You know how people talk about “the first day of the rest of their lives”? Well, this kinda feels like that because I’m about to share some things I’ve never spoken about publicly before. And it’s big. Really, really big. And I’m doing it because I’ve felt like I was alone in the shadows for so long…and now that I understand how untrue that is, I want to talk to those of you who feel like you’re alone in the shadows. Because there are a lot of us.
Buckle your safety belt. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
I’ve spoken at some length here about the emotional abuse I experienced as a result of my father’s alcoholism and general jacked-up-ed-ness. But there’s another piece of the story that’s not so easy to talk about.
It’s about how he interacted with me around sex. He told me he would break the kneecaps of any boy who dared to touch me and that he would lock me in my room until I was 30 – leading me to believe that it would be unsafe to be in a relationship with anyone.
While it was unsafe for me to be sexual with anyone else, it was my father who was sexual with me…he spoke to me sexually about my own body; he spoke to me about his sexual relationship with my mother; he spoke to me sexually about women other than my mother; and he spoke sexually to women other than my mother in front of me.
It took a long time for me to come to grips with the fact that this was, in fact, sexual abuse. It didn’t (for the most part) include laying his hands on me sexually, but it was wildly inappropriate sexual contact with a child. In the years since, as I’ve learned more about this type of sexual abuse (which has a variety of names including emotional incest and emotional sexual abuse) I’ve learned that a lot of counselors and therapists consider it particularly insidious because there’s nothing concrete for the child to point to and say, “That’s when and how I was abused.”
The child is left feeling like they are the one that is crazy. We carry the aftereffects of having been sexually violated without the actual event of having been molested.
I have felt this sense of debilitating confusion around sex since I can remember.
Getting it “over with”
My entry into the world of sex came quite late. Between depression, fear, and a destructive self image, I was certain that no one would ever want to be with me.
Finally, at age 23, I entered my first serious relationship. It was deeply dysfunctional from day one – he was numbing out with marijuana multiple times a day and I was so depressed that I couldn’t see beyond my own nose. Neither one of us was capable of having a grown-up relationship.
When I thought about having sex with him for the first time, I wasn’t anticipating something beautiful or meaningful…it was about “getting it over with” so I wouldn’t be the oldest living virgin anymore.
It should be no surprise that with that attitude, it wasn’t beautiful, meaningful, enjoyable or satisfying. We stayed together for close to two years and I cried when we had sex. Every. Single. Time.
I desperately wanted to have a good sexual experience, so I kept trying. I tried to bring creative new ideas that might help me/us, but nothing did.
At some point, he started telling me that I was broken. Specifically he said, “Your father broke you and now it’s my job to fix you.” He told me that I wasn’t very good in bed.
Now, on top of feeling afraid and unsafe, I was broken and a bad lover too.
When I finally got the courage to walk away from that relationship I was convinced that I was such a bad lover that no one would ever want to have sex with me.
Trying to prove myself
Sex had become so fraught that I rarely engaged in it.
Over the next twelve years, I only had sex with two other men . In each case, I felt like I had to work extra hard to overcome how bad I was in bed, but I was also immobilized by fear.
I frequently initiated things, trying to be spontaneous and fun and exciting, but once we got started, I would lie on my back and wait for it to be over.
Sex became something that I both craved and dreaded.
A tentative break-through
In 2011, six months after starting The Miracle Journal, I met Mr. Blue Eyes.
For the first time, I was able to be fully present.
Part of the difference was him – never before had I felt so completely seen and adored for who I am, and that made it easier to show up.
But a big part of the difference was me. I had shifted my perspective to looking for the good instead of fixating on the bad.
For the first time, I had a fulfilling orgasm…during intercourse! I still didn’t believe I was a good lover, but at least I felt like I wasn’t the world’s worst lover.
Until the day when he started to withdraw from me sexually.
It confirmed all of my worst fears. Not only did I feel rejected, but I felt like I’d been set up by the Universe – I’d gotten used to feeling worthless, and just when I began to feel like maybe I was okay, the whole thing came crashing down around me. Then he told me he wasn’t in love with me anymore. It just added fuel to the fire of all those old beliefs.
(Without going into any details, I now understand that his withdrawal was about his own dysfunction, not about my performance. But it took me a long while to accept that and it didn’t help at the time.)
