Introducing Perks Magazine!

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Rhonda Perky’s Bits is branching out. Perks Magazine is a sex-positive exploration of sex, sexuality, relationships and life’s perks.

This site will remain as an archive of Rhonda Perky’s Bits, with new personal reflections appearing under the RPB blog within Perks Magazine. Occasionally pieces from RPB will be republished within Perks, which will also house the Ask Rhonda advice column.

Learn more about Perks and check out our Submissions page. Hope to hear from you soon!


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A conditional hug

Adventure Girl gets some perspective on her past

A conditional hug

Source: Jesslee Cuizon, Flickr

One evening when I was eighteen, my boyfriend and I were in his living room with his sisters when his dad arrived home from work.

Mr Johns was tired. He was grumpy. He was sore. A car accident had left him with some memory impairment, a heap of medical bills and a flailing business.

Still he walked in, leaned down to give his sixteen-year-old daughter a kiss on the forehead, and his thirteen-year-old a big bear-hug.

My chest tightened. My arms ached. Cold crept across my shoulders.

There was nothing sinister in those gestures. Nothing creepy at all. Both girls responded with warmth and the indifference of routine comfort. They were used to receiving this affection. They expected it.


Sometimes I feel as if I have no skin. Nothing to shield me. Other times I feel surrounded by cement barricades. In that moment I had both.

The skinless me felt shredded, longing to be held and loved, to experience such a simple gesture, given with wholesome and genuine love. To experience affection free from sexual overtones and a sense that something isn’t quite right, that the touch isn’t given freely — touch that is not given at all, but taken. And just as quickly taken away.

Cement-covered me felt a deep, seething anger. Why had I never experienced this? Why had I never realised this was how things could and should be. This affection wasn’t staged, like you see on TV. It was genuine. Natural. Clean.

I always knew something didn’t feel right, that my dad wasn’t like other dads; I just didn’t know why. That one nightly ritual illustrated exactly what was wrong, demonstrating it is possible for a man, a father, to love with affection and caring and warmth. To express that love as a gift and not expect anything in return. You do not have to be their audience, their emotional punching bag. You do not have to walk on eggshells, even when they’ve had a bad day. You are of value in and of yourself, not as an object, and not as an adjunct to them.

My grieving process began. I mourned not for something I had lost, but for something I never had.


A few years later I tried to combat the squeamishness whenever my father touched me. I wanted to stop feeling that he was taking from me, that I had no boundaries. I believed that if I initiated the contact, I might retain control. On my terms, not his. And so I hugged him.

Even at my instigation, when we made contact — even before — I couldn’t shake the clamminess that ran the length of my arms, the shudder that worked its way to my stomach. The boundaries I had tried to set were ignored and ripped away. He determined when the contact ended, not me. And in the moments between I felt suffocated, terrified. I don’t want to use the word ‘violated’. He did not touch me where he should not. But it is the right word for how he made me feel.

I did not try to initiate contact again, and avoided his instigation whenever I could.

I don’t know if he ever intended his contact to be sexual, but through his inability to see people as anything other than objects, his misogyny and sense of entitlement, he projected a persona that was inappropriate, hyper-sexualised and completely lacking in boundaries.

I also don’t know how much of my discomfort was my projection based on the persona I saw. All I know is how it felt, and it was not the big-bear hug a father should be able to give his daughters.


Not long after this failed experiment, my parents separated. I took the opportunity to break contact with my father altogether. And I grieved all over again, for myself, for my mother, and for the childhood I would never have.

I had to accept that you can’t change the past, just as you can’t change other people. Nor can you force them to see the past from your point of view. You can only change yourself, your own perspective, and your future.

My father would never understand how he made me feel, and why that feeling was his fault, not mine. Trying to make him to see it, to acknowledge it, would be setting myself up for new hurt on top of old.


I have tried since then to re-establish contact — touch-free — but he has not changed. He also does not see how I have changed. I am not a person in my own right, but an extension of, and audience for, him.

My skin is a little thicker these days, and there are only occasional patches of concrete surrounding me. I go in to these encounters as an observer, not expecting anything from him — I have given myself what I need. I have found closure within, independent of any action or acknowledgement by him. It was the only way I could move on.

As painful as the memory of that fatherly kiss and hug remains, I am grateful to have it. It made something click in my brain, something I had not understood before. It legitimised the feeling I carried with me that something wasn’t right, but more importantly, that it wasn’t my fault. He was broken, not me. And that is what kicked off the healing process — a process that provided a shift in perspective and freed me.


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‘Coping’ — side-stepping the moment

Adventure Girl learns why sometimes it’s okay to need help

'Coping' -- side-stepping the moment

Source: madamepsychosis, Flickr

‘You dissociate too easily. I need you to keep one foot in the present when you recount your past.’

At the time my cancer was discovered, and during my subsequent treatment, people were surprised at how well I ‘coped’.

It’s not the first time I have surprised people in this way. When my partner of ten years up and left several years back, people commented on how ‘well’ I was doing. I guess in contrast to my day-to-day extraverted emotion — the heart I wear on my sleeve — I would have appeared calm, ‘together’.

The reality is that I struggle with needing people. I want to feel independent and strong, so when faced with really big stuff, I ‘cope’.

Except when coping, what I am actually doing is dissociating. I push the pain away — somewhere — but not where I am, not in the present moment. I step away from my emotions and my rational brain kicks in and takes over. My responses are calm because they are detached.

This means when people offer me support, in that moment, I shrug it off. There is nothing there for them to support me through, because I am not in touch with those emotions, that need — even that I have a need. At least, not right then.

This dissociation manifests in different ways. In times of crisis, it allows me to detach and simply focus on whatever tasks are in front of me. When someone hurts me, it allows me to push the hurt aside and deal with the situation coldly and rationally, and hide that hurt from them. It also means when I recall a memory, or evoke a fictional scene, I step out of the present and into the moment as though it were happening right in front of me.

'Coping' -- side-stepping the moment

Source: madamepsychosis, Flickr

My dissociation helps me to write, because I can recreate moments, and it helps me to cope because I can step away from intense emotions, but it means I don’t always process things in the here and now, or even soon after, when I probably should. Instead I carry the pain around with me until it feels safe to let it out.

For the most part it serves me well. It allows me to get on with the task at hand, and I process things eventually. Earlier this year, however, it got me into trouble. My cancer treatment was over, and I should have been settling back into regular life, but I wasn’t. I felt stuck. Trapped. I was at the bottom of a steep pit with no rope or foothold to climb out. At the same time, some of my friendships came to an end. One friend told me she was disappointed that I ‘couldn’t put my issues aside for her birthday’. My ‘issues’ were later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress.

From what I understand (and this is my layman’s explanation — a professional can probably correct me) risk factors for developing post-traumatic stress include not having a support network at the time of the event, or ‘trauma’, and not being able to recount your story. People who have faced a trauma need to tell their story over and over, in excruciating detail and in a supported environment, to help normalise the experience and to help detach, so that it becomes an ordinary memory to be processed and stored. It is the reason psychologists recommend narrative therapy and support groups for people who have undergone traumatic experiences.

Memories of unprocessed trauma can surface unexpectedly, intrusively. You feel afraid for no apparent reason, irritable, emotional. You avoid certain places, certain objects, things that might remind you of the unprocessed event. You might experience a loss of control, and compensate by trying to control everything else. Anything that represents a further loss can be irrationally terrifying or infuriating.

Although my cancer scare wasn’t actually life-threatening (the lump was removed, the area was treated, and I now face no more than an increased risk of another cancer in the future), in the moment, hearing the words, knowing what could be, I dissociated. All I could focus on was reassuring others, especially my mum, whose friend had died of breast cancer when she was the same age as me. I was alone when they told me, because I wasn’t expecting the scan to be anything sinister. I don’t have a family history or any reason to consider breast cancer a risk. I thought the lump was going to be some sort of blocked duct or cyst, nothing more.

‘Do you need us to call someone?’ they had asked. ‘No. No, I don’t need anyone.’

The surgeon didn’t mention the C-word. It was ‘DCIS’ or ‘pre-cancer’. I’ve had pre-cancerous cells on my cervix, and they were removed with no further treatment required. Why was this different?

Yet I was booked in for surgery within days and medical staff were handing me books about ‘early breast cancer’. Apparently this was different to cervical dysplasia. Breast cancer behaves differently, is more aggressive and difficult to treat — at least, that’s what I pieced together while everyone was avoiding naming what the lump really was. Never mind that I might lose my breast or what I might feel about my body after all this.

It was only later, when I sat looking at the books and saw the figures — survival rates calculated over the next five years (I would be 40) — that it really hit me.

Except it didn’t. Not fully. I was looking at the crows-feet-eyes of the middle-aged women on the booklet covers, and the thirty-something mothers and hearing ‘DCIS’. I had nothing in common with them.

In the same week a house-mate announced she wanted to move out, I had attended the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to sort out a dispute with my tenants, my boss (the only person left who I could trust in my workplace) had resigned, and my partner’s dad was visiting, with various family trips planned. Then my friend (the one whose birthday I wasn’t able to give my all to a few months later) announced she wanted to leave her husband. She was the same age I had been when my husband and I separated, and I became her main support person. Even if I had wanted to process what was happening to me, I didn’t really have time.

And it’s not that I didn’t have a support network. People were there for me in the next few weeks. So many people. I accepted visits gratefully. I made jokes and spoke in a detached way about what was happening to me physically, but I didn’t really talk about my fear. Instead of letting them help me, I put on my ‘there are people here to attend to’ façade and coped. At my insistence I walked to surgery by myself, I took care of as much as possible, and I was there for my friends when they needed it.

During the following weeks I noticed a strange heart murmur that kept cropping up. An irregular beat, like a frantic thud, followed by shortness of breath. Investigation showed nothing more sinister than a stress-induced misfiring valve, a benign abnormality that had probably always been there, triggered by the emotions I wasn’t processing.

During the following months I went from one physical side-effect of treatment to another, always focusing on my body, never on what was happening in my mind. From a post-surgery infection to a seroma, from cording to lymphedema, followed by knee and hip misalignment where my body was trying to compensate for everything going on up top. Next was the chronic constipation and blocked bowel that had taken me to the GP in the first place, and I finally got around to a colonoscopy and follow-up Pap test — monitoring the other pre-cancers discovered in my body.

I was so busy focusing on what was happening physically that I ignored what was going on in my mind.

My brain wasn’t going to let it pass, however. If I wasn’t ready to face the emotions, it would instead send my body to sleep. I was sleeping for twelve, sometimes fourteen hours a day, and it still wasn’t enough. This made getting on with things difficult, and ultimately upped my stress as deadlines slipped away.

Then my inability to stay awake began to alternate with hyper-vigilance and an inability to get to sleep. I lay awake, paranoid and fearful, my mind switching from deathly quiet to a cacophony. I began to dream, not about the cancer, but about my abusive ex. On several occasions I woke believing he was in the house, that he was stalking me. A trick of the light could make everything flicker and change until I was in his room and my partner was him, looking at me through those same deadened eyes.

I was terrified of everyone and everything, and nobody understood. I felt completely immobilised inside my own life. Hopeless and helpless.

'Coping' -- side-stepping the moment

Source: Kiran Foster, Flickr

I could no longer distinguish childhood me from the person I am now. I had no mechanism to escape the shame of everything I have ever been and loathed: jealous, insecure, manipulative, weak, helpless, angry. The anger inside me was at times so frightening, and I couldn’t switch it off. Occasionally it leaked out, unexpectedly, and completely misdirected. Then I felt more shame for having lost control so inappropriately. Most of all I wanted to stop being a burden on the people around me, especially my partner, who had to put up with my crazy.

I felt guilty for falling apart when I was okay, I wasn’t dying, and there are people so much worse off than me. I found out an old boss had been diagnosed with cancer at around the same time as me. She had to have her breast removed and underwent chemotherapy. And my childhood next door neighbour was diagnosed with bowel cancer. She passed away last month. I had and have no right to these emotions, and so I tried to fight them, but it only made them worse.

All of this was swirling through my brain, and I couldn’t tell any more what was past and what was present. I was re-experiencing emotions that were long gone, and beating myself up for them.

My partner got me in to see a doctor when it became apparent I couldn’t even manage that, and I had to take a chunk of time off work. But even then another good friend was going through a long-term relationship break-up and I was trying to be there for her. I had study to complete and articles to write. I was looking for jobs and a place to live interstate, and all I wanted was to find somewhere safe where I could hold the child inside me and cry.

