My Eating Disorder is Not “Textbook”

The following content may be triggering.

 

I can only speak for myself when I say I feel underrepresented and misunderstood by Health and Psychology textbooks. It’s not that the examples and clinical criteria in school books don’t represent real, statistical data gathered from cases of eating disorders. I just don’t fit into that data.

Having been severely underweight for two years, and at a healthy body mass index for four, I felt out of control overwhelmed, exercise and food-obsessed, and helpless for a total of six. However, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) criteria for anorexia, only the first two years of my disorder would “count” as diagnosable. Does that mean that my eating disorder wasn’t real? That I didn’t suffer for all six years and battle with my anorexia every single day?

In the past, I wouldn’t care if a professor failed to mention the outliers or the widespread grips of this disease and how its physicalities don’t even compare to the mental takeover. However, today, sitting in my 300+ person Psych lecture at one of the most esteemed universities in the country, I finally see how damaging these academic misconceptions can be towards fueling the stigmas and lack of understanding for eating disorders.

For the first few months of my disorder, I danced on the line between severity and being “completely fine.” On the outside, I looked like a “skinny” 13-year-old, and my doctors assured my parents that I was “fine”, but probably shouldn’t lose more weight. When I protested my parents’ concerns and told them I was just being health-conscious, they were worried but not inclined to get me help because anorexia had a look that I didn’t fit yet.

I was exercising seven days a week for three hours at a time, eating less than 900 calories a day, and constantly feeling surrounded and beaten down by voices telling me I was fat, unworthy, and wholly disgusting. Even at 5’5″ and 108 pounds, I was convinced the skin on my hips was excess fat, that my hip bones jutting out was a sign of weight gain, that everything wrong in my life was due to my absolute repulsiveness. Even then, according to textbook criteria, I would not be considered anorexic.

It’s not the fault of my parents or doctor, but rather an institutional problem that needs to be addressed. Our attachment to alienating clinical guidelines perpetuates a dangerous narrative towards eating disorders. In my experience, the psychological torture was enough to send me over the edge far before I was 89 pounds with low blood pressure. Nonetheless, my friends and family weren’t equipped to help me, because we only know to cry “anorexia” if someone looks like a skeleton.

This antiquated narrative also made it difficult for me to validate my disease after treatment. I eventually hit that spiraling point and was in and out of inpatient facilities for seven months, but afterward when I was released at a “normal weight,” I spent four years killing myself to stay right at that line.

My metabolism was so depleted and confused from my cycles of starvation and over-exercise that it remained stagnant, in starvation-mode. My body was unable to restore my metabolism to a normal level where I could maintain weight by eating and exercising in a way that’s healthy for me. Instead, I remained right at my 18.5 BMI weight for four years by eating with extreme restrictions.

I’ve been pescetarian since my treatment and used to be terrified of any “unclean” foods. I would exercise a strict six days a week, for about an hour and a half at a time. Because my body and metabolism were so used to the low levels of nutrients and rest, this was enough to maintain my weight. As I remained what’s considered to be a healthy BMI, I still had crippling issues.

No one noticed. In comparison to everything we’re taught anorexia looks like, I appeared to be perfectly fine. I’d argue we aren’t being taught enough. 

We hold the delusion that once treatment is over, weight having been restored, the eating disorder is over too. It’s ingrained in academia and professional medical treatment for eating disorders. It was less than a month ago when I was formally taught about the Maudsley Family-Based Therapy for anorexia in my collegiate Psych class. The professor explained that this common therapy process involves three phases. However, my experience wasn’t compartmentalized this way.

The idea of a specific number or time frame of phases is extremely misleading. Recovery is a trial and error process that can take someone, like me, up to seven months of being in and out of inpatient/outpatient treatment and psychiatric institutions.

I met a 30-year-old in an outpatient facility who had been in and out of treatment for 14 years. The idea that recovery is a three-step journey involving concrete mechanisms, standardized for all cases, creates a narrative of superficiality surrounding eating disorders. It’s also inaccurate.

For example, in the third phase — endearingly called “Healthy Identity” — involves establishing familial boundaries, weight maintenance, healthy body image, and “termination” of the eating disorder.

An eating disorder is never terminated.

This is why it can be so difficult to find that healthy body image: that image — good or bad — usually coexists alongside your eating disorder. Recovery does not just happen with weight restoration. For a lot of patients, myself included, it can takes years to accept that weight maintenance is the only way to stay healthy and out of treatment. Then you have to learn to live and be comfortable with the idea of this new weight. For me, recovery is about shutting out the critical voices in my head and making choices in spite of them. It’s a process, not a formula.

Textbooks can make it feel pretty formulaic and familiarly inaccurate. Not once during my Psych class did we discuss the process of regaining control outside of treatment, or what recovery looks like in the long term. People relapse and return to treatment, or struggle for years as I did.

In treatment, we labeled “scary” foods — often unhealthy foods like fast food or sweets — “fear foods” and would always be challenged to choose them at mealtime. I used to dread Pizza Night or days when we would go to the movies and be challenged to buy buttered popcorn.

