The thought process during an unwanted sexual encounter makes the author wonder about sexual assault, consent and sexual education

I Learned About Sexual Consent in my 40s

In all my dealings with men, I’d never had the opportunity to verbally consent. Yes, I’m a feminist. Yes, rape culture and sexual assault are a factor of life for women. I gave sexual health and awareness lectures in college. But I’d spent my sexual career communicating non-verbally with my partners and thinking that it was enough. Perhaps I’d never chosen to be with a man that I really didn’t want to be with. Maybe I’d thought that Black men weren’t as knowledgeable about consent practices, so I didn’t hold them to it. Perhaps I’d been so clear in my signals – leading a man to my bedroom, or asking him to take me to his – that I hadn’t needed any further clarification with my partners. No matter the reason, I’d always been 100% sure that I wanted to have sexual contact with men and they’d never overstepped their bounds. And there weren’t that many men on the list anyway, so I never thought much about consent.

Until I found myself still going on first dates at age 43.

Like you do, I’d met men on dating sites and through apps. Whenever I encountered someone new, I’d follow all the safety precautions: don’t give out any private information; get his full name; let someone know who you’re meeting and where you’re going in case they don’t hear from you. I followed this protocol with Jules, a man I’d met via some electronic means or another. After texting and then talking on the phone, we decided to meet at a well-populated bar close to my house.

The date was fine, as far as dates go. He was from Nigeria and had done a lot of traveling, so I thought that was interesting. He was nice enough, and funny enough, and good-looking enough for one meeting, but I really wasn’t into him like that. Plus, he’d spent a lot of time telling me how beautiful I was. To be honest, I know that I’m pretty. But I don’t need to hear it every five seconds from a near stranger to feel good about myself. I was a little turned off by that behavior, but it didn’t really matter because I wasn’t planning on seeing Jules again.

After we left the bar (at which I had to pay the whole tab because he didn’t have any cash and the bar didn’t take cards without a chip), we chatted on the sidewalk for a bit. Jules leaned in to kiss me and, though I didn’t really want him to, I assented. The whole time I was thinking, “Okay, this will be over soon and then I can get in a cab and go home.” But he wanted to go to his place to have some more drinks and talk and smoke some weed. I was pro-drinking and pro-marijuana, but anti-going to his house. Instead, I suggested that we go to my apartment. I should just have left alone, but I couldn’t see how to extricate myself from the situation. Yes, I could have said, “I think I’d better call it a night,” or something like that. But I’d never had to turn down a man in this manner, and maybe part of me didn’t know how to say “no” in a dating situation. I’d said “no” to plenty of men professionally. However, in my personal life, I was usually so fixed on getting the men I liked to like me back that I never assumed I’d need to decline.

We arrived at my place, and I went first to my roommate’s room to tell him that I’d brought my date home. My roommate was my cousin, and he understood that in saying, “My date is here with me” that I really meant, “Keep an ear out in case you need to come out and bust up something.”

As Jules rolled a blunt and I opened the beers we’d purchased on the way, I figured that we’d chat some more, smoke a little, shoot the shit and then be done with the whole endeavor. I assumed that then I’d be free to watch “How to Get Away with Murder” in peace while enjoying a nice high. So we smoked, and we drank, and we talked. And I learned that Jules had a Green Card situation that he wanted to resolve by marrying a citizen. Through my stoned condition, I laughed at him, and at myself for having gotten my first marriage proposal at 44.

Before I could enjoy my laughter, Jules came in for another kiss. I reasoned internally that I had to pay the piper, as it were, for the invitation to my house and for the weed. I don’t know why I thought about sexual currency in that moment. But I lived in the same world in which we all live, whereby a woman can still trade on her sexuality. And I knew, no matter how wrong minded it was, that a man expected certain things when he got invited into your apartment and gave you drugs. So, I reluctantly let him kiss and grope me for a few minutes.

