My uncertain history

You might have seen that Seinfeld episode where Jerry talks about the mark of a bad Christmas gift: when the recipient sort of narrates it out loud, as in, “Ohhhh, crew socks! Great!” I usually laugh at that joke because I see the truth in it. But it wasn’t true for me in December 2001, when I opened a Christmas present from my college boyfriend. As the torn wrapping revealed a distinctive red box, I read aloud from the label, “It’s Fun … It’s Challenging … It’s Scrabble!” I was grinning shyly as I gazed at it, unsure of the proper etiquette of expression. It was a unique situation. I was eighteen, and he was the first guy I’d ever dated.

We had made it official just a couple weeks before our gift exchange. In his single dorm room, which was notably absent of visitors that night, despite the open door, we confessed our feelings for each other. It came as a sort of relief to some of our friends, who had noticed the attraction and debilitating shyness between us and had not-so-quietly encouraged the union. After our anxious and awkward declaration, I ran upstairs and squealed the news to my friend Jessica, doing a manic little dance inside her room. I was exhilarated and completely innocent.

My first kiss was his first kiss. We were both sensitive and introverted. Understandably, it didn’t take us long to fall in love in a way that convinced us we were meant to be together. Many hours were spent just listening to music in his room, sitting on the bed, relishing a feeling of closeness that we’d never quite had in our lives before. Outside the dorm we had a completely different class schedules—he majored in wildlife management, and I was undeclared—but back at the edge of campus where we lived and recreated and ate meals, we were together almost constantly. It was the happiest I’d ever been in my young life, but I didn’t know enough to reserve some quality time for myself. Our relationship was becoming my central focus when I hadn’t even learned who I was individually, or how to look after my own emotions.

Cracks began to appear as the months went on. I often felt insufficient next to him, never because of anything directed at me but because he had qualities that I admired and wanted for myself. For example, I aspired to be a writer but wasn’t doing anything about it at the time. He, in addition to being a science nerd and a painter, wrote poems and short stories. The mere existence of his creativity and follow-through were enough to make me bitterly envious. I was lacking the strength of character, or maybe just the maturity, to make any of the changes I wanted to see in myself. Instead, I retreated into self-loathing.

During a trip we made to the mountains of southern California, the summer before our sophomore year, I developed one of the mildly depressive moods that was soon to become more common and less mild. It began when we hiked through the woods. He was identifying plants for me and telling me about the animals that thrived in the local ecosystem. I wish I could have realized how dear it was that he wanted to share his love of nature with me, but I only felt crappy because I didn’t have the same kind of knowledge that he did. Underlying that petty jealousy was a worry that I was unlike him in not having a passion in life, and that I was therefore lesser than him.

It got worse when, on that same trip, I ruined a tire on his car (or thought I did). He let me drive the Subaru for a bit along some rocky, dusty back roads, and along the way, one of the tires got shredded. We pulled over, and I sat glumly next to the car while he put on a spare. He assured me that it wasn’t at all my fault, but I felt guilty.

Back in our cabin, after a few hours at the mechanic’s, I withdrew and started crying about what a lame person I thought I was. He waited patiently while I gathered my thoughts and wrote them out on a piece of scrap paper. The resulting letter revealed my greatest fear: that he would eventually realize I wasn’t cool enough, or smart enough, or something enough, and then he would leave me for somebody more impressive. He read my words carefully. He drew a hot bath for us, and told me with all the sincerity of first love that he intended to spend his life with me. It was soothing to hear that.

After our return to school that fall, there came a steadily increasing need for reassurances: from him to me, from me to myself, and from me to him. I began sinking into a depression that was all knotted up with a growing uncertainty about our relationship. Without any logical reason, without any evident provocation, I started a habit of questioning my own feelings toward him. Our relationship was evolving, and after nine months, I didn’t get a thrill out of seeing him every day. A benign seed of an idea in my brain said, “What would it be like if you spent less time with him?” When the remainder of my brain quite reasonably said, “Hey, that might be okay,” that seed morphed into something ugly and told me, “Well if you feel that way, you probably don’t really love him and you may as well just end it.”