Today, there are days when I really want to eat something I previously labeled as a “fear food”, and I’m able to eat it in the moment — enjoy it, even. Though sometimes, it only takes minutes for the voices to come back and torment me. I’ll look in the mirror and, remarkably, it looks as though that one cookie or piece of pizza has made me gain ten pounds.

Recovery looks like navigating the things that scare you; that hurt you. I worked my ass off for years to fight my eating disorder. This idea that recovery just happened for me, or for anyone else that is struggling, is downright offensive.

Having an eating disorder is not just about physical restoration and body image. When you have anorexia, you develop a relationship with it.

In my recovery process, my fellow patients and I fondly named our eating disorders “Ana” for short. This personification of our disease(s) allowed us to attach emotions to the voices inside our head, as well as explain to ourselves why we so often chose her over other relationships and sometimes, our own lives. This was imperative in breaking up with my eating disorder.

As Ana became less of a disease and more of a physical entity or even a friend, it became clearer to me why she resembled a toxic relationship that needed to be addressed. Ana alienated me from my friends and family, making me self-deprecate so that I hated myself enough to rely on her and hurt myself in the process, and lied to me and tricked me into doing what she wanted.

There is a level of intimacy patients address between themselves and their eating disorders that reveals why it is so hard to move on and choose themselves over this relationship. You live for years thinking Ana is there for you and helping you control your life and make yourself into a better person. It’s a toxic codependency that reveals what needs to be rediscovered outside of your eating disorder, while in recovery.

Anorexia is not just a superficial obsession with one’s body and looking good. It is a much more complex emotional dependency that is rooted in becoming attached to the reassurance that Ana provides and being too afraid to let her go.

Though I believe it’s important to learn about eating disorders in an educational setting, most curricula are rooted in methodology and beliefs that minimize all experiences into a chapter in a textbook. Which is adverse to ending stigmas and better preparing people to help themselves, friends, and loved ones.

Medical criteria and DSM-5 guidelines may be clinically backed by data and science, but there needs to be a more open discussion supplementing these guidelines and allowing students the space to discuss how these disorders manifest outside of textbooks. It’s important to understand the fluidity of eating disorders and the diversity of people impacted by them. The mold we’ve given disorders like anorexia leaves a lot of people and their stories out of the conversation, and academia is unintentionally educating its students within a very limited, clinical range.

Personally, I think our schools and our textbooks can, and must, do better. Until then, we host the responsibility of educating ourselves. Read, learn, and advocate like somebody’s life depends on it — because it does.

 

 

For more information on anorexia and other eating disorders, you can call National Eating Disorders Hotline at (800) 931-2237, for personalized advice. 

 

Photos (in order of appearance) by Uma Schupfer, Dina Veloric, and Cheyenne Morschl-Villa

 

How Do I Identify?

Happy Pride Month — I think I’m pansexual.

Sexual fluidity is a norm nowadays, and it’s especially apparent living in a city like New York where pretty much anything goes.

I’ve always been in heterosexual relationships and have no regrets about the deep connections I’ve shared with men throughout my life. However, I realized very, very young that my sexual orientation was not deeply fixed to one side of the spectrum. 

When I was about 11 years old, I stumbled upon Cruel Intentions. It seemed okay enough, nothing out of the ordinary — until I saw the infamous scene. You know the one. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair sharing a steamy makeout session during a picnic in the park.

I couldn’t look away. I felt something. I felt aroused, and then I felt ashamed. I shouldn’t be watching this. I shouldn’t feel this way. Why am I so turned on and how can I make it stop?

As I matured and internet access became more available, I spent late nights with the door closed searching the web for all versions of sapphic imagery: photos, videos, written erotica, etc. This curiosity was a dirty secret I could only share with myself.

Once I went to college, I felt an unparalleled pressure that — if I was actually in any way something other than straight — being at college was the place to explore this. I kissed a few women here and there, mostly feeling nothing, but nonetheless felt the compulsion to open my laptop before bed a few times a week for a X-rated video nightcap.

I’ve typed into Google “Does watching lesbian porn make you gay?” countless times, and judging from the results, thousands of other women had, too. After doing my research, the takeaway was: No — watching lesbian porn does not make you gay.

However, even though I felt validated by sexuality-questioning forums and advice columns, I still felt like I was not actually straight. These webpages mentioned almost nothing about watching exclusively lesbian porn, and being virtually unable to get off to man/woman porn (with a few exceptions). 

I have never been in a relationship with another woman, but I have a prominent anxiety that one day, when I’m in my 40s and married to a man, I’ll house some semblance of regret that I never explored that side of myself.

And yet, in my current life, I don’t feel compelled to.

I’m currently in a relationship with a man. A beautiful, generous partner who satisfies me emotionally and sexually on a regular basis. I don’t really feel like I’m missing out on a side of myself that I haven’t tapped into yet, but I do worry that I’m missing my prime experimentation years… whatever that means.

I have my finger on the pulse of this anxiety, and I monitor it regularly. To quell this feeling, I think it’s best for me to cross that bridge when I come to it.