It has been almost two years since things ended with Mr. Blue Eyes. Until a couple months ago, I couldn’t think about sex without putting his face on it (meaning, to be blunt, that I couldn’t fantasize about sex because it made me so sad.)
I’m not that kind of girl…oh wait, maybe I am!!
A couple months ago I met a guy. It was pretty clear that we weren’t well suited for a romantic relationship, but we had great chemistry.
On our second date, I had to make a decision – listen to the voice that said, “I’m not the kind of girl who has sex outside a relationship”… or a new voice that said, “Why not?” I was ready to have some fun that wasn’t so fraught with expectations.
For the first time ever, I had sex on a second date and outside a committed relationship.
And it was great! I had fun! I wanted to do it again!
A new side of myself was emerging – one that is willing to ask for what I want; one that is confident enough to believe that she deserves it; one that isn’t willing to entertain disrespectful behavior.
And a fascinating dynamic developed with this guy – one in which I became the leader with someone who wanted to explore and wanted some guidance. The feedback I got from him didn’t include anything about me being broken or bad in bed. In fact, he’s vocally appreciative of our time together.
When I look inside myself, I see someone who is feeling stronger, more empowered, and more womanly.
Which brings us to last week. I got a message from that long-ago boyfriend who had told me I was so terribly broken, asking if we could talk on the phone. We haven’t had a conversation in over a decade.
I have carried a huge amount of anger at him. I have been SO angry that I made him into an ogre in my mind.
But as I anticipated our phone conversation, something BIG shifted. I realized just how much I contributed to the dysfunction of that relationship. I was so convinced that I was damaged and broken that I chose a partner who continually affirmed that for me. In fact, I couldn’t have had a relationship with someone who treated me well because I didn’t believe I deserved it.
When we got on the phone, an astounding thing happened – we were able to reach back through the years and acknowledge each of our roles in that relationship and apologize to each other.
I spent most of last weekend feeling like my head had exploded. How to reconcile 12 years of believing someone is the devil incarnate with a single conversation that shows that he’s just a man who’s been dealing with his own ogres?
But it gets even more mind blowing….
The other day I got another message from him. It read in part, “…even though our sex life was super dysfunctional you were actually a very good lover because you cared, you tried and you were adventurous. Those things were important to me and so I appreciated it.”
Things aren’t always what they look like
I based my judgments of myself for the last 15 years about being a bad lover on incomplete information from an old boyfriend.
I based my judgments about my safety in sexual situations on incomplete information from my dad.
And we all know that the largest sexual organ in the body – the one that governs our ability to feel and engage and respond – is our brain. My brain was so filled with incomplete information and other useless garbage that there wasn’t room for healthy sexual encounters.
The fear of being broken and unlovable started very young and followed me through my life. No one person is the bad guy in this story – I just used everything I heard from them to confirm what I already believed.
But it was compounded by the fact that I was too scared to talk about any of it. I kept quiet so it festered.
I wish I could reach back to that 7 year old girl, and the 12 year old girl, and the 17 year old girl, and the 23 year old young woman, and all the rest and tell them – you are okay. There’s nothing wrong. You are not broken. The only thing that needs to change is what you’re thinking.
If you take away one thing from this post…
I hope it’s that no matter what your version of sexual fear/dysfunction/discomfort is, you’re not broken. You are still reliving some old messages, patterns and beliefs that you picked up somewhere along the way…but you are entirely capable of releasing them. And you will when you’re ready.
You are not alone.
We are not broken.
Men are not the enemy. Parents are not the enemy. Society and TV and magazines are not the enemy.
The only enemy is this: SILENCE.
It’s time to start talking about our sexuality. It’s time to start sharing our fears and experiences. It’s time to start supporting each other in finding our power and strength as women.
It’s time to start being proud of our sexuality – not so that we can flaunt it in everyone else’s faces, but so that we can feel proud of who we are and worthy of the love and respect we deserve.
Because we are women and we matter.
What are the sexual beliefs and behaviors that you’re hanging onto that don’t feel good? Let’s start the conversation here – head to the comments and share. It’s SO IMPORTANT for everyone to realize that you’re not alone. (For those of you who usually send emails directly to me, I encourage you to take a step out of your comfort zone and comment publicly – feel free to use a fake name.)