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.

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.

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.

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.

The Bulimic and the Sex Addict

“I’m afraid, knowing you’re going home,” Natalie said, her crossed legs long enough that they made the shape of an X. “I don’t think you’re in an environment that supports your recovery. Your relationship — I can’t tell you what to do, but I’m disappointed. He didn’t visit you at Christmas. He didn’t come to the family session. The phone conference we did instead — he rescheduled us instead of telling the parent that there was a time conflict.”

And this one met Sean, too, Sammie thought, considering her therapist’s words. Prior to entering residential treatment for bulimia, she had seen another therapist for a year who had encouraged her to reconsider her tendency to settle with “nice,” specifically in the context of Sean. When Sammie had told him that her therapist wondered if she was getting what she needed out of their relationship, Sean seemed frustrated and only said that she had never met him. His “side” went unheard. He didn’t realize that therapists usually kept their opinions out of the question of whether or not a relationship is worthwhile – that was for the patient to decide, and both Natalie and her former therapist went as far as to suggest that leaving him would only be beneficial. With many caveats about how it was Sammie’s choice to stay or leave, of course.

Natalie had included Sean in a few of the therapy sessions. One “teleconference” that mostly consisted of telling him he had a bad connection, and two times in person, when she was admitted and during his Christmas break, the first and only time he came as a visitor. “I’m glad my mom is driving,” she remembered him saying on the phone, “I don’t want to put so many miles on my car going from New Jersey to Philly.” Natalie’s impression of Sean was that he was a teapot on the verge of boiling over. His obsessive need to talk, she told Sammie, made it difficult for him to listen. He was always thinking about what to say next, when it was far more important to bring his attention to what was being said. Sammie found it hard to disagree with the therapist’s assessment.

“What can I really do?” Sammie asked. “I quit my animal clinic job. Being in the nursing program – I couldn’t do that and work at the same time. I went to nursing school full time for him, because he wanted to be with someone like that, a nurse. At this point, I don’t have the savings I used to. I don’t have my job.”

“If you have to go into debt, then you go into debt,” Natalie said. “Your recovery is more valuable.”

 

Sammie wants to tell him to leave. This is the fifth time he’s fallen asleep on her couch, and the third that he’s refused to see her on a Saturday, when he would actually have a chance of staying awake. He’s nice and cute, Sammie thinks, running her chubby fingers through his hair. I think he likes me. But Sammie can’t be positive. No, they barely speak. He comes over, fucks her multiple times, and falls asleep on the couch. Sometimes he stays awake long enough to beg for a back rub.

Sean is never cruel or particularly rude, just a little unintentionally insensitive. Sammie’s working full time, 2nd shift most days, while also taking classes full time at the local community college. She wonders if he realizes the stress she’s under, or how little time she has to herself. He often texts her when they’re apart, but the messages are things about his day that never respond in kind to what she has to say. Or they’re requests for validation. What do you like about me? Sammie would say a lot of things: I like that you’re cute, when you’re goofy it really makes me smile, I love the way you touch me, you’re really talkative in bed (although he says some very strange things), and you’re so dedicated to your job. When she made the mistake to ask him the same question, he wrote, You relax me. She wanted to demand some kind of answer that related to her personality, not the benefit of having sex and sleeping on her couch. Of course, she didn’t follow through.

The worst bits are the ones Sammie tries to ignore, but they continue to creep up into her thoughts. He’s sexually impulsive. It makes her uncomfortable. Determining her own rights is hard, for some reason. Is she just being sex negative? Is she a prude? She wants someone who is kinky and interesting. Her last relationship was a snore, at least sexually. But she wasn’t expecting to hear about how she should get implants, or try to get money from guys who want to fuck her. Isn’t that prostitution? He wants me to be a prostitute? Was he serious? Did it just turn him on to say these things? She did ask, at one point, but he refused to provide a clear answer.