That one seed quickly yielded a thousand “What if” questions and an avalanche of feelings that I didn’t understand at all. I also failed to understand—at least for a little while—that my overall affliction was becoming serious. If I had previously felt like a lesser person than my boyfriend, I was now beginning to feel like nothing at all. Whenever I wasn’t being stimulated by a class, or homework, or dinner, or a movie, I rapidly lost the will to do anything. The emptiness I felt was frightening, and, paradoxically, very painful. My boyfriend and I called it The Blah. After a month or so, he changed his tune and called it depression.

He was right, of course, and he was the most supportive partner I could have asked for in such a crisis. Unfortunately for him, my depression seemed to be focused on and even triggered by our relationship. My moods were never darker than when I worried about whether I still loved him as I once did. To this day I’m not sure whether that concern had real basis, or whether I was overreacting to changes that can be expected in any long-term relationship. And for years afterward, when I felt similar confusion with a succession of boyfriends, I would agonize over its origin.

My first love fell apart over a series of Thursdays. On the first Thursday afternoon, relatively early into my depression, I came home from class and froze in the middle of my room, trying to decide whether or not I wanted to see him. His room was right beneath mine, and normally I would stomp three times on the floor to let him know I was home. That day I didn’t. I sat down and turned on my computer, where he soon caught me on instant messenger and then hurried upstairs to greet me with a hug. Strangely, the hug didn’t make me smile—a new sign of worry for my easily rattled mind. Not only was I sinking into an episode of The Blah, but my face told that I was thinking about something serious.

He noticed the new edge to my mood and asked if we could talk about what was bothering me. Terrified, but trying to be gentle, I revealed that I was having mixed feelings about us. I told him that I was confused, that I didn’t know what these feelings and thoughts meant. Ever the supportive boyfriend, he started out by saying that what I felt was normal. But his shoulders drooped and he began staring into his hands. We left our sitting positions and lay together on the bed, knowing unconsciously that we’d better conserve our energy for the emotional outpouring to come. After more bits of stilted conversation, he voiced the one conclusion I was desperately afraid of: “You don’t love me anymore,” he said. He may have been partially right. I did love him, but I was young and starting to feel things that I didn’t know were part of love. I was doing the best I could without having grown to love myself first, and that foundation of sand was slowly collapsing.

We both found ways to rationalize my feelings in order to keep the relationship going. After that first meltdown I shored myself up, willing myself through the days, trying to counteract my negative thoughts with rational or hopeful ones. My boyfriend and I continued to hang out as much as ever. Our shows of strength, our illusory happiness, never lasted longer than a week at a time. I began a rise-and-fall pattern, alternating my regular persona with a pessimistic, anguished version of the girl my boyfriend had thought he knew. One meltdown after another seemed to happen on Thursdays, just as we’d begun to think things were settling down. He could tell whenever I was about to crash. Each time I did, it sparked another talk in which we both tried to find explanations. We were nominally speaking to each other, but as those occasions became more frequent, our soul-searching conversations turned inward as we stared at different spots on the ceiling or wall. We split off onto parallel tracks, trying to convince ourselves that we were headed in the same direction. But we weren’t traveling together anymore. My self-hatred and my professed love for him could no longer reside together. Love couldn’t hold a candle to love’s blazing, toxic counterpart.

It took a few more months of agony for the romance to die. Conceding the end was the hardest thing I’d ever done, which is why I did it only halfway. Although we officially broke up, we so loved each other’s company that I could barely leave his side. We still lived in the same dorm and hung out together after class. I felt thrilled whenever somebody else mistook us for a couple, which was easy to do given how close we were. I also tried several times to win him back as my boyfriend. The one time I succeeded, a year after the breakup, I panicked and changed my mind the very next day. After that debacle I went right back to wanting him, we went right back to hanging out every day, and I didn’t think of dating anyone else until he graduated and left the state.

In each ensuing relationship, I’ve been utterly incapable of trusting the situation at hand. When something feels wrong with the compatibility, I treat that not as a warning sign but as the symptom of some trite judgment against the person that I’m blowing out of proportion. On the contrary, any small thing—an emotional twinge, a sudden unpleasant thought, an unsubstantiated worry—sends me crashing into despair.

