Not in good working order

CW: trauma triggers

This is a hard and vulnerable one — not a light read.

Last chance.

Ok.

What are the barters we make in the market of human connection? What is the markup on our attachments? What is the exchange rate on love? The prices seem so high lately, it seems all a scheme like so many free offers, you put your credit card information in and forget to cancel. Even if you’re not using the service anymore, in the background you are being charged, your account being drained.

It would be so much easier to just quit the game. I imagine a life of peaceful solitude, in a cabin somewhere, cooking, reading, studying to my heart’s content. Not swiping on dating apps days after I let my heart soar to threatening heights only to have it drop, watching from inside the building of myself as, story by story, it sails past the windows. There it is. There’s my heart. On its way to being a splatter on the pavement somewhere.

I wanted this. I chose it. Though I am still stubbornly holding to the belief that I am not looking for a serious relationship, I always seem to say yes to the thrill of a new connection, short or long, big or small, consequences be damned. The terms and conditions window comes up and I click ‘accept’ without reading. Look ma, no thoughts.

At first, still solidly in my center, the text exchanges are a nice amusement, and their interest and engagement feels pure, an unadulterated positive sentiment. Then, the inevitable drift. I realize I am thinking about them. That they haven’t texted me in a while. That I want to reach out, but have no reason to. Nothing to plan, nothing to say. I have to fabricate some excuse to present myself to their attention. Draft a text. Quick, think of something. This feels like a game, a fraud. I hate it. I resent them for making me speak first, for making me feel like the needier one, the desperate one, the one who lost their cool the soonest.

Often I am earnest and say exactly what I feel, a bold faced honest statement that seems to scare the game-addled minds of my interlocutors. “Hey, I am thinking about you, would you like to get together?” But I don’t want to be thinking of them. I don’t want to be distracted from my studies, my work, my fitness goals, my life. I want them to be thinking of me, to let me stay fixed in my center and come to me, allow me to respond with a smile and go back to my day. Instead, I am fretting over how long it’s been since they’ve texted. How fast they’ve sailed up the priorities list, this person I barely know. I am a car without brakes it seems. I don’t need a date, I need a mechanic.

The last boy, on the first date, held my face in his hands in my bed and told me he loved everything about me. That he’s never felt this way about someone. That he felt safe with me. He even said “I just love…..you”. I was taken aback. I nodded and smiled, but slowly a crack of distrust formed. Are you like this with everyone? Are you love bombing me on purpose? Do you know you’re doing this? You don’t even know me, how can you say these things?

I allowed myself to enjoy his affections, knowing that they were just the surface reflections of a good vibe late at night after a good first date. Knowing his words were infatuation mixed with him speaking his second language, perhaps not understanding the nuances of pragmatics in English, perhaps not understanding a lot of things.

Then, the sex, the sex that I wanted and pushed for, the sex that I’ve been steering us towards all day, and the moment of panic that sometimes grips me during intercourse. The sudden overwhelming feeling that things are moving too fast, that I can’t take this for a moment longer, that I have to get him out of me now. I push him away and freeze, tears filling my eyes, panic rising in my chest. Where does this come from? This used to happen almost every single time I had intercourse, now very rarely, but perhaps after being either truly seen and loved or love bombed and trauma bonded, at two in the morning, I was in an extra vulnerable place.

“Do you need your space?” he asked. Current me, daylight me, is shouting yes, yes, yes, leave, go home, I have reached my capacity and crossed my threshold, I desperately, truly need my space. That night me, panic attack me, did not want this. “No”, I said, “no”. Stay here, take care of me, don’t leave me alone with these difficult feelings. Let me apologize later and fill myself with regret and shame but don’t leave me now. I don’t let the tears slide over my eyelids. I wipe my face discreetly and collect myself, explaining I’m ok, I’m not sure what’s wrong with me, sorry about that.

We continue, kissing and talking, cuddling, and everything feels ok again. I relax. Eventually we make our way to the living room to sit on my couch naked eating cold noodles in the dark, both laughing, his long legs supporting mine as I recline on pillows, bits of noodle falling on my chest, my inner monologue running in the background. This is the prize, this night. No matter what happens, I have this, I won this, I got to experience this.

Unfortunately the “no matter what” would come, heavy and swift, and sooner than I anticipated.

We talked sleeping arrangement options. Should he leave? Should he stay? A distant alarm bell dinged in my mind. You do not sleep well with others. It’s best if he leaves. I imagined asking him to leave. My chest swelled with anxiety. What will he think? That I don’t want him? I’m forcing him to take a cab in the middle of the night halfway across town. Will I have regrets like I did on my birthday, saying no to fun and not being able to sleep because of it? I told myself I would say yes to everything tonight. Say yes. You can do this. Consequences be damned. We agree. He stays.