She’s desperate for someone to care about her. So she doesn’t push, and she doesn’t judge. She doesn’t demand he see her on Saturdays. When he doesn’t get to her apartment until after 9pm on Fridays, when she told him she was making them dinner, she doesn’t get angry. Not even when he tells her he’s not hungry at all, because he ate pizza with his family before coming over.

 

Tomorrow, Sammie would be going home. She wasn’t ready.

As soon as Sammie was admitted to residential, she wanted to leave. She didn’t feel like she belonged. Sure, she binged and purged multiple times a day. And yes, she wanted to kill herself because she was tired of living her life that way. But she wasn’t thin. In fact, she almost cried when she was weighed by the nurse practitioner, distraught that she was now technically overweight. A fat girl didn’t belong in treatment, especially when her bloodwork was just fine. True, she did pass out the second day she was there; a blood draw at 4am would do anyone in. And she was naturally orthostatic. The dizziness she experienced had nothing to do with her behaviors. Right?

Whatever the answers were, Sammie did improve by being in Residential. She connected with other girls, and was able to complete her meals without engaging in the symptoms of her eating disorder. She hadn’t gone a week without binging and purging since her bulimia first began. Yes, the setting made it difficult to puke into a toilet after a meal, but it was a huge accomplishment nonetheless.

Moreover, after Sean had cheated on her, she needed space and time to regroup and validate herself, to reestablish her worth as a person again. He had told her that she hadn’t met his emotional needs for a long time. During their in-person session with Natalie, he had referred to the fact that he had cheated in vague terms, citing feeling neglected as the cause. Natalie explained that Sammie was an empty cup; she had nothing to pour into his glass. If she couldn’t take care of herself, expecting her to take care of him crazy. That was a lesson quickly unlearned, of course. Even while still in res, their conversations would include how she never said anything nice to him, that she was cold and not affectionate. Sammie wanted to scream at him. Instead, she usually just said, “what about the sex? What about taking care of the house? I do a lot. I do.”

He would answer, “I know. But I need more.”

He had nodded sagely during the session, but over the phone maintained that the cheating happened due to Sammie. He was dealing with so much. A bulimic girlfriend that acted like she hated him most of the time. Who wanted to kill herself. (And you ignored that, Sammie often thought and, at times, voiced.) As she became more comfortable in res, she stopped calling him all the time, taking to her books or conversations with other residents instead. She needed to use the time she had away from him to see herself through her own eyes. To not feel the weight of his expectations, his wants, his desires. To not feel like a failure.

So the news that her insurance was cutting her off before two complete weeks of treatment was upsetting. She was, in all honesty, afraid to go back to the life she had with Sean. In fact, she was already expecting to be disappointed tomorrow.

Initially, Sammie imagined that Sean would pick her up from Philadelphia before lunch, and that they would eat at a Panera or some other restaurant that met the criteria of her meal plan while driving home. Instead, because he didn’t want to put the miles on his car, he was having his mom and dad drive. They would all pick her up. Sammie had been with his family long enough to know that they would not stop for food, and that they’d have an assortment of snacks in the car to cover lunch. Her first meal outside of treatment would already be a failure.

Aside from that, Sammie also didn’t want his family’s continued involvement in her life. In her life together with Sean, sure. But when it came to her individual problems, she wanted Sean’s support. To feel like she could confide in him. (He already made it obvious she couldn’t, after telling all his friends she was going to treatment for bulimia, but she wanted to start over.) Instead, his family was being brought along for the ride – literally. She wanted Sean as a partner, not as their son. For him to love her, and take care of her without his parents’ help, and to drive as many miles as she needed him to in his own car.

Was that so unfair?

 

“It’s funny,” Sammie says. “I came here to talk about my family. How I grew up. Instead all I talk about is how unhappy I am right now. Not because of them, my parents. Because of Sean.”

Christine has a habit of tucking her blond hair behind her ear. She’s attractive in an unconventional way, Sammie notes, with her predictable habits and her widely set eyes. And she shops at Target. Sammie knows this, since she has some of the same sweaters, just in different colors. It makes her feel more comfortable, like her therapist is Any Woman.