This essay has no takeaway. It’s Pride Month and NYC is swarming with people unabashedly being themselves and expressing love to whomever they choose. It just has my gears turning. Am I actually pansexual? Am I bisexual? Am I a straight girl with a strong preference for exclusively lesbian porn?

I don’t know, and I don’t think I need to know right now.

 

Photos by Dina Veloric

 

Meet Your Match

This article originally appeared in print in Pull Out, a magazine exploring the relationship between sex and technology. Order a copy here

 

Dating in the 21st century no longer means going out to social events — it means making a profile on an online dating app.

Gone are the days when meeting strangers online was taboo, today it’s a given: Tinder, OKCupid, Grindr, Christian Mingle, Bumble… the list goes on and on. Thousands of suitors, depending on your distance settings, await at your fingertips.

I finally downloaded Tinder as a result of a breakup — typical, I know. Convinced that I was simply looking for something new and exciting, whether that was an ephemeral hook-up or an unforeseen relationship, the world of dating apps seemed filled with endless possibilities. An unlimited number of men streamed directly to my phone, and all I had to do was swipe.

My broken heart received confidence boosts every time I got a match. It was invigorating to know how many guys were interested in me, from only five previously Instagram-ed photos and a sentence long bio, which read, “Tell me your favorite Justin Bieber song.” The confidence I built from Tinder left me eager to try any free dating app that I would fit on my iPhone’s storage. For a brief time, I thought it was possible for me to use these apps to fulfill the romantic void in my post breakup life.

The apps facilitated the initial sorting by filtering guys within my preferred distance and age ranges. Then, if there was mutual interest, the floor was opened for conversation. Swiping was effortless — the hard part was forming a connection based on the superficial, visual content that brought us together. The number of viable candidates decreased significantly as I attempted to form a rapport with these mysterious people on the other side of my phone. The digital banter felt exhausting and artificial. Then the number dropped even lower when it came to guys I actually wanted to meet.

Two.

After spending eight months sending messages to strangers on various apps, this was the total number of guys I met. And it only took one to two dates to realize that the faint connection we formed online was not present when in person. For instance, 25-year-old John* and his lingering obsession with his college party life left me cringing, and Mark* ghosted me after the second date when I awkwardly slipped out of the car because I was not comfortable enough to kiss him.

“Is it me?” I desperately asked my therapist one day when I was questioning why I was still alone after spending so much time swiping left and right.

I was frequently getting asked out on dates, yet often declined because I would look for, and inevitably find reasons that snuffed any initial interest. No one seemed to be worth the time and effort to endure an awkward first date. I began to realize that I was using dating apps to fill the pain from the dissolution of my last relationship. Looking online for the attention and validation I was no longer receiving from my ex-boyfriend. The truth was that my breakup left me feeling alone and terrified. As eager as I was to move on, I found myself discouraged when my attempts to make new connections did not come as easily as my last relationship.

Knowing that I had thousands of men at my fingertips was now making me lonelier than I was at the beginning of my online dating saga. The moment of excitement when matching with someone dulled when I realized there was nothing substantial between us.  

In my opinion, I think loneliness is the key reason why dating apps are successful. We are all trying to find some sort of connection through these clicks and swipes, whether it’s casual sex, platonic friendships, or intimate relationships. Dating apps provide the illusion that you can meet your match through algorithms and preference settings. If this were true, then why is my generation having less sex than the generations before us?

A study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that millennials are having less sex than young adults were in the 1960s. Additionally, CDC research indicates a decline in sexually experienced teens today compared to teens in 1988. 

Although sex has different meanings for different people, it is still a physical action that creates a bond between two people. My guess is that my generation’s drop in sexual activity comes from, in part, our struggle to make connections past the digital space.

Dating apps, and a social media as a whole, attempt to imitate authentic conversation. They are ubiquitous and succeed in bringing some people together, however, apps will never truly mimic IRL relations. You cannot replicate the chemistry felt face-to-face, and while it is not impossible, it’s extremely difficult to create a genuine connection over the screens of our smartphones. And even if you think you do, that connection can dissipate when it moves from the digital to physical realm.

I wonder if we all stand to lose something by basing intimacy off of online interactions. We no longer evaluate significant others solely through actions and words, but now have a digital archive of dating profiles, posts, and tweets to analyze a human being. I’m skeptical if online dating actually makes it easier to find someone when it opens a whole new world of content to criticize.

Or maybe it’s just me.

Perhaps loneliness makes me more closed off and tentative to open up to new people, especially to strangers. Maybe I haven’t had any success with dating apps because I, like many of my generation, am hesitant to move into the physical space. Maybe one day I will be charmed by someone’s five previously Instagram-ed photos and sentence long bio. Maybe I will anticipate a deep and true connection from his online presence. Maybe I will be brave enough to move past the digital wall and meet him face-to-face. And maybe the connection will be just as alive — maybe even more so — than it was behind the screen of my phone.

 

*Names were changed for privacy purposes.

Gif via Giphy, and photos by Sofia Amburgey.