Notably, this results in the same up-and-down mood pattern that lent an air of doom to every alternate week of my first relationship. Subsequent boyfriends have admitted to feeling like their emotions were being toyed with on a weekly (or worse) basis. One or two of them told me that I seemed like two different people. Most of them, touchingly, have been surprisingly constant in the face of my swings, willing to tolerate the downward slides in anticipation of passionate highs. Usually I leave them before they leave me. And the few men whom I desperately wanted to keep, left eventually despite my best intentions.

Regardless of outcome, regardless of my partners’ patience levels, relationships have become intolerably stressful to me. They have a distinct and exhausting rhythm. During the first handful of dates with a person, I am free. I am excited. I silently promise that this time will be different. Soon enough some blip on my emotional radar summarily knocks down all my defenses, and I fall and cower in the face of outrageous fears that I still have no idea how to fight. In literal terms, this means I hunch over and cry while my new would-be partner looks sympathetic, but very confused. I’ve gotten better at controlling myself in service of giving the new fellow a chance, but the control falters easily.

There is no steadiness to my relationships. There is no “wait and see” in evaluating a new romance. There is very little living in it at all—there is mostly thinking and judging and worrying. These habits always lead me to the same place, to a safe cave of anxiety from which I’ve never learned to escape, to come out and stand with my partner, to take even one step forward into the bright unknown. My heart is deeply convinced that it either will be smashed, or will betray another by turning cold, if left to the experiments of fate. And so I haven’t touched the ground of a solid relationship since I was a college freshman.

I’m grateful for all the experiences I’ve had, but I want more when it comes to romantic love. I have a lot to learn before finding a path that leads to what I want. Maybe it’s completely different from the one I’ve been trying to follow.

Leave a comment


  1. Mike

     /  November 9, 2011

    Wow. You go deep and that’s a lot of story to take in. The first thing I’ll say, is that in many ways I’m the older male version of you when it comes to romantic relationships. We suffer from when Zen Buddhist monks call “too much brain”. We have a tendency to over analyze our thoughts and emotions. Also, at least for me I have to confront the very real possibility of being more afraid of being happy and loved in a long term relationship. Because at the root of that you have to believe that you deserve to be happy and loved.

    We often have a tendency to tell ourselves stories to believe that we are the narrative. I’ve struggled with this in almost every relationship because most of the women I’ve dated are the female version of your first boyfriend. They lead very active and creative lives with big open hearts and deep pools of patience and understanding.

    And not only that, but that narrative of being unworthy or undeserving has only been amplified by living in Portland because many of my male friends are living the life I aspire to. My month long bike trip enabled me to reach escape velocity from that orbit that I’d been circling in for a while now.

    Have you ever tried meditating in it’s simplest form? Just sit and breath? Zazen means to sit. But I have a different take on it. I think about giving myself the time and space for my mind and heart to settle. We all have these thoughts and emotions swirling around inside of us. We get attached to them and then we think we are them. This is often the reason we run away and hide because we feel bad or guilty or ashamed for these random thoughts and feelings that are the normal result of living in a world where we see, hear and experience so much external stimulation from the world around us.

    I hope you’ll only take my words as a person seeking to understand you, your experience, myself and the world we find ourselves living in a bit more.

    I’ll leave you with a question that I’ve been asking myself for a while now. Can you love yourself unconditionally and without any expectations in each moment as it comes to be?

  2. kristenpdx

     /  November 9, 2011

    I take your words as intended. I would only fear that I’d get people responding to this post by telling me how to live, or accusing me of being morose or melodramatic, neither of which I am. But you empathize too much with me to do that. 🙂

    That’s an interesting idea about giving thoughts and feelings time to settle. It’s hard to do that in a relationship because you want to spend a lot of time with the person, and you can’t just cast away the random thoughts and pretend they don’t bother you. And you’re right about the guilt and shame that come along with certain thoughts. That’s how some of my vicious cycles kick in: You’re thinking about this, and that’s bad, so punish yourself by worrying about all these other, related, things.

    Your last question is a good one. My answer is, yes, I think I can but I have no idea how. It’s one of those lifelong quests.

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