I Didn’t Feel Like A Girl

When I was a child I wanted to be a boy.

I didn’t want to be a girl who played sports. I wore blue instead of pink. I wanted my body to morph. I wanted a shocking metamorphosis. My mother let me keep my hair short, and I only wore boys clothing. One morning before school I stuffed a roll of socks down my pants and arranged it so it sat over my pubic bone. I felt invulnerable like I carried a pistol between my legs.

The girls in my class were hysterical. Why couldn’t they see I was a boy? They figured since they had known me since kindergarten they knew I was a girl. I just hid it well, I replied as they laughed at me, shrieking as they pushed me into the boys’ bathroom. What’s your name? They would leer, each day, just to check if things had changed. Jake, I would say, my name is Jake. 

I would sign all my classwork as Jake. My teachers said nothing. My parents said nothing. I was left with the quiet and gentle freedom of self-discovery unencumbered by time. 

I drew a lot; scribbled wolves, sharks, things with teeth. Everything I wanted to be was fanged. I was horrified by motherhood. Pop culture showed mothers to be women, once unbound to anything, then when they became pregnant, heavier and precious.  I imagined mothers to be always pink and slow moving, like beautiful and alien sea creatures who only knew fluidity and ate great chunks of love like it were watermelon.

I, on the other hand, wanted to tear at the world and crash into life like I was born in armor. Only boys and men were allowed to straddle a horse as if it were a woman. I did not want to be limited by what my body supposedly permitted. If women were perceived as the weaker sex I wanted to rally against pretty, against soft, against nice. I couldn’t understand why boys could be boys and I had to be better. So I played a boy and hacked at my hair and bared my teeth at anyone who said what a pretty girl.

Being in my body felt more than wrong, it felt accidental. As if I had tripped into the wrong wormhole and found myself in a parallel universe where everything was warped. By the age of nine, I thought if I willed hard enough I would stop the atoms inside me from hurtling me into puberty, into the dangerous kingdom that divided the sexes. It felt like an assault when my breasts began to grow. I would lie on the floor and push myself flat, imagining my breasts popping as if they were sores that needed to be lanced. I didn’t imagine a future — I waded through the present, watching carefully the way in which boys moved, the slight bow to their legs as they swaggered. I tried to remember to walk with ferocity.

My only friends were boys. I never played with dolls or Barbies. I intentionally fell out of trees so my body would bleed and tighten back up to reveal scars; reminders that I was brave enough to battle. When my friend told me that he ‘like liked’ me, I knocked him to the ground. I sat on his chest and watched as blood dribbled from his mouth and shook him until he took it back. 

I whimpered through the long years of change. Gradually, as I grew older my desires met each other at a crossroads. I suddenly woke up one morning and felt like the panic had waned. I told my mother that I was alright with being a girl. She shrugged and wrote the date down in her diary. Everything was alright, had been alright, and would be alright.

I cautiously allowed my hair to grow and marveled at the weight of it against my neck, the strange dip of density as I moved my head back and forth. I approached girls shyly and asked to be their friend. The language of girl was exotic; the way they worked their bodies with such sanctioned familiarity as if they had never once doubted the velvet of their figures or felt the lack of something. The slyness of females in a group was like being in a den of foxes. I thought of Daniel and his lions. But so long had I been half in the world of boy that I had no idea how to accept myself. Or how to forget Jake. 

By the time I was in middle school I had fully accepted my sex. It was the 1990s and girls’ clothing was shiny, tight, and plastic. I wore chunky heeled shoes and tight dresses and hollowed my eyes with silver eyeshadow. It was clumsy. I was transitioning. I was growing.

Some boys liked me and I let them kiss me. I was terrified and fascinated. By the time I was a teenager I had embraced my femininity because it gave me a power I hadn’t experienced before: I was watched. Boys and girls paid attention to me, the way I moved my body through the world. I learned how to arch an eyebrow and drop my jaw like a leopard at the waterhole. Female had a startling power to it I hadn’t expected. This too is a weapon.

I am unsure of labels. I am skittish of defining words for myself that have been invented by others. Had I been born later and to different parents maybe I would have been given hormone-altering drugs. I might have started a course of treatments that would have violently torn Jake out from inside the recess of me. 

I still balk when someone refers to me as ‘she’. In the truest, oldest part of myself, I feel male. My soul is sexless but my mind is not. I allow my body to present itself as a young woman. I am in a relationship with a man. I keep quiet during a time when words like transgender, cisgender, non-binary, are loud. Sometimes I want to raise my hand and tell them, I’m Jake, he’s in here somewhere, but he is quiet and guides me in all things like a traveling warlock under a spell; this woman’s form is just a glamour. 

I don’t know if there are others who feel as I do if their secret selves do not mirror their physical shells. But I wonder and worry at the urgency in which we expect each other to decide. An absence of judgment allowed me to zigzag along the path until my limbs felt as if they were carrying a body not completely estranged from my mind. 

