I’m the sort of person who likes a lot of alone time.
I’m the classic introvert in a lot of ways. I like people – I really do – but they drain me. I need to be alone for quite some time after any social encounter just to recover, no matter how enjoyable it actually proved to be. Parties, especially parties with new people, can leave me down for the count for weeks.
Strangely, though, I have not been single since seventh grade.
To be clear, I’m not single now, either, not in the strictest sense of the word. I have two partners – Pat and Alice – who are fantastic and make me smile like an idiot. Although Shel and I are no longer boyfriend and girlfriend, he is my Daddy, and still plays a huge, loving role in my life. And I have an amazing sister in Mel, who gives me the most love and support I’ve ever had from a friendship.
But this is the first time since shortly following puberty that I have not had a primary relationship.
This was deliberate. Many of those relationships over the years were unhealthy. In a few cases I don’t think we even liked each other. Some were merely uninteresting; people with whom I had nothing in common except perhaps a desire to run from ourselves. All of those relationships, however, had a single, unifying purpose: to define me. Or, rather, to keep me from defining myself.
I’ve been so-and-so’s girlfriend my entire adult life, despite being essentially content to stay home 99 nights out of 100 watching Netflix with my cats. I’ve made other people’s interests my interests, their desires my desires, their goals my goals.
All because I'm terrified of finding out who I am when I'm alone.
Sheldon and I ended the boyfriend/girlfriend aspect of our relationship mutually and amicably with the understanding that we still loved each other deeply but that we have different needs right now when it comes to a primary partnership, and that I very much needed to work on finding out who I am as a person without always thinking of myself in relation him. Although the shift itself took place over a number of conversations, it was initiated by me, which felt like a massive step in building my independence. I was finally seeing that it wasn’t possible to have a healthy relationship when I was relying on him to love me in place of me loving myself, and I set off with optimism.
A few weeks later, I tried to kill myself.
I hate even typing those words. I am so deeply ashamed of myself. I have avoided talking about it even with my closest friends, because I am so afraid that they will misunderstand. I did not try to end things because I was lonely (I was surrounded by people who care about me) or because I had lost Sheldon (he is still a huge part of my life.) But I found myself 28 years old and for the first time looking in a mirror and realizing that I had no one to define myself against but me, and I could not handle it.
My whole life I have been running from myself as far and as fast as I can. I have never gotten to know the person I am when I’m alone, and I haven’t wanted to. I have been so sure she will be inadequate, broken, ugly. I have fought desperately to be loved and validated by anyone who came near so that I would never have to love myself. When they did love me, I felt sure deep inside that I must have tricked them. I experienced painful jealousy whenever my partners’ attention was one someone else, because if they were not actively loving me, how could I know I was real?
I have contacted a crisis centre and am in the middle of intensive therapy, therapy that hurts some days as much as it helps. Last week, my counselor asked me to do an exercise. She asked me to take the time every day to look at my reflection and say that I love myself.
She said it would be hard, but I wasn’t braced for how bad it actually was. It made me so angry, being asked to love this girl who I didn’t even know, this girl who felt like a stranger after nearly three decades of inhabiting the same body. Since third grade I have dissociated when encountering mirrors. At age nine, I thought it was a neat trick, how looking into my own eyes made me float out of my skin so I could observe from a distance, making detached anthropological observations. At age 28, it makes me want to scream, to be forced to share flesh and heartbeats and needs with this foreign mind. I can no longer keep classifying her as her father’s daughter, nor as her lover’s love. She has to become a person, and it’s terrifying.
The trauma of birth marks us in ways we can never know, but blissfully, we don’t remember. The trauma of becoming a real human this far into life, on the other hand, is agonizing. In trying to take my own life, I was trying to claw my way back into the darkness, to avoid the horror of having to build a person out of this rubble.
With my counselor, I am working on my goals. I want to function. I want to learn to get along with myself. I want to learn to be brave. I think, maybe, that I would even like to try being happy. It sounds very strange to be non-committal on something like that, but you need to understand that when you go a very long time without being happy, it can be hard to convince yourself that it’s a real goal, something worth working toward. You start to convince yourself that it’s probably overrated, like when your friends are all attending an amazing event that would cause you too much anxiety, and you tell yourself “it’s probably going to be terrible anyways.” You tell yourself that happiness is a myth, a fairytale, a story for children.
I think though that for me, if I’m honest, happiness has been the boogeyman. The monster under the bed. I have filtered my happiness through other people, afraid of reaching for it on my own and having it hurt me instead.
Nothing is going smoothly with these changes in my life. I still find myself sometimes texting Sheldon begging him to reassure me that I’m real, that I’m a whole person, that I will not fade away here by myself. I cry in the bathroom at work and on the metro ride home. I overuse some friendships and neglect others, depending only on what I think will keep me afloat the longest. Some days I don’t eat until I’m close to fainting and other days I eat until I feel sick.
But I’m trying. I’m even starting to try for me. In the beginning, it was only the thought of hurting my family and friends that kept me from trying to end things again. Now, I see glimmers of wanting to stay for my own sake, to get to know whoever emerges from this experience, of wanting to find out who she becomes.
I think I owe her that.
With great love,