Mental Illness Awareness Week Is Oct. 6-Oct. 12
That woman, of course, was me. I’d been happily involved with a man for six months and everything had been going well; I really liked him, he seemed to like me and we got along spectacularly. There was even tremendous chemistry. But I did what I do when things start to feel too intimate, too real. I ended our relationship abruptly and moved out of town. You think I exaggerate, but I have moved 11 times in 13 years. A lover had once told me, “You’ve got colt legs. You run at the least little sound.” It was true.
Same Story, Different Way
I could tell this story a different way and it would be equally true. I could talk about how I’d met Andy, how I had disregarded every instinct toward self-protection and shown up at his house after only a couple of emails. He’d invited me there one evening after his 5-year-old had gone to bed. That was supposed to have made it seem safe. (I’d pretended to Andy that I cared about safety.) When I showed up, we talked for a while about inconsequential details before he was pulling me onto his lap, sliding his hands underneath my sweater. Andy, I later learned, only scoped out dating websites for casual sexual encounters and had assumed I’d be game. I’d given him no reason to think otherwise. That we ended up seeing each other week after week was purely accidental. One weekday afternoon while engaged in sex—we were always engaged in sex—Andy asked me to be his girlfriend. I gave only a slight nod and that’s how we became “monogamous.” Only a short time later, as you might guess, I became frightened and ran.
In the Beginning
I could go back two decades to high school and describe nearly every relationship I experienced and it would go down just like Andy and me. There I am at 14 and 17 and 25, giving everything away to a virtual stranger, hoping for something impossible in return—acknowledgment of my worth? To truly be loved? It’s laughable even to me, but these things get laid down early—patterns weave themselves inextricably into your nature, the threads reaching back as far as you can see. I never believed I fell into a class of women or girls who suffered “low self-esteem” but some realities are so true we cannot see them. The forest. The trees.
When I was 6 or 7, my mother began giving me away for money or drugs. Sometimes the men she sent me off with were members of her family, other times strangers or acquaintances. Most frequently there was a Baptist minister. He was kind and quiet and seemed like a very old man to me. His ritual was to take me first for ice cream. I was 11 or 12 when the preacher stopped coming and it broke my heart; I’d believed he loved me. I’d imagined that I was his granddaughter, someone special.
That I would grow into someone who falsely equated sex with love is no big surprise, even to me. “Children who have been victims of sexual abuse exhibit long-term and more frequent behavioral problems, particularly inappropriate sexual behaviors.” So many young girls are sexually abused and so many later become promiscuous. What I hadn’t bargained on was an inability to allow real love in when and if it ever came along. I was guarded, emotionally closed-off and addicted to sex—the only way I understood how to relate to someone.
For a person with a mental health background who is often easily able to tune into the needs and motivations of others, it took me years to recognize that at the bottom of my undisciplined behavior in relationships was a lonely child, aching to be loved yet unfathomably frightened of getting too close. Sex served as a way to connect me to others on a purely superficial level—a realm I thought I could control. But as soon as relationships became emotionally intimate, I reacted as though my life was being threatened. I sabotaged, freaked, ran.
It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week, also known as Mental Health Awareness Week, again and I am still looking at my life in order to find any unhealthy, unconscious patterns that may have emerged without my knowing. It’s still painful to allow myself to feel vulnerable, to risk rejection, to choose not to have sex when it may mean nothing else comes after, but I’m working on it all the time. These days I walk into a therapist’s office before deciding to pack my bags. I stay seated in those moments when being emotionally close to someone feels like getting too close to hot coals or red ants. And above all, I practice being honest, radically honest, regardless of whether I might appear weak or lonely or small.