'Coping' -- side-stepping the moment

Source: Vicky Sedgwick, Flickr

Meanwhile a very good friend found me a trauma counsellor, someone who specialises in cancer patients. The GP and then my therapist explained why I was feeling this way and helped normalise the experience for me. Reassured that I wasn’t going crazy, I felt more in control. The therapist gave me articles to read on trauma and coping techniques, and taught me to lock my memories away until I have the skills and mechanisms to cope with processing them. This we would do in a controlled environment to avoid triggering my flashbacks. I learned that one trauma can trigger another, which is why the loss of control over my cancer triggered the unprocessed trauma of the abusive relationship.

I got to a point where I was able to ‘cope’ once more. The depression and anxiety were manageable, and the flashbacks had mostly stopped. I no longer needed to control every little thing, feeling fearful and irritable. I went back to work and got on with my study, and I put off the move and job hunt, taking away as many added pressures as I could.

Eventually I had to stop my therapy. I ran out of Medicare visits and my counsellor told me I can’t process the trauma until I learn to stop dissociating. We tried processing some things, but whenever we evoked a memory, just as I step out of a present moment in order to cope, my brain stepped out of the present and into the past, re-experiencing as though it were happening all over again. Even as I type, I can barely see the screen through my tears: recounting my story feels as real as if I were there now.

So where does this leave me? My unprocessed trauma remains in a hypothetical box. I have some new skills to help keep me grounded, and some others to help with my anxiety.

My next task is to learn how to stop reliving the past, to stop beating myself up and evoking the shame of who I have been — and I’m talking about the person I was as a child and a teenager, who had diffuse boundaries and an over-abundance of uncontrolled emotions. I have to remind myself that I am not her any more, and any time I see someone displaying similar behaviours, it’s not me.

But perhaps that’s not it at all. Maybe the real task is to learn to accept and forgive that part of me. Because although I am not that person now (as an adult I have learned more appropriate behaviours and responses and I can see the many shades of grey), she has been me. I have been her.

Perhaps when I slip into the past, I can instead ask the child-me what she feels, listen to her story in detail, and give her the support to quiet her anger and her fears. Maybe if I allow her to accept support from me, she will learn that it doesn’t make her weak, that she won’t lose herself because of it, and we can both learn to recognise our emotions in the moment, to know when we need help, and not be frightened to accept it when it’s offered.


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My fear

Adventure Girl learns the true cost of being afraid

‘As a general rule, the less one’s sense of life fulfilment, the greater one’s death anxiety.’ –Dr Irvin Yalom, Love’s Executioner

My father was an intimidating man who ruled by fear. Asking for help meant causing trouble, but not asking and messing things up was far worse. From this I learnt that unless I was certain I could get something right (or that I could quietly correct what went wrong), it was safer not to try.

Meanwhile my mother taught me and my sisters not to attempt things that might be dangerous, not to venture too far, and to always walk the same way so she could find us if we strayed. Perhaps she feared losing control of us in case she, too, incurred my father’s ire.

In my mid-thirties I find I am still afraid to explore, to step outside the limits of what I know, and strike a new path. What if I mess up? What if I get into trouble? If I get lost, who will find me?

At times my fear is crippling. I struggle to make big decisions, such as what career to pursue, in what part of the world to live, even what kind of person to be. With no path carved out for me, I don’t know how to get there, or if I’ll be any good once I do. What if I make a mistake?

In my day-to-day, when faced with a new task or challenge, instead of accepting it is okay not to know how to do something, that making the occasional blunder is perfectly all right, I shrink into a knotted ball of anxiety.

The only thing greater than my fear of messing up, is my fear of missing a deadline. While in my anxious ball, I procrastinate, avoiding the task itself, instead searching for an answer, hoping it will click in my brain and I won’t have to ask for help. Eventually I am cornered, forced to start or miss my deadline, with no time to second guess whether I might make a mistake, or to worry about the quality of what I produce.

For the most part I manage to work things out, but the time in between is excruciating. I feel like a failure, a fraud, and a fool.

My feelings of inadequacy are compounded when I encounter people for whom life, tasks, and choices, are simple. What could I possibly find so hard? An attitude, a demeanour, a phrase, can send me back into the mind of seven-year-old me. Lost, frightened and dismissed as stupid or bothersome. I feel as though I can’t ask for help, that I need to work it out on my own, and if I make a mistake I am certain to bring down some cataclysmic eruption. People will know I am a fake and see the useless little girl I hide beneath.

People tell me this is ridiculous. To them I appear strong, intelligent and capable. They don’t see what goes on inside my head, the things I won’t even try.

From the outside, I appear to have a home, a partner, a successful career, but it is not a path I would have chosen.

Growing up I wanted to be a writer, but writing was not a safe career, so my passion was relegated to a hobby. If I am honest, this was with some relief. I never had to put my ability to the test.

My next choice was to become a teacher, to be immersed in learning, and teaching English and Literature, I could continue to write. But when my then boyfriend sat me down and said, ‘You’re too emotional, the kids will walk all over you,’ I knew he was right. The hidden child-me could never face a room full of adolescents. Academia was just as daunting, more so because there was no clear path to follow.

In the end I enrolled in science. I saw a world of ideas and theories and hoped to combine what I learned with writing to make science more accessible. But the leap from high school to university was too great. Stuffed into giant lecture theatres, I was surrounded by strangers who all seemed to know what was going on, while I floundered, and the three-hour practicals were like taking twice-weekly exams of what I do worst: using my hands, not my words.

I didn’t want to cause trouble and I had nowhere to turn. I was too afraid to ask for help, to admit I was lost. For the first time in my life I tried something I expected to do well at and failed.

My self-perception plummeted. I didn’t know how to pull myself out, to re-frame my less-than-perfect outcome and learn from it, so I switched paths altogether.

Out of university I took the first grown-up job that came my way, unrelated to my studies, or any of my interests, but it was safe and it paid the bills. For years I didn’t write, didn’t learn, I just worked, climbing the ladder that was in front of me because it was there and because I needed to feel like I was achieving something. I was completely hollow inside.

From there I side-stepped into a job more suited to my abilities, where I could actually use my analytical brain, but it was not the path I would have chosen. Eventually I enrolled in professional writing and finished a Masters alongside my day job, one slow subject at a time.

For eight or nine years now, I have studied alongside my work, stealing snatches of time around the edges of my life to write, to pursue my true interests, to try to work out what I want to do and how to get there. I try to also maintain my fitness, my social life, and my various obligations, yet I always feel the pull of what I’m not getting done.

It has been a long time since I simply took a stroll, meandering just to see what there is to see, without feeling guilty, or the urgency of my eternal to-do list. I lust for the time to simply read a book, to not feel rushed and pressured to get the next task done. Yet fear keeps me clinging to the familiar path while I try to chip away at something new.

Last year I finally allowed myself to entertain an entirely new career, the study of sexuality, relationships and human behaviour. I have always wanted to understand why we do the things we do, how we relate to one another and how this impacts on our sexuality. I knew that leaping, rather than stepping, off my familiar path, was the only real way to prevent me clinging to safety, so I had planned to resign my job, move interstate, enrol in this new discipline and establish a whole other career.

At the time it felt liberating. I was following a path that I had actively chosen. But then my partner wasn’t able to take the leap with me, at least, not when I needed to. A job offer fell through, and the course I had enrolled in turned out to be another source of anxious unknown. Not a distinct path to a concrete career, but specialist knowledge to build upon a career foundation that I don’t have, and one that will take years of study to acquire. I just don’t have the resources or the energy left in me.

So here I am in my home town, still at the same job, taking one subject at a time, and trying to slowly and painstakingly carve a new path alongside the one I fell into. I am exhausted.

I wonder how different my life would be if I had been encouraged to explore, to cross boundaries, to exceed limits. If I was allowed to take things apart, just to see how they worked inside, with no fear of reprisal if they couldn’t be pieced back together. If asking for help had been rewarded, rather than punished and being less than perfect had been okay. Instead I feel trapped inside my own life, by its security, by my fear of taking a new path and making a mistake.

Possibly the only thing more terrifying than taking the leap is what will happen if I don’t. Am I using my procrastination tactic once more, but with my entire life? Will the pressure build and build until I have no choice but to take the leap and scrounge for a new path?

I can see the warped logic, but it is flawed. I know myself better than that. Left to free-fall I am likely to take the nearest and safest path, the one that is most familiar, not the one I truly want to follow.

And that’s the real toll of this fear. Not the turmoil, the tears, the sleepless nights, the sheer exhaustion and terror of getting something wrong. It’s the opportunities I miss. The paths I don’t take. The life I have been too afraid to live, and the person I have been too frightened to embrace.


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The friendship destroyer

The friendship destroyer

Source: Louis Konstantinou, Flickr

Adventure Girl learns a lesson on why some friendships are best left alone

At some point you have probably encountered a friendship-destroyer. I’m sure you know her, or one just like her. She latches on to you, you introduce her to your friends, she latches on to your friends. She causes fights and provokes jealousies. Your friends, who were getting along just fine before, are divided, and eventually their relationships are destroyed.

It happens in stages. At first everyone welcomes her, and she puts on her best face. She likes your friends and they like her. Before long, the dynamic shifts. You hear how after a night on the town she monopolised the one guy Sally was interested in, while Carol was left out completely. The other guys, the ones your friends aren’t keen on, will chase her, but she never shows any interest in them.

From her, you hear how she can’t help that people are jealous, that men show interest in her, that women find her threatening. And the other guys, the ones with no entanglements, always misinterpret her attention as something more. But it’s not her fault. Why is she always the bad guy?

There will be tears, heartache, anger, and when she is done, she makes a swift exit, latching on to the next friend, and their friends, and starts the process over. Meanwhile your friendships and relationships will never be quite the same.

Stupidly, I have let the same person do this to me twice. It was years apart, and I thought she had changed, finally grown up. I was wrong.

The first time, I had recently come out of a ten-year relationship, and was just establishing my own social networks as a single woman. As an introvert, most of my interactions tend to happen one-on-one, but on a couple of occasions, I had invited a group of my friends to come together. I included this particular girlfriend, and she seemed to engage and interact well with everyone. I was delighted. I should bring this group of friends together more often.

I didn’t know then that she would systematically rip the group apart.

The girl in question — let’s call her Joan — is an initiator. Joan needs constant activity, and is always suggesting meetups, events to attend and things for her friends to try. Before long she was arranging events and inviting my friends. I’m not partial to organisation, so when Joan stepped up, I sat back, grateful to follow her lead. It didn’t occur to me to ask why she was organising events with my friends, and not inviting me along to events with hers.

I should have seen the few glitches along the way. The girls who were wary, the guys who told me there was something not quite right. What I saw was the opportunity to have a group of people who I loved come together, to feel like I belonged, and to share in fun and warmth, so welcome after the desolation of my marriage.

The end came when Joan organised a camping trip. As usual she assumed control. She made lists of who should bring what, who should pay how much and to whom. My friends are laid back, and in this sort of situation, accommodating. There is no bean-counting and everyone is happy to share and let things just happen. They assumed Joan would be the same.

Before we had even left I heard mumbled complaints from Joan. Janet hadn’t paid her share. Belinda and Michael had pulled out, upping the cost for everyone else. When we arrived she protested that my friends were disruptive and inconsiderate. The trip was tense and excruciating, and by the time we headed home, hardly anyone was speaking.

In the aftermath I heard how Joan had hoarded food and made it uncomfortable for anyone to relax and share and enjoy. From Joan: why did she get lumped with responsibility for everything? My friends had taken advantage and left her with the bill. She could never return to that camp site now. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t her fault.

I managed to salvage individual relationships, some more successfully than others, but I never brought that group together again. On birthdays or occasional gatherings, my friends would ask if Joan would be there, and then quietly opt out if the answer was yes.

Joan and I also spent less time together. When we did, I heard how she was fed up with being the one to always initiate. None of her friends ever made contact, they always left it to her, and then made her come to them. Having been on the other side, I thought it was likely she gave them no space or opportunity to try, and insisted on coming to them, as she had always done with me. Her work relationships were just as fraught. I saw her keeping a mental ledger that no one could ever repay. I bit my tongue.

We maintained this now-and-then friendship for many years, until she re-entered my life with gusto. This time it was because her relationship of ten-plus years was ending. I was her go-to person. I had been there before and I wouldn’t judge. It worked well for a while. It was a time I needed someone, too, and I imagined she had matured in the intervening years, so welcomed her in.

Before long she was eyeing-off my friends, only this time I knew what to expect. I kept a wall between us, and quietly observed as she made her move. I was her spring-board into a new social realm, one she embraced in a way I never did. I watched her carefully select victims, latch on, initiate social activity, create chaos, destabilise, and garner attention and control for herself. At least, that’s how it appeared from the outside.

