I hope this post will be interesting to A and Y, who both asked me about my ex and got answers that were neither entertaining nor informative, and who both hear a lot about the ex (if you ever read this – sorry, A, I know you’re not really a romantic-relationships person either; sorry, Y, but you’re just way more experienced with relationships than me, and I come out of every rambly conversation with something new). This is both long and very personal and I can think of at least one subscriber who might not want to read it – and one other who would probably be quite interested. This post has also seen some minor addenda (more than I usually make) since it was originally published, so don’t worry if what you see in your email and what you see here are slightly different.
Last week I went for dinner with a girl from school. The term hadn’t started yet and people were still arriving on campus, catching up on each other’s summer shenanigans (oh, you went home? I went to Peru, then the UK, then Belgium, then Singapore, then Amsterdam, all while doing an internship with the United Nations and learning three foreign languages, oh no, I’m not jetlagged at all…), which was what we were doing when I mentioned – with a bit of hesitation – ‘so my ex came to visit a few days before I left…’
My dinner companion gave me a look of mixed horror and surprise. ‘Ah,’ she said, sucking the air sharply between her teeth in a sort of hiss of pity. ‘I’m sorry. Are you…you know, all right? How are you feeling?’
I didn’t really know what to say. ‘I don’t know, but I think so’, while probably the most truthful answer, seemed too negative and felt almost like an insult to what a nice time the ex and I had had together and how happy and comfortable I’d felt. So I brushed it off and started describing the museums we’d gone to instead.
I get this reaction a lot, but most of all from my own brain. At least once a week part of my mind crosses its arms, adopts a sassy pose, and asks me ‘girl, what the hell do you think you’re doing?’. I never really have a good answer. With other people, too, whenever I mention doing anything with the ex (other than pretending they don’t exist), I get either pity or skepticism – except with the people who have heard enough about the ex to know that our relationship is indeed kind of weird and very angst-ridden (for me) but also…rather enjoyable, and a genuinely close friendship. The angst usually gets me down for anywhere from half a day to two days, but then I’m all right again as long as I don’t think too hard about it. Yes, it also feels like I’m running away from my problems, but until I can figure out how to control the ‘liking people’ mechanism in either myself or others, or stop being a chicken and get over my fear of rejection, I don’t quite know what else to do. The ball isn’t in my court right now.
I’ve briefly mentioned my ex before on this blog, but now’s probably a good time to formally introduce them, because I have a couple of upcoming posts that will involve them in relation to some thoughts on relationships. They’re also a fairly important figure in my life, for both good reasons and bad, and the motivation behind much of the contemplation of relationships you’ll be seeing on the blog in the future.
So! Meet E. E is a person and a human being, my ex and my friend, also an androgyne in gender and gender expression, so I use the epicene ‘they’ to refer to them, despite the confusion it causes – ranging from ‘you were in a relationship with more than one person?! oh my god, I never thought of you as the poly type’ to ‘but it’s…ungrammatical…’ from a high school English teacher (who, touchingly, tried her best to use the correct pronoun despite the obvious internal struggle it elicited). E is very smart – interested in logic and philosophy and things I gave up pretending to understand – and, in my opinion, rather nice-looking, with a nice slope to their shoulders and a surprisingly caring smile. E introduced me to gender and (a)sexuality and love (or at least very strong affection) and heartbreak. It sounds awfully dramatic, and somewhat premature, but I’m also pretty sure that meeting them changed the course of my life. I think my parents certainly believe so.
All right, story time.
We agreed to get together at 2am one day (UTC+8 – ah, timezones) after both developing squishes and spending about a month talking about these strange new feelings without mentioning that we were actually talking about each other. It was lovely at first, very surreal, very exciting. The turning point was probably one night when E mentioned wanting to kiss me (I’d been thinking about it too, but secretly) – I felt like I’d literally been punched hard in the chest, and then I started crying. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but over the months a possible theory has formed: because of the significance that kissing holds to me, it was a ‘shit just got real’ moment. Suddenly this relationship was real. E actually liked me. I was actually in a relationship – me, whose singlehood classmates had probably taken bets on. Suddenly the feelings were – well, real-er. And so suddenly all my fears were real too.
