towels woven around reusable freezer packs. I remembered feeling so satisfied by the end result. In retrospect, I knew that a selfish, co-dependent part of me found joy knowing that he’d required my help, that this event proved I could prevent him from becoming like his parents.

“Was there more?” my therapist asked.

Yes, more than I realized, I thought. “Food, too,” I answered. “That was an issue. He wasn’t really helping with meal prep, and the food I made… I cook a lot of quinoa and beans, I guess, and he was like, ‘This is really carb heavy.’ This was a couple days ago, but he’s always made comments like that. And it’s probably shitty of me to be mad. I was, though. I didn’t drop it. I don’t want to control how someone else eats, or how they feel about food, but at the same time… I mean, come the fuck on. He knows I have an eating disorder.”

“How long were you two fighting?”

“Just since we made the move,” I said. “I didn’t think he’d leave. I thought this was all given. It’s stressful.”

“Yeah, I don’t disagree with you. Actually, first… let me tell you about what happened, why I know you’re not alright. Your boyfriend called me yesterday. He kept saying, ‘I know Amber’s your patient. I can’t be enough for her. I can’t do it.’ Repeated it non-stop. He sounded panicked – and a little crazy, honestly.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know what else to say. My stomach felt like it was being strangled by my embarrassment. I had never expected Nick to behave this way, to inconvenience a stranger with this drama he brought into my life. “I’m sorry.”

“No, no. Don’t be sorry. I’m glad this happened. To be forthright, I don’t know if I’d believe you – that he just suddenly left for no reason – if he hadn’t made it so clear that there’s something off with him. It sounded like he snapped when I spoke to him. He was worried that he wouldn’t live up to what you needed. It was strange.”

“I guess this means it’s over,” I said, the fatuous smile of an idiot still plastered across my face. “This is funnier to me than it should be, but he said that he couldn’t make that decision while in whatever state of mind he’s in, to end things. He left a check for me on the table where the memo read ‘for therapy,’ though. Felt fucking crushed when I saw that.”

I waited for my therapist to say something, but he just looked at me. I hate this, I thought, trying to fill the silence.

“My self-esteem isn’t so low that I’d say ‘yeah, I’ll put the bullshit you just put me through behind us’ if he decided to come back.”

That was dishonest of me to say, I realized later. When I arrived home to my empty apartment, several pieces of artwork leaning against the living room walls, still unhung, I thought, I want you back.

If he had been waiting for me on the couch, I would’ve sat by his feet like a dog.