Climb

Maybe she’s just prettier. Perhaps he was just an easy choice, more malleable than the men I’ve chased, more emotionally available. I don’t know the answer, but I bring my imagination to their relationship regardless. He just looks so happy to be here with her that I can’t help but wonder what they discussed on the car ride over, if they went out for brunch first at one of Hoboken’s nearby bars. The man’s smile, fixed across his bearded face, probably made her feel warm when she walked with him side by side, even in the chilly outdoors.

When it occurs to me that no one has looked at me that way in a long time, I feel a sense of sadness that’s difficult to put into words. I’m often the object of people’s lust, but I have felt little in the way of being loved.

I come back to the thought that I’m lacking. I always do. She looks more like a woman compared to me, at least from what I can see at a distance. Her climbing skills are certainly better than mine: she’s ascending the white and blue rock wall at a steady clip, pushing off footholds with her long legs. Whereas she’s graceful and lithe, I’m brute strength in an incongruously small and childlike package. It’s likely not just about the looks, either. I’ve had a hard life. I have baggage.

If jealousy and envy are not the same, then it’s the latter I feel when her companion shouts “to the left.” I’ve asked Sean, who is not my boyfriend, to become belay certified, but that’s too much of a commitment for the man I regularly drive to the rock gym. I watch him now, his black work shirt rolling up his back as he makes his way on one of the bouldering walls. He finds the routes easier to solve than I do, especially since we started climbing together regularly, and completes a V5 that I can’t even start. For such a tall and not particularly graceful man, he actually looks athletic in this moment. When he climbs down and turns to smile at me, I feel my face tremble slightly, my tear ducts warming. I want to cry. As alarming as this is, I find that when I spend too much time with him, I come close to breaking down.

Eventually he will become one half of the couples I desire to be, but I won’t be the woman to close the circle. Friend, fuck buddy, lover – but not his girlfriend, and not his partner.

It will never be you, he’ll eventually tell me. But I know this now. The problem is that I hold onto the lessons of my childhood: the people you love are supposed to cause you pain; the more pain you bear, the more true your feelings. He doesn’t love me, and he may not even care about me. But I accept that, because it’s not the worst way someone’s responded to my love for them.

In a year, I’ll excavate the part of me that considers what I deserve in relation to how I’m treated, but that will be a sad day too, because what I will realize is that I don’t know how to give love to men that are able to love me in return. If I don’t suffer, it’s just not real. What a joke, I’ll think, to come so far in my life and still be so broken.

For now, however, it’s my turn to climb. I push my hands, one after the other, through the opening of my chalk bag, a white plume following each motion. “You were awesome,” I say to Sean. And I walk past him, placing my fingers on the start of a problem I can solve.

Happy Birthday

Because I’ve blocked my father’s number and his social media accounts, he now leaves me comments on a blog I use to host my half-finished prose and unrefined poetry. His latest offering is in keeping with his descent into schizophrenia:

Seeing one’s self as weak provokes the mind into its own (being planted by an embraced past; what one doesn’t let go of only creates one that knows its role) victim mentality… Don’t allow another’s weak guilt to imprison you.
Stand up, because you’re more intimidating than the weak $$$ that imprisons you. LET NO ONE’S NARRATIVES WRITE YOUR FUTURE!
~see your delusional daddy

I delete his response to a poem I wrote about my struggle with bulimia, about my fear of dying over a toilet or losing my teeth. (Writing can never fully explore the fears I face, or the nightmares I live with. I dream of my incisors falling out; I wonder when I’ll bite into an apple and find that my front tooth has finally become dislodged, the slow erosion of my gums eventuating in the inevitable.) I’m not sure what he means, yet the incoherence still disturbs me.

Victim mentality? I think. I am imprisoned, but not by guilt. And I am a victim. I’m tired of pretending I’m too strong to not be.

***

Home movies. Remember those? I sit in the basement of my step father’s house, the TV flickering to life as soon as I push the VHS into the tape player. I’ve picked the one labeled May 23rd – Amber’s Birthday. I’m turning thirteen in a few days. The choice feels appropriate.

My father stalks my mother with the video camera. This is how his home movie opens. He narrates using that voice, the one that’s more sinister and frightening than outright anger. Controlled contempt, I would later call it. A lash worse than all the times he slapped me. In the movie, he directs this verbal violence towards my mother. The image he portrays of her – fat and unkempt, her arms as wide as pillows, eating chocolate – is not enough to sate the part of him that feeds off pain.

“Look at the hippopotamus,” he says loudly enough that my mother’s head spins, “look as she grazes.” She brings her hand up towards the lens, her fingers and palm and sagging skin obscuring the view of our tiny kitchen.

Sharp cut. Now there’s me, a small child, my face red and wet. I’m wailing on the top bunk. I look like some soon to be victim, as if I were one of the dumb girls in the horror films my mother and I watched together. My father is Freddy Krueger, among the few – or perhaps the only – horror villains that emotionally tormented their prey before slaughtering them.

“Oh, why is the birthday girl crying?” He uses the same tone as before, when he deemed the woman that gave birth to me and his two other children a hippo.

When I think back to my birthday, I don’t remember why I was in tears. After all, I was only five years old.

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.

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.

The Girl, A Fish

i dreamed his smile, lips curled –
teeth edged like the coastline,
the rotted driftwood stain.

i know now what the beast looks for.
we broken girls, with homes that
gut us like fish.

Your Bulimic Girlfriend

I thought you’d go there and be done with your eating disorder when you got home.

People want a recovery story that doesn’t include details about the process. They want to know the beginning, and they want to know the end, as if living without an eating disorder is a narrative shaped like an open circle – from one point to the other, without repeat or overlap. Yet there is no clear end, no definitive place to stop and say, “yes, I am better.”