“Right,” Christine says, after the silence extends beyond a certain point. I wonder if she counts and starts talking when she hits ten? “You’re not happy in the situation you’re in.”

“No,” Sammie says. “It’s hard. I feel like an outsider. I’m living this life where I’m struggling to keep up with everyone else. I’m in school. I’m working. It doesn’t seem like enough for anyone. Not for Sean, not for his family. I’m not a teacher. I don’t have a career yet. I’m doing well for me, but no one looks at my life within the context of how I grew up. The accomplishment of not having a kid at my age. Or at 18, for that matter. Of graduating high school. Of having a college degree. I still feel like I’m not good enough.”

“Is it possible that you’re projecting these feelings onto others?”

Sammie pauses, then shrugs. “Maybe. Not with Sean, though. Sean… that’s so difficult. He’s difficult. I got my job with the vet at the same time – the same time I was accepted into the nursing program as a second degree student. And I told him, ‘You know, if things work out with the vet, I think I might not go into the program. I’ll see how things go from March until September.’ And he said, ‘That’s not a career.’ He didn’t feel comfortable moving out with me from his parents’, even if I was working as a vet assistant. He has a certain standard.”

“Yes, we’ve talked a lot about Sean. I agree that you’re not projecting in his case. But let me clarify. He doesn’t want to move out with you, even if you’re contributing?”

“He doesn’t want to move out until I’m an RN.”

“Is his mom still drinking at night? Have you let him know that it’s affecting you negatively?”

“Yes. To both. She’s been so bad lately, drinking and making a ruckus almost every single day. I can’t focus on my work. And I just feel scared to go home. He says he’ll work on talking to his mom, but I’m so upset and angry lately, and he’s not doing anything.”

“Sammie,” she says, her usually passive face taking on a frown and furrowed brows. “I don’t say this lightly. It’s not within my rights to tell you to leave anyone. But I have a difficult time seeing Sean as a positive figure in your life. I’m not telling you what to do, but I strongly recommend that you consider taking a break from school, working, and getting out of there.”

Suddenly, Sammie’s at a loss for words. I’m part-time at my job now. I don’t know. I love Sean. I do.

“I know you care for him, but I’m worried about you. You’re so resilient, but right now you can’t be where you need emotionally while you’re in the middle of his mother’s alcoholism. And you’ve told me before that you’re not receiving the support you need. From what you tell me, I can only validate those feelings. He sounds very much like he can’t see things from your perspective. A good partner accepts you for you, and tries to understand what you want. What if he lost his job? What if you had a career as an RN, but had to take time off because of an injury? That happens frequently to nurses.”

“I know,” Sammie says. “I’ve tried to explain that to him. But I don’t know.”

“He doesn’t see you two as being in a partnership,” Christine says. “I haven’t met him, obviously, but I doubt my opinion would change if I did. It sounds like he wants to always be in a situation where someone else is taking care of him. He’s not interested in taking the lead on that. Moving out is not a huge request, not at your age, and not when you’re exposed to an alcoholic in your current setting. But that means taking care of you as much as you take care of him.”

“And he doesn’t want to,” Sammie says. “I think I’ve always known that, in a way.”

 

Is this really a surprise, Sammie thought, looking towards Sean. He sat on the couch opposite from her, slumped in his usual position. “I thought you were going there to get better,” he said.

“I was getting better. I told you that I wasn’t ready to come home,” she responded, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. She was only trying to be honest, that she had trouble eating pizza with his family. That sitting with the cheese and dough in her stomach made her feel a flood of emotion: she was guilty, anxious, and wanted to bend over the toilet and puke. “Please, you’re not supposed to be so critical of me. Read about this. Come on. I gave you the pamphlet they sent home with me.”