Sometimes I think apocalyptic, of who would I be if the world burned and afterward all that was left were me. Would it matter how I presented myself to ash and the ruined sky? Would I even bother with mirrors to monitor how I was looking? If there were no external expectation, and I never again saw my own face, who and what would I be? Would it even matter? Or would I just be the name I had given myself, with genitals I was born without a care to remember the name of any more or what they meant because nothing would matter except clean water and food? And adventure.  

Why I Chose Not To Report My Rape

*This story contains graphic descriptions of assault.

I was raped. I must have written and rewritten that three word sentence hundreds of times within the past year while trying to find the confidence to share my story. A year later, here I am, attempting to recount my experience once again.

In recent weeks, many public figures have been using their wide-reaching platforms to come forward with stories of assault, in order to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of rape culture. My rapist isn’t a celebrity, my rapist isn’t famous, my rapist doesn’t wield an inordinate amount of power. And yet, it has still taken me a year to speak publicly about the incident.

In writing this, I am making my own attempt at explaining why I, and many others like me, never publicly identify themselves as victims or survivors. Everybody’s trauma is individual. Everybody’s experience is unique. Here is mine.

Like many other freshmen in college, the first semester away from home provided me with ample opportunity to explore what hadn’t been made available to me in high school. Having previously attended an institution in which college staples like parties, drugs, sex, and alcohol were strictly prohibited, the sudden freedom to openly experiment with each of those entities was new and exciting.

Later in the year, with several months of college under my belt, I was feeling really at home. I felt as though I’d settled into a good schedule, and was beginning to find where I fit in on campus. My friends and I fell into a weekend routine: every Thursday night we’d get drunk, find our way to whichever party seemed the most interesting, dance for a few hours, and come crashing back to our dorm in the early hours of the morning. Were it not for the fact that I’d been raped, the day on which I was assaulted would’ve been just as unremarkable as any other weekend night of the semester.

After taking a series of shots with my friends, we headed out for the night to a big party one that we had been excited about for a few weeks. Minutes after arriving, the alcohol hit and I knew that I was too drunk. Walking in a straight line became an insurmountable challenge, my vision was spinning, and I knew from experience that it would be at least a few hours before nausea would begin to subside. I wanted to go back to my room, but I didn’t want to ruin my friends’ night.

It was then—in the few minutes that I was deciding how exactly to ask someone to walk back to my room with me—that I saw my rapist approach.

He wasn’t a stranger. He was a friend of a friend, someone that ran in the same social circle as I did. In my few encounters with him, I had always sensed that something was off. I didn’t like the way that his touch would linger in the past. I didn’t feel comfortable with the way he suggestively spoke to me before. When I saw him walking directly towards our group, I immediately turned to my friends and asked them if someone wouldn’t mind walking back with me to my room. I could tell straight away that everyone was upset. This was a party we had all been excited about, and we’d only just gotten there. One of the girls in my group looked straight at my rapist and suggested, “Hey! Why don’t you let him walk you back instead?”

Even in my drunken state, I remembered the feeling that he had given me during our past interactions. I whispered aggressively to my friends that I would really appreciate it if they wouldn’t let him walk me home alone. They each quickly assured me that he was a “good guy,” and that I’d be fine.

Before I knew it, they’d run off into the mosh of people dancing, and it was just him and me. I politely told him I’d be fine to make my way alone, and began walking as fast as I could in the direction of my room. He caught up with me, took me by the arm, and began to pull me backwards. I asked him again to let me go back to my room, a little less polite this time, but he kept telling me I was too drunk, that I’d be better off spending the night in his room. I could feel everything getting hazier, my words slurring, and my heart beat starting to race. The last thing I remember was telling him I wanted to go to my room, and telling him not to take me back to his. 

I woke up a few hours later on my back in the dark. After a few moments of confusion, I realized that I’d been lying on the cold floor of an unfamiliar space. Aside from the underwear resting around my ankles and the shoes still tied to my feet, I was completely naked. Horrified, I jumped up from the floor and realized that I was not alone. My rapist was fast asleep in his bed, with my shirt and bra lying near his feet. Before grabbing my clothing, I noticed that a bed a few feet away was occupied as well. Another man, one whose face I couldn’t recognize in the dark, was fast asleep with my shorts hanging from his bedpost. Dressing as quickly as possible, I fled from the room and took off down the street in a full sprint towards my dorm. It was nearly five in the morning.

I spent the subsequent three hours in the shower, attempting to scald my skin with enough heat to erase what had happened. The next few days were very confusing. The body that I had been living in comfortably for the past eighteen years was growing more and more unfamiliar to me. I was torn between feeling frustrated and embarrassed that the gap in my memory wouldn’t allow me to fully comprehend what had happened to my own body, and being grateful that I did not have to live with the memory of the assault. I kept what I remembered about that night to myself. But before a week had passed, I received a text message that changed everything.

It was from my rapist. It stated, simply: “had a great time the other night. see you soon.”