The complaints started to trickle in, how she had ruined Julia’s chances with Steve, how she had left Cindy standing alone in a bar while she and another friend hooked up with two guys. And from her, how girls she met at parties were jealous because their boyfriends spent time talking to her, how girls never liked her because they were jealous. She lamented being lonely, and the relationship patterns in her life that left her feeling sidelined, bullied, and unwelcome. Her thirtieth birthday party, for instance, was attended by a select few, who fit a certain physical mold, but almost no one who really knew her, and no one she had known for more than a year.

I tried to support her, but also cautioned that if she was worried about upsetting people and losing friends, maybe she shouldn’t latch on to her potential friends’ boyfriends. It was a red rag to a bull. She threw herself at men her friends had been, or wanted to be, involved with. She arranged meetups with guys whose girlfriends she knew felt insecure about her, and posted it all over her social media. There were check-ins and mentions everywhere they went, and everywhere the girlfriends could see.

At the same time she plastered our friendship all over her various walls. Publicly we appeared closer than we ever were in life. I couldn’t make a move without her splashing her electronic pee on me, like a cat marking its owner. This in itself caused more than one stir. I felt like I was a flag she wanted to wave in people’s faces. Then when she upset my friends, I was caught in the middle. She had marked me as her friend, a public extension of her, so her behaviour was somehow my fault.

The friendship destroyer

Source: Kevin O’Mara, Flickr

Sure enough, relationships ended, friendships were destroyed. I lost a long-standing friend, whose boyfriend had been one of Joan’s targets, and though it was a friendship we had both outgrown, the way it happened saddens me.

The end for Joan and I came when she tried her antics on one of my oldest and dearest friends, Steph. They had met through me, and Joan latched on straight away. We formed a triad of sorts, which worked while I had my boyfriend in tow, allowing Joan to monopolise Steph without being too obvious and leaving me on my own. Later she tried to close in on Steph and exclude me. She failed and lost us both.

Joan had her next friend-victim lined up, someone vulnerable, whose name she began to pee all over her social media walls. I don’t need to watch to know the fallout will happen eventually, and that it will be ugly. There are already murmurs from people she has upset, hurt, or who have simply walked away, fed up with her attention-seeking antics.

I can’t help but wonder at her motives. She says she wants friendship and acceptance, but her behaviour destroys any chance she has of obtaining either. She latches on, leeches off, then has to cauterise her wounds and walk away. What I saw the second time around appeared strategic, as though she intended to carve a path of destruction. By the end ours was her only long-standing friendship, and she destroyed that, too.

I’m not sure if my story will resonate, but I have no doubt there are others like Joan around. I missed the warning signs the first time. I didn’t know to be wary when someone tried so hard to be my friend, I didn’t know to question why someone might need to make friends with my friends so badly. The second time, I had my guard up, but even then, I was slow to respond.  Lasting friendships should develop gradually and evolve naturally. They should not be forced. And if someone doesn’t have friends of their own and needs to borrow mine, I now know to ask myself why, and back quietly away. I have learned my lesson, and I am no longer afraid to question when someone wants to be my friend, or to let them go.


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Reflection in search of an Echo

‘Adore me!’ she cries, again and again, ‘for without your eyes to see me, I might disappear.’

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Seeing all sides

Adventure Girl learns the perils of too few points of view

Over the years I have encountered many people who appear incapable of seeing anything from another person’s point of view. You probably know someone like this. Someone who is always the ‘victim’, ‘hero’ or ‘princess’ in any encounter. You’ll often hear them repeating similar stories over and over. ‘So-and-so has let me down, just like everyone before’, or ‘I’m always the one giving and never get enough in return’, and ‘I deserve/don’t deserve this.’ It doesn’t seem to matter what happens in their life, they play out the same patterns, assume the same roles and construct the same reality.

My father was one such person. I used to try to persuade him with logic and reason, hard facts, or appeal to his conscience. It didn’t matter what tactic was used, he could spin any story, any event, in such a way that he was always right, always hard done by, or better and more deserving than anyone else. To make him so, the other players would be cast as wrong, villainous, or less deserving, and nothing I or anyone else could do would make him see otherwise. There were times I was frustrated to tears. How could he not know that his arguments were illogical? How could he deny the facts in front of him? Why could he not see the impact his actions had on others? Eventually I learned that arguing with him was not only futile but exhausting.

Since then I have encountered many more people like this, who have played bigger and smaller roles in my life, but every time I have ended up baffled at their apparent inability to see the world from anyone’s point of view but their own. Perhaps it is a lack of empathy, or perhaps an unwillingness to accept any view of the world that doesn’t align with their self-belief: typically one that casts them in a set role (hero, victim, princess) and with which every encounter and every interaction must conform.

I am lucky (or perhaps unlucky) to be able to see multiple points of view, so when the victim/hero/princess is bemoaning their fate or telling their story, I can see each side, each argument or counter argument. This makes it easy to be sympathetic to all parties, but difficult to navigate with tact when that victim/hero/princess demands undivided loyalty while refusing to see any side but theirs. And if I find myself on the other side of their anger, because I am able to see their point of view, I too readily accept responsibility: ‘Yes, I can appreciate why that would have made you feel this way,’ yet the same courtesy is not extended to me. The victim/hero/princess clings to their self-belief, only seeing the story from a single point of view.

I suspect it is this self-belief that is at the core of the problem. When an event happens, our brains store it in memory as a fragment. When we retrieve that fragment, we build a narrative around it. That narrative must be consistent with our understanding of the world so as not to cause what is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’. If we find that the memory does not correlate with our world-view, we have two choices: we can shift our understanding to take into account the new information, or we can build and re-build a narrative that casts the events in such a way that it is consistent with our self-belief.

For individuals like my father, the latter is the only option. Preserving their self-belief and the role they have cast for themselves is paramount, no matter what it costs those around them.

Unfortunately, that cost can be high. When to preserve their world-view, or to live out a self-belief, a person needs to cast you in a counter-role, it can feel like an accusation. In a normal situation when someone accuses you of something you have an opportunity to rebut, to present evidence and tell your side of the story. With people like this, you don’t have that opportunity, because anything you say, any action or inaction, will be twisted, re-cast, the narrative re-written. Failing that, your side can simply be disregarded: ‘I can’t take your issues on board right now’, ‘I don’t want any drama in my life’, or a simple, ‘I’m done.’ You are acting out a play, written, cast and directed by them, and you have no right of reply: powerless.

When encountering individuals who operate in this way, I have learned it is better to walk away than to engage in any kind of debate. How can you defend yourself when the only lines that will be heard are the ones that have been scripted for you? There is no mechanism in this scenario to be heard because the accuser has no capacity or willingness to understand. To do so could threaten their world-view and self-belief. This is not a battle anyone can fight. The only sensible option is to walk away.

This strategy has served me well to a point. I have learned to recognise the pattern and the behaviour of these types of people and avoid throwing myself into hopeless battles. I simply let the argument, and them, go. On one level I can accept this: these are not the kinds of relationships I wish to pursue.

The downside is that walking away can make getting closure difficult. I refrain from having my say when I probably need to get something out. I bottle it up, feeling dis-empowered, rather than empowered by my silence. This is particularly detrimental when each new instance invokes the feelings of the old. Eventually I implode, and that doesn’t help anybody.

I don’t want my anger to fester, unresolved, so what outlet do I have? When do I get to have my say? Venting to friends who can see other people’s points of view helps, but it’s not always enough. I can’t talk to my accuser without being witness to their revisionist history and re-experiencing the powerlessness all over again. The only avenue I can see is to write my story out as fully as I can, including all sides (because I can see them). Maybe my accuser will mentally re-write them, more likely they will never read them, and though I know they are unlikely to ever see any other point of view, they also can’t alter my truth, and that is real power.


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‘But I want them to like me!’

Adventure Girl learns a lesson in setting boundaries and saying no

At the beginning of last year I made a resolution to ‘stop collecting crazies’. It sounds a little ridiculous when I write it out, but after a succession of tumultuous relationships beginning with an abusive boyfriend, and then a drama-addicted manipulative friend (who later became an unreliable and vampiric house-mate), and a year of dating and befriending people who managed to barge into my life and sponge off me emotionally and financially, I was exhausted. Something had to change. Then when my not-so-crazy friends starting asking, ‘How do you keep getting caught up with these people? What is it about you?’ it occurred to me that I might be a big part of the problem.

I was never the popular kid growing up and my sisters, cousins and the neighbourhood kids, who were all older, never wanted me around. Growing up on the sidelines, hoping to be invited in, it became my habit to accept any offer of friendship, because I never knew when the next one might come along. Fearing rejection, I also ended up dating the people who showed interest in me, rather than those I fancied, something that prevented me from fully exploring my sexuality, and fully experiencing a healthy and balanced relationship.

Historically I have also fallen into hero-victim types of dynamics with people. I would see that someone ‘needed’ me and want to rescue them, even if it meant they walked all over my boundaries, leaving me feeling violated and utterly drained. I guess being needed, and not just wanted, made me feel valued. It seemed like a safe place to be: if someone needs me they are less likely to reject me.

As an adult my situation has changed. I am not short of wonderful, giving friends, who go above and beyond, who bring me to life and who I would do anything for, who I never hesitate to spend time with, who never make me feel guilty for not calling sooner, and who I look forward to seeing every single time no matter how much time has passed. These are friends who give me space, who respect my boundaries, who I feel comfortable and intimate with, and with whom I wish I could spend more time. So why was I still giving time and energy to people who were so clearly bad for me?

I realised that a big part of why I let these people into my life, and then stay there, is because I have so much difficulty saying ‘no’. Such a simple word, yet it carries so much weight. In childhood being told ‘no’ meant being rejected. No, you can’t play with the older, cooler kids. No, you aren’t invited to my birthday party. What if when I say no, I make someone feel like that? Or worse, what if I say ‘no’ or set any kind of boundaries, and I don’t get asked again? What if I say no, and then people don’t like me?

Adult me knows this is screwed up logic, that nothing is that black and white, or shouldn’t be, but when you grow up experiencing conditional love, you learn to accommodate, to please, and to be compliant. Growing up tiptoeing around a father who flew into rages any time he felt crossed, and who would manipulate any situation to make it somebody else’s fault, I have learned to avoid any kind of emotionally charged situation. I am hypersensitive to conflict and go into self-preservation mode whenever I think someone might explode around me. I do whatever I can to keep people happy, including not telling someone ‘no’ or that I don’t want from them what they want from me.

From this same family dynamic I have come to recognise that when I meet new people, my mechanism for evaluating ‘appropriate’ and ‘normal’ behaviour and for recognising and enforcing boundaries is a little messed up. It’s far too easy for someone to slip past my walls and latch on, developing a degree of intimacy (real or imagined) too quickly and too intensely, and I get caught up in the whirlwind, excited to have someone in my life who appears to value me, or who makes me feel needed, regardless of the cost.

In some ways I’ve almost been moulded to expect people to play on my emotions and to intimidate me to get what they want: being manipulated and frightened feels familiar. This was something my abusive ex capitalised on for a year and a half, whose ‘gaslighting‘ behaviour left me questioning not only my judgement but my sanity.

What I have had to recognise since then is my part in these scenarios: I have allowed these relationships to form by not identifying when a situation is unhealthy, and by not setting appropriate boundaries and accepting that it is okay to say ‘no’. If that person reacts badly, exploding at me or otherwise being manipulative, I am probably better off without them. I no longer have the same fear of rejection because I have worked on building up my self-esteem, on my jealousies and insecurities, and for the most part feel confident about my body and about who I am. I no longer need to push myself forward to be seen and heard, afraid that if I don’t I will remain invisible. In fact, I’m quite happy to sit on the sidelines and watch, comfortable that if I’m not at the centre of whatever is happening, if I’m not invited to this event or that, this is no reflection on my value as a person.

I treasure my close friends and know that they value me, and since making this resolution, when new people have tried to enter my life, I have established boundaries and made sure things have developed slowly. In doing this, in not giving in just because something is asked of me, in not being so concerned with whether or not someone likes me that I forget to evaluate whether or not I like them, I have found that people who might once have latched on and developed an unhealthy attachment or who have wanted to be ‘rescued’, have simply slipped away, existing in my life as acquaintances, rather than intimate friends, which is a much healthier place.

The last step in reaching my goal has been realising I need to apply the same filters and set the same boundaries with old friends as well as new. If their behaviour sets off the same alarms, if the friends whose judgement I trust (because I still don’t entirely trust my own) say ‘This person’s behaviour is a little odd’, or I notice their reactions to things aren’t particularly logical, I pay attention. And if someone makes unreasonable demands or rages at me without taking any responsibility for themselves, I’m not going to panic, wanting to make amends, frightened of losing a friend, I’m going to interact with them assertively, like a secure adult, confident in saying ‘no’ and knowing I’ll be okay with or without them.