 

 

And Then I Squirted

This past autumn, my on again off again (now ex) boyfriend and I were emotionally masturbating each other and hanging out again.

It was the usual pattern, we would go months without talking and then hang out together “platonically” — meaning that we went on dates while refraining from touching each other until the end of the night, when we’d inevitably have sex and re-confess our love for each other.

On this particular occasion we went to MoMa PS1, did shrooms, and fell back in love. Evidently, there was already some magic in the air, because when we were having sex, I squirted.

Obviously, we got back together.

But I was in shock. I didn’t realize that squiriting was such a distinct experience. I just assumed that I had squirted before and hadn’t realized it. I thought it was one of the many vaginal fluids that got mixed up in the heat of the moment — but this was different. It was definitely a squirt, and it was big.

I was on top of him when I felt an orgasm begin and not stop. He was covered in it and so were the sheets. In that moment the debate on whether a squirt was pee or not seemed ridiculous to me. If that was pee, it was the most romantic pee I’ve ever seen.

Despite the uptick in our sex life, from that point forward, I couldn’t help but notice that he was trying to make me squirt again. The only problem was that my squirting experience had been a cosmic event. Not only was I on shrooms at the time, but I also got my period the next day. I was in-between ovulation and menstruation; at peak sensitivity. It was as if the stars aligned for that very moment. I was fine at leaving it at that, but he seemed fixated upon it; trying to achieve that magical squirt again.

I haven’t squirted since. I’ve even tried to duplicate the circumstances of that special night, but nonetheless, no squirt.

My one magical squirt experience got me thinking– what is a squirt?

I did my best to investigate the fluid online, but the lack of research I found on the female orgasm was astonishing. The information that I did find was filled with misconceptions or something my partner invalidated. For example, in the early 20th century, Freud declared that mature women orgasm from vaginal penetration, whereas immature women (girls) orgasm from clitoral stimulation.

If you’re an adult woman who orgasms from clitoral stimulation, you could be considered sexually immature or even mentally ill.  Freud and other doctors continued to preach this information for the next hundred years, following its original publishing in 1905. It wasn’t until 2005 when Llyod concluded that a majority of women do not routinely orgasm from intercourseSo we are fresh off 100 years of believing that mature women orgasm the correct way, from vaginal penetration. And also that we want to fuck our dads.

In recent years much more research has been done on the female orgasm as well as female ejaculate. However, many questions still remain unanswered. According to International Society for Sexual Medicine, between 10 and 50 percent of women ejaculate during sex. There are two types of female ejaculate: squirting fluid; a colorless and odorless fluid, and ejaculate fluid; a a thicker fluid which more closely resembles that of male ejaculate.

However, the International Society for Sexual Medicine asserts that scientists haven’t quite determined the source of sexual fluid. Scientists believe that squirt is actually fluid that’s built up during arousal and is then released through the urethra. Though it has been controversial for years as to whether or not female ejaculate is actually pee or diluted pee. Also, the fluid can build up in the prostate and be released in the pee, not during sex. So sometimes you’re squirting and you don’t even know it.

I squirted for the first time in my life when I was 22, after six years of being sexually active. There’s so much pressure to cum in contemporary society that it took me a long time to figure out even how to relax during sex and let nature take its course. I had been masturbating since I was 8 years old — that I had on lock. But integrating a partner into the mix was something that took time and experience.

For everyone out there who has yet to squirt I want to tell you that it is possible and don’t feel inadequate if you haven’t yet. While it is an amazing feeling, you can still have an incredible orgasm without it. The vagina is a mysterious muscle. Often, there’s no clear cut formula to cumming — everyone gets there differently.

The important thing is to relax and enjoy however you receive pleasure, and recognize that everyone’s experience is entirely unique. One day the stars will align for you like they did for me.

 

Photo (in order of appearance) by Nyle Rosenbaum, Alexa Fahlman, and Cheyenne Morschl-Villa

 

 

How to Respond When a Loved One Tells You They’re an Addict

 

 

Telling your family and loved ones that you’re an addict is no small feat.

Speaking as someone who has done it herself (twice), I can say without a doubt that it was the hardest decision I’ve made, and it continues to be the toughest one to carry out…

First, you have to reach the point at which you can no longer deny the fact that you are an addict and that you have an actual illness. And, let me just tell you… that can take much longer than one would think. The disease alters the chemistry of the brain and actually changes one’s ability to perceive themselves and their behaviors accurately.

For example, I would convince myself that I needed to buy a gram of cocaine in order to have one last hurrah before quitting for good. However, I went through that exact thought process for years before I realized how deeply in denial I was.

This behavioral defect ensures that an addict continues to seek out and abuse substances, no matter how much it continues to destroy them and their life. Crazy, right? Everything else aside, I’ve got to give it to this disease for being so fucking smart in its ability to maintain its existence in the body. It’s a true evil genius.  