We stand brushing our teeth. He had bought a toothbrush while I was picking up the noodles earlier without telling me. I find this very considerate. I finish first then wrap my arms around him from behind, holding the light soft space of his abdomen. I love that this space is soft on him, that he is tall and lanky and his cheeks are wide and high set, his eyebrows sharp and thick, his skin dark. We crawl into bed and he wraps himself around me without me even asking.

I relax for all of thirty seconds and then it begins. I feel stifled. I want to be alone. I can’t let go of consciousness with another human next to me. I don’t feel safe. His beard is scratchy at my back, the air is hot and stiff, he declines my polite request to turn on the air conditioner. I fidget. Future me, sitting crooked in a chair writing this, is screaming. Use your words! Tell him you’re a bit anxious and uncomfortable. Tell him on second thought you’d rather sleep alone if that’s ok. You know what you need!

Then me, in bed me, though, she went somewhere else with it. A noise escaped me. A whine. A moan. I pretended to be asleep. I am burning with shame writing this even now. He kissed my back. I quieted down. Do you need space? Yes. Is this reassurance using him and burning him out? Yes. Is it reinforcing the exact behavior you never want to do again? Yes. I did it again. He kissed my back. Again. Another kiss. The reassurance felt nice, but medicine for symptoms that doesn’t address the root cause will never fix the problem, and often only lead to dependency. I upped the ante. I turned around and threw the covers back, uptaking sharp breaths, a panicked state, but not a real one, not like the one I’d been in earlier, during the sex. Was I anxious? Yes. But this was drama, this was play acting, this was asking using interpretive dance rather than words.

He propped himself up on his elbow. A wise part inside myself came running to my rescue, taking the reins. I immediately stopped. Shame came rushing into the void. I began apologizing, over and over. He stood to leave. “I’m going to let you get some sleep”. I tucked myself in, turned on the AC, but the anxiety was nagging at me. He’s now seen me in the worst possible state I can be in, manipulative, behavioral, psychologically damaged. He said he felt safe with me then moments later I proved myself completely untrustworthy.

He was in the living room putting his clothes on. I called his name. He came and I held his face in my hands. “I have a hard time sleeping with other people. I get anxious. I did it once with a parter but it took a lot of practice.” This was the best I could offer. He kissed me. “I will see you another time”, he said, reassuring me. In the moment, blessedly, I totally believed it. He left and I was able to relax and sleep.

I woke up to a missed call and message. He’d left his ring. I sent him a photo of it, along with two of my face. “Cute”, he said. I felt although it was a bit shaky, nothing had been broken, we were ok. In the days that followed, though, I watched as things unravelled.

I admit I wasn’t the one to bring it up. I wish I had. I chatted with him about plans, he wouldn’t commit to anything. I still didn’t see the writing on the wall. He finally brought it up. He felt weird, he said. He wanted to talk about it before proceeding with me. I agreed, not knowing how to explain myself but knowing I owed him an explanation of some kind. Later, he said he wasn’t sure he wanted to listen, that he felt he would empathize too much and put too much pressure on himself. It’s over. How can one night of my life hold this much weight? So much promise dashed so soon. I fucked it up. This is all my fault. I fucked up, I ruined it.

I formulated my reply carefully. I told him it was up to him, that I didn’t need anything from him, that we could part ways and I could send him his ring in the mail. My defense mechanisms kicking into high gear. You don’t get to hurt me. I will push you away before you can push me away.

We did end up talking. A video call that night rather than the in person meeting we had planned on. I told him the bare highlights. I grew up in abuse, I’ve processed my trauma, I still have some triggers, they are my responsibility and not yours, I need to not put myself in situations I know will be triggering for me. He said he felt overwhelmed and needed to calm down. I left the ball in his court, fully anticipating I would never hear from him again. Defenses activated.

Then, I walked around, heart aching in my chest, regrets and stress swirling a potent potion inside my chest. I couldn’t focus on anything else. What will he say? I was so sure he’d say no, or nothing at all, leaving me to read between the lines of being ghosted once again. But what if he said yes? Would I be able to face him? Would I stand on shaking baby deer legs, coming to him as someone who has sinned, walking on eggshells, scared of him, scared of myself?

He said yes. I still haven’t replied. Instead, I am writing this, processing my thoughts, whittling away my lunch break not studying, not eating, instead holding my own beating heart and breathing with it. I don’t know what I should say. I have half a mind to say yes to him, and half a mind to walk away. I hate that he’s seen me at my worst, and so soon. Is this tainted now? Can I still be the confident self assured woman he met? My heart hurts.

I’ve heard from friends and therapists that the only way to resolve issues that occur in the context of relationships is in the context of relationships. Is this good practice then? Or, as Dan Savage says, am I not in good working order to be in a relationship of any kind, and I need to fix myself before I can put myself in front of another person? Do I need that mechanic after all? I’m frustrated that after so much work, so much therapy, that this is still such a huge problem for me. My cross to bear in this lifetime, it seems.

Do I shut myself into the safety of my cabin in the woods, or do I take the risk and bear the consequences? If you know me at all, you know what I will do. I just need a few moments with myself before I do it.

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