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When a gift isn’t really a gift

By definition, a gift is ‘something that is bestowed voluntarily and without compensation.’ When I give a gift or offer my support or my time, I do so freely, because I want to, because it feels good to, and with no expectations of the recipient. When someone offers something to me, I assume they do so with the same intent, and accept their gift gratefully and graciously. More and more, however, I am learning that some ‘gifts’ aren’t true gifts at all.

There is a flip-side to the expression ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.’ While you shouldn’t assess a gift’s value, you should be aware some gifts come with strings attached: an expectation and obligation of return. This expectation is never spoken, but recorded in the giver’s emotional ledger, mentally chalked up as something you must repay to an equivalent value (of their measure, not yours) within a time-frame (set by them) that is also unspecified.

This is not to say I don’t feel grateful when people do things for me or give things to me – I do, immensely. Rather, I don’t assume when someone offers a gift (be it time, money or support) that I will be held to account for it. This is because the ‘ledger’ is invisible, unspoken. I am expected to read the gift-giver’s mind and know that their offer of time, money or support, is not in fact a gift, but an exchange.

An example of where the ‘exchange’ is slightly more transparent is where my father offered to ‘give’ my sisters and me our inheritance early – provided we ask for it. Both my sisters have taken him up on this offer, but I have not, and won’t. Aside from my views on inheritances in general (I try to encourage my mum to spend her money during her lifetime rather than miss out on life’s experiences because she is worried about not leaving anything behind), I feel that if I ask for the money, it is no longer a gift. It comes with obligation. If it was a true gift, freely given with no expectation of return, he could simply send me a cheque.

Another complication is my assumption that people will ask for what they want or need. This is something I am able to do fairly readily (with some exceptions), and so I assume that if somebody needs me, they will give me a call, or that if I offer to help out when they need it they will say yes. I suppose I should know better. I grew up with a mother for whom ‘fine’ or ‘if you want to’ meant ‘don’t you dare’ and ‘it’s not fine at all’, but my response instead has been to develop a certain level of intolerance to that kind of passivity (and its flip-side, passive-aggression), and an almost stubborn insistence on taking people at their word. If they don’t speak up, they miss out. This doesn’t mean I don’t offer to help unless someone speaks up, but I expect that when I do offer, they will say yes or let me know what they need, even if that need is a sympathetic ear, or a request to be left alone.

The problem is that in relationships my preparedness to ask for what I want and need and my assumption that others will do the same, means I can find myself clocking up an unspoken debt on someone’s ledger.

Not having a ledger myself, when someone does something wonderful for me, offers their assistance or support in a time of need, I acknowledge and appreciate their efforts. I also take from that experience and learn how I might do the same for someone (possibly someone else) in a similar situation when and if the opportunity arises. I suppose on the ledger-system, I am paying my invisible and unacknowledged ‘debt’ forward, rather than back, but this does nothing to change my ‘balance’ in the ‘creditor’s’ eyes.

Repayment in kind also may not register with the creditor. They may expect like for like (not that they ever tell you this), so while they are buying you presents or helping you move house, you’re listening to their relationship troubles or looking after their pets, neither of which does anything to lower your debt.

Sometimes the creditor will also have an expectation of return at a particular point in time that it may not be possible to meet, and so no matter what else is happening or what other gifts you have given, your repayment ‘bounces’. Many years ago I missed a friend’s birthday because it coincided with the only time of year that my husband and I could both take leave to travel. She never mentioned it at the time, but dropped it in conversation years later somewhat nastily. Her unspoken expectation meant that I had unwittingly disappointed her, and no matter that I planned around her at other times, those ‘payments’ did not register towards my debt.

Lastly there are those who keep ledgers who expect you to mind-read the ledger’s existence and who need you to remain in debt to them. As David Wong writes in ‘5 Ways You’re Accidentally Making Everyone Hate You’, for these kinds of people this personal ledger disparity is about power: as long as they feel they are doing more for you than you for them, they have something over you, and that’s exactly how they want it. These are the people who always buy you gifts that substantially exceed the monetary value of yours, and who show up to a party you’re hosting with half a dozen dishes and three bottles of wine when most people would bring one of each at most. For these people nothing you ever do will repay your debt because a weird kind of reverse ‘interest’ accumulates: as soon as you pay the amount ‘owed’, they will up the ante. To repay again will leave you broke.

Luckily I have other friends in my life who approach the giving of gifts in the same way as me, and who don’t keep a tally of who-did-what-for-whom, and who I assume (like me) will say no when they need to and yes when they want help. Undoubtedly one person will end up doing more for the other at different points, listening more than talking, spending more time or money or effort, because people have different needs at different times, and that’s the way life tend to pan out. As corny as it sounds, I figure we have a lifetime for things to more or less balance out.

Then there are situations where ledger or no, giving and giving and giving does not actually help the recipient and may become detrimental to you. Say someone has an addiction or a mental health  problem and won’t seek professional help. Your giving too much could be enabling them to remain in a bad situation. In these instances cutting your losses and walking away might be the healthiest option for you both.

The underlying problem with the whole ledger-approach is that it’s not made explicit. People have different strengths and abilities and so show their love and kindness in various ways, while individuals’ circumstances vary and each situation requires its own approach. This means gifts may not come in the same form as they were given, at a particular point in time, or even to the person from whom they were once received. I don’t keep tabs and I don’t keep score, but on balance I feel that I give as much as I receive, and to be honest if I knew that a present or an offer of assistance or time came with an unspoken obligation, I might find a way to politely decline. Perhaps the old expression would be better worded, ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but do ask what the giver wants from you in return.’


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Finding my new ‘normal’

Adventure Girl learns a lesson in life after breast cancer

‘You are a strong person. Just because you are feeling these things now doesn’t mean you aren’t strong underneath. You are reacting to things that have happened to you, and that’s perfectly natural.’

Receiving a cancer diagnosis has changed me in ways I didn’t expect. Denial, fear, sadness, anger, relief, seemed natural. But it’s been a few months since finishing radiation therapy, and I just can’t seem to get back on track.

This time last year I felt I was finishing a journey, working hard to move forward from a past where my poor self-esteem had drawn me into an abusive relationship, to a period of growth where I felt certain I would never look back. I saw myself as strong, confident, capable, happy. My relationship attachment style (once insecure) was secure, and my self-awareness and ability to manage my weaknesses meant I was taking great leaps forward, commencing an open relationship from a position of strength. I no longer sought validation and I was comfortable living independently while also sharing part of my life and myself with my primary partner.

Then I discovered I had early breast cancer. Before I had time to process what this might mean, I was in hospital having the lump removed. Infection set in and I healed slowly. My breast swelled and my armpit collected fluid where it could no longer drain through damaged lymph nodes until I couldn’t rest on one side. I had no idea how much my breasts moved just getting around until they had been sliced and bruised, no appreciation of how much I relied upon full mobility until I was immobile. By the time my wounds had healed, I had developed ‘cording’: crystalised lymph that restricted my movement and left me feeling as though my ribs were cracked.

Then there was radiation every day for 5 weeks, followed by physiotherapy and not knowing what the hell was happening to my body. My breast swelled still more and my skin blistered and burned. It wasn’t like the sunburn they described, it was like a cooking burn, right across my left side. I was left unable to move properly, even once the radiation site healed, because the fluid and cording left me misaligned.

I had no idea that after everything had died down, once my body had (mostly) healed, and my life returned to normal, that nothing would feel normal again.

I expected to feel relief, ready to make the changes to my life I had been forced to put on hold. Instead I felt useless, irritated, powerless and guilty. Worse, I felt weak, vulnerable, needy and insecure. It was as though all the work that I had done on my self-esteem, building a tower above a solid foundation, had been undermined. My logical brain was aware of how it should and could feel, but my emotional mind could only manage to curl up on my boyfriend’s couch and weep for days.

It didn’t stop there. While I was able to get back up off the couch and go into work, something had altered fundamentally. I experienced patches of happiness, allowed myself to relax and enjoy individual moments, but they seemed more like temporary distractions. My brain knew there was work to be done and demanded my mind get on and do it.

Usually my mind is fairly full. I get lost in my own thoughts and enjoy my own company. After my treatment it was silent. I was bored. Bored with everything, but most especially, with me. I don’t ever recall feeling that way. My inner world is usually crammed with ideas and insights. Now it was empty, with nothing to offer anyone else, and nothing to offer me. I was hollow.

Then it filled up and thoughts were flying too fast, cluttered, and I found everything irritating. I struggled to settle into any one thought, any single task. I had to get so much done, but nothing would stay still. Tasks seemed too big, overwhelming, competing for my attention. From utter silence, I began to suffocate from thinking too much, feeling too much, none of it filtering through into any kind of order.

My thoughts began to turn in on themselves. I had survived, I should be happy, healthy, grateful to be alive. I had no right to feel sorry for myself. Why wasn’t I over it already?

Worse, I was aware that this was not how it had to be. I was keen to get back to the old me, but I felt there was always one or more hurdles in the way. And whenever I tried to start something, I found myself giving up. Either it shouldn’t be a priority, or it simply wasn’t going to be good enough.

All that work to build a solid foundation, and the cancer had blasted a tunnel straight though. In my job I felt useless; in my relationship, needy. And my body! Where had my confidence gone? Physically the scars are minimal. When my breasts are their normal size (‘Boobzilla’ continues to periodically swell), you can barely notice anything different about them. But in my mind I’ve lost my sexy. I can’t compete with younger, skinnier girls, girls with intelligence, charm, wit, or anything I can no longer see in myself.

In this state I struggle to socialise and nothing my boyfriend says can lastingly reassure me. I have begun to push him and pull away, testing, testing, and it’s my leaky boat all over again. Only now it’s worse, because I know it doesn’t have to be like this. Haven’t I grown beyond? Didn’t I process these underlying issues and prove my strength?

I hate being insecure me. It terrifies me and I struggle not to withdraw, to simply disappear. I’ve contemplated suicide, more than once. Failing that I fantasise about mutilating my flesh, digging my nails into my skin, or simply ending things with my partner so I don’t have to feel this pain any more, and so that he doesn’t have to witness me like this.

I’m conscious that this isn’t the girl he fell in love with, and each act of jealousy, each cry for reassurance, weakens me in his eyes, takes him closer to his own negative relationship experiences, and me to mine. It’s a cycle of destruction. The more weakness I show, the weaker I feel, and the weaker I feel the more prone to weakness I am.

I read in the brochures that breast cancer survivors often suffer depression, particularly if they have experienced depression before, that it can be difficult to transition back in to everyday life, that we have to find a new kind of ‘normal’.

I didn’t expect to feel this paralysing fear, this hopelessness and helplessness. I didn’t expect to feel ugly, inside and out. And I certainly didn’t think I would be stranded on an island of insecurity floating further and further away from the tower of esteem I once painstakingly built.

I only hope my friend is right when she says that I am still that strong person, that I can rebuild and reach my tower once more. This time I need to make it out of more resilient stuff. Because my future could hold anything and my health could be taken away from me at any moment, my body could betray me again. I’m 35, fit and physically strong. I have no family history of breast cancer and there is no obvious reason why my body developed a cancerous lump. I only know that it did, and it might again, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it except get on with living so I don’t miss out on what life I have left.

So I tell myself I am still strong, and I will only get stronger. What happened to me was not my fault, and outside of my control, and that’s okay. I don’t need to control everything, least of all my long-suffering boyfriend who has given me nothing but love and understanding.


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An African Adventure

I’ve been in eastern Africa for a week now and I’m not sure where to start: the poverty, the corruption, HIV, the culture, the church.

Right now I’m camped inside the grounds at a Kenyan orphanage. It is both warming and heart breaking. The kids cry ‘Geckos! Geckos!’ (the name of our tour company) as we enter, and run up to greet us. The older ones take our hands and lead us around; the younger ones reach up, wanting to be held.

Kenyan child

One of the littlies we met at the Kenyan orphanage.

They just want to be near us, to have someone pay them attention, even if it is for a short while. There are over 250 children here, and there just aren’t enough hugs to go around.

I notice right away how few grown-ups are here. The children take it in turns to help in the kitchen, clean up, lead prayers, garden (the orphanage grows 70% of its own food), show us around, and to care for each other. Even the littlies in the nursery have to dress themselves for bed.

Everything runs to a schedule. Inside the dorms, each child has his or her own bed, drawer or shelf to keep their few items of clothing. Shoes are left at the door. There aren’t enough blankets and no one seems to have a pillow. Several of the boys pull their mattresses off bunk beds and onto the floor. There are some few toys and books, but not nearly enough to go around. One boy pulls a colouring book and pencils out from under his mattress.

Littlies at the orphanage.