So, yeah, like I said, getting to the point where you actually realize that you have an addiction can be one tricky motherfucker. And then, once you’re no longer in denial about the fact that you have it — you actually have to get to a point where you want to admit it to your loved ones. That can take an even longer time, because from the moment you come forward with your addiction, your behaviors and actions will become scrutinized and analyzed by everyone around you. There’s no alternative choice but to stop, which is not exactly an addict’s ideal situation.

This is why it took me years after acknowledging that I had a problem to actually come forward about how serious my coke addiction was. I didn’t want people knowing that it was an issue. I didn’t want my friends to A) stop doing it with me or B) prevent me from doing it. I didn’t want to quit, obviously. And, you have to want to quit or it simply won’t work. It took three years for me to want to quit coke, and I’m happy to say that as of now, I am six months clean. Halle-fuckin-lullah.

My drinking, however, is a different story.

I was so focused on my coke addiction for such a long time that I didn’t realize how badly my alcohol abuse had become. In fact, I only realized it for myself a few months ago. But once I did have that realization, I knew that I had to tell my friends and family that I was an addict…again. I suppose the bright side is that I was able to do so much faster this time around because once you admit the first addiction, the next ones become easier (yay?).

Now that I’ve had to admit that I am an addict to my loved ones on two separate occasions, I feel as though I’m warranted in writing an article about the best ways to respond when a loved one tells you they’re an addict.

I have the credentials. I know which responses made me feel supported and which ones made me want to intake more drugs. I have also been on the receiving end of this situation in the cases of multiple different loved ones, and I’ve done my research on what I could have done better considering my reactions were not all too stellar. So, I’ve been on both sides of this equation, and I’ve learned my do’s and don’t, which I hereby pass on to you: 

 

The Don’ts:

Don’t say: ‘I knew it’ or ‘I can’t believe this.’ Instead say: ‘Thank you for telling me, I’m sure that must have been difficult for you.’

A little compassion goes a long way at this stage. Not centering this issue around yourself also goes a long way. Do you really need to communicate to them your level of knowledge about their addictive behaviors? Not really.

They are coming to you with the truth for assistance, and as I elaborated so eloquently in the first few paragraphs of this guide, getting to that point is not exactly easy. So, don’t be a dick. All you need to express to them in this moment is your love and support for them. They took a long ass journey to get there, so let them rest and have a glass of water before asking them about their trip. Ya feel?

Don’t say: ‘You need to do…’ Instead say: ‘How can I best support you through this?’

You don’t know what is best for them in this situation. Even if you’ve gone through this before yourself, or if you think you know what was best for your aunt’s friend’s cousin’s step-daughter that one time, this is a unique situation regarding a unique individual who has unique symptoms and unique needs that will help manage those symptoms. You can offer suggestions if they’re stumped—with the help of an addiction counselor of course—but, you can’t tell them what they need to do because they might not even know.

Don’t say: ‘Have you tried stopping?’ Instead say: ‘I will help you to the best of my ability.’

If they’re in front of you asking for help, rest assured that they’ve tried stopping. They wouldn’t be coming to you and letting you know about an incredibly personal and difficult issue if they didn’t think they needed help. They don’t need any reminders that they can’t stop, and they certainly don’t need to feel the Shame Wizard when they have to admit to you their inability to stop abusing said substance. In addition, stopping cold turkey might not be the best option for them. In some situations, it can actually be a dangerous option. So, instead of making assumptions, just inform them that you support whatever choice is best for their wellbeing and livelihood. That’s what they need from you right now, and the decisions about their recovery can be made with the help of a professional at a later time.

Don’t say: ‘What’s wrong with you’ or ‘How could you let this happen?’ Instead say: ‘This isn’t your fault, addiction is a disease, but we do need to come up with a plan to help you manage it’

We need to dispense with the belief that addiction is a failing on the addict’s part to behave ethically. It is a serious disease that alters brain chemistry and behavior and should be treated as such. It is not the addict’s fault, and blaming them is not only incorrect and ableist, but it will most likely push them further into the arms of addiction. Make sure that they know you know it’s a disease. Their illness needs to be validated by a loved one. Nevertheless, you should express to them that a plan needs to be made. It is not their fault, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to take action to manage it. It doesn’t need to be right in that exact moment, but they do need to seek out the advice and help of a professional, like a substance abuse counselor, an addiction psychiatrist, or an AA/NA meeting.

 

The Do’s:

Do start going to Al-Anon, a support group for family members of alcoholics. You need help right now, too.    

In addition to showing your loved one support, you’ll also need some support, too. Al-anon is the place to get it. Al-anon is a support group for loved ones of alcoholics and addicts. Loved ones of alcoholics and addicts tend to either naturally prescribe to certain behaviors or develop them as a result of having an addict in their life. These behaviors can be truly harmful to your mental wellbeing, so you need to be in a safe place where you talk about them and work through them and understand how to manage them. These groups are judgement-free spaces that include other people who know exactly what you’re going through and can help you deal with it. I go to them in addition to AA/NA meetings because having a parent who is an alcoholic/addict definitely affected my behaviors growing up as well as currently. Seeking out a group that offers me understanding and support during this aspect of my life was the best decision I made. I would highly recommend it.

