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.

Grief, Love

My grief is not for the men I lost who never wanted me, but for the time and effort I wasted on blaming myself.

For a time, I was angry that I fell in love and allowed myself to be vulnerable. But more recently, I’ve come to understand that this quality is what separates me from those damaged, emotionally unavailable men I’ve chased. They claim they are a certain way and can’t help it; their interior lives are stagnant as they cannot even comprehend that they can and should change. Unlike them, I have changed. Despite everything I’ve gone through, or perhaps because of it, I’ve learned how to love productively and completely. My flaw is not my capacity to care for another person – it’s that I relate to and empathize with people who grew up feeling as I did, and hold onto them for as long as they want me in their lives. Going forward, my goal is to not bury my wants and needs in favor of privileging what others ask of me.

Javier cheated on me. Worse than that, when I confronted him, he ghosted me. We had been dating for nearly six months, and I defended him against the naysayers that told me our relationship sounded like it didn’t matter to him or that I should be concerned I was his woman on the side. Yes, we averaged seeing each other four times a month, but I sincerely believed he was both busy and someone who valued spending his little free time by himself. I only became nosy when he didn’t want me to post a picture of us together on social media. At that point, with very little digging, it became apparent he was seeing at least one other person – on weekends he told me he was working. After that, many other elements of our relationship made more sense and supported the fact that he was cheating: I wasn’t allowed to call him, he was supposedly not on Facebook, I could’t come to his apartment, and I was always being told I’d eventually meet his friends and family without any definitive plans to do so.

It’s unlikely I’ll ever get closure, and a part of my mind will always wonder if I overreacted to this information. Maybe I’m crazy, you know. Perhaps there’s an explanation. There was a moment or two where I believed it was my fault he vanished, as I reacted strongly to finding out that he was with another woman. A bigger part of me knows that this is all immaterial. After nearly six months, the fact that I felt compelled to ask him if I could post a picture of us together is insane. Whatever my reaction to the realization I was not the only woman in the picture, spending half the year together warrants an explanation – even if I will never get one.

While I may never know the actual timeline or specific details of his cheating, my experience with Javier gave me an opportunity to see where I’ve gone wrong with the men I pursue. This time around, I’m determined to be gentler with myself about my relationship falling apart: blaming myself in the past did not help me create healthier patterns, after all.

The takeaway isn’t to shutdown or be cautious to love another. I will continue to give future lovers the benefit of the doubt. I’ll care about and fall for someone without letting the baggage of my past get in the way of being vulnerable enough to do so. The lesson here is to cut my losses, though, when it’s clear that the person I’m investing in is emotionally unavailable. Going forward, I’m not going to let my strange White Knight complex convince me that I’ll save a broken man. It’s patience that’s hurt me, not love, so I will not wait for the things I want out of a relationship.

I’m proud of myself, especially given how rough things have been for me up until recently. When I initially discovered my relationship with Javier was a farce, I was afraid my progress would be undone and that the rest of my life would surely collapse around him. But even with this bump in the road, I’m doing better with my eating disorder than I have since being raped almost a year a half ago. Powerlifting, which I had contemplated abandoning after the rape, is once again the cornerstone of my life, and I’m on the path to competing. I’m at a point in my current career where being fired by my last employer is now a good thing, as I’m earning considerably more in a company that actually values my work ethic.

The only person I can control is me. The parts of my life that are good exist through my ability and determination. And it took time and healing to get to that point, too – to have the confidence to exist in corporate settings, to strike out on my own and gain the level of financial independence I now have. As heartbroken as I still am, I know that it’s likely I must also heal in this area. So I will work on my confidence, and I will stop feeling bad for broken men who justify hurting the people who love them with “I’ve always been this way.”

That’s their choice. I will make a different one, always.

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.

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.

A Prayer

Near every day
a war I lose

Closest to a truce –
a finish line,
if you will –
so came new enemies

Tired of fighting,
instead I prayed:

May I lose my life
before my teeth
May my grave be marked
not by porcelain
May the funerary makeup
be flawed for something
other than a scarlet lattice,
the white of my eyes replaced –
strands of undigested food,
my lips painted frosting blue
May death be easier than life
spent bent over my fingers clawing
deep and then deeper
along the inside of my throat –

trying to find the sound of a
girl worth saving and
failing, always failing

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.

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.

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.