More littlies at the orphanage.

The littlies dine in the nursery. Dinner: a roll, half a banana, and half an avocado. The older kids eat a roll and a bowl of vegetable stew which they lick clean.

We dine with them, and they eye our meals hungrily. We are served a special stew along with some chapatti. One of the visitors at our table offers some of his food to the boys. They grasp and shout and shove their bowls for more. I sit eating silently, wanting to give what I can, but knowing it’s not nearly enough. My partner, who has taken a larger serve, starts to share his out. We call for some order, so he can distribute it as fairly as possible. The kids at the nearby tables miss out.

Some of the children are sponsored and are able to go to university when they finish school, but others are not. Those less academically inclined will struggle to find a path. The orphanage is looking at ways to help them skill up in other areas, such as secretarial work, cooking, or carpentry. Some of the kids are helping build new facilities, and the operators are working to build partnerships with industry so that the kids have a chance to find jobs.

At the Kenyan orphanage.

At the Kenyan orphanage.

This is one of the better orphanages, the founder a Seventh Day Adventist, so each child is schooled in religion, offering thanks to god with song and prayers and children as young as three reciting passages from the Bible. The orphanage owner comes to chat to us about what they do and we are invited to donate some small goods, sheets, blankets, pencils, exercise books, and also to sponsor a child.

Like so much in Africa, it is this type of direct charity that makes a difference on the ground. Much of the aide from First World countries seems to line the wrong pockets, and with successive governments struggling to maintain power, there is no welfare, high unemployment, and few public works.

We are told by a Ugandan that Africans have learned to rely upon the First World for handouts, even exaggerating some situations they know will bring in money. Meanwhile, corruption is rife. We witnessed the driver on an overcrowded bus, possibly carrying illegal immigrants, hurtling past a police check-point and dropping a bag out of the window. The driver sped on. Our Ugandan friend told us that the only people arrested who are ultimately charged are those too poor to bribe their way out.

Most changes in government result in violence and the murder of all opposition, real or perceived. It is only when a government can maintain power that there is enough stability to do anything for the people. To gain power, a leader needs money. More money is needed to keep it. People deemed loyal to the leader, typically from the same tribe, are given government jobs, while the rest are left to fend for themselves.

This is where the church comes in. Most schools, hospitals and welfare, like the orphanage, are funded by religious groups. They do wonderful and much needed work, but at a price: suppression of the local culture (though we are told that in Uganda at least, most people pay lip-service to the church while maintaining traditional beliefs), and also the suppression of responsible breeding.

Abstinence The Safest Way To Avoid Aids

One of a series of signs displayed at a Ugandan school.

Children are taught abstinence. Abortion and homosexuality are illegal, while HIV infection levels are back on the rise. Individuals who want to use birth control struggle to find the money to pay for it. If a hormonal contraceptive has bad side-effects, a woman can’t simply pop back to the clinic to change it. Poorer families from the villages still practice polygamy, though their second and third wives aren’t recognised by the church. In Uganda at least, a man is legally responsible for any children that he fathers, a law enforced by hefty fines. This doesn’t seem to deter some men from having 20 children or more, though he struggles to feed, clothe and school them.

At least HIV has been tackled in an admirable way. There is no longer any stigma attached to having the disease, which means testing is encouraged and can be managed shame-free. Those infected can be treated and the spread of the disease can be minimised ‘These days, having HIV is a choice,’ our Ugandan friend said. Four of his siblings had died of the disease, and he was raising his nephew as his own. ‘Back then, people didn’t know, but now, we are taught about it in schools, and we know to use protection.’ There are signs on walls, billboards, and road-sides: ‘Know your HIV status today.’

Know Your HIV Status Today

A sign displayed at a Ugandan school.

We are told most new cases occur through poverty, for instance rich infected men preying upon young boys and girls who need the support too much to say no or to insist on using protection. It will be interesting to see how the infection rate changes over the next few years with the rise of abstinence-only education in schools.

A Kenyan orphan

One of the Kenyan orphans who adopted us for the day.

I spend just a few hours with the orphaned children – some whose parents have died from HIV, some whose parents can’t afford to keep them – holding them, reading to them, just giving them some individual time, and reach into my pockets, more than happy to do so to make a difference to a few children’s lives, but I can’t help but feel how small a difference it will truly be.


Posted in Africa, reflections, travel | 1 Comment

Lust, love and loneliness

Roberta Bust opens up about her fear of finding herself alone

I’ve been officially single for the last 5+ months now, and have found there is a part of me that keeps craving companionship and love, but without the complications of a relationship – it’s inconsistent I know. I am surrounded by friends who are in loving and supportive relationships, new and long term, and I long for the time that I find myself in one too.

Yet I have come to a point in my journey where I am so conflicted about what I want. My heart certainly feels it’s ready to love again, but my head is placing barriers at every point. I find myself questioning everyone and everything, ultimately sabotaging any chance I could have at finding love again.

Granted my choice in men has not been the best, however I attribute that to my head taking control and pointing me in the directions of Mr Right Now, not Mr Right. All the while, my heart tries to intervene, attempting to instil feelings that clearly aren’t there and never will be. Sigh.

So what is this journey teaching me, and why do I keep hitting the proverbial wall? Why is it that I continually find myself in situations I’d rather not be, but for lack of other potential suitors, I continue to be involved in them? Why is it that my actions and words are worlds apart when it comes to relationships, casual or otherwise?

I am terrified of starting another relationship. I don’t want to get emotionally involved or attached, I don’t want to build any expectations because I don’t want to be hurt again. But part of me is ready to take that leap. I also know I need to live, be free for a while. Some of the time that works for me, but when I am lying in bed and there is no one beside me, there is a loneliness that I have never experienced, and it overwhelms me. This loneliness influences the choices I make, and I continually find myself seeking companionship in the arms of men I am not attracted to, but the desire for comfort and brief passion is too overpowering. It’s the only thing that fleetingly fills the void.

The point I keep coming back to after hours of self-reflection, counselling and discussions with friends, is that I want to stop the loneliness. I want to meet someone, share my life with them, someone who will love me for me, make me feel special and think the world of me. But why the rush? I’ve only been single a short while and haven’t had the freedoms of most people my age, so why do I keep placing so much pressure on myself? And then it clicked.

I am fast approaching 30, and for me this is a milestone. This is the first time in my adult life I have been single, and it terrifies me. I don’t want to celebrate my birthday alone. Pathetic I know, but it is something I just can’t face. I have wonderful friends who I can share the day with, but there is something that I want that my friends can’t give.

I also feel the societal pressure that as one approaches 30 and beyond, they should be thinking about marriage, babies, and the rest. Even though this is the very situation I just escaped, and have no desire to recreate–I don’t even feel a sense of urgency about having children–the feeling lingers in the back of my mind: I can’t be 30 and be alone.

So when the day comes, I want that special someone to be there. Someone who loves me, who is there when I wake, who will give me the most passionate kiss and want to make my day as special as possible, because I’ve never had that before. And I’m not talking expensive gifts; I’m talking about thoughtful and kind gestures which indicate to me that I am loved. My previous birthdays have consisted of belated presents, or none at all, occasional cards and a quick peck on the lips. Nothing that screams ‘you are special’ or ‘you are loved’. Those memories reinforce feelings of loneliness because it is all I know. But I’m wary that if I rush things, I am likely to choose poorly and my expectations on finding love will be shattered.

I don’t know how I am going to get my head and heart to agree, or whether I will be able to defeat my loneliness and achieve my heart’s desire to have a wonderful partner to share my 30th birthday with. I guess that’s just life. It would be pretty boring if we knew exactly how it pans out. But I do know that I deserve to have these things, and that I need to stop putting a time limit on myself, because it ultimately ends in poor choices. I need to keep putting myself out there and meeting new people, because somewhere out there, there is someone special for me, and when I am ready it will feel right.

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Drawing back the curtains

Adventure Girl finds a way to let in the light

Sometimes it feels like I’m sitting alone in the dark — wherever I happen to be — and that no matter how many different ways I try to get to the light, the curtains remain shut. I can be sitting in a crowded room, in an open plan office, at a café, a gig, at the dinner table, surrounded by strangers, colleagues, loved ones, but feel isolated, trapped inside my own world, my own mind, with nothing but my own dark thoughts and the thickness of my emotions choking me. It can stay that way for days, weeks, sometimes months.

Drawing back the curtain

Usually it happens when something, often a few things, knock at the core of my self-confidence, my self-worth. When I’m in the grip of it, I stop being able to take pleasure in simple things. I withdraw, unable to concentrate. I become teary and preoccupied.

At one time, these bouts lasted and lasted. I would try to deny them, filling my life with distractions. But when the distractions ran out — and they always do — I was left alone with my thoughts, unable to avoid the bleak and the gloom. Whatever had caused the darkness insisted on being seen and known and wouldn’t let up until I recognised and owned it.

It has only been in the past year, after a long and difficult struggle, that I have been able to finally accept these dark periods. They are something I no longer run from, but have learned to manage. I may have to disappear for a few days, cancel social engagements, work from home, and do whatever I can to give myself time and space to process. Instead of trying to force the curtains open, which seems to draw them tighter, I have learned to let them go, to allow the tears, and take the time to ask myself why they have been drawn in the first place, and what I need to give myself to be able to open them again and let in the light.

Meanwhile I do things I know will make me feel good. Not distracting things, but rejuvenating ones: eating well, exercising, feeling the sun on my skin, cleaning, organising, cuddling my cats, reading, or writing — always writing. As long as I do these things, take the time, and give myself what I need, I know that eventually I will be able to draw back the curtains and not just see, but feel the light once again.

Recently, the darkness settled not for days, but weeks. It came upon the tail end of my cancer treatment. For weeks I had been house-bound, oft-times bed-ridden, lacking energy, motivation and concentration. Socialising was limited to those who came to visit, and only when I had enough energy; work was something I flitted in and out of whenever I was able. I couldn’t wash properly, or wear nice clothes; I was putting on weight and feeling frumpy. My once-fit body had been sliced open, radiated, and swollen to monstrous proportions. Although I had stayed active during my treatment, walking each day, doing yoga and Pilates, I lacked any kind of vigour. What if I could never run again? What if my comfort eating left its residue of pudge around my middle forever?

I knew I was being hard on myself, that it was only temporary, and a couple of times I almost managed to pull myself back up. Each time I was plummeted down again. I began to fear I would be trapped, that I didn’t know who I was anymore, and that I had no place to return to. With this prolonged cloud came acute anxiety and intense pain, the kind I last felt at the hands of my abuser. The kind that makes me lash out at those I love like a wounded dog. The kind that makes me hurt myself.

Probably it was there from the beginning of my diagnosis, but because I was focused on getting treatment, on recovering, on just getting through each day, I ignored it. Nothing else about me had changed. Yet things that normally wouldn’t bother me did. I felt vulnerable and needy, and by the time my treatment came to an end, I felt empty and worthless and bored in my own company.

I knew I should be feeling relieved. Treatment was over.  The curtains should be peeling back of their own accord. The problem was, when they did peel back, I was still surrounded by dark. Things that had been part of my identity were no longer there. The body I had taken pride in had betrayed me. I worried that I had lost my independence and also my sense of adventure, and that without adventures to report on, I had nothing of interest to share. I was struggling to participate in conversations around me and began to feel jealous of the attention given to my adventurous and sexy friends. Worse, in the wonderful intimacy and closeness I had grown with my partner, wearing my daggy clothes and flannel pyjamas, I felt the seeds of Married Sex being planted. I had become what I swore I would never again be: insecure.

Before my treatment I had come so far. For the better part of a year I had felt strong, happy, confident and secure. I no longer felt dependent on others for my self-worth. I was able to choose who to spend my time with without feeling guilty. I had learned to select my friends without worrying that I wouldn’t have enough. I valued my close friends and knew that they valued me. I had begun to sit contentedly on the sidelines without pushing myself to the centre, needing to be seen and heard in order to feel valued. I had stopped comparing myself to others, being content being me: no better or worse, but different.

I had to find a way to get those feelings back.

At first I thought I needed to get out and about and threw myself into a social frenzy, chasing sexcapades in order to feel desired and interesting, thirsty for the attention it would doubtless bring. I wanted to look good and feel sexy, and be seen as such. I grasped at flimsy writing opportunities and looked achingly to the future when I could leap back into study and kick off a new career.

Instead I found myself in social situations feeling awkward and unwanted, worrying that I had nothing to offer, that I had said and done everything wrong. I teed up sexcapades only to back out in a flood of guilt, knowing how much it would hurt my partner. Meanwhile, my partner met someone he was interested in — something I encouraged him to do before the diagnosis — and I felt threatened and jealous. I had a set-back on my path to study: my documents were rejected and I faced more administrative hurdles, while my writing prospect began to seem less like an opportunity and more like exploitation. At my day job, my absence and unreliability during treatment left me feeling unneeded and invisible.