And, last but not least, DO take care of yourself right now. This is an emotional and draining experience and you need to practice some major self-care, ya hear?

 

 

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, the follow resources may be helpful:

Alcoholics Anonymous

Al-Alon Family Groups

Narcotics Anonymous

SAMHSA National Helpline, a 24/7 free and confidential information service for individuals facing substance use issues: 1-800-662-4357

 

 

All photos by Isabelle Abbott                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

What I Learned from Not Looking for Sex

I like to have sex. I enjoy it more some days than others, but I can say I like having sex — maybe even love it.

I love the way it makes me feel to know I secured the person at the bar everyone else was scoping out. I love the way sex feels underneath my skin and in my bones, and how it feels to be seen through the eyes of someone else. I love the power and control sex gives me, which is something I don’t always seize as a woman today. I would say I love almost everything about it. Almost.

What I didn’t love was the subtle creeping way it changed my relationship with myself. I no longer trusted my own opinion but deferred to asking what *insert name here* would think of me. 

I stood in front of the mirror, morning after morning, asking myself, “Will my guy friends think I look hot in this?” I’d think back to a previous compliment and torment myself over how to be noticed in a similar way — one that worked as well the night before.

“Skirt because you can see my legs, or pants because they’re tighter on my butt?”

The more sex I had, the more I craved the validation it gave me. It was almost like something I couldn’t give myself, or at the very least, something I didn’t know how to give myself. But, when and why did this act I love so much begin to make me value the opinion of someone else rather than my own intuition?

Taking a break from sex wasn’t something I intentionally sought out, but over the past six months, I let the notion of seeking out sex vacate my mind. While six months may seem like a blip to some people, pausing my sex life for that long was difficult. It was especially difficult journey for the six inches between my head and my heart.

At first, I thought I was just tired of the effort sex required, the constant attempt to look perfect (whatever that means), to keep my phone within arm’s reach, and the refusal to make concrete plans in the event that a better offer arose. But, that wasn’t the real problem at all. I know I craved human connection, but at what cost? I couldn’t figure out why was I so willing to throw all my efforts into how I looked, forcing all other parts of me to take the backseat.

Sometime between going to bed alone every night and waking up alone every morning, I started to become interested in myself and who I had become.

Days of being by myself turned into weeks which turned into months, and with this passage of time my mindset shifted. I started treating myself with actual care, cherishing my own opinions dearly as they were often the only ones present. I had more time to do what made me happy and to explore things I thought might make me happy. As I continued on, my need to search for sex became less and less. And, I say “need” because it was first and foremost a need, not a want — something I resulted to when I needed to feel good about myself when the exploration of my own validation seemed too daunting to tackle.

I took long walks with no particular destination in mind but simply with the intention of feeling myself carried by my own two feet. I felt liberated as a woman in a new way, differently form when I had first felt sexual liberation. I felt free of the label I had put on myself which read, “I’d rather be with someone else than be alone,” which is what I thought a young woman should want. A partner, a “provider”, a person to make me whole…  But that was no longer my truth — I’m not sure if it ever really was — maybe, I just thought that way before this experience.

My truth is that I much prefer to spend time alone than to have sex at this moment in my life. I’m not saying that I no longer crave intimacy because I often do, but are intimacy and sex really the same thing? Can I be fulfilled through sex if I’m only doing it to be recognized and essentially worshiped by my partner(s)? And, more importantly, to avoid being alone? These questions are among countless that remain unanswered.

I’ve learned a great deal about myself simply by eradicating the intention of actively seeking out sexual partners. At first, it was uncomfortable, mostly because of the lifestyle I had been leading.

A typical Saturday night used to look like this: attend a sporting event where seeking sex was the game and my friends and I were the players. But, the more I questioned why it was hard to give up sex as a replacement for self validation, the more I discovered the doubts I had about and within myself. My own lack of self worth revealed the trust issues I have — not with other people, but with myself.

Now, as I reflect back almost two years later, I’m still learning a whole lot about who I am… all twenty-four years of me.

I’ve learned about my real weaknesses and my real insecurities. I’ve gotten to know parts of myself I never wanted to know and learned to love them anyways. I’ve learned to embrace my loneliness and doubt. I know now what it feels like to be a woman in her 20s who doesn’t need sex, even though the desire may always be there. I’ve learned how to love and how to share that love through silence and kindness. I’ve learned how to leave my heart open even on days when I get nothing in return. I am learning to love those days no matter what..

So, here’s to honoring and loving oneself. And to all the people I haven’t had sex with in the past two years who I love, and who love me anyways.

 

Photos (in order of appearance) by Kaela Smith, Uma Schupfer, and Sweet Suezy

 

 

Zach Grear’s Art Pushes the Queer Aesthetic

DoubleTap is an interview series highlighting creatives whose work explores sex, body, and identity.

 

Etymologically speaking, the word queer originally meant “odd” or “eccentric” — anything that deviated from the norm. At the turn of the 19th century, it caught on as a pejorative for effeminate men, before ultimately being reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community in the 80s and 90s. What it means to be queer and who qualifies as such remains widely debated, however, most can agree that it doesn’t deal in the expected.

