Happy

As personal as my writing on this blog tends to be, I typically maintain a creative distance between myself and whatever morose subject I’m covering. This is not a diary (for the most part), but rather an expression of thoughts and connections branching from my personal experiences. Much of the content here is, well, negative: Girl With a Tale has been a way for me to navigate painful emotions and cope with traumatic events.

Not my original intention, of course. At first, I wanted to simply host the scraps I’d normally delete somewhere so I could go back to them at my leisure. With the blog, I didn’t need to worry about losing ideas to computers I had to leave behind or backing up musings that had potential to grow. My intentions led to achieving my writing goals. Ideas started here gained momentum and shape elsewhere, becoming poems and prose that I shopped around, including a short story on having my heart broken and an abortion in the same month. In all the despair I host here, I’ve created things, sad as some of them are, that I hope ultimately resonate with others.

I want to change gears with my writing, at least eventually. My tale isn’t grief. At least, that’s not the entire story. Life is not pain and suffering; as I wrote back in March, to live, you often need to let go. So here’s a start in creating something different in this space: I will to put my happiness in plain view, since I’ve often failed to explore my joy and progress.

The week I turned 30, I found out news regarding my job that I still can’t share, but there’s a huge opportunity potentially coming my way that will change my life. I also saw Javier, my ex, as we crossed paths at Exchange Place that same day. It was fitting to see the man that broke my heart and cheated on me within hours of finding out the good news. Javier, who ceased to respond to any of my messages begging for clarity or answers, looked the same as he always did – beard and sunglasses masking the width of his large face, a brown trucker hat, the kind with mesh sides, covering his thinning black hair, brown and green clothing hiding a paunch while simultaneously putting in plain view his inability to disconnect himself from the “military man” identity he held onto post-discharge.

He was someone I had decided to attribute my previous successes to: I regained control of many coping mechanisms I abused while we were dating, and made significant progress both with my career and fitness. But he wasn’t there for me, as supportive as I had thought he was. Yeah, I could text him about hitting a new PR at the gym, but I saw him once a week, and very rarely on the weekends. Looking back, I realize how silly I was to think I was doing well specifically because of a man who treated me like I was last on his list of priorities. Work, family, friends, the doctor that lives in Neptune (impressive find, as he doesn’t have a car), the girls in Brooklyn he crashes with instead of going home, and then finally Amber, the girlfriend. Or a girlfriend. I honestly don’t know. Because once confronted, he refused to say.

Seeing him left me with a variety of feelings to sort through. I primarily felt empowered, though, since I stood my ground as he walked past me, smiling widely and waving. He offered an awkward pause as he decided upon which action to take, until finally weakly waving in return. The moment didn’t send me into a negative spiral. Instead, I smiled on my way home to Harrison, probably looking like an idiot to others on the PATH when I audibly laughed to myself in joy. I’m strong, I thought. And for once, not just physically.

Later that week, on my birthday, he texted me. “You probably still hate my guts but I wanted to wish you a happy birthday regardless,” Javier wrote.

I responded, “I don’t hate you. Thank you.”

A conversation began from this, where he suggested we meet up so I could get the closure I had wanted months ago. Initially I agreed, but the day after, I wrote back to him letting him know that I had made peace with the fact that I never received the answers I wanted. That I didn’t think I’d get anything out of seeing him one last time except for an unnecessary helping of grief.

“I know that it’s hard to be a decent person when you’ve been through a lot in your life,” I wrote. “And you have. I get you, and that’s probably the reason I can never hate you. I loved you and I still care about you, but unless you wanted to make a real attempt to be friends (which means being honest and also treating me like one) – don’t respond. This chapter is otherwise closed. Good luck in your life.”

He hasn’t responded. I wish things had ended at Exchange Place with me grinning all the way home, prideful and confident. The brief back and forth didn’t result in me coming undone, but it reminded me of how hard it is to set boundaries with others -and especially men. I agreed to meet him at a time and date of his choosing initially, instead of demanding convenience for myself. And it was hard to turn him down, as I desperately still want to see him.

I’m not manically happy to have told him I’ve made peace without him providing closure – it’s not like the triumph I felt when he had to respond to me at Exchange Place, giving me a briefly lived power over his emotional and physical response to me. But still, it’s a quiet joy. It’s progress. If I don’t want to repeat my mistakes, then it’s time to not allow men to use me as a means to an end – whatever that end is. Love is not one-sided sacrifice. And as trite as it is to say, love does start with me – specifically with respecting myself and my needs.

Javier had two months to tell me the truth or to give me the closure I wanted. Instead he spent that weekend with another woman, at his home that I was not allowed to see. (How absurd, I realize, to feel the way I do about someone that made me sit in a ShopRite parking lot by the apartment he shared with his mother – for forty minutes – instead of letting me inside.)