Here’s the point where I sound like every “she asked for it” sexual assault detractor. “What do you think a man is going to do if you bring him home after a date? You must know that sex is in the offing in a situation like that. You should have pulled yourself away from him after the bar and gone home if that’s what you wanted to do.” I’d never say words like that to a friend who was assaulted, or about a rape victim being dragged through the press for her behavior. But I thought them about myself, and the thoughts troubled me.

Once Jules started mauling me on the couch and I didn’t resist, he felt more emboldened. He touched my breasts and tried to stick his hand down my pants. In my head, I said “no”. In my head, I pushed his hands away. In my head, I asked him to leave. But by that point, I was so drunk and so high that I couldn’t really muster the physical strength. However, my brain was working just fine.

I silently berated myself for drinking so much. I yelled at myself for knowing the risks of getting high and not foreseeing my predicament. After all, I’d smoked enough marijuana enough times to know that it often has a numbing effect on my limbs. Most importantly, I wracked my brain for a solution to the increasingly forward – and deceptively strong – man who’d attached himself to my person.

While he hovered over me pawing at my body, I tried to corral all the strength I had to make a move. I tried balling my fists to no avail. I tried moving my head to get away from Jules’ probing mouth so that I could voice my displeasure. Couldn’t do it. Somehow my brain floated up from my body and began to pass judgement. “You know you’re screwed, right?” it asked. “This is what you get for being stupid, and for knowing better but not doing better. Over some damn weed and a beer.” I couldn’t answer my brain because a man had his tongue down my throat and his hand in my bra, but also because I felt that my brain had accurately assessed the situation. It was my fault for not listening to myself, for letting someone else determine what I wanted. Maybe some part of me was still flattered that a man, even one that I didn’t like, was attracted enough to me to gnaw on my nipples while emitting guttural, sexual groans.

Right then, as Jules was attempting to unbutton my jeans, my faculties returned. Luckily. Fortunately. I got the strength from somewhere to push my arms against him. He ignored my movements at first, until I could move my mouth away from his and say, “No. You have to stop.” At first, he seemed bewildered. Then he moved away from me and took a sip of his beer. “That was nice,” I lied, still confused about what had happened. I didn’t think that I was assaulted because I’d only said “no” at the end. But I knew that something wrong had taken place and I asked Jules to leave. He exited with little fanfare, and I finished up the weed and the beer and went to bed.

*****

About a year later, in the same apartment, on the same couch I’d inhabited with Jules, I found myself entangled with Jay. It was after our second date, and we’d already made it clear that we were sexually attracted to each other, but that we were going to wait to have sex. However, we agreed that sexual contact was appropriate so I’d invited him over.

As had happened with Jules, Jay began to kiss me when we sat on the sofa. Unlike the situation with Jules, I’d clearly articulated to Jay that I was interested in knowing him better and in pursuing our sexual relationship. I had no doubts that having Jay at my house that night was the right thing to do, and he confirmed my beliefs with his actions.

“May I?” he asked, his fingers resting lightly on my breast. I responded “yes”, and he proceeded to touch me in earnest.

I whispered into his mouth, “I like it that you asked.” I did like it. Not just because I’d been through an unwanted sexual encounter, but also because it made me feel empowered to make a decision on my own behalf. Asking consent gives all the power to the consenter, and having that power made me feel sexier than having some random dude’s fingers poking at my lady parts.

“If we keep this up,” Jay murmured into my ear, “I’ll have to ask you if I can take off your blouse.” Which he did when the time came a few weeks later.

Jay still asked for permission almost every time. I never tired of the practice because I knew that I was with a man who appreciated how dangerous life can be as a woman. He also didn’t want to be that guy who doesn’t know or care if he assaulted a woman just to get his rocks off.

I’m not going to say that Jules knew he did anything wrong, because I can’t know what was in his head. And I also can’t say that I did anything to dissuade him from continuing sexual contact with me. But I do know that I’m going to learn to say “no” when I mean it, even though it took me until middle age to learn the lesson.