The anger that I felt in reading his message cannot be summed up with words. I texted back immediately: “what the fuck did you do to me?” Days passed with no response. Then, one day, I learned more than I could have possibly imagined. On my way back to my dorm after a long afternoon class, I ran into someone who would soon identify himself to be my rapist’s roommate—the man that had been asleep in the bed a few feet away. He approached me, pulled me aside, and explained quickly and quietly that he had been smoking weed and getting ready to settle in for the night when his roommate brought me back to their shared room. He said that I passed out cold a few minutes after having been in their room and that soon after that, my rapist began to fondle my body and remove my clothing, asking him to join in and take photographs with his phone.

Unable to speak, unable to process what I was being told, unable to ask why he had done nothing to stop it, I stood there in shock as he rambled on about how his roommate had begun to rape me, and that as instructed, he had taken a few photos and videos of it happening. He told me how sorry he felt. He told me how he’s been losing sleep. He told me how guilt-ridden he’s felt since that night. He told me he’d even erased the evidence from his cellphone, in hopes to make me feel better.

I walked away from him without saying a word. I felt numb. My body no longer felt like mine. I felt out of place, powerless, and afraid. The campus that I had felt so happy to be a part of just a few weeks earlier had become a manifestation of hell.

It took me nearly a month to tell anybody about the incident. Slowly, I began to share my story with those close to me and was greeted with an overwhelming amount of love and support. It wasn’t until I shared my story out loud that reporting the incident even crossed my mind. Although I knew and recognized immediately that what had happened to me wasn’t my fault, I also knew that I was not a “perfect” victim.

My blood alcohol level, my inability to recall exact timing and events, the clothing that I chose to wear that night, and the fact that I had texted my rapist back all weighed on my mind heavily.

What happened to me was not my fault, yet I was fully aware that the patriarchal system in which victims attempt to navigate justice marginalizes our narratives when we are not flawless. Yes, I could have reported what happened to me. I could have fought for my rapist to be punished. I chose not to. I chose to heal. I chose to protect myself from the scrutiny of a system that has historically preyed on victims with stories even less convoluted than mine.

It is a fantastic step forward that celebrities are sharing their own personal stories of abuse and assault. It is an empowering and beautiful thing to share stories like these with one another. But it is essential to remember that it is the victim’s decision to share that story or not. It is not for anyone but the survivor to decide what to do with their experience. Reporting your assault is a brave choice, yes, but not reporting it can be just as brave. I felt powerless after I was raped; choosing what to do with my story gave me authority over my body again, and I have come to see that there is nothing braver than that. 

Living In Her Fiction

I fell in love with the girl with the crooked smile. Her eyes have a brown hue to them, and I can hear my Dad’s voice telling me it’s because she’s full of shit. The trajectory of my life, at the time of our passing, is flat. I am still trying to figure out what I want to do and struggling to see how that looks.

She said she was polyamorous, and maintains that line with some to this day.

We sit in her apartment, and she wants to record our conversation. She wants to be a writer. I snort some Xanax and have a few beers, espouse some philosophy, and when I am leaving, she says she wants to hook up again, but she and her partner have rules — they don’t bring people home to their space.  

We could spend whole days in bed. Mostly exploring one another and having meaningful conversations. We are always at my house. I get the call or text late at night, drinking is involved, things move forward. This is the beginning. It’s something new. It’s something exciting. Somehow my mind tells me it’s a little off, but the connection is strong nonetheless.

A few months in, the walls are breaking down. I’m showing more and more of myself to her, and as I peel away each layer, our time apart gets harder and harder. I start to snap under the weight of my own emotions. Fitting yourself into someone else’s lifestyle is a recipe for disaster. Never make yourself less of anything to make someone else happy.

In the moments of quiet with her, I know I have fallen in love, and it is chipping away at my soul. You will meet these kinds of people, the people that get under your skin, find your soft spot and kick it repeatedly. In the midst of it, you will make a choice as to how it will affect you: whether you grow and change from the experience, or just keep plugging along, headfirst into the abyss, hoping that (as in the true definition of insanity) you can repeat the same action over and over and expect a different result.

Months later, I’m sitting at the bar with two friends. The day has been good, though I am still treading water, waiting for a purpose to come my way. My lover walks through the door and sits alone at the opposite end of the bar. She is noticeably upset; and when I greet her, she asks to talk outside. In the late night, with the cold Pacific air clinging to both of us, she explains to me that she’s pregnant and unsure what to do. I tell her that I will support her decision, no matter what, and ask that she not panic. She tells me she has a plan: the weekend is coming, and she is going to buy a bunch of cocaine and do it with her boyfriend to induce a miscarriage. She tells me she’s sure that the child is mine, that there is no chance it is his. I believe her.  

We have begun this emotional tug of war, and each day I suspect more and more that I am being lied to and manipulated. I know this game, I have lived this life — this level of dysfunction is the family fire I was forged in. I do my best, and when situations arise with her, I try. I am the secondary boyfriend now. The yin to his yang. She has it all, split between two men. Time continues to pass, and all of it in a hazy blur of mostly feeling down and kicked around. She comes at me only when other women show interest, and I am punished frequently for being in love with her. I march along, unable to see what is happening. By the following Tuesday, she has messaged me saying the miscarriage took, and I have nothing to worry about anymore.