It seemed there was nothing I could grab on to that would bring any kind of light.

I grew desperate, the pain acute. I hated who I was becoming, but I also knew this didn’t have to be me. I had been a person I liked; I could be that person again. The big S was looming, but I wouldn’t let it take hold.

I reached out to my friends, asked them to throw me a lifeline, anything they could think of that would help me crawl out. They pointed to my partner, to my course, to my career, but these things seemed flimsy and unsure. This was external validation. What I did, or had, not who I was.

And then I knew what I had to do.

I sat myself down (literally) and pulled each external element apart. I imagined losing everything: my partner, my job, my plans for study, my writing opportunity and my potential lovers. Without them, I could see that I was still the same person.

My most acute fear was of losing my partner. What we have is so incredibly special: irreplaceable. But I realised that if I had met him at a different point in my life, we could not have had the tremendous relationship we have now, because I was not who I now am.

I have been loved because I am lovable. I have been liked because I am likeable  I have achieved because I am capable. I have been desired because I am desirable. I have had adventures because I am adventurous. These things don’t define who I am; I am able to be these things because of who I am.

If everything fell to pieces, if everything I had was taken away, I would still be okay. Without them, I would be valuable, lovable and capable. It’s not about my face or my body or my career or my partner, or anything that is outside of me, and I certainly don’t need someone else to see those things in me when I can see them in myself. I will always be able to stand up, dust myself off, draw back those curtains, and start again. I’ve done it before and it made me stronger. Knowing that, I was finally able to step out into the light.


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One foot in the closet

‘Often I find identifying as bisexual is akin to having multiple passports for different countries, all expired.’ — Faith Cheltenham, President of BiNet USA, in ‘Google’s Bisexual Problem’

For a while now I’ve wondered whether or not I should tell my family that I’m bisexual. My friends know, as do the people who follow me online, but because I’ve never been in a meet-the-family kind of same-sex relationship, I haven’t had cause or even an opening to tell my parents, and thirty-five seems a little old for a ‘coming out’ revelation. In some ways describing my sexual preference — bringing it up in conversation — feels akin to discussing my sex life, or at least opening up a part of my personal life that I’ve kept private since crawling out of my crab basket. At the same time, by not telling them, I feel as if I’m remaining closeted, hiding a part of my identity, in some ways being dishonest, or at least, not true to me.

The San Francisco Human Rights Commission describes bisexuality as:

‘the capacity for emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction to more than one sex or gender. A bisexual orientation speaks to the potential for, but not requirement of, involvement with more than one sex/gender’ —Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendations

and reports that:

‘Bisexuals experience high rates of being ignored, discriminated against, demonized, or rendered invisible by both the heterosexual world and the lesbian and gay communities. Often, the entire sexual orientation is branded as invalid, immoral, or irrelevant.’

Advice columnist Dan Savage argues that bisexuals have a duty to come out to their friends, family, even co-workers, because as long as bisexuals remain ‘in the closet’, or pass as straight or gay (mono-sexual), they contribute to their own invisibility and perpetuate the effects of bi-phobia, including being overlooked, ignored, denied, and rejected as ‘too gay’ or ‘not gay enough’.

But is a person’s sexuality anybody’s business but that of the person and their sexual partners?

It’s Invisible
There are many more bisexual people out there than are publicly acknowledged. This is in part due to assumptions made about sexuality based on social interactions — bisexuals are often assumed to be the sexuality that their current relationship represents — but also because there can be no easy way to make sexuality known without shoving it down people’s throats. Even an individual who has had successive relationships with people of different genders can be assumed to have ‘come out’ as straight or gay, their bisexuality representing a transition or ‘phase’, or perhaps confusion about their sexuality.

On a more subtle but pervasive level, bisexuals can be overlooked in ways that make it impossible for them to be recognised, for instance on official surveys that omit bisexuality as a category, in scientific research which neglects to include bisexuals or that ‘lumps data about bisexuals under “gay” or “lesbian”,’ and even in Google searches that suppress the auto-complete function for bisexuality.

At the other extreme there are individuals who believe (and scientists who try to prove) that bisexuals, particularly male bisexuals, don’t exist.

As a result of this bi-invisibility, services, sexual education, and health issues that are specific to the bi community simply aren’t available, which can have political and personal consequences.

It’s Political
Sexuality activists and spokespeople such as Savage argue that as long as bisexuals ‘pass’ as mono-sexual, they contribute to their own invisibility and perpetuate the effects of bi-phobia, including the belief that ‘bisexuals are confused about their sexuality’, that ‘you can’t trust a bisexual because they aren’t really gay or lesbian, or aren’t really heterosexual’. Bisexuals are also slut-shamed and shunned as potential relationship partners by mono-sexual people who assume they are incapable of monogamy or that they are hyper-sexual and will sleep with anything. Bisexuals have even been blamed for the spread of HIV in the United States.

As long as there is ignorance about bisexuality, and as long as the prevalence of bisexuality remains unknown through bi-invisibility, gay and straight people alike will fear and reject bisexuals, and bisexuals will be denied services that address their needs.

Statistics reveal that ‘bisexual people experience greater health disparities than the broader population, including a greater likelihood of suffering from depression and other mood or anxiety disorders.’ They also have higher rates of suicide than their mono-sexual counterparts.

As willing as I am to be visible and counted among the bisexual community, and to fight for bisexual recognition, forcing a conversation with my apolitical, non-bi-phobic family seems a little too much like activism for its own sake.

It’s Personal
It’s a lot harder to make sweeping generalisations and hold onto prejudices when someone you know and love belongs to the group you’re trying to objectify, and almost impossible to deny their existence. Being ‘out’ provides an opportunity to really break down stereotypes, to explain that no, your bisexuality isn’t a ‘phase’ on the way to being gay or straight, that your sexuality isn’t defined by the gender of the partner you happen to be with, and that you aren’t ‘promiscuous’ or ‘incapable of monogamy’ by virtue of being attracted to people of both genders (though you might be more likely to negotiate an honest open relationship).

The political argument assumes a person sees their sexual identity as public, rather than private, and that their sexual identity matches their sexual preference. As the Bisexual Invisibility report found, many people who have an interest in both genders, whether they act on it or not, identify primarily as straight or gay. They consider their sexual identity as distinct from their sexual preference, or irrelevant to anyone but their sex partners.

Being ‘out’ about sexuality also makes it an issue, which can contribute to feelings of isolation, and the sense of belonging to a minority, rather than letting bisexuals blend in, enjoy the advantage of ‘passing’ as mono-sexual and simply be ‘people’.

I am a person

It’s private
Dan Savage argues that ‘discussing your sexuality is not a sexual conversation’, that telling people who you sleep with isn’t the same as telling them what you do in bed. This is largely because if you are in a hetero- (or homo-) sexual relationship, the people around you can fill in the blanks. Unless someone is in a publicly acknowledged polyamorous relationship with a person of each gender, it’s not really something that comes up in conversation. Bisexuality can be awkward, uncomfortable and even socially inappropriate to mention — like discussing your sex life as distinct from your relationships. While people might be comfortable revealing this level of detail with their close friends, it’s not the most cosy conversation to have with Grandma or your boss.

I have no doubt that being ‘out’ helps break down a whole series of social expectations and norms imposed upon individuals and that mono-sexuals have certain advantages over bisexuals. I have personally experienced the sense of displacement that comes with not belonging to either the gay or straight communities and witnessed gay people of both genders express their bi-phobia, but my sex life and sexuality are private. Unless I have cause or context, unless the sense of dishonesty to my identity becomes a burden, I will rally for bisexuals, I will share tales of my sexcapades with my friends or online… but I just might not mention it to my folks. Because it’s not a reflection of my political views or my commitment to the recognition of bisexual identity, it’s a reflection of the kind of interpersonal relationships I have, the kinds of topics I normally discuss within those, and the kind of information I am comfortable to share with my mum.

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A Unicorn’s Survival Guide

Rhonda Perky goes under the covers to discover how to survive as a single in the Swinger’s Scene.

A ‘Unicorn’ is so called because they are mythical creatures: the single female (or male) who appears to fulfil a couple’s erotic fantasy, and then disappears, never to be seen or heard from again.

Couples seek out Unicorns for many reasons, most commonly for threesomes, but also to venture into the polyamorous scene or as a step towards opening their relationship. Ideally the Unicorn will be bisexual, not looking for romantic attachment, and available at the couple’s discretion. The important thing for the couple is that the Unicorn poses no threat to the relationship.

I spent the better part of a year playing Unicorn for several couples. I wasn’t seeking a relationship, but wanted to explore my sexuality. Thrilling and unpredictable, I learned there are some very sound reasons why Unicorns are difficult to come by, but that it is possible to get your needs met, provided you set your boundaries and keep your expectations in check. The following are just a few of the things I wish I’d known before I donned my horn.

1) Sexuality

Having been in a heterosexual relationship for most of my adult life, when it came to women, I was a virtual virgin. Meeting with couples gave me an opportunity to explore my bisexuality without having to date or take the sexual lead. However not all couples seeking a Unicorn are bisexual. I once found myself being ‘gifted’ to a husband by a straight woman. It can feel pretty hollow when someone is acting a part for the benefit of their partner. Make sure you ask in advance if this is important to your satisfaction.

2) Voyeurism

The bedroom is one of life’s most intimate settings. By entering someone else’s, you will see what usually remains hidden, from the perfume bottle on a bedroom dresser, to the secret words whispered between the sheets. Like real-life pornography, you can watch how each partner gives the other pleasure, only what you witness isn’t staged. Being a voyeur means also being exposed to the couples’ metaphorical unwashed socks and bathroom grime: the niggling insecurities, tensions and resentments. Tread carefully: if you want to be invited back, be respectful of the couple’s privacy, know when not to look, or to simply walk away.

3) Cut those strings!

What better way to experience a threesome than when you’re not the one risking a relationship? Being a Unicorn is a great way to get some hot kinky sex without emotional entanglement. You need not fear your couple wanting more than you are prepared to give: in most instances they will want you gone before the sun rises, and if things don’t work out, a simple, ‘Sorry, my situation has changed,’ will do, because the Unicorn’s presence in a relationship is expected to be temporary. The downside: you could easily find yourself leaving them to snuggle up in their shared bed, whispering sweet nothings, while you stumble to your empty apartment wearing last night’s dress, stilettos in hand, wondering where you left your panties.

4) The relationship in crisis

Sometimes couples look to a Unicorn to patch up a rocky relationship. Perhaps there has been an infidelity, or the couple is hoping to shake up their tired sexual repertoire. Your presence in the bedroom can stir up underlying jealousies and resentments. No one wants to feel like a marital aid or the suddenly unwelcome interloper, so ask why your couple is seeking a Unicorn, and what experiences they’ve had already. A couple who has played on the scene for a while is more likely to have ironed out their insecurities and learned to identify and communicate their boundaries. There is also a better chance they will be experienced enough to let you establish and communicate yours.

5) The unwelcome Unicorn

Breaking into the scene can be a challenge. On paper, Unicorns are in demand, but try turning up to a Swingers’ party as a single female and you might quickly find yourself relegated to the position of Wall Flower instead of the Butterfly you had hoped. The Swingers’ scene is essentially a matriarchy. Partnered women are in control and you can’t approach them, you have to be invited in. Attractive single females can be seen to pose a threat to existing relationships, and tend to be ignored, while single males are rarely allowed through the door. Try grabbing a Unicorn of the opposite sex to pose as your partner, perhaps an existing play-partner. That way you are less likely to be met with hostility by other women, and if you don’t find a match, you can always head home with your date. Once you’ve broken into the scene and proven that your motives are benign, you are more likely to be welcomed back, and even shared among couples in the scene.

6) Their threesome

The Unicorn is expected to appear when the couple calls, and disappear when they don’t. Approaching them can result in a swift revocation of your sexual access. Unless you negotiate your terms, this situation can leave you feeling discarded like a used tissue. This can be as simple as a conversation setting out your availability and expectations from the encounter, and asking if they have any rules you should follow. Establish in advance what activities are in or out. Don’t expect more than they can offer, sexually or emotionally. Similarly, make sure your needs will be met and your boundaries respected. If not, walk away. The encounter should be mutually beneficial: it isn’t only their threesome.

Ultimately, being a Unicorn wasn’t sustainable for me. After a year of playing on the scene I was ready for another relationship, and the difficulties began to outweigh the thrills. Still, I don’t regret a minute. I learned so much from putting myself out there, and perhaps I’ll hunt my own Unicorn soon. Most importantly I learned to keep my heart close while I enjoyed the ride, and can now relish the memories of my adventures.