Travel in Black and White

We call ourselves Black Irish twins for a laugh because while we share the same birthday, one year apart. Aside from the fact that we could each stand to lose a few pounds, we are nothing like twins. I am an African-American New Yorker whose parents didn’t attend college; she, my best friend, comes from the WASP-iest of Connecticut country clubbers. The joke about our heritage goes over pretty well in our Manhattan haunts, but I wonder how well it will play in Iowa or Minnesota where there’s less diversity?

My friend Julie and I are taking our act on the road, planning to circumnavigate the United States and hit almost every state. Almost because there’s nothing to see in North Dakota, and nothing good ever happens in Mississippi. At least not to Black people, historically, so it’s pretty obvious why we’re going to skip it.

But racist behavior is not isolated to one state, nor is it relegated to a long-ago past. It is alive and well and living across the nation. And I’ve experienced enough racial incidents in enough places throughout the US to give me some pause about my upcoming trip.

One summer night in the late 1970’s, I awoke in the backseat of the car to find my dad driving down a long, dark country road. We were somewhere in Virginia, on a car trip that my parents and I took to South Carolina every year. In spite of the fact that my dad is from the state, he’d neglected to heed my grandmother’s warning not to speed down the interstate in Virginia. There were tales — possibly true, possibly cautionary fables — of Black motorists being stopped by police, taken away from civilization and physically abused by law enforcement.

At that moment, were following a white Virginia state trooper who had pulled my dad over on the interstate. While the officer took his time in the car, my parents discussed their options, seeing as how they’d committed no traffic infraction. They could either reason with the officer about their innocence, take an argumentative approach against the unfair interruption of our trip, or go along with whatever the state trooper wanted. They decided that obedience was their best option for getting out of the incident as quickly as possible. I became frightened since I’d never witnessed a traffic stop before. And though I wasn’t aware of typical procedure in such a situation, I felt in the pit of my stomach that something bad was about to happen.

Eventually the trooper checked my dad’s license and registration and demanded that we follow him to some undisclosed location. My dad assented. After an interminable ride down a deserted highway, my dad was taken to the sheriff’s office where he was held — for no reason other than driving while Black — for an hour and then released. With my mom and me sitting in the car, in the dark, wondering what could be happening. When the ordeal was over, my parents thanked God that all we experienced was some untimely harassment and a ticket. It could have been worse.

Granted, the racist incidents I’ve experienced in my adulthood were more along the lines of micro aggressions, but they were no less scary. Another car trip, this one with friends from college, left me similarly agitated and somewhat afraid.

We were over one week from graduation from Yale in the mid 1990’s and like many before us, we formed a caravan from New Haven to Myrtle Beach to celebrate our upcoming commencement. I rode in a car with three friends and I was the only Black person. In truth, I was the only African American in our 20-person beach rental though everyone was a close friend and classmate.

Somewhere along the second leg of our trip, we got lost. Before GPS and Google Maps it was easy to misjudge a two-lane highway for an interstate and get turned around. Out turnaround was in the bowels of South Carolina where we could barely get a radio signal and every vehicle we saw was a dusty pick-up truck. We decided to stop at the first gas station we encountered to stop for directions.

My friends and I entered the small convenience store, laughing and talking about our beach trip. We got together some snacks and sodas and put them on the counter as my friend Stella was asking for directions.

“Do you know the fastest way to get to Highway 22?” Stella inquired.

“We sure don’t,” replied the surly attendant. She was looking right at me.

“Well, can you tell us if we’re going the right way to get to Myrtle Beach?” Stella continued hopefully.

“We sure can’t,” was the attendant’s reply. Again her mean, steely gaze was directed towards me.

I wasn’t sure whether my friends understood what was happening, not having been raised to spot unnecessary hostility from non-Black people. Yet I certainly understood that I was unwelcome in the gas station establishment and so were my N-word loving friends. With no help in sight from our new friends, we paid for our refreshments and exited. We eventually made it to Myrtle Beach and our story about the gas station became a tale of country ignorance and rudeness rather than one of racism.