I owe him nothing, whereas I owe myself the world. I’ve already spent so much of my life being a victim. I was little better off than an abused dog, cowering and afraid and unable to enjoy the act of living. But going into thirty, I can finally say that I’m happy. Not because of a man. Not because of another person’s intervention. I’m happy because I worked for it.

Two years ago I was living out of my car, having given up everything to escape an abusive relationship that led me down the path of an eating disorder. A year after, I was unemployed while dealing with a rock bottom I had to some degree brought upon myself. Last spring, I seriously considered that I wouldn’t recover from how severely I had regressed in my ability to cope, resorting heavily to binging, purging, and drinking to deal with sexual assault and unwanted pregnancy. The gym became a distant thought, and despite the weight I gained, I figured exercise no longer mattered: as far as I was concerned, the brief period of my life where I felt empowered after leaving Scott was a mistake, and that this was real.

Since my 29th birthday, however, I’ve been promoted twice at a job I love. When I think of Scott criticizing me for working as a veterinary technician or for not making enough to be suitable for marriage, I get to have a good laugh, my career putting me on track to make significantly more than a teacher. The gym is again a place of relaxation, focus, and progress for me. (In fact, I just hit a one rep max for 165lbs on bench press, among other recent feats.) I drink socially without embarrassing myself or losing my keys, purse. Most impressively, my eating disorder is quiet. To say it’s “gone” would be perhaps too optimistic, but I haven’t binged or purged for months, and I’m not terrified to be flexible in how I eat. I let myself enjoy food the way I used to envy in others. I never imagined I’d get here, to be honest.

I made the decision to work on myself, which wasn’t natural to me, or the least bit easy. When Javier and I were dating, I told him that I know how to survive, but to actually live is beyond my ability. Without conflict, it’s difficult to know what to do with myself. He understood me. “It’s about who gets you the most,” he once said. And I still agree, which is why it will be hard to let go of the love I had for him. People who will hurt me always get me the most, because what we so often have in common is pain. Unfortunately, many don’t turn their lives around. They don’t stop hurting themselves or others. Their interest in survival means that they will never know what it is to live. And if I don’t want to be the girl that repeats the same dating patterns over and over again, the next thing to add onto my list of successes is, “I stopped falling in love with the suffering of men who don’t want to change.”

For now, though, I’ll enjoy my progress. I will focus on the good I made out of the difficulties I’ve experienced throughout my life. Every day that I live with pride in my accomplishments is a testament to my strength and resilience. “It’s about who gets you the most,” Javier said. Well, I realized if that person is me, that’s just fine.

Happy Anniversary

“I miss who you were,” Scott says. We are laying in bed together but as far apart as the mattress allows. He is turned to face the wall. I am looking at the back of his head, contemplating the force needed to bash in his skull. I don’t want to be touched, he had told me minutes earlier. I’m just really sensitive after I cum.

He never bothered to get to know her, whatever version of me he claims to miss. In a truth he can’t admit to himself, it’s just that he doesn’t like the girlfriend he’s received post-treatment. We got along best when I spent more of my time bent over one of our two toilets, letting my anxiety and depression explode from my mouth and pour into cool porcelain bowls. On the occasions that he’d confront me about my behavior, he’d tell me that I was ruining the house. (When I continue to reach down into my throat years later, I think about the damage I’m doing to the pipes, not the potential eruption of my esophagus or my courtship of sudden death.)

“I thought going to Renfrew would cure you,” he says. Scott doesn’t bother to turn towards me. “You’re still at it, though. And you’re so angry with me all the time.”

I’m only clawing at the inside of my mouth when time stretches my willpower so thin that I can see through it like glass. But yes, I am angry. Now that I don’t puke more often than I shit, I feel my emotions.

“I’m sorry,” I say.  It’s what he wants to hear.

 

“Your arms look fat,” Scott says, a few months before I commit myself to a facility for women with eating disorders. I’ve made the appointment already: between my hair falling out and the acid burns around my perpetually chapped lips, he sees how poorly I’m doing. Still, he’s grimacing, absorbed in his observation. The object of his distaste is a photo: I stand with a group of women in front of a limousine, dressed for a leopard themed bachelorette party.

 

Before and after Renfrew, I try to fall asleep, tired from working, school, or most often a combination of the both. At certain points I’m a nursing student and tutor, a vet tech also putting hours in at a pet store while taking a class or two in between, leading my clinical rotations on the days I’m not working 10 hour shifts at an animal hospital. I probably nodded off on the chair in his parents’ basement or slipped to the floor from the narrow couch in our living room. (He was most likely playing FIFA. He most likely ignored me.) Whenever I get to that point, I make the decision to get more comfortable, to move myself to a more appropriate surface.

In my bed or ours, he’ll wake me up an hour later (as soon as I’ve settled into sleep), and he’ll stroke himself while he talks. I wonder why I’m even here if I’m not thinking about his strange desires. I want you to fuck people for money, he says. Just be a complete whore. I’m not shocked, really, not anymore, but it’s still perplexing. There are times when I play along, and others when I’m silent. On a couple occasions, I cry. But he always gets what he comes for, no matter my reaction, leaving or turning away from me before I can ask for comfort, care.