–RP, retired Unicorn.

This post first appeared in Sex this Month magazine.

Posted in adventures, open relationship, polyamoury, relationships, sex, single life, swinging | Tagged | 1 Comment

Cutting the ties that bind

Adventure Girl learns the hard way that some things never change

‘I didn’t break contact because of the way he treated my mother in the divorce; I used the divorce as an opportunity to break contact. His behaviour at that time merely affirmed my decision.’

So I did it again. I saw my father. I’m not entirely sure why. I guess part of me never stops hoping it will be different. It never is.

The last time I saw him he was in hospital recovering from a mild heart attack. I wrestled with the notion of doing what was right, visiting him out of a sense of duty, and feeling like a hypocrite. In the end I went. I worried I would feel terrible if anything happened to him and I had chosen otherwise. It was a brief encounter. Typically he asked nothing of me; I was the audience to his ailment as he lapped up the drama of the blippy heart monitor, IV tubes, and hospital gown. He was in his element.

On this occasion, he contacted me. A cancer diagnosis will do that. My mum had offered to tell him so that I didn’t have to. Shortly after, I received a phone call. I answered, only because I was in the habit of picking up calls from unrecognised numbers, expecting various medical staff. Instead I heard an acerbic, ‘Hello. It’s me, your father.’ He wanted to know about the diagnosis. I told him what I could.

Before long the conversation was back on to him, his move to a bigger town to be closer to a hospital, his recent fall, his ‘death-sentence’ diabetes. Luckily my friend arrived, and I wiggled out of the conversation, but a couple of weeks later, he called again. This time he said he wanted me to visit him. I was in the car at the time, hurrying to get to an appointment, so I was unprepared and unable to push back. He made me promise to see him. ‘Let’s not leave it too long, say in the next couple of weeks.’ I didn’t want to, but I agreed. In the back of my mind I was wondering, why the insistence, the urgency? What if he was really sick? (That and my inability to say ‘no’ when put on the spot – something I still need to work on.)

‘What does one wear to meet one’s semi-estranged father?’ I asked the folks on Twitter. ‘A nametag,’ one person replied. This was more poignant than the author could know, my father having once declared me and my sisters ‘interchangeable’.

When I’ve met with my father before, I have been gripped with anxiety and fear, and afterwards, left choking on disappointment. Having begun radiation therapy, I had the perfect excuse to get out of the visit, but I didn’t use it. I didn’t even insist on going alone as I once would have, back when I still needed to prove to myself that I could.

Instead, my boyfriend joined me, and I realised I wasn’t frightened anymore – I was curious. I wanted to see how he would behave. Could he bring himself to care for someone other than himself, or would my diagnosis be one more drama for him to act out?

I also wanted to have my boyfriend’s observations, independent of a fraught history, to see if they aligned with mine. Sure enough, they did.

On the morning of the visit I was surprisingly calm. I realise now it’s because I was no longer hopeful, and therefore fearful of disappointment and rejection.

Before, I craved his love and wanted to be liked for who I am, to be seen and known. I yearned for acceptance, needing his validation, his affirmation. But a person can only give you what they are capable of, and I had to accept that it isn’t that he won’t see me for who I really am: not an object, but a person, it’s that he can’t. I had to accept that I would never get acceptance from him.

Only that didn’t stop the fear and the disappointment. Knowing that I would never find love, I wanted acknowledgement. Let him see that his lack of love had hurt me. Let him own that hurt. But when someone paints themselves as the eternal victim, and this is part of their identity, expecting them to acknowledge that they have hurt someone else is impossible. Too often I had watched him re-frame and re-frame everything I presented in terms of his core belief: that he was not responsible. He isn’t capable of empathy, so in the end I had to own the hurt myself and acknowledge that he would never see it.

To him our relationship is a game, but he refuses to play by the rules. Worse: he flouts them and prides himself on doing so. If he manages to shift reality and put you off-guard, he has won. You can’t reason with someone whose sense of reality continually shifts, and who disregards logic. And there are only so many times a person can put themselves out there before the hurt and disappointment become too much. I had to learn that there is only so much fight in me. I no longer had the energy or desire to keep on struggling. I had to accept that my only option was to disengage.

This time when I saw him, I was an observer, understanding he will never provide the things I once felt entitled to expect from a father. I re-set my expectations, expecting nothing, and giving nothing away.

But still, I am not immune. I observed signs of humanity, of the loving father I would have liked to have. I saw some affection, some acknowledgement of stories from my past, signs that he at least took notice, but it was all bound up in theatrics. He took the opportunity of my going to the bathroom to show my boyfriend his ‘softer’ side, to play Concerned Parent, and hint at the causes of our rift – all my mother’s fault, and my wilful misunderstanding, of course. When I heard that he had asked after me, I was touched. But then remembered he had an audience. ‘That’s my girl,’ he had said, a delicate budding tear in his eye. I recalled that while he showed us his life, he asked nothing about mine. I doubt he knows what I do for a living, where I live, what I like. I wasn’t there out of his genuine concern for me; I was there so that he could show me his new life before it was ‘too late’, and so that he could have an audience for his play: ‘Father traumatised by absent daughter’s illness’.

As I drove the long way home, I reflected that I while I could have worn a nametag, he should have worn a costume and read from a script.

If nothing else I learned that I could engage and feel bemused, rather than hurt and disappointed. Having shifted my expectations I could play a role to match his, and use him the way he uses me: as fodder, if not in life, in writing.

Cheers to you, Dad, and another lesson learned.


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Learning my limits

Roberta Bust opens up about swinging solo

Since my last blog, my situation has changed. I am no longer in an open marriage; we decided that it was better to part ways. Now, I am separated and learning how to be single and independent again.

I am also slowly working my way through my tangled mess of no self-confidence and no sexual confidence by keeping busy, drinking, outrageously flirting, and agreeing to most activities my friends suggest, including a sexy party which I attended a few weeks ago.

Initially I was quite excited; I felt empowered and believed it was a good move to help rebuild my sexual confidence. I purchased a cute costume and went with what I thought was an open mind.

The night started at a house party, brimming with regular sexy party attendees. They all oozed sex and sexual confidence, something that I clearly do not have. The couple I attended with were more accustomed to this scene, and were relaxed and at ease, whereas I immediately felt intimated and self-conscious.

The first thing I noticed was how naive I had been with my costume choice. Whilst it was classified as ‘sexy’, it had an air of innocence. Here I was, my first sexy party, dressed modestly – a real virgin cliché – something I had subconsciously created. The people attending were all incredibly attractive: thin, tanned, perfect plastic people, and their sexy costumes and sexual perfection stirred an uncomfortable feeling within me.

I started questioning myself, my attractiveness, and tried to ignore my growing unease as I became increasingly aware of my lack of sexual confidence. We were served champagne, which I gratefully accepted, hoping it might calm my nerves, but then it was suggested we go mingle by ourselves. I was completely unprepared for this, and uncomfortable with the idea. I was not there to mingle in that way, and at the back of my mind, I did not want the people I approached to look at me like I was a new play thing for them. I wasn’t looking to be someone, or some couple’s, new toy, but that’s how I was starting to feel with every look and smile.

My internal thoughts went into overdrive: ‘Why did you agree to this?’, ‘You’re putting yourself in a situation you are not comfortable with’, ‘Will you be able to stop yourself if you don’t want to do something?’ And then: ‘Stop drinking… otherwise you will not have the courage to say, “No”’. Whilst the house was beautiful and the people quite nice, my insides were screaming, ‘Go! Get out while you can!’

This feeling of fear and anxiety was building in the pit of my stomach, which I could not quell by internal reasoning. It kept compounding until I was at the point of having a complete breakdown and fighting back tears. The actual sexy party was being held at a club, and none of the guests appeared to mind that it had started over an hour before, and were quite happy remaining at the house. This relaxed attitude terrified me as my imagination ran into overdrive: was this actually a swingers’ party? What if there is an orgy, how do I politely decline? Ultimately I wanted to leave, but was worried I would hurt my friend’s feelings or she would be mad at me for my reaction to the scene.

Finally people started organising travel to the club. I felt slightly relieved. We were leaving the house that made me so uneasy. I thought that maybe the club would be better. I tried to reassure myself unsuccessfully. We hopped into our car, but I still felt so uncomfortable that I was biting back tears. I went very silent and focussed on my phone. My friend asked if I was okay, and I made a non-committal response. In my mind I was thinking of ways to just leave and go home. ‘This is not me, this is not me.’ I wasn’t prepared and didn’t want to be part of this scene. I braced myself. I had already paid for the tickets, I should at least give it a go – I should not walk away. I thought maybe it would be different, but it wasn’t.

At this point, I want to say I honestly don’t have a problem with people wanting to participate in that scene. I envy their ability to express and embrace themselves and their sexuality, but I very quickly realised this was not something I was capable of, at least not then, and not in the near future.

I couldn’t enjoy myself, and I felt awful that I was ruining the potential fun of the couple I was with, so I quickly exited, bursting into tears and crying the whole cab ride home and then some.

Although emotionally I did not cope, and it didn’t help boost my confidence in the slightest, this experience did teach me about my likes, dislikes and limitations, which is something integrally important to my journey forward. I won’t ever rule out something like this in the future, but I need to be at a point in my life where I can embrace and be comfortable with myself – which I am currently not.

I also realised how important it is to have a connection with someone in order to embrace and increase my sexual confidence. This is something I can’t get from random hook ups. Whilst a one nighter is always fun, I feel pretty limited in my willingness to be adventurous, whereas my willingness to experiment with someone I know and am comfortable with increases exponentially.

Initially I walked away feeling like I had failed, but I guess nothing in life is failure. We all have good and bad experiences – it’s how we learn, by processing them, and using them to shape us as the people we aspire to be. One short night of pushing my boundaries and testing my limits has been a giant step in finding me.


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Holding on by letting go

Adventure Girl learns a lesson in unleashing her green-eyed monster

‘Relationships of all kinds are like sand held in your hand. Held loosely, with an open hand, the sand remains where it is. The minute you close your hand and squeeze tightly to hold on, the sand trickles through your fingers. You may hold onto some of it, but most will be spilled. A relationship is like that. Held loosely, with respect and freedom for the other person, it is likely to remain intact. But hold too tightly, too possessively, and the relationship slips away and is lost.’ — Kaleel Jamison, The Nibble Theory and the Kernel of Power: A Book about Leadership, Self-Empowerment, and Personal Growth

I have always struggled with jealousy. Growing up I felt that there was never enough love, affection or attention to go around, that if someone else was receiving love or desire, it was at the expense of the love or desire shown to me.

I used to be jealous of pornography, of a pretty girl at a party, of a picture in a magazine. To me, the lust my partner experienced for another person was utterly threatening, because how could I compete? I saw myself as plain, nice, ‘unsexy’: entirely opposite to these vixens. Whenever I perceived a threat, I demanded affirmation, reassurance that my partner desired me and only me.

And it wasn’t only in romantic relationships. I was a jealous friend, too. If someone I considered my best friend suddenly started hanging out with someone else, I was terrified they would find my rival more entertaining, more popular, less me, and I would lose them.

I usually did. No one wants to be suffocated by a crazed clingy bitch who doesn’t know how to share.

Of relationships with men, my mother used to say, ‘You have to let them look or they will stray.’ I guess what she meant was, Don’t choke-hold your partner. Don’t cling so closely that they don’t have room to live, to breathe. Try not to control them. You don’t own them, nor should you.

Instead of helping me understand that desire is natural, and monogamy a struggle, I heard a message of desperation: you must do whatever it takes not to lose your man; and the subtext: you are not whole on your own. I wasn’t okay by myself. I needed to find and keep a man. Losing him was akin to failure, and loss took the form of him acting on his desire for someone else. That he would desire someone else was inevitable. My challenge was to somehow afford him sufficient freedom to desire while keeping him tethered to and desiring of me. I needed a kind of retractable love-leash.

But that very need, that feeling of not being able to be on my own, contributed to my insecurity. Because I couldn’t reassure myself, I grasped for reassurance from others, embodying the very thing I was warned against: I was clingy and needful. Worse, I was aware that this was the exact wrong response, that the tighter I gripped, the more likely my partner was to pull away. Fearing the effect of my own response, my insecurity was compounded: I gripped tighter still, turning my retractable leash into a choker.

Years on, I can look back and see what my mother was actually trying to say: that no one wants their fidelity demanded, the love wrung out of them, their reassurance requisitioned. But it was a long and arduous journey to get here. Along the way I put myself though 18 months with a partner who lied and cheated constantly, and I knew this. It was one of the reasons I stayed so long. I needed to test myself, to become desensitised. It was 18 months of hell, but I came out the other side with a new perspective, determined never be that jealous and out of control again.

