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.

Dating

“I lead with it,” I said to Brian, my latest therapist. He was older than me, but I still thought of him as young: he only had a few inches on me, sometimes wore a bow tie, and met his wife on JDate. “When we get together the first time, I tell them I’m in recovery from Bulimia Nervosa. I’ll mention that I go to therapy or that I’m on medication for clinical depression.”

I had come to know Brian well enough to discover some of his tells. Whenever I said something that he found troubling, he’d purse his lips, creating what I came to call the “puffy duck face.” Usually I distracted myself from the difficulty of discussing my eating disorder frankly by focusing on his expression. This time, however, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see him respond this way to my outlook on dating.

“You have to open up over time,” Brian said. “When you unload like that, you know what the guy is thinking? He’s wondering what else is waiting for him, should you continue to spend time together. I would recommend taking it slow…”

“I don’t care,” I interrupted. “Well, I don’t know. It’s not that, exactly. I just figure that this gives anyone who may get close to me a heads up. Like, they get the choice immediately to deal with my shit, or they can decide it’s a lot and leave. I don’t want to get rejected down the line for being honest.”

“They may leave you anyway,” Brian said.

“I know.” As much as I didn’t want to admit it, most of the people I dated – casually or with more serious interest – would be happy to obtain the perks of a mutually beneficial arrangement, but also categorize me as unfit for a genuine relationship.

I was the fun girl. And I’d be kept at a distance, at least until they found someone more suitable, so that I could remain just that. Any closer, and they would have to see that I was imperfect too – just in less socially acceptable ways than them.

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.

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.