those first times
I’ve never been one for first times. I know they’ll be exhausting, not at all under my control, and generally unpleasant given my Type A nature. They’re throw-aways for me: “This first time,” I tell myself, “it doesn’t matter. It’s a reconnaissance mission. The next time will be what you really want.” It’s how I started actually being brave enough to do anything – writing, sex, travel, coding. Usually this works just fine. The first website I developed took me 30 hours to complete, and it was horrifying; now I can throw together a WordPress site in an afternoon and end up with a launch I’m proud of inside a month. I’ve approached travelling to new places with the same internal reassurances: next time you’ll know.
I’ve been lucky to have such a seasoned travel companion in C, who goes through airport security like it’s our back door. There’s no mystery to any of it for him, nowhere so unfamiliar that it requires double-checking signage or sitting down to orient himself. Through the gates and off he goes. I’ve happily latched on remora-style to his confidence, knowing that as long as I’ve worked out an itinerary beforehand, he will take charge, and I’ll have all I need to keep my anxieties at bay.
Hopping onto the escalator behind C as we ascended to the second level of the atrium at Denver International for our flight home last month, filled with a relaxed confidence that only a week of legally enjoying the local greenery could instill, I had a moment.
C and I have a running argument over who should go through doors first. I’ve never been one to turn down the courtesy of an opened door, and I’ve also never hesitated to return the favor. I’m not a sucker for chivalry or any of that nonsense; in fact, there may have originally been a bit of rebellious feminism mixed into the pleasure of opening doors for men. But these days I think that it’s just that I just appreciate when humans are kind to one another.
So, my irritation at his requests that I enter rooms first, that I let him hold the door for me, has puzzled me for a while now. Why was I delighted at it during the years we dated, only to find myself irritated by it regularly now? How does it make sense to bitch about what is clearly kindness and care on his part? He is forever asking about of the comfort of those close to him, endlessly willing to do little errands inconveniencing himself on behalf of those he loves. Why is my emotional reaction irritation, occasionally bubbling over into an anger flavored with notes of fear and hurt?
As I stood below him on the escalator, I was hit by a thought so sad that only the lovely combination of THC and xanax mitigated my emotional response: my whole life, I’ve been expected to follow. It has been my responsibility. My parents – mostly my mother – led, backs to me; I followed, interpreting instructions through anticipating the right way to act. These instructions were based on body language and tone of voice, but sometimes, if I wasn’t understanding them, they had to come through verbal explanations flavored with hints of impatience, irritation, or derision. I don’t feel that there was any malicious or cruel intent behind it. The subtlety of this was lost on me for most of my life precisely because it never struck me as blatantly abusive or unhealthy.
the taste of independence
Anxiety over making choices is an almost daily experience for me, one that is hard to explain to C on even my best of days. When we met, I had been truly, mindfully on my own for less than a year. The beginning of our relationship was, for me, characterized by constant vigilance over my independence. Although I was 15 the last time I’d had a boyfriend, parental control had reigned so supreme that for nearly a year I found myself repeating a mantra of “this is for today, this is for this moment.” I worked so hard not to have any expectations of him, to inhabit the moments I was lucky enough to spend with him, that it kept my fears at bay. Even after the rather naïve (and, had I not been 28, quite adorable) conversation about whether I could call him my boyfriend, even after I realized I loved him, I didn’t try to trust him. I worked hard to be authentic, to not care about his opinion. I was brazen, rebellious for the first time in my life. I ignored my terror over the future. I acted fearlessly.
Those months were, despite the financial trauma, extremely free for me. The universe seemed to rise up to care for me, even when I did not ask. Sometimes I miss my little S 11th St. apartment. Sometimes I miss calling C my boyfriend. Mostly, I miss the free falling, careless, fuck-it-all sallying forth of my pre-30s1. During those years, I started dating for the first time, “lost my virginity2“, was fired from a salaried job in the slowest and corporate-america-est sort of ways, moved 10 times, contracted and recovered from CMV mononucleosis and urticaria, worked in food service, refinanced two mortgages, turned my freelance hobby into a legitimate business venture, met the boyfriend that would become my future husband, declared bankruptcy, moved into that boyfriend’s apartment, and quit a job… among other ridiculous pursuits. Not too bad for chaos, if I do say so myself.
the terror of becoming my mother
C and I got married mere weeks after I turned 30, eloping and turning a previously-planned family visit into an extended honeymoon. Perhaps because of the elopement, or perhaps due to the very practical way I approached the decision, it never occurred to me that us getting married would change much (besides the amount of our tax return). We’d visited a therapist together (and I, alone) to discuss the decision. I looked forward to finally changing my name from the albatross of its original spelling. C’s proposals – one abortive attempt and one delightful redemption – were perfectly suited to me and to us. I only saw it as being a helpful step that would allow us to work as a team even better than we did already.