Weeks later, the dynamic has shifted very little, and we are still clinging to all of our same behaviors. She explains that her relationship is not poly, and that she has been cheating on her boyfriend with me for months. She comes clean about lying to me about so many things, yet she still continues to lie to me now. I tell her that I’ll never get too upset at someone telling me the truth, but that I want the lying to stop. She tells me she’s pregnant again. This time it’s different though. She’s afraid. I can see it on her face. All the times the hair on the back of my neck stood up, all the times things didn’t feel right, the times when my gut told me that things were off, almost every single time, I was right. At this moment, though, there is sincerity on her face. She is pregnant, and there is a 50% chance that the child is mine.

By way of comparison, it snaps into clarity that her previous pregnancy may just have been an emotional manipulation. Because there is a stark contrast in her demeanor this time around. Again I say that I will be supportive of her decision, and we have multiple conversations about it. I offer her money to offset the cost of her abortion — she declines at first, then takes me up on it. Knowing that I am now the other man, I struggle to be fully supportive. Her emotions run high in the decision-making, and I attempt to navigate the swell. Her boyfriend also believes he is the father, and he will be the one taking her to the clinic while I work my shitty cafe job, wondering what I can do to help.

I voice my opinion, but I stand by the decision she makes, and even now I do not go against it. These issues are complex, and the decision to bring a life into the world is made by the person who does it. All I can do is support the choice, and hope we can all move forward.

It’s been several months since that day. More lies have been told, more cover-ups. Things move forward in increments, only to be set back by miles. I still love her, and I still stand by her. She runs to me, then runs back to him. In my moments alone, I realize that I and many others are all carefully constructed characters in the fictional life she has created for herself. I told her once that I like to see how far people will take me for a ride, and I will say: this is farthest I have ever gone.

Two nights ago when she was in my bed, we spoke of the future. The next day she was out having drinks with him and repairing their relationship. The sex makes things more complicated, because I sit alone while she has another warm body to be with, and I’d be foolish now to think she doesn’t take full advantage of that. She uses words to describe herself, like “monster.” But either no one is a monster or we all are.

I loved the girl with the crooked smile. She will inhabit my heart for a long time. Someday she’ll be a wonderful writer, and the honesty and wisdom will flow out of her in a way that it doesn’t right now. We all have times and meet people who shake us and throw us for a loop. It may not be the best thing at the time, but if you look and if you listen, you will grow from it.

You can’t force others to do the same, though, and that’s a hard lesson to learn. I know she’ll get there eventually, but her demons and skeletons are the price she will pay for what has happened. I sit and have a beer with her boyfriend on my birthday. I tell him that everything is going to be alright, and part of me actually believes that. I created this situation, and I wanted to sit down and be honest with him, even though she begged me not to. As I said, we all live in her fiction.

STDs On The Rise

The Center of Disease Control released a report last month that showed STD rates are at a record high in the US and that young people (aged 15-24) make up for more than half of these cases. When certain STDs were almost eradicated a decade ago (i.e. Syphilis), and are making a comeback, it forces a conversation to open up on why this is happening and how we can stop it.

There is no doubt that one of the leading causes for the increase in infection rate is that people are engaging in condomless sex. The majority of new syphilis and gonorrhea cases this past year occurred in men, specifically men who have sex with men (MSM).  The reason for this could be that with advances in HIV prevention with Prep, there may be an impact on risk behavior. If you think that you are protected from HIV and then you engage in condomless sex, you could be at risk for contracting other infections. There is less fear circulating around STIs currently, which is a positive thing, but it still means you need to protect yourself.

It’s important to stress that STI’s can affect anyone. It is essentially bacteria and bacteria doesn’t care if you’re hot, clean, wealthy, successful, educated, etc. The more you engage in sexual activity without barrier protection, the more you are at risk for contracting infections. It’s that simple.

Another reason that STIs could be on the rise is that sex is more readily available than before. Due to dating apps such as Tinder, Grindr, etc., we have the opportunity to meet more and more people. However, people are more likely to use condoms with a one-night stand or random hook up. It’s when we engage in sexual activity with a hook up buddy or friends with benefits that things get murky. If you are comfortable with someone and it’s implied that you are not exclusive, however, you don’t have that conversation and you feel as if you would offend your partner by asking them to use a condom. I stress to open up any activity and normalize it for yourself by asking all partners if they’ve been tested recently and to get yourself into a habit of always using condoms.

It seems like a no brainer, but I understand that we’re conditioned to not talk about our sex lives from a young age. That conversation in the moment can seem very daunting, awkward, or a mood-ruiner. However, it just shows that you care about your health and are proactive about having a safer sex life. I think establishing that conversation, or asking few questions before diving in, makes the most sense. That way in the moment, you aren’t fumbling around trying to find a condom or if you don’t have one, stopping activity. Also, I think it’s important that women have the boldness to carry around condoms. Don’t expect your partner to have the protection. You are in charge of your sex life and you can make the choice to always have that available to you.

