[Editor’s note: Please welcome our newest contributor, Yvonne Frank!]
I got my first boyfriend when I was thirteen. Before he was my boyfriend, he was my best friend, and before he was my best friend, he had the bad luck of being the only one online during one of my many crises (my mother was in the hospital yet again, which I wasn’t numb to back then.)
I was twelve and mostly friendless – at least “IRL” – when we got to know each other. I was adapting incredibly poorly to the aftermath of my mother’s stroke, unable to open up to the rest of my family who seemed to be handling things much better than I was.
Too often in those days, online friends filled the role of a pressure valve, an instrument through which I expelled angst of both the run of the mill twelve year old variety, and the “my mother is a vegetable” variety. In reflection, I’m pretty sure I at least briefly considered falling in love with every single male who listened to me whine, even if they were twice my age.
Fortunately, the one I fell for was only three years my senior. I felt a strong sense of loyalty to him immediately; as isolated as I was, his staying up late to talk me down seemed like a grand gesture. He was my emotional crutch for the next year and a half, but I never felt like a burden because I played the same role for him. His problems were more “garden variety” than mine, but he was just as unstable. I can’t remember much of what we talked about back then, but I know that at least one of us was miserable most of the time.
It was what had brought us together, and it was what kept us together. Back then (and sometimes even now) the smallest glitch in my body’s function could make me believe I was going to die or end up just like my mother – trapped in a land between life and death, with all the faults of both and none of the benefits. He was there for me every time, convincing me that I would live to see another day. And I was there for him every time his father was especially dickish to him, every time he thought of dropping out of school, and every time some grumpy old lady called the cops on him just for skateboarding in front of her house.
By the time I was 13, I was starting to recover from what had happened to my mother. I had been left with the sense that the world was cruel and random – what else could I have gleaned from watching the 911 squad haul my mother out of our house at 4 in the morning, never to return?
And then there was the survivor’s guilt.
My mother got diabetes when she was pregnant with me, I would think. All of her health problems started then. If I hadn’t been born, she wouldn’t have had a stroke. I needed to atone for the suffering I caused; I needed to make up for the trouble my existence created.
Never mind that my mother guzzled soda, never took her blood pressure, and reacted to her glucose monitor with amusement rather than concern. In my head, it was my fault, and I needed to save the world to make up for it.
But saving the world is a lofty goal for anybody, let alone a thirteen year old with crippling anxiety. More consciously than one might think, my focus shifted from saving the world to just saving him.
By the fall of 2006, I thought I loved him. It’s normal to want to help the people you love, I would think. Of course if you love someone you want to fix their problems. And this is true, of course, but what I chose to ignore at the time was that in the end, what I really wanted was to feel useful. If I could cure him of his misanthropy, I’d be a little more worthy of being alive. At the core, it was all about me.
One night, he said he loved me.
I don’t know if it was true. At that age and that experience level, it’s easy to mistake any emotional intimacy whatsoever for true love. I said I loved him, too, and it was true in a sense. When we started talking about the particulars – “So, does this mean we’re dating?” – I said that I wanted to say yes. If he had asked, I would have said that I wanted to be with him but I couldn’t. I would have said I knew it wouldn’t work, that it wasn’t right. But he didn’t ask; he took that to mean “yes,” and I fell ass backwards into my first relationship.
We dated for about two months, during which time we only saw each other in person once. We didn’t make a good couple. He would get into moods where he “felt like being an asshole” and would pick fights over petty things, like the fact that I liked press-on nails. (This disenchanted him – I had cultivated a tired “I’m not like the Other Girls” persona, and he didn’t want to give me room to grow up and out of it.)
On its own, that could have been salvageable, but the tent posts of our relationship were rotten. As friends, we had verged on co-dependence. As a couple, our relationship was defined by it.