That turned out to be the biggest self-deception I’d ever pulled on myself. Our dynamic changed almost immediately. I was suddenly filled with fear. Fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of the sounds I made when I spoke only to find my mother’s voice coming from my mouth. It was a sort of retroactive fear, as though all of that fear I’d put aside washed back on me in a tsunami of terror. I nearly drowned, and I was pulling C under with me.
That sense of drowning partly manifested itself in a sudden 360 degree about-face. I suddenly was compelled to organize our partnership and future meticulously, obsessing over bank accounts, schedules, our home. It was as though I’d been winding up a top for 5 years, and the marriage set it skittering wildly across the otherwise serene surface of our relationship, wreaking havoc as it spun.
One of the things I loved – and still love – about the boyfriend that became my husband is his willingness to simultaneously want something while not being anxious over the details of how to get it. In my fearless, throw-away years, this was extremely attractive to me; I could follow his example while I indulged myself in rebelling against all of the shoulds I’d been burdened with. But at 30, that set-point for when my life would begin, his patience and trust in the universe turned into a weight, an immovable boulder that refused to budge no matter how desperately I flung myself against it.
And so, I began to do it all myself. I created budgets, searched for rental houses, trained our puppy, cleaned our home… manically grasping for the safety and security I’d been denied and had then shoved away with both hands in years prior. Something about getting married made me feel safe and secure for the first time in my adult life, and like anyone prone to overindulgence, I wanted more. And more.
Attempting to plan and build a life for two-plus-dog on one’s own is to play a losing game. I can only imagine that C felt both astonished and helpless in the face of my relentless attempts to control our life and for that reason backed away as I forged ahead. I found myself making all the decisions necessary to make things happen. Plotting long-term goals like buying a house, building our savings, or taking a vacation fell to me on every level. I came to feel that the only way to get something I wanted was to do it all by myself. All of that time I’d spent living in the moment and discarding expectations had left me with no trust in him as a long-term partner. As I voluntarily shouldered every decision as my own, I also resented the responsibility. I felt more alone and more lonely than I ever had. I felt bitter and wronged and resigned and exhausted. I felt like my mother.
walking through doors first
C holding the door for me had turned from a kindness into a reminder of the decision anxiety and FOFU3 I’m feeling every day. What it boils down to is a fear that if I walk ahead of him, he won’t be there when I turn around.
When I’m following him, I can see him right there ahead of me. I can see his reactions and calibrate my behavior accordingly. I can be The Good Girl. If I do this, I can avoid the excruciating experience of suffering through the irritated, impatient, how-could-you-not-know verbalization. I can avoid feeling wrong or stupid. If I am The Good Girl, I will please him. He will praise me. He will not see I am flawed. He will not leave.
When I walk through that door ahead of him – into a new situation, into one of those firsts that, when I am on my own, are throw-aways – my lizard brain rouses, raging with FOFU. He will see who I am when I am inexperienced and fumbling. He will see me fail. He will not like what he sees. He will leave.
Surely such expansive self-understanding can only come to a person in a slightly altered state; whether that state is self- or drug-induced seems to be neither here nor there. Here, now, and relatively sober (if sleep-deprived), the lesson, though harsh, is clear. Walking through doors first must be a meditation. A chance to practice fearlessness and trust. A chance to remind myself that many successive failures are how one succeeds. A chance to trust that whatever he sees as he follows me will not change the fact that I am loved.
1 When I was 16, my oldest friend and I, along with our mothers, went to see a psychic for a palm reading. Among other things – and the only bit I can recall at the moment – is that the woman told me that my early adult life would be chaos, but that when I turned 30 things would calm down. Specifically she mentioned that, after 30, my finances would no longer be in turmoil and I would marry. After 2007, I clung to this after-30 pronouncement as an excuse to write off all struggle as well as all self-care. Those years, I decided, did not matter. There was nothing to be done about it, so I might as well do as I pleased until I hit 30. Tales from those years are at turns dramatically entertaining and painfully cringe-worthy, but I have always been willing to collect scars in pursuit of a good story.
2 I use this term in the very narrowly defined manner of the prevailing southern-U.S.; meaning, I finally managed to get a penis inserted into my vagina. It was by no means my most meaningful formative sexual experience, but it was a sort of burden that I was finally able to set down.
3 FOFU: Fear Of Fucking Up. Generally based on bullshit – culturally-programmed expectations, shoulds, ought-tos and why-wouldn’t-yous – originating in one’s lizard brain. FOFU is closely related to Impostor Syndrome and requires giving oneself a stern talking to on a daily or weekly basis.