After that I forced myself to spend time alone, exploring multiple casual relationships with no expectation of fidelity and no obligation of reassurance. I managed to slowly establish some self-sufficiency while developing a very different understanding of desire and monogamy.

As well as breaking down my reliance on a partner, I worked to improve my self-esteem and build confidence. I learned independence and how to self-assure. I knew that even if I ‘lost’ a partner, I would be okay. It would hurt, but I didn’t need them to be a whole person. I had spent time on my own and not just survived, but thrived.

During that time I practised sex without love, and learned to separate the two, to compartmentalise sexual desire and see it for what it is: animal and natural. By acknowledging and experiencing the difference meant I could see the one as less threatening to the other.

I gave myself permission to be non-monogamous. This worked in two ways. Firstly, how could I be jealous of a partner sleeping with someone else, when I was doing the same? Secondly, by experiencing sex with multiple partners, I discovered that my interactions with each didn’t change how I felt for the others. Sometimes it brought clarity through comparison, but this was more of a catalyst than a transformation. If there was a solid foundation to begin with, having sex with someone else wasn’t going to change that. If anything, being with someone else made my feelings for my primary partner stronger as I acknowledged and appreciated how difficult it must be for them to give me that freedom. Knowing this allowed me to relax my grip: I no longer feared the outcome of them doing the same.

Most of all I learned to accept my green-eyed monster. It’s not something I am proud of, but it is a part of who I am and where I came from. It is a natural response that in and of itself isn’t a threat to my relationships: it’s what I do with that response that chokes or sets my partner free.

Now, I still feel the stab of hot and sick at the thought of a loved one being intimate with someone else, but it is less acute, and when it happens, it doesn’t tie me into a knot of hurt and rage. Instead of fighting my jealous urges, I try to acknowledge them, openly and honestly.  I step back, examine the feeling and where it comes from. I observe the insecurity, the fear that when my partner is with someone else, they are rejecting me. I tell myself that I don’t own them, nor should I, that the object of my desire is not an object at all, but a living breathing person with the same rights to freedom and desire as me. How would I feel if the situation were reversed?

Being more comfortable with myself, I can pause to play out the worst case scenarios in my head, giving me time to become comfortable with each. As long as I can unravel and objectify my jealousy, it can’t take the same choke-hold. That’s not to say it doesn’t hurt, or that I won’t lash out, but if I do, I am better able to handle it. I can reassert control, not over my partner, but myself. If only I had understood all those years ago that it wasn’t my lover I needed to set free, it was me.


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My dirty little secret, or ‘just another coming out story’

Adventure girl learns a lesson on playing for both sides

‘How did you cope being in a heterosexual relationship for ten years?’

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a boyfriend. For longer than that, I’ve had fantasies about women. Not as one woman shagging another, but as a man shagging a woman – only I’m that man.

I used to fear that I was somehow trapped inside a man’s body, and yet I’m hardly man-ish, or even butch. I’ve never identified as a lesbian, because I still like men, and gravitate towards relationships with them. Being with guys feels natural, comfortable. And while women get my juices flowing, particularly in my erotic imaginings, very few of them turn me into a weak-at-the-knees clichéd mess the way a crush on a cute boy can.

To be fair, the boys I tend to be attracted to aren’t your meat-and-three-veg, pie-eating, beer-swilling, football-watching belchers. I like arty-types, nerdy-types, guys who are not so pretty as to bring their sexuality into immediate question, but definitely not someone you would run into on the rugby field.

As for my taste in women, I’ve never been attracted to ‘butch’ girls. I like women who are feminine, who are gender-stereotypical ‘girls’. The problem is many of these women identify as straight.

Growing up I didn’t know what to do with these stirrings. I wasn’t a lesbian because I still liked guys. I wasn’t straight, because I liked girls. The concept of bisexuality wasn’t something I had ever come across – it certainly wasn’t a box you could tick on any form the way it is today. Instead I took what I was experiencing and internalised it. I noticed women, thinking I wanted to be like them, and compared myself to them, forever falling short. The erotic response they stirred in me was what I pictured being stirred in the pants minds of other guys – guys I liked. How could I compete with that?

To complicate matters I grew up in a household where I was over-exposed to the sexually graphic material and sexually misogynistic attitudes of a father who had firm ideas on what a woman ‘ought’ to be: an object of his desire. Blonde hair, big boobs and brainless. Any woman who fell short was an affront and had no business existing in his narcissistic world. The result was a messed-up me: brunette, scrawny, nerdy, with severe body image issues and a fucked-up sense of what sex should be.

It took all of my eating-disordered teens and most of my over-weight twenties (I discovered body dysmorphia works both ways) to recognise and accept that it wasn’t that I wanted to be these women; it was that I wanted them.

But having admitted that much, I had no idea where to start. Finally I could talk about being curious, about wanting the experience of being with a woman. That in itself was no big deal – a lot of girls fooled around with other girls and it didn’t make them any less ‘straight’ – they just never fooled around with me. But whenever I had a crush on a girl or tried to approach someone, I managed to freak them out, presumably because they were straight, while girls who were openly gay always looked through me. I’ve never understood that look, except that it felt like an accusation: you’re not one of us.

I remember being at university – finally (but briefly) single – and seeing posters for ‘queer’ clubs, including for the ‘bi-curious’, but I never felt I belonged there. Not only had I never been with a woman, I was secretly scared of vagina. What if I had to go down on a girl? What if I didn’t like it? Surely that meant I wasn’t gay or bi? I had forgotten that I’d had the exact same reaction to seeing, touching and tasting a penis for the first time. And still there was this niggle: outwardly, I was straight as straight. I didn’t dress like someone who identified as ‘queer’, I wasn’t into protests and rallies and debating the finer points of the works of Michel Foucault, which is pretty much what the Queer Club looked like from the outside, at least at my university. It was the feeling I got in a lot of places – you’re not one of us  and it was enough to scare me back into the dress-up box.

Before long I had a boyfriend again, and then another, and exploring my sexuality was out of the question. I had almost opened the dress-up box when the lid was again slammed tight, and I was left cowering in the dark, carrying around my dirty little secret, ashamed whenever my wandering eyes betrayed me, whenever I felt I was perving as obviously as any guy. I was a freak with shameful desires, wearing a disguise that didn’t quite fit, because I didn’t fit in anywhere.

Ten years and a marriage later, I was looking to explore again. At 29 I was finally able to admit that I was ready to open the dress-up box and this time try a new sexual identity on for size. But I didn’t know where to start. All I saw were judging eyes from the women I wanted to accept me: you’re not one of us.

‘Lesbians don’t like tourists,’ I was told. They certainty don’t want to feel ‘used’ for a cheap experiential thrill, which is completely understandable. And even if I could find someone willing to accept my desire to explore as genuine interest, would they really want to carry my coming-out burden?

Eventually a lesbian friend offered to take me to a gay bar to see if my ‘fresh meat’ appeal could get me past those barriers, but by the time that plan came to fruition, I was coupled-up again, wearing a ‘straight’ costume once more.

At least my partner at that time knew about my desires. His problem wasn’t with me being bi-curious; it was a fear that I might act on that curiosity – a betrayal of our monogamous relationship.

It was only once I was finally single for an extended period of time, with no intention of getting coupled-up, that I began to talk more openly about my desires and tried the bi-curious label on for size. I was still faced with the same dilemma, however, of how to meet someone who would let me try them on, too.

A few months after setting my sexual preference on a dating site to ‘bi-curious’ I was filling out a survey that asked me to indicate my sexuality. I saw the different options listed and I hesitated. I didn’t want to tick ‘straight’ or ‘gay’ or ‘bi-curious’, because by then I knew I was more than that. The only option that seemed to fit was ‘bisexual’.

I ticked the box.

There it was, in ink, non-retractable. And it felt good, right. Finally I could accept this hybrid position of liking men and women, and knew it was okay.

That same week a woman approached me. ‘I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure you’re into girls,’ she said, ‘would you like to go on a date?’

Since then I have been approached by other women, mostly as a ‘unicorn’ for their coupled-up encounters, but also for one-on-one play-dates. From these I have learned the type of girl I like tends to be the type of girl who likes guys and girls, who identifies as ‘bi’ at most, but oftentimes ‘straight’ with a willingness and desire to venture into the sexuality dress-up box, just like me. It turns out that several of the guys I have been attracted to who are straight-identified are not-so-straight either, having also had experiences with men.

I belong here.

Now I have a boyfriend again. This time I know that I can establish rules outside convention, outside monogamy. The ‘price of admission’ for my partner, and for me, is that we can still see other people and that I can still explore my bisexuality. I don’t have to stuff that side of me back into the box of forbidden dress-ups and hide who I am. I can’t help what I desire, and I shouldn’t feel ashamed.

In coming out, in accepting that part of me, I feel like I’m finally wearing what fits. I have a confidence and a feeling of self-assurance I previously lacked. What finally got me there wasn’t a shift in the people around me, it was a shift in me.

The person I had to come out to was myself.


Posted in reflections, sexuality | Tagged , | 5 Comments

A busty confession

Roberta Bust opens up about opening her relationship

I never thought I would ever be in this position. I’m 29, happily married to an amazing man (let’s call him ‘Ben’). He is my best friend, my confidante, my whole world, and he’s the one person I truly trust.

I’m not a religious person, and until now I have embraced the values of marriage, of monogamy, of spending the rest of my life with one person. But lately, I have been feeling like something is missing. That it’s not enough, that I need and want more.  A longing that cannot be fulfilled by my relationship with Ben.

These feelings have been incredibly challenging for me physically, emotionally and mentally. They have made me reassess my values, and identify what I need, what I desire, and what I need to do to move forward.

It is said women reach their sexual peak in their 30’s. I never really believed that, or maybe never believed that it would happen to me. I guess over the years, I’ve made myself think I’m not a sexual person. Of course I had experiences in my teens (probably more than others at that age), but I met Ben when I was 18 and was married by 23, and so my sexual exploration has been limited, slowly stifled and diminished to Married Sex.

I have recently discovered how this progression has hit my confidence. On reflection, before I met Ben, I was confident, especially in the bedroom. I was open – not shy. I allowed myself to enjoy my encounters and I took control. I was not at all submissive. I felt sexy, alive. I loved my body and knew men desired me. I was fierce and not afraid to try anything once. I’m sure these are the qualities that Ben fell in love with too.

This has gone, replaced with extreme self-consciousness and loathing, towards myself, my body and my clunky sexual interactions.

I am told I need to be more confident, that I am sexy from the outside, but at the moment I am crippled by my feelings inside. Confidence is not something you can just get; it takes time, patience and a belief in yourself.

To help rebuild some of my confidence, I have been going out more, without Ben, and flirting with many men, trying to seek validation that I am desirable. In doing this I have discovered a sexual urge I haven’t felt in years.

After agonising over these ‘inappropriate feelings’ I decided the only way to overcome them, was to address them and my needs. I know that sounds incredibly selfish, but if I have these feelings, I’m sure Ben does too.

The subject of having an open relationship was broached, and we agreed to explore the possibility, to maintain the companionship, continue loving and building our lives together, but that if one of us feels the need to go beyond the boundaries of our relationship with another person, we understand and allow it, rather than restrict it.

The moment our conversation ended I felt energised and liberated. The flirting and fantasising about sleeping with other men had become a reality. My body immediately responded as well, and I was surprised by the reaction. Idle thoughts began to make me wet. Flirty messages, too. My body had begun to tingle with butterflies from the sexual tension that I needed to release.

Pretty soon I had the opportunity to act on these urges, but my first attempt with another man was not the most successful. I was so turned on by him, by his amazing body, his gentle nature, his sweet face and smile. Our sexual chemistry was incredible, especially when just kissing, but as our bodies moved and swayed, I allowed my self-consciousness to overpower the experience, resulting in clumsy fondling on my behalf and me second guessing myself. It was like the first time I ever had sex – I had no idea what I was doing and was at the mercy of the young man I was with.

14 years on I found myself reverting to that girl. I walked away thinking how terrible I was in bed. I felt physically sick. I wanted to cry. Why could I not attune myself to his needs and pleasure him like his mere presence pleasured me? What was wrong with me? Why was I finding myself so conflicted and unable to progress our encounter to the next level? I had let my mind take over, instead of listening to my body.

Surprisingly he has agreed to meet me again. Next time I am determined to take control, allow myself to enjoy the experience, release all inhibitions and hopefully regain my sexual confidence.

And in the process I am giving my marriage to Ben a fighting chance, maintaining our relationship, our friendship, and the trust and intimacy we have built over so many years. Because I love him, but I now know I need more.


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