According to my submissions summary, my first top-level post dates back to February 18th, 2011. (I don’t know exactly when I started commenting, but I don’t feel like clicking through dozens of pages of old comments to find out.) By then, it had already been a month since I embarked on the most deliberate and probably the most difficult act of self-modification that I’ve ever attempted, and definitely the one I’m proudest of. At this point, I think I can say confidently that I’ve fixed one of the most irrational facets of my behaviour. A few people here know quite a bit about this, namely molybdenumblue.
[Aside: some people might find this article very personal. I’ve never had a strong privacy instinct, and since in this case it’s all my personal information*, and I talk openly about most of it with my friends and family, I have no qualms about publishing it. If it makes you uncomfortable, please feel free to stop reading.]
My New Year’s resolution for 2011, which I clearly remember making in my parents’ kitchen, was to experiment more with relationships. I had been in 2 relationships by my 19th birthday: one at age 14 with a much older recent immigrant to Canada who went to my high school, and one at age 17 with a boy who I worshipped when I was 12. Neither of them led anywhere interesting, in either an emotional or a physical sense. After breaking up with my second boyfriend, I was about ready to give up and start calling myself asexual. But since I had very little data to go on, an experiment seemed like a good idea.
I chose my experimental subject carefully: Billy, a boy I met through competitive lifeguarding, who was my age and seemed to share some of my values; he was in good shape, anyway; and whom I found moderately attractive. (I’ve been attracted to girls in the past, but that seemed like a more complicated experiment to set up.) I found him interesting without being too intimidating.
I had had some success in the past with getting boys’ initial attention, and I felt like I knew what I was doing. I started a conversation one evening when I came to swim at the campus pool and he was the lifeguard on duty, and I made an effort to be my friendliest and chattiest self. The next day I added him on Facebook, and suggested via the chat function that maybe we could hang out after guard team practice…The message must have gone though, because less than a week later, after he made me dinner at his apartment, he walked me home and kissed me outside the shared house where I was living. I went inside, shaking all over and not really sure whether I’d enjoyed it, but triumphant: success!
The only problem was that now that I had my result, I couldn’t end the experiment as easily as I’d started it. Some making out ensued, at my place and at his place. I found all of it vaguely embarrassing and a bit freaky, too; my only previous experience was with my first boyfriend, and at fourteen it had seriously grossed me out. By the end of the week, we ended up back at his apartment after some alcohol consumption, and clothes came off. I tried really hard to be okay with it. After all, it was part of my experiment, and I’d thought it was something I wanted. But irrational fears aren’t turned off that easily. When he told me that I drove him crazy, I wasn’t flattered: I was completely terrified.
I spent the next week or so putting on my game face and pretending everything was awesome, while crying on the phone with my younger sister every other night. (I can honestly say that although she’s five years younger, her social skills are much better than mine.)
I thought over and rejected various solutions because, ultimately, I liked Billy okay and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Open communication hadn’t existed in my previous relationships, so I didn’t know what to do. I was also more and more sleep deprived; my schedule had already been busy before, juggling school with two part-time jobs, and now it was unsustainable. The emotions built up, and I ended up handling it in what was probably the worst possible way: walking home from guard team practice, I started crying when he asked me if I was okay. (Bursting into tears when I don’t want to talk about something or do something and someone pushes me is a bad habit I picked up during my days of swim team performance anxiety.) It took at least an hour to get everything out: that I didn’t know what my feelings were, that it freaked me out when he touched me, and that if I had to sacrifice another night’s sleep to hang out I would probably go insane. And also the part I’d been too embarrassed to tell him earlier: I had a condition called vaginismus, and I wouldn’t be able to have sex even if I wanted to and felt ready. He walked me back to my house, carefully not touching, and I went upstairs to bed, feeling like a terrible person but also relieved. At least that was over.
I can’t really take the credit for this next part; if I hadn’t heard from him again, I think I would have walked away from it, not happily exactly, but determined never to get myself into a mess like that again. But I woke up at 6:30 to a text: Check your email. He had written me a long, fairly incoherent message, full of grammatical mistakes, but probably the sweetest thing that anyone had ever written to me, ever, in my whole life. Ending with: “With all that said, I realize that I am not just about ready to give up on us. [...] For now, I see what we have together is worth fighting for.”
I cried, felt trapped, felt miserable, and finally made myself a cup of tea, sat in my living room, decided that I’d gotten myself into this situation in the first place and I would have to cope with it. I phrased my reply carefully.