It is within this space and understanding multimedia artist Zach Grear’s work lives.

Concerned with more than physical expressions of queerness (although, plenty of same-sex action is featured), Grear’s art explores queerness as an expression of societal dissonance. Whether he’s superimposing tattoos over the bodies of Marilyn Monroe and Keith Haring or re-rendering iconoclasts like Nina Simone, he takes already eccentric images or figures and further queers them by subverting traditional visual notions.

His essential thesis: queer is punk as shit.

 

A portion of your work centers on marking up photographs of famous personalities with figurative tattoos and other body art — can you speak to the inspiration behind this?

The inspiration in utilizing tattoos and collage work comes from my own evolving standards of beauty. I got my first tattoo in 2013, and since then my journey with tattoos has become a way to reconnect with my body image. With each new piece I feel more in control of my body and my sense of beauty — each tattoo reclaims what the oppression of Body Fascism steals from us every single day. I know an image calls out to me when I’m compelled to place my own standard of beauty onto it.

 

Is there a criteria you consider when selecting these celebs?  

In terms of the selection process, the celebs I use are people whom I have admiration for. And for some of them that admiration may very well be based simply on aesthetic. More and more I’m trying to focus on contemporary artists and activists, ones that inspire me daily, who may or may not be on a “celebrity” level.

 

Between collages, prints, and clothes, your art seems pretty multidisciplinary. Do you have a favorite medium?

My favorite medium has to be drawing — pen, marker, or mechanical pencil to paper. Somehow my mind is always most liberated while I’m drawing; no matter how complex the design I’m working on is, I find myself in the middle of strange daydreams all the time. It’s an odd balance of concentration and mentally letting go.

 

Whether it’s a tee with a leather daddy gripping his hard-on or a sweater with two men kissing naked on it — your art is unmistakably queer. Were you ever concerned that such strong imagery might alienate non-queers?

The concerns of non-queer people don’t interest me.

 

Reversely, has anyone tried to censor or sanitize your work?

Fortunately I haven’t encountered anyone outright trying to censor my work. I’ve been lucky with the companies I use for screen-printing shirts and for photo prints. They don’t seem to mind boners!

 

You have a backup Instagram account in case your “main gets deleted.” Have you run into problems sharing your work on the app?

Being a queer artist on Instagram is like being in a toxic relationship. I’ve gotten amazing opportunities, exposure, and, most fulfilling — I’ve met so many other talented artists through this platform.

However, sharing my work within the confines of ambiguous “Community Guidelines” is infuriating. 77.6 million people use Instagram, so the concept of “Community” is absurd, especially when run primarily by wealthy cishet [cisgender and heterosexual] white men. I have a back-up account because the “Community Guidelines” tend to snowball once you’ve had even just one post deleted. Most queer artists I speak to share the feeling of walking on eggshells with each post, trying to stay visible while being hit with shadow bans (which IG still hasn’t even acknowledged exists), all while expecting their account to be disabled one day for no reason or way to reach out. I’m enjoying the ride while I can. I was an artist before Instagram, and I’ll be one after Instagram.

 

There are some recurring “tattoos” in several of your prints — different dates, and in particular, the Roman numerals VII — is there a significance to these?

A few of them have significance. My life-path number is 7, which is why I use it often, and there are certain words I have an affinity for: “Lust”, “Bliss”, “Radiant”, and the Joy Division song “She’s Lost Control”. Often times while drawing I’ll use lyrics from the song I’m listening to in that moment. If the subject is a celebrity I like to use symbols attached to them — birth date, zodiac sign, quotes, etc.

 

Are there queer artists of the past that inspire your work?

Absolutely. David Wojnarowicz blows my mind with the extent of his reach: street art, photography, writing, music, protest. He knew it wasn’t about being comfortable — as any oppressed group will tell you, there’s no such thing as being comfortable. James Baldwin is my hero. Another Country is my absolute favorite book and I tell everyone I meet to read it.

 

How would you define “punk” within a queer context?

I view punk as a very ‘Now’ stance. That is, it’s the opposite of a “turn the other cheek and wait for the oppressor to decide we should exist” mantra or even the feeble “but we’ve come so far/let’s meet in the middle” platitudes.

As queer people, punk means we exist solely on our own terms. Society wasn’t created with queer people in mind, so the concept of assimilation and compromise only serves to feed the beast.

 

Your work gives nods to sexual subcultures, like Leather and BDSM — how does eroticism dictate your work?

Again, this comes to the idea of standards of beauty. The fantasy of vintage erotica is most powerful when viewed through a nostalgic lens. I gravitate towards them in order to clash and twist the old school appeal — whether 50s era muscle mags or 70s unpolished Honcho men — with my own standard of beauty.

 

You designed the AIDS Memorial “What’s Remembered Lives” t-shirt, which is a lot of responsibility. Can you talk a bit about that process?