I wasn’t straight. I wasn’t an ally any more, I just wasn’t straight. The distance and seemingly conflicting timelines also scared me – freshly 18-year-old me didn’t know that people’s lives weren’t set in stone. And all those emotions I’d ignored, had no use for, or been unaware of for 18 years? Yeahhhhhh.
Anyway, the long story short is that my emotions spiralled out of control, some underlying issues I didn’t know were there got triggered, (in retrospect) I was depressed from being NEET which made everything worse, and most importantly in some areas we had different needs and views and an inability – or refusal – to communicate. Maybe even perfect communication couldn’t have been enough to reach a compromise on those differences. Or maybe we could have worked things out, given some space apart for individually working on relationship skills and self-reflection. I don’t know and I may not ever get to know. But so we broke up.
I never want to go through that again. The days immediately before and after the breakup have been the worst days of my life so far. There have been days afterwards that came close, but those days, those days. I lose my appetite just remembering them.
I could write forever about what elapsed in between then and now. But the short version is that it took me until April to stop crying regularly, almost a whole year. By now I know better than to berate myself for being slow in getting over things, but at the time I attacked myself with a vicious hatred and belief that I was somehow malfunctioning for still crying after two months, and then four, and then six. With every month that passed my internet history would show a sudden flood of “x months since we broke up crying is it normal” searches.
(Have I mentioned that I have a thing for the stories told by browser search histories, application usage patterns and the rest of our digital lives? Because I do. I’ve drawn a couple of comics involving that, both personal and publicly shared. Back to the story.)
Upon the encouragement of a (wonderfully supportive) senior, I saw a counsellor from the mental health department at school. The first one was terrible, and I gave up on the idea of therapy for a while. In the middle of my second semester, I was cutting paper for art class and my mind went to wondering about whether the graphic description of self-harm in a book I’d recently read was actually accurate. It completely freaked me out, because I have very strong feelings against harming myself. I didn’t feel like myself at all, and I was scared and shaking and crying as I dialled the number to request a therapist. The scene is still very vivid in my mind, along with the crisp winter sunlight shining, the dry heated air, and the old dark wooden floors of my freshman year common room. (Sometimes I want to become a film-maker, so I can get these details out of my head.)
I saw the counsellor. I tried to talk about E but mostly danced around it and vented about my parents and career/economic situation instead. I knew what I had to do – stop talking and let go – but I was afraid of hearing it from someone whom I felt had the authority to make me actually do it. I managed to talk about E at one session, though. Through tears I talked a little bit about feeling ignored and unwanted and rejected, even though we were supposed to be friends. After hearing all this my counsellor leaned forward and looked me in the eye.
‘This…friendship, this relationship with E. Is this relationship fulfilling to you?’
‘No,’ I thought.
I didn’t say anything. She didn’t wait for an answer either, as we were already running late. But I think that question helped. I don’t really understand why, because I didn’t modify my behavior after that, but it did.
Around April something changed – maybe I had hit some kind of milestone mark? Perhaps heartbreak is like medicine, becoming less potent after a fixed expiry date. Whatever the case, around then, I started experimenting with mentally referring to them as my friend instead. Calling them my ex started seeming weird, like I was calling using an old childhood nickname – a remnant of a time long past. In the beginning ‘my ex’ was a way to distance myself. Saying it made it real, especially the first few times, when the word was unfamiliar and hard to get out. My ex my ex my ex. By this time I’d gotten used to it and it didn’t feel like an antagonistic word any more. I was also starting to feel a version of what I feel towards them now – which I’ll talk about in a future post – and our friendship was starting to sputter back to life, and it felt like saying ‘friend’ would help with that.
Before leaving school for the summer I sent them a very long document, collated over the course of the entire semester, a document full of confessions and built-up anger and hidden pain – all those triggers that had me sobbing into my pillow at the start of the semester, they were there. But part of it contained hope, as well, hope about getting back together and hope for a more emotionally open relationship. I was very excited about sending it.
I read their reply in a hotel lobby in Shanghai. It addressed most of the hurt and anger and also utterly crushed my hopes. I cried bitterly for a few days. But then travel with my schoolmates took over. Don’t think about E. Don’t think about E. I turned their words over in my mind sometimes and would cry a little again. I decided not to talk to them for the rest of the summer. If we didn’t talk, I wouldn’t be able to hope, and they wouldn’t be able to hurt me more. I started using ‘ex’ again. This resolution didn’t last that long – my resolve broke and I sent them something about asexuality and we started talking again and here I am writing about them.