There hasn’t been much research to conclude that we are having any more sex than in past. In fact, it has been shown that millennials are having less sex than previous generations. So what could be contributing to these skyrocketing rates?

It probably has less to do with changes in sexual behavior and more to do with limited access to sexual healthcare and education. With cuts to public health funding, this means fewer STD clinics and among populations who are most affected. STDs are also very expensive to screen for especially if you don’t have insurance. And you can’t blame someone for wanting to pay their rent over getting a full panel. There are organizations in almost every major city that screen for free, I would look into this online and make sure to get tested regularly. But in the meantime, use condoms!!! I know you’ve heard that a million times, but I can’t stress it enough.

Plus, I’m sure if you yourself looked at the data from last year, you would scare yourself into using them always.

Don’t forget: We still have abstinence only education in this country, which can take away the resources and tools for people to make informed and safer decisions about their sex lives. This is an epidemic. Not unlike the opioid crisis, people are dying every day from totally preventable, treatable STDs. A way that you can get involved is to make sure you are voting on a state level or even in your neighborhoods and communities. You can elect the representatives who can decline abstinence-only funding and go out there and make the choices that you would want to make for yourself, your peers, your kids, etc. You have the opportunity to teach those around you, even if its what you just read. We can be the change we want to see.

This piece was taken from the monthly column Safer Sex 101 with Eileen Kelly which exists on NastyGal.

Bringing Up Baby

My mother loves to learn more than anyone else I know. Whether she’s reading a book on mindsets or taking an online course on the brain, she’s constantly seeking out new ways of looking at the world around her. She’s a problem solver by nature, thankfully, because when I was a kid I threw her a pretty big parenting curveball.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression at age 11. By that time it had completely overshadowed my life. Depending on the day, it would either render me catatonic, unable to leave my bed, or it would reduce me to an inconsolable mess of tears. I was just a kid, so I didn’t have the language to articulate what was happening to me. All I knew was something was off. Through years of therapy, trying different medications, and learning coping methods, I have learned a lot about depression and how it affects me specifically. My mom has been there with me every step of the way. She’s been there to take me to the doctor, go on walks with me, and sit in bed and read my favorite books to me when I told her I didn’t know who I was anymore and didn’t know if I could keep going.

Though today I still have up days and down days, I’ve learned a lot about how to stay mentally afloat. It occurred to me that, throughout the years, I never knew how my mom was feeling. She always remained my stalwart. I decided to ask her some questions about her experience.

 

Has your perception of mental illness, and depression specifically, changed from when I was diagnosed to now? If so, how has it changed?

Yes, my perception has changed. I used to think of depression as more of a “sadness/happiness” dichotomy. Sometimes you’re sad, sometimes you’re happy. Now I think it presents in different ways – sadness, anger, fatigue, etc. – depending on many factors. I think you exhibited some symptoms even when you were little, but we didn’t recognize it as depression, and the symptoms never lasted very long. It’s easier to see things in hindsight.

 

What are your thoughts on different methods of treatment (therapy, medication, etc.)? What have you learned about treatment over the years?

I believe very firmly in the mind/body connection, which is why I encourage you to take care of yourself (exercise, eat healthy, get enough sleep, get enough vitamin D, etc.). My opinion of medication has changed, though. I used to think that I never wanted my children to be medicated, but I now know that medication can be an important tool in the toolbox. I still believe the other methods are important and should be part of a comprehensive regimen, along with therapy and medication.

 

What have you learned about yourself?

I’ve learned that I can’t be happy if either of my children isn’t happy. There’s an expression that goes, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” Boy, is that true for me. I’ve learned I have to let you navigate this journey, even though there are times when I want to take charge and try to fix everything. I know that I can’t do this because it’s not something that can be easily fixed, and I shouldn’t because when you’re driving the train, you’re learning lifelong mental health management skills, which is so important, so you have to do it for yourself.

 

What have some low moments been for you?

The one I remember most is when you were in 6th grade. The depression has really manifested as a debilitating sadness, and I didn’t know what to do to make it better for you. I remember driving to Staples one night because you needed a new binder for school, and it was snowing on my drive home. I put the brakes on suddenly, and the car went into a spin. I was so scared for those few seconds, which seemed to last for hours, but I didn’t crash, and was able to drive home safely. When I got home I went up to my bedroom, lay down on the bed and sobbed until I had cried it out. Everything felt so overwhelming and I felt so helpless as a parent.

 

How would you say our relationship has changed over the years?

We’ve definitely gotten closer. I’ve been so impressed with you and what you’ve done to manage your depression and the coping skills you’ve developed. I think we’re more honest with each other than we would have been if you didn’t have depression.

 

What have you learned about me?

I’ve learned that you’re very creative, and talented, and funny, and strong, and that you’re all that despite your depression. Or maybe because of it. Some people believe there’s a link. I’ve learned that you’re resilient. I’ve learned that you’re incredibly determined and motivated to be as mentally healthy as possible, and I’ve learned to trust you and follow your lead.