“I wanted to be everything you wanted me to be, and as soon as I knew for sure that I couldn't be that, I was terrified that you would find out and you wouldn't want me anymore. [...] I'm scared that as soon as I open myself to you, you'll reject me for being such a freak and then I'll lose you AND be hurt. [...] I kinda wish we could just start over, and go more slowly, and I wouldn't get scared and I'd be able to act maturely and not like a 13-year-old in over her head.” The problem wasn’t that I didn’t like him. I liked him as much as I’d liked any other boy. That was the scary part.
A few weeks later we went out for his birthday. I baked a cake and he blew out the candles. Later he told me that he had made a wish; that our relationship would work out. It was a lot of pressure, and I tried to hide the fact that it still freaked me out when he said things like that. But part of me found it romantic, and that was the part I tried hard to focus on.
I don’t remember the timeline as clearly for the next few months. We hung out regularly, swam together and worked out together, and spent an entire guard team competition getting in trouble with the coach (“no touching!”). I brought him Tupperwares of food when he worked Saturday afternoon shifts at the pool. We did our homework together (him doing economics math problems, me making a colorful cardboard poster for my nursing placement in a daycare, probably the first time in my life I felt like the non-nerd in the room). We both said, “I love you.”
We fought about a lot of things, too, mainly the fact that he always wanted to see me more and I always wanted more time to read, write, swim, and sleep. But we talked everything through and usually came to some kind of compromise. I started sleeping over at his apartment once or twice a week, which I resented because sharing a single bed meant that I didn’t so much sleep as lie awkwardly awake for almost the whole night. We did our grocery shopping together. Gradually we started touching again, and I habituated to it, although some things still freaked me out. I only felt comfortable making out if the lights were on. I didn’t want to do anything at my place, because I was afraid my roommates would judge me. (They probably did.) In short, those months weren’t exactly the happiest of my life: I was stressed, exhausted, and under pressure all the time.
At some point during the spring, I can’t remember the month exactly, I had my first orgasm when he was touching me. It was a huge surprise: “my body can do that?” Molybdenumblue and my mother both recommended that I practice, so I started masturbating for the first time in my life. But sex was still the main thing we fought about. Eventually we worked out a routine where I could at least satisfy his needs without too much time or effort. The semester was nearly over by now, and at some point we had decided that we wanted to try living together in the summer. We had been dating for less than four months. All of my roommates and many of my friends thought it was a terrible idea. My mother approved wholeheartedly, though, and I trusted her judgment. We moved into a subletted apartment on campus at the beginning of May.
It could have gone badly, but it went incredibly well. We had a double bed and I was actually able to sleep well nearly every night. I was working a lot, usually more than 45 hours a week, and juggling my mandatory exercise routines, but seeing each other at night was the default, rather than another commitment to slot into my schedule. Sex still wasn’t happening, so I went to see my family doctor and she recommended a physiotherapy routine that I could practice at home, and we were having sex maybe three weeks later. About the only thing I liked was that it was over quickly, but it still felt like an incredible accomplishment. My mother bought me chocolate as a reward for my hard work.
It seemed to be the end of the last snag in our relationship, the last obstacle that would have kept us from staying together long-term. We talk about everything, from the possibility of having kids someday (though definitely not soon, even though kids are uber-cute and I have to work with them every day at the pool and I want one too) to my crush on a girl at work. (When I was planning to go for a swim with her at the campus pool: “Aww, have fun on your lesbian date!”)
Conclusion: Billy left for a four-month exchange in France at the end of September, just before I went back to school for another semester of madly juggling school, work, and exercise, hoping that I would be able to cut back on my workaholic-ism; it’s irrational to think I’ll actually go bankrupt if I only work one shift a week. I was optimistic.
...And that was when I realized that I don’t feel like a scared thirteen-year-old girl anymore. I don’t feel like a freak and I don’t feel inadequate. I don’t find the day-to-day of a relationship stressful. I’ve made a ton of compromises, smoothed off some of the stubbornly contrarian aspects of my personality, and I don’t resent it; I feel good about it. My feelings are no longer as unpredictable as the weather, and when something does upset me, I almost always understand why and know how to fix it.
I couldn’t have achieved this on my own. I’ve relied on my mother, my sister, my best friend, and molybdenumblue. Not to mention one of the most incredibly patient, open-minded, and persistent people I’ve met in my life: Billy himself. But it’s a success story for me, even so. I wanted to be stronger, so I tried to change myself, and it was harder than anything I had ever done before, and I could have given up and walked away, but I decided to keep trying. And that's what makes it my greatest achievement.
*Billy has read this and ok'd everything I wrote, too.