E and I still talk a lot. We follow each other on blogging and art websites, where they stay clear of my personal vent posts, which are 99% frustration about our relationship and me being annoyed at my own fear and analysis paralysis. We hadn’t Skyped since we broke up, but we had a brief video call for a while the week before they visited, in which I mostly smiled and stammered and said stupid-sounding things. (I’ve been trying to ask about another video chat sometime, but I’ve let off chasing for that.) We talk about what we’ve been up to and our favorite characters in The Order of the Stick. We’re finally friends again, good friends, and it’s nice. Recently we’ve been able to talk a bit about communication styles and are working towards being more open about our feelings and needs, which I got overly excited about. Sometimes it all feels like a relationship, except it’s missing a few critical pieces, and I have some feelings about that but haven’t thought too much about it. But I want to talk about that at some point, when I’ve figured things out a bit better. Not right now, but given a bit more time I trust that I will feel confident enough to put that on the table. It’s nice to feel confident about your relationships, to know that they will (most likely) be able to go through challenges and come out intact.
It doesn’t feel entirely right to call E my ‘friend’. E is not my friend – well, not only my friend. I don’t think we can ever go back to that point again. I can’t, at least, not after being this deeply emotionally invested. (I think they did, after a while.) I don’t feel this way about friends or think about them this much; I don’t get this upset when my affections aren’t returned, or this happy just from looking at their faces. I can come very close, but this is just slightly, slightly more.
But when I refer to E as my ex nowadays it’s more matter-of-fact than anything. A piece of advice I saw echoed from one relationship advice site to the next was that ‘the opposite of love isn’t hate – it’s apathy’. The assumption is that if you’re still referring to your ex as your ‘ex’, you’re still not past the negative emotions, and there are a few unfortunate friends who bear the brunt of my angst (THANK YOU to J, A, Y and Alex) who will tell you that this is true for me – and just reading through this post should have given you a good idea of how tangled up my feelings still are. That’s why I feel hesitant about using the word, because I have feelings about E, but they’re not all bad. More importantly, ‘ex’ seems to put unnecessary emphasis on how you once were together, as though your entire relationship is defined by those few months you spent writing love letters to each other. But ‘friend’ doesn’t feel right either, so I still use it.
That’s the part that is weird, that I still feel odd about – E is my friend. I genuinely see E as my friend. But E is also a romantic interest, though whether that’s actually true in all cases, to what degree it’s true and so on, I’ve become a bit unclear about.
Anyway, this whole post feels a bit like I’m revelling in being an idiot. I often feel guilty about how significant E still is in my life, both platonically and romantically. I sometimes feel pressured to cut off the relationship because every piece of advice on the internet says that it’s not supposed to exist. Because continuing to talk to them is a sign of weakness, that I haven’t fully moved on, no ‘survived a breakup’ trophy for you yet! Ever since meeting up, I’ve also been feeling very (more) conflicted about my emotions, and whether or not I should act on them. I still don’t know what to do; I feel a bit pressured to stop talking again. I’m trapped between a rock and a hard place but not really sure where I am on the map either, so right now I’ve decided that I’m not doing anything. Time will tell.
It’s been somewhat cathartic (but intense) writing about all this as though it’s history – although it’s not, of course. I will add though, for concerned parties*, that writing this has felt more like an exercise in wordsmithing than anything particularly negative or painful. I like words. I especially like writing stories about people – which includes myself – and the relationships between them. Writing this was fun. Really.
The phrase I use most about my relationship with E nowadays is ‘I don’t know’ (or in vent posts, ‘aaaaaaaaaargh’), so: I don’t know where this is going to go. I hope it goes well. I feel optimistic that it will go well, one way or another. But maybe my fears will come true and this is all going to explode in my face. And this blog might become a fallout shelter. I’ll let you know if that happens.
...hope springs eternal in the human breast. Sometimes I wish I could stop it.
* Someone emailed me after the first version of this was posted with a few very kind words about my situation. Thank you.