 

 

I want to thank my mom for being so generous with her thoughts and stories. Though I certainly don’t always make it easy for her, I’m aware of how lucky I am to be so close to her; it can be so hard to do alone. If there’s one thing I hope this conversation can provide, it’s a bit of insight into how to talk about mental illness with the adults in your life. This wasn’t the most fun conversation I’ve ever had with my mom, but it was the first. Many of its kind have followed. Each one has only brought us closer.

Why Your Heart Hurts After A Breakup

Ever wonder why a breakup is so f*ing painful? And why is it that some people suffer for years while others bounce back so quickly?

A 2010 study from the University of California found that taking acetaminophen (the main ingredient in Tylenol) can correlate with reduced pain after a breakup. Why might Tylenol help with emotional pain? Because pain, whether inflicted physically or emotionally, functions through the same neural pathways in the brain. Using acetaminophen reduces those neural responses that give us the experience of pain. So yes, figures of speech such as “heartache” and “heartbreak,” are more than melodramatic poeticism.

So, does that mean we just can just pop a Tylenol and wait for the pain to pass? Maybe talking to friends about your ex can help? Psychology Professor at Columbia University, Walter Mischel, would argue that discussing the breakup with friends will only increase depressive symptoms and should be kept to a minimum. So, where to turn next?

In a 2011 experiment, the brain activity of people who had recently experienced an unwanted breakup was monitored via MRI. When the subjects viewed a photograph of their ex-partner and thought about their rejection, the MRI revealed activation of the parts of the brain associated with social and physical pain.

But it also found that showing subjects pictures of someone with whom they were securely attached relieved the pain of their broken hearts! So now we must ask, how do we develop secure attachments so that we too can experience emotional tranquility in the face of a break up?

From the moment you were born you began bonding with the people closest to you. This infant-parent bonding and how well your parents responded to your needs was essential for the development of your physical and mental health. How well you attached during that early period determines how you respond in both relationships and breakups in the future, or basically how secure you are as a human being in and out of relationships with other humans.

People who are securely attached, whose needs were met by caregivers, have the healthiest response to breakups, turning to close friends and family for support, authentically grieving the loss, and being better able to empathize with their partner’s reason for the breakup and therefore responding in a less hostile way. They face the breakup with greater resilience and acceptance, and are less likely to blame themselves for the relationship ending.

People who have an anxious attachment style, whose needs were intermittently met by caregivers, are more likely to react to breakups with hyperactive emotional and physiological distress, feeling a loss of identity, turning to unhealthy coping strategies such as drugs or alcohol, being more prone to jealousy and preoccupation with the ex-partner, and are more likely to try to re-establish the relationship even if it wasn’t a healthy one. This type is more likely to stalk, threaten, or attempt to physically harm their previous partner, and they are more likely to ruminate on negative emotions, be in chronic mourning and prolonged protest and despair, and feel continued attachment to the lost partner, leading to depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.

Those with avoidant attachment style, whose emotional needs were likely not met by caregivers, tend to turn less to friends and family, are more likely to use drugs and alcohol as a means of coping, and may attempt to avoid the former partner so much they might change jobs or schools to suppress any reminders of their former relationship. They may show an absence of grief, little protest and despair, and a quick progression to reorganization and detachment, but it may also involve greater self-blame and use of drugs and alcohol to cope, lower motivation to replace the ex-partner with a new partner, and less interest in sex. They also show the poorest emotional adjustment and well-being compared to secure individuals.

But no matter your past or current attachment style, there is still hope! Attachment styles are not rigidly fixed as they incorporate subsequent life experiences and the responses of those close to us. A therapist can help us transform from an insecure to secure attachment through effective therapy, and focusing on and developing long-term friendships and other relationships can help create stability and foster feelings of security, acceptance and connection.

In John Bowlby’s 1980 book Attachment and Loss he reports that reactions to the loss of a relationship progress through three stages: protest, often involving crying, anger, disbelief and attempts to re-establish contact; despair and sadness; and eventually, the reorganization of one’s attachment hierarchy which includes upgrading new or existing partners and downgrading and detaching from ex-partners.

Breakups hurt a whole f*ing lot, but according to some scientists, focusing on people we have established healthy relationships with, not looking at an ex on social media, and popping some acetaminophen every now and then might help. If you’re not able to get past your breakup, are abusing drugs and alcohol, feel you’ve a lost sense of identity, or like you’re chronically mourning, finding a therapist to help you start working on how you attach can lead you to a full recovery.

Researchers Tashiro and Frazier found that after a romantic breakup, some people reported a lot of positive growth, such as greater self-confidence and independence, better relationship-maintenance behaviors such as improved communication, an improved ability to cultivate stronger relationships with friends and family, greater focus on school or work, and improved expectations of future romantic partners. Post breakup growth was greatest in those who attributed the cause of the breakup to external factors rather than to themselves. Let’s be those people.

So celebrate the relationships you have, surround yourself with photos of people who love you and are always there for you, dive into the meaning and personal growth that has come out of this breakup without over-talking about it, and know that the pain you feel is real, and it really sucks, but it will come to an end. Don’t dwell on who lies at fault for the breakup, get your butt to therapy if you need it, and if you can’t bear the temporary pain of rejection in your heart, keep some Tylenol handy just in case!