The behaviors I struggle to control are not simply the impulses to restrict, binge, or purge. Victories are mundane but important. Eating ravioli for dinner when you haven’t had it in years, and eating it without shame, is more rewarding than the things you used to pride yourself on. The disappointments vary. Lapses happen. Despite how well-adjusted you feel, a panic attack hits you in the grocery store, or at a dinner served family-style. Sometimes you don’t eat, because you know you’re going to a party later on and can’t divine the choices. And when the selection is not “safe,” you decide it’s too hard. You can’t be “good” today. Your paper plate is, hilariously enough, like a loaded gun pointed at your gut. An opportunity to feel an intense and inescapable fear, a chance for your hunger to hurt you. So you throw it away as soon as you can.

For me, recovery will never be the open circle. It’s never going to have a beginning and an end. Recovery is more like getting lost while running in a place that is both familiar and confusing. You leave a trail of steps that go east but sharply turn west; you retrace the path without being able to recognize that you were already here. That is, until you come across a recognizable landmark that disappoints you in its meaning: you’ve drifted very far from the destination, and it may take some time and rest to find your way back. Even then, you’re not sure how to locate the place where you began. Perhaps you’ll recognize it when you get there, or maybe you’ll discover a different path altogether that leads you back home.

 

My struggle with bulimia didn’t exist in a vacuum. It wasn’t simply a part of me, whether the struggle at the moment was recovery, a lapse, or submission to the disease. It was also a vector through which others related to me, both positively and negatively. The experience of bulimia drew me closer to some, and much further away from others.

“I just hope you’ll look back at this and remember that I stuck by you,” Scott said, sitting at our small kitchen table. I stood several feet away from him, near the cream-colored counter top, my arms crossed against my chest.

The words weren’t meant to sting, but they did. I paused, taking the moment to inhale through my nose. Focus. Be present, I reminded myself.

There was a distance between us I felt only I could see. I smiled more, and I puked a hell of a lot less. I wasn’t a burden to be around, the way I was before treatment.In fact, I was so happy and outgoing compared to the past that I often surprised myself. But his responses, then and now, were effectively destroying the part of me that came to love him. There was no “for better or for worse” in our union. Instead, he lived with a passive hope for the bad times to pass.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” I said, attempting to balance honesty with enough sensitivity as to not hurt his feelings. “Or it’s hard for me to think of things that way.”

“Why?” He looked up at me with his blue eyes, the expression on his face familiar. He’s going to get upset. Whenever his brows furrowed and his lips went thin, stretched into a grimace, it felt like he was preparing to be hurt.

The new and improved me was not always good enough. A list of items spun around in my thoughts, tangling with a flurry of negative emotion. Still, I spoke slowly, allowing myself to choose my words carefully. “I’m not sure things would’ve been so bad under different circumstances,” I said. “I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong. But you didn’t handle it well.”

“Things are better now,” he said, almost as if he were asking a question.

“Better. Yeah, they’re better,” I said.

Deciding the conversation was over, Scott turned his attention to his phone.

I give up, I thought, losing count of how often the phrase mentally punctuated our conversations. My life was better, yes, but the past and the present both told me that our relationship would never be what I needed.

 

It’s my opinion that love involves making someone’s life more enjoyable and more rewarding through your presence, and vice versa. So being able to say, yes, you make my life better than if I were alone, is how I know I love you.

The words of a past love. I should have carried his wisdom with me. You’re nice and don’t hurt me is not a foundation that love is built upon, but that’s difficult to grasp when what you know of pain is its extremes. Perspective is difficult for people like me, I’ve come to realize. The world you begin in is small and chaotic, shaped by words like cunt and bitch, molded by careless hands that squeeze and slap and hit. The longer you survive, the larger the world becomes, but there’s still a sense that it doesn’t belong to you. Everyone else’s fingers are entwined in your crevices, and as long as they don’t hurt as they pull and push, you think, they can have me.

That is pain the way an animal knows it: you’re not kicking me, and you’re not screaming, so I trust you unconditionally. But the pain that’s unique to the humanity you are still trying to unearth is more existential in nature. In some ways, it’s made worse by the fact that you’re still intact after all you’ve been through.

What are your dreams, Amber?

He’s never cared to ask.

 

How did Scott look at my bulimia? Did he ever reflect, the way I did, on how it began? The times I reached out to him, to tell him I had difficulties controlling my eating? I was devoted to the gym and terrified to dine out, the compulsion to exercise and my aversion to food heightened by desperation to reverse weekly binges. And I let him know. I expressed that I was struggling. His mother’s erratic, alcohol-induced behavior at home, the lack of privacy we had living with his parents, my first true introduction into the challenges of nursing school, and working close to thirty hours a week – to feel these burdens alone and without the sympathy of my partner was, to put it lightly, difficult. And after failing to connect with Scott, my response was to turn in on myself. The harder my life felt, the less I cared to live.

It was hard not to wonder how he felt after I experienced my first true purge. My left eye looked bloodied in the corner from bursting blood vessels, and my eyelids were spotted, the vessels broken there as well. My appearance generated concern from my classmates and teachers. Still, he only expressed that I needed to just figure out how to stop, as if I would willingly subject myself to looking so physically unwell. For a man who would often mentally check out of a conversation to look up something that interested him on his phone, he seemed to have little desire to bring his curiosity to the subject of bulimia.

I didn’t understand then that I was the idea of a girlfriend. Not a person, but a concept. Scott’s girlfriend and Amber’s disease couldn’t co-exist – and I wish I had recognized that earlier.