My needs don’t really matter to Scott. I suppose they don’t matter enough to me, either.

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.

Gemini to Gemini

Reality is created in the culmination of our experiences, I told Scott. What we call logic is pieced together. A tapestry suggests intention; as a metaphor, it’s also trite. No, logic is more like an installation of scattered stars, the universe from an abstract view. Our thoughts are nebulae and black holes. They’re formed and reborn as they pass through time. How we reason, and all the things we pretend to understand, cannot contain supernovas, cannot bypass the gravity of passing meteors.

You overthink everything, Amber, he said. I wondered how often I disappointed him, the course of my reality set in opposition to his own.

In knowing Scott, I began to wonder – when a Gemini is born a twin, are they less than half a whole? We all enter this world under fire, our dispositions determined by the placement of the sun. With two Geminis, there are four minds. But he always feared himself a fraction, dependent on his brother’s shadow. I’m afraid my friends only invite me out because I’m his twin, Scott had told me. The universe didn’t anticipate you, I wanted to respond. You’re not broken. You were simply born incomplete.

Of course, I knew to keep this to myself: he never spoke to me for my opinion. In his reality, a woman’s orbit circled his needs. We reflected his light, but not out of love. No, to satisfy his need to finally feel like the sun, he diminished our potential, allowed us only to be stone and never stars.

Recovery?

I’m in recovery. What a nebulous sentence. I’m not even sure what it means when I admit to people that I’m bulimic, but am “in recovery.” Am I working on the behaviors? Am I successful when I don’t purge, or when I can sit uncomfortably after compulsively over stuffing myself? Am I still symptomatic if I’m binging? And what about these thoughts I have, related to my body and food and self-worth? When I can say, I’m recovered, does that mean I can’t feel guilty about missing the gym because I’m worn down?

The closer I come to having a life that allows me to live, the more I focus on the details, the semantics.

I realized yesterday that I don’t want to be bulimic anymore. I don’t want this disorder to be such a large part of my identity. But even as I trace its origins, even as I begin to understand how this happened, I’m not any nearer to defining what life without bulimia is like. Worst of all, this disease is like an invasive species; it doesn’t belong here.

I’m surprised that it happened so recently. Scott’s mom was candid about her feelings, perhaps because I was being open about my own. Not that I had much choice. Scott had told his family – without my consent – that I was bulimic. She was dismayed to hear that the disorder began in the midst of living with her. The answer she wanted was different – maybe some story about how I spent my time bent over a toilet in college and recently relapsed. She didn’t want to consider that the disorder began as part of my relationship with her son and his family.

In fact, when I told her I was going to residential treatment at Renfrew, she repeatedly stated, “I hope they don’t tell you we’re not good for you.” I was about to uproot my life the day after finishing my fall semester of nursing school to spend an indefinite amount of time at a residential facility in Philadelphia, and her main concern was that the therapist(s) would tell me to get the hell out of Dodge.

My therapist, of course, did question my ability to be successful with a partner like Scott. I never told her about Scott’s sexual abuse. I didn’t mention that his mother was an alcoholic, and that I spent almost a year being told by him and his twin brother that I was just imagining it or being dramatic. She didn’t know the details of Scott’s cheating, or the way he’d compare compulsive acts of sexual abuse to my bulimia. I never told my therapist that Scott explicitly said he didn’t forgive me for being emotionally unstable when my bulimia was at its worst (“you were still you then,” he told me more than once when I came back from Renfrew, even as he continued to cause me emotional and physical harm in bed), and considered the behavior of a genuinely ill person comparable to his cheating, his lying, his abuse.

I think my therapist simply saw what I see now: I’m a resilient person, but resilience is a finite resource. And I was wasting that resource on Scott, on his family, on people who never asked me what I wanted or if I was happy. I wasted my resilience on trying to live with people who slept with their secrets. Who didn’t, or couldn’t, communicate honestly, but acted passive-aggressively, displayed random bouts of anger, manipulated one another. I purchased their story of this being normal, and judged myself instead of identifying their problems sooner.

I wouldn’t have developed bulimia if I had never met Scott. I’m so certain of this that I want to laugh hysterically until I cry; I want to embrace the absurdity of my situation. These thoughts also make me want a life without bulimia more than ever. I want to be able to know what it’s like to not fear a bathroom after a large meal. To not miss the gym because I spent the day before, or even morning of, purging. My life is worth more than the DSM diagnosis they brought into it.

I don’t know what being “in recovery” actually means. I never will. But I am in a state of regaining my resilience. I can recognize that I’m not a bad person for wanting a life defined by my desires and needs. For accepting that it’s not healthy to keep secrets, or to let anxieties create a momentum that’s chaotic and harsh.

I’m happy to wake up. I haven’t been able to say that in years.