 

Lauren Brim, author of The New Rules of Sex, and sex coach at www.LaurenBrim.com

 

Modern Love (?)

Save an Uber, Ride a Cowboy is a column exploring queer millennial sex culture. The stories presented here are based on true events. Identities have been changed to protect the privacy and reputations of those involved. 

*  *  *

Two young fags were on a bus when, inevitably, the conversation veered into their orientation’s capacity to sustain conventional relationships.

One them was a career slut, while the other found himself in a very millennial more-than-fucking-but-not-quite-holding-hands-in-public dynamic. The slut told his friend he was overthinking it: if the sex and conversation were good, there should be no problem.

But evidently that wasn’t enough for Ethan, just as it’s not enough for lot of young queer men.

A mixture of the B43’s bright fluorescents and the fact that newly-coupled Ethan wasn’t going to sleep with him made Riley edgy. He suggested that his friend’s desire to define his relationship in crowd-friendly terms was bred from personal insecurity.

“Maybe,” Ethan shrugged, “but I’m not sure we can ever separate our insecurities from our relationships.”

Riley looked at his friend.

“In some way, aren’t we always trying to get rid of our insecurities with someone else?”

Fuck.

Several days after Ethan had left New York, Riley still mulled over his words. Although he didn’t feel compelled to find a life partner tomorrow, Riley intimately understood this impulse to fill gaps within himself. But did that imply that the hype over coupling was partially based on it being the opposite of a deficit — a kind of emotional Vicodin for loneliness? The high sounded tempting, but Riley feared the comedown.

Young queer folk have no problem with love as a concept, but the way in which it manifests gets sticky.

There’s one crop who consider monogamy a bullshit heterosexual notion, advocating for open relationships: “Fuck many, but cuddle with only one.” However, this lifestyle is about more than just indulging physical impulses. Radical queers view monogamy (and by extension, marriage) as an assimilation technique — heterosexual molds meant to constrict and normalize queerness, an identity that lends itself to unconventionality. Why define queer love by a different orientation’s rules?

But it isn’t easy to unlearn conditioned ideas of what relationships should look like.

Mark stared deep into the soul of his whiskey sour at a dive in the Lower East Side, “I want to be in an open relationship, but my boyfriend would never go for it.”

Riley rolled his eyes, “Have you actually talked to him about it?”

“I don’t have to! I know him and I know he’d be hurt if I even brought it up.”

“But isn’t it better to be honest about what you need? You don’t seriously think you’re not going to sleep with someone else this summer,” Riley sipped his rum and coke, “do you?”

“I would never cheat on him,” Mark shot back earnestly enough that even Riley believed him.

Mark and his boyfriend’s situation is common. Two queens caught between old and new perceptions of love. It’s not as simple as selecting a lifestyle  that jives with you; somewhere between sucking your first dick and waking up to a partner’s morning breath, gay men will begin to realize how royally heteronormativity has fucked them. While on the surface, it may appear like they operate separately from the norm, queers spend much of their romantic lives running back towards it. We bed a non-typical gender, but ultimately, we usually select partners whose traits complete traditional pictures of hetero relationships: top for bottom, butch for femme, etc.

What motivates this? Probably the long internalized ache of never feeling “normal.”

Regardless of the acceptance we experienced in our upbringing, a persistent need to fit in still plagues many queer folks’ romantic decisions. We’re culturally conditioned to value hetero concepts of love over our own. Fast-forward twenty years and we’re suddenly caught thinking our relationship isn’t real unless it bears some semblance to the values we were raised with. Mark’s boyfriend probably can’t envision a meaningful relationship that isn’t monogamous.

However, it’s reductive to say that queer folk who embrace nontraditional couplings are more intellectually liberated than their monogamous counterparts. For many, monogamy is not a trap.

“I think I want to break up with my partner,” Patty told Riley one day at work, “but we live together, so I figure I’ll just tough it out until the end of our lease.”

“When is your lease up?”

“A year.”

She had a point. The slow dissolve of love is child’s play compared to navigating the New York City housing market solo. Five months later, Patty had ditched then gotten back together with her partner. 

“Being single in New York was not as fun as I remember,” she confessed on a rooftop in Brooklyn, “people kind of suck. And when you have someone nice waiting at home, sleeping around loses its appeal.”

Riley went drinking later that night.

While it’s true that the sensory overload of New York (bright lights, hot people) can make it difficult to commit to one person, monogamy thrives in the city for those who look for it.

New York’s twenty-five in “queer years” is the jaded equivalent of thirty-four in other towns. Frankly, people just get tired. They’ve played the field aggressively and long enough that the game isn’t fun anymore. So they find their rock and sign a two-year lease. Stability is a commodity in a city that’s  constantly changing. 

Riley wanted to buy into the fantasy that New York was crawling with sexual deviants, but the reality was that at only twenty-one, he had lost nearly all his fuck buddies to monogamy.