Sean’s thin lips bent into a frown. She expected them to form the words “sorry, I will,” but that expectation was apparently too much. Why won’t he read about bulimia? Or about how to support a partner with an eating disorder? Why can’t I come to him when I’m struggling?

She gave him what she thought he wanted over the course of their relationship. A crazy sex life, completely dictated by what he wanted from her. She accepted his family, as much as she wanted her space. The house they lived in was his mother’s doing – she held the mortgage and enabled him to afford the property by providing a ridiculously low interest rate. Sammie wanted a partnership. To move out together into a shitty apartment, and buy a house when they could do so together. Instead he followed his mom’s wishes – to live a block away in the house that originally belonged to his sister.

Even fresh out of residential treatment, she was attending family pizza night, eating dinner with his mother (who was drinking, again) almost every night, going grocery shopping by herself, making meal plans alone. She was trying. Things could get better, right? Their relationship could become something great. Like it was before? No, that was awful too. It just didn’t involve Sammie stuffing herself to the point of needing to puke in a toilet.

Why can’t he meet me halfway? Well, Natalie and Christine both warned her of the same thing. He just didn’t want to.

 

Sammie is on the portable yellow phone with Sean, pacing near the nurse’s station, trying not to talk in front of other residents’ closed doors.

“Did you tell Natalie about the sex stuff?”

This is all he seems to care about lately. “No, Sean, I didn’t,” Sammie says. “I didn’t tell Natalie, just like I never told Christine.”

“Okay,” is all he says, leaving Sammie to count up the ways he’s hurt her sexually. The talks about changing her body – she wishes she could discuss them with someone, figure out whether or not that’s a part of the bulimia. She thinks about having sex with other men at his behest, after he’s begged for her to do so for years. How sometimes he loves it, and other times makes her feel so ashamed. How in either scenario, he’s obsessed with these fetishes – the cuckolding, the bimbofication of his girlfriend, the idea that he’s coming home to a slut. We’re so fucked up. We need to stop, he’d say, almost immediately after getting off, sometimes in reference to a recent hook-up, and sometimes in reference to his unique form of dirty talk. I’m going to take you to a glory hole, and you’re going to suck every guy’s cock there. Aren’t you, you whore? And you’re going to get fake tits, yeah. Next time we fuck you’re not going to complain about me wanting to make you a bimbo, right? You’re going to be a good little slut?

She thinks about being friendly with some of these men she’s slept with — making them genuine friends who she texted regularly after meeting them, and being told that he’s uncomfortable with that. I like the idea of you being a slut, not this. I don’t want you to see anyone consistently. I just don’t like it. How she’s given him so much, endured sex talk and activities she didn’t enjoy out of love, privileged his orgasm over her pleasure even after he’s brought her to tears with his continued requests to behave like a whore, or go to a glory hole, or change her appearance, or dress sluttier than she does.

The worst part is that she doesn’t even expect that he stop completely. She accepts his desires. She just wants him to change it up, acknowledge her own wants and needs, and provide some form of care afterward. For three years, he’s held her for no more than a minute before deciding that he’s too hot, too uncomfortable, to stand holding her anymore. That is, if he’s not in the mood to flagellate them both over his kinks. Or just tired. Then he rolls over to the far end of the bed, and promptly falls asleep.

So, disturbed by her thoughts, Sammie hangs up without a word. She resists the urge to throw the yellow phone down against the facility’s ugly carpeting. She’s going to do exactly what treatment doesn’t want her to do: she will avoid her feelings. Reading is her only strategy for that here – there are no cell phones and no Internet, and the television belongs to Dance Moms tonight.

Her distress must be visible, though. As she returns the phone to the nursing station, one of the counselors speaks to her.

“Sammie, right?”

She nods.

“How are you doing, Sammie?”

“Fine,” she says. “I’m fine.” She smiles broadly.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“If you need anything, please find me. Okay, Sammie?”

She wants to say, Please tell me I’m going to be alright. Please help me.

Instead, she nods and turns her back to the counselor. I can’t let her see me cry.