I’d followed and interacted with the AIDS Memorial Instagram for a few months when Stuart, the moderator, reached out to help design the first iteration of the t-shirt in late 2017. It’s been great seeing people share their stories while wearing the tee, and I’m excited to see new versions of the shirt from different artists.

 

Has the current administration’s encroachment on LGBTQ+ rights affected your artistic output at all?

Like many people, the 2016 Election definitely woke me up. Toni Morrison specifically snapped me out of my red haze when, in response to the election, she wrote: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.” 2016 was also the year of the Pulse shooting, so I realized that if I claim to be part of the queer community, I’m going to have to claim it loudly. Art, which up until that point had mostly been a hobby, became a place to funnel that queer rage.

 

Do you have any upcoming projects coming up that you can dish on?

I just purchased my first real “big boy” camera! I’m excited to start taking portraits of the queer creatives I’m surrounded by, then transforming those portraits with my drawing and collage.

 

 

All photos courtesy of Zach Grear. To engage with and purchase Zach’s work, visit his website. You can follow him on Instagram here.  

 

I Hate You — Don’t Leave Me

Navigating relationships and intimacy with borderline personality disorder.

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I often feel “empty.” 

My emotions shift very quickly, and I often experience extreme sadness, anger, and anxiety. I’m constantly afraid that the people I care about the most will abandon or leave me.

I would describe most of my romantic relationships as intense yet unstable — the way I feel about the people in my life can dramatically change from one moment to the next, and I don’t always understand why. When I’m feeling insecure in a relationship, I tend to lash out or make impulsive gestures in hopes of keeping the other person close to me.

These are just a few ways borderline personality disorder has manifested within my relationships throughout my life.

Although I’m only nineteen, I consider myself an intimacy aficionado. I have been in quite a few romantic relationships — some long, some short, some unrequited, some not — and I would say the only common denominator in my love life has been my personality disorder. I read a Vice article once that referred to women as wonderful torturers of ourselves. Although loving comes easy for me — trust, stability, assurance, and security certainly do not. 

 

What is borderline personality disorder?

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental illness that revolves around an intense fear of abandonment and instability and impacts the way you feel about yourself, others, your relationships with others, and everything in between.

The cause(s) of BPD can be linked to genetics and hereditary predisposition, brain abnormalities, and trauma, although this is not an exhaustive list. Typically, you must display five or more of a long list of criterium to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. These symptoms may include identity disturbance, frantic efforts to avoid abandonment (both real or imagined), instability, and intense interpersonal relationships, suicidal behavior, and chronic feelings of emptiness, among others.

 

Loving while Borderline…

My fear of abandonment has forced me to require more reassurance than the average person. Even with adequate reassurance from a partner, trust can be frail.

I’m constantly anticipating that my partner will leave me or that they feel differently, which has often pushed loved ones away. My feelings of inadequacy took a toll on them and our relationship. I cannot always explain why I so vividly imagine loved ones leaving me and acting in my worst interest.

My impulsive behavior and unstable sense of self has put me in situations where I have felt obligated to be promiscuous and hypersexual in order to obtain love and care. Hypersexuality as a result of my personality disorder has also led people to take advantage of me — and blame myself for it in the same breath.

I still sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between love, lust, and impulse. On the opposite side of the spectrum, sometimes I have total aversion towards sex. I can feel sexually repressed due to trauma, trust issues, unstable self image, and acute feelings of shame. This physical repulsion has also been a site of complication in more than one of my relationships.

Ultimately, each day and each partner is the luck of the draw in terms of how I will be feeling and what irrationality my brain will orchestrate.  

 

Living while Borderline…

Dialectical behavior therapy [DBT] has been one avenue of treatments that has helped in equipping myself with skills to manage my emotions, self soothe, and navigate relationships.

DBT is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that works to promote a balance in thinking — a way to see seemingly opposite perspectives at the same time. I think of it as understanding that the glass is both half empty and half full. Although mindfulness has always seemed pin-headed to me, allowing myself to feel, use strengthening statements, and understand that things don’t have to be black or white, but can rather just be, has been benevolent in my self discovery and relationships.

Note that I say I live with borderline personality disorder rather than suffer from it.

I have decided to no longer pathologize who I am and the way I am, even if I am sometimes not too sure of either of those things. Being borderline has often made me susceptible to self stigmatization; I’ve believed that I’m manipulative, dangerous, and unable to be in healthy, loving relationships. But this is not necessarily true. If anything, being borderline has offered me ways to be intuitive, compassionate, and empathetic.

My inner turmoil has granted me the privilege of being able to relate to others through lived experience. My heightened sensitivity allows me to be hyper-aware of the emotions of those around me. My intuition allows me to understand and navigate situations that may be unfamiliar.

In terms of intimacy, being borderline has come with a self awareness toolkit that has taught me what I need in relationships in order to have them be both healthy and mutually fulfilling for me and a partner: Reassurance. Patience. Compassion. Understanding. Mutuality. Flexibility. Boundaries.

 

For more information on borderline personality disorder, click here

 

Art by Ezra Covalt, photos (in order of appearance) by Cheyenne Morschl-Vill and Sweet Suezy.