‘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.

–A.G.

Posted in friendship, personal, reflections, relationship dynamics | Tagged , | 2 Comments

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.’

-RP

Posted in friendship, little bits of life, relationships, social commentary | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

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.

–AG

Posted in jealousy, personal, reflections | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

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.

–AG

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.

–AG

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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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