I realize, looking back, that I dreaded the moment when he would finally kiss me. It wasn’t just that I’d never kissed anyone before. For as long as we’d done nothing physically, it felt like nothing was really that serious. I felt like I could go back on the enormous mistake I knew I was making. But I couldn’t delay the moment for long during the one time we saw each other in person (nor did he make much effort to notice if I was comfortable.) I got my first kiss as I stared at a houseplant. My father was conveniently out of the house, visiting my mother at the nursing home. My first thought when it was over was “That’s it?”
I thought it would get better, but it didn’t. We used to talk for hours, but with that rubicon crossed, all he wanted to do was make out. We spent our weekend together shrouded in eerie silence, to the point that I actually felt lonely.
We tried to build an entire relationship from the concept that misery loves company. We were not the first or the last. Women in rom-coms say “Maybe I can fix him,” much to the eye-rolling chagrin of their wiser friends. There’s no shortage of songs that romanticize the idea of your significant other being your therapist, drug, or personal messiah – I know because I used to eat that shit up. Seriously, look up “Your Guardian Angel” by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. “I’ll be there for you through it all, even if saving you sends me to heaven?” Barf.
“Misery loves company” relationships works great for as long as both parties are miserable. When one person’s life changes for the better, or even as soon as one of them decides to stop wallowing, the other person feels left behind. The newly well-adjusted person will probably find themselves thinking, “Wow, were they always such a drag?”, too. The arrangement necessitates that you drag each other down.
That’s more or less what happened to us. I was trying to get better, and I knew I couldn’t handle how nihilistic he was, how angry he was at the world, in the long term. I tried to bail before any tremendous damage could be done. It had only been two months, how bad could it be?
Our attempts to stay friends didn’t work (do they ever?). He was heartbroken, or something like it, and we were so co-dependent that the only person he could express his pain to was me, the one who had caused it. It resulted in an endless downward spiral of angst, guilt, and anger. We chipped away at each other’s sanity like that for months, until one day he said in his own words that he was obsessed with me. When I blocked him on all of my social media accounts, it felt like a mercy killing.
I thought that was the end of everything. It wasn’t. A couple months later, at the start of freshman year, I woke up to a series of bizarre text messages from him. They detailed a troubled ten hour journey from his hometown to the house two doors down from mine. None of it made a whole lot of sense, but what was certain was this:
He had left a grocery bag of things I’d lent him in the bushes outside my house.
He had tried to kill himself at some point before or during the drive; some kind of failed potato-in-the-exhaust-pipe scheme that I still don’t fully understand.
He was asleep in the trunk of his car.
He just wanted to talk to me.
Naturally, I was freaked out. My father called the cops; our neighbors stood in their doorways, watching the spectacle unfold. It was, simply put, an enormous mess. I was certain that I had ruined his life, which put him in the same category as my mother.
And that was a burden I lived with for the next year or two. I checked his LiveJournal several times a week, terrified that he really was going to kill himself and that it would be my fault. He didn’t, thank God, and as time went on the entries seemed less miserable. I didn’t regret cutting him off – I did what I had to do for him to get over me – but with that goal apparently accomplished, it left a bad taste in my mouth to keep the radio silence going. It felt like holding a grudge.
To the amazement and disgust of my family, I got back in touch. It turned out that I didn’t ruin his life after all (although it was one hell of a rough patch, the details of which I never found out). And we’re still friends, at least on Facebook. When I reached out to him again after all that, when we were both in better places, dating other people, etc, I thought things would feel more like they used to. Maybe after all that, we really could still be friends.
It didn’t work. It was hard to even keep the conversation going, let alone enjoy it. Our exchanges were stiff and rehearsed. We couldn’t think of anything to say to one another, even with years and years of shared history; without our misery, we had nothing in common.
As for my need to make up for the damage I did to my mother, there isn’t really a simple resolution. The role I played in it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. When it does, I try to let it motivate me rather than stress me out. None of it was ever very rational – I think I just needed someone to blame. Making myself the villain made the universe seem a little less frightening and fickle, and that was what I needed then. I just wish that comfort hadn’t come at so high a cost.