A boy once told him while they were walking together, “Wow, look at that gay couple holding hands. I want that.” Riley had to suck his dick to shut him up.

A few months later, that boy found someone who wanted what he wanted; Riley found his hand.

Sometimes when he gets high, Riley wonders if he’s really committed to a radical queer lifestyle or if he’s just kidding himself. But before he has time to answer the question, there’s always someone new to distract him.

“Honestly, if I’m conditioned, I’m not so sure I want to unlearn it,” reasoned Ava between drags of a Malboro menthol. “I don’t really have the energy for all that.”

 

 

The photos featured are from gaytona.beach, a project highlighting photographer Andrew Harper’s experiences on Grindr.

We Don’t All Have To Be “Beautiful”

Good things come to those who are beautiful.

Or at least that’s what I had been led to believe. During my younger years the girls with straight hair, big breasts, perfect teeth, and clear skin had a seemingly endless crowd of boys pining after them, while I (who had none of those features) did not. In fact, I struggled to get boys to remember my name at all. Despite not being “beautiful” in my peers eyes or mine, I found a sense of purpose through track, photography, and genuine friendships. However, it took time and effort to let go of these types of insecurities.

We don’t all have to be beautiful. I am not making this statement in order to refute the existence of beauty standards, whiteness in beauty, or discrimination within the beauty industry; the purpose of this essay is to discuss why being beautiful, particularly women’s beauty, is important at all.

For centuries, the value placed on a woman’s beauty has been placed above that of her intellect and character. These constructed notions suggest that one’s physical attractiveness is one of the most important traits to maintain while also upholding heteronormative beliefs. This type of feminine beauty criteria idolizes women’s physical figure, hair style, skin color, weight, sexuality, gender expression, and style. Essentially, narrowly defining what it means to be an “acceptable woman.”

Ideas of “acceptable womanhood” begin as early as children’s books, where the heroine is swept off her feet by a handsome prince who only notices her because of her shockingly beautiful features. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid draw attention to the physical qualities of their main characters rather than their personhood. In these stories physical attractiveness is rewarded while unattractiveness is reviled, which emphasizes the idea that good things come to those who are beautiful.

Later, people are introduced to more specific ideas of beauty through magazines, television, and social media. As various media outlets become more accessible and multifaceted, digesting highly damaging ideas of beauty becomes much easier. The women on the covers of magazines and in the starring roles on popular television shows are often thin, white, clear-skinned women with straight hair and teeth; diversity of representation is few and far between. These portrayals of beauty do not stop here; they exist in comic books, advertisements, and clothing stores, which mean that these ideas eventually trickle down into everyday speech and cognition. This epidemic is problematic because it forms a “perfect” ideal that is almost impossible to achieve because it is nonexistent, especially when airbrushing and Photoshop are such common tools.

Another thing to consider: is beauty itself highly valued or are the things that beauty can bring actually the source of worth? According to a Newsweek poll, 57% of hiring managers said that qualified but unattractive candidates are likely to have a more difficult time finding a job, and 61% (majority of them men) said that it would be advantageous for a woman to wear figure-flattering clothing to work. This suggests that the pressure to be beautiful lays in what can be gained from having these qualities rather than simply having the quality itself. Mass media helps illustrate this: Snow White found love because she was beautiful, the popular girls at my school were given attention/praise for being pretty, and hiring managers are likely to hire someone who’s more traditionally physically attractive. Beauty is power.

It is worth noting that I, a thin, lighter-skinned black person without acne, now have the privilege of separating myself from my looks and placing lesser value on them. Having these kinds of features and this type of beauty is an extreme privilege. However, this does not mean that I am above the constraints that feminine beauty standards place on women. I am not immune to fetishization, racism, or heteronormativity within these cultural ideas of beauty.

Being ugly, being pretty, and being anything in between society’s perception of both is not an illustration of one’s worth or character. These beauty standards were put in place to homogenize women’s physical presentation while simultaneously dictating their value and utility. We as a society need to own up to the fact that these beauty standards are outdated, irrelevant, and confining.

Matching modern culture’s definition of beauty is not an adverse quality. Conforming to this definition of femininity is not necessarily a bad thing, either. What’s most important is expressing one’s gender and sexuality honestly. I believe that depicting oneself in the most authentic way possible is incredibly important, and if that type of expression happens to fit in with what is widely accepted, then so be it. Although, feeling pressured to look or feel a certain way is a completely valid and understandable feeling, especially considering that one type of beauty is constantly being highlighted while others are getting ignored.

This does not mean that one cannot or should not take pride in their perceived beauty, but treasuring beauty and youth as we have done for centuries is exceptionally damaging. Modern society has invested in certain models of beauty, and devaluing them will help lift the constraints of feminine beauty from billions of women worldwide.

We don’t all have to be beautiful, because fitting into this narrow description of “acceptable womanhood” is unnecessary. Contrary to what this world has led you to believe, your significance is not tied to your face, body, or physical appearance. You don’t have to be Gigi or Bella to be worth something.