In retrospect, I wish I’d stood up for myself in some way, but I couldn’t have been sure the white hoods of the Klan weren’t lurking in the distance. I wondered what would’ve happened had I been with 3 Black women. Would there have been racial epithets and threats? True, if I’d been with other people in my race then we all would’ve understood the obvious racist hostility from the shopkeeper, but the incident might have ended with more than stares and rudeness.

Now, as I plan another car trip with someone outside my race, I can’t help but think that I’m in store for another series of racial microaggressions directed at me and my traveling companion. The world has changed since my last interstate drive. We’ve had a Black president and the Tea Party movement. We’ve had Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown. We’ve had Donald Trump and millions of people who want to “take America back”, presumably from that awful Black man who’s been running the country. Does that mean that travel will be worse for a white woman and a Black woman on a mission to see the Lower 48?

We’re going to Davenport, IA to visit my grad school roommate, but I’ve never been to a city that’s only 9% Black, particularly in the midst of growing racialized violence across the country. I have no idea how my presence will be taken, other than with stares and whispers. Then there’s St. Louis, likely still experiencing racial strife from the Michael Brown case in nearby Ferguson. Will they see 20 years of friendship or a social aberration when my friend and I drive down the street?

Then there’s the south, where I’ve already had what I believe to be my share of racist behavior. We have friends in Birmingham, Atlanta and Nashville. In Alabama and Georgia, all of our friends are white and those states have their share of racist thought and behavior. I can handle whatever happens there, for the most part. I’ll feel more comfortable going to Tennessee, where my at least I’ll be visiting a Black person who can share the racial climate of the city and which places will be most welcoming to an interracial group. However, the thought of driving to these places through rural racist landmines makes me want to book a flight for the southeastern portion of our voyage.

I don’t want to be a fraidy-cat, and I don’t want to be paranoid. But I do want to warn my friend about what has happened to me driving while Black. There’s no Green Guide like there was during Jim Crow to show Negro motorists which locales will be most courteous to an interracial pair. However, that doesn’t mean that we have nothing to worry about on our journey besides flat tires and running out of gas. In my history, we have to worry about being taken into the woods or getting all but thrown out of a gas station convenience store. Or maybe being dragged out of the car and hanged in a holding cell. It has happened before.

Julie knows all about racial injustice from watching it on the news. She’s appropriately outraged at Black men and teens dying for no reason, and when Black protesters get shot at and jailed while white protesters go free. But it’s one thing to see it on TV and quite another to internalize these occurrences as fear rather than experience them objectively as outrage. So on this trip, my friend will have to learn what it feels like to be a Black person. To have experienced racial hostility and had it alter your mood, your plans.

We’ll just have to plot our route through the country very carefully, like my people have been doing for years. Be mindful of strange looks and impolite behavior. Refrain from speeding. And don’t stay anywhere that just feels awkward or seems like we’re the cleanest and smartest people in the room. Blissful ignorance may be fun on a vacation, but I don’t think it will serve us on a dark road through the middle of a Red state with liberal gun laws.

I’m an Ivy League Graduate and I’m on Public Assistance

The system has no chill. I thought all of the safety net programs we have in the United States were actually supposed to help people. Well, I needed help and all I got was the run-around.

For 12 years I have been struggling with depression. Rather, I’ve known that I was struggling with depression for 12 years; I’ve actually been struggling with it since my freshman year at Yale and I basically powered through it, fairly unaware that there was a larger problem, and got my degree. Then it got worse, and I finally got an official diagnosis while getting my MBA some years later. I went to a psychiatrist for some medication and then everything was pretty groovy. For a while.

Over the course of time, my depression had gotten worse and I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It made sense to me after reading up on the disease which, of course, meant more, different kinds of medication, therapy and self-monitoring. For the most part, everything worked out. I held down marketing jobs at Fortune 100 companies. I had relationships. I handled my life and my disease pretty well. Until I couldn’t.

I had reached the point where I couldn’t manage my disease. My depression wouldn’t abate, even with medication. I could barely get out of bed and when I did, I couldn’t concentrate or stop crying long enough to do my job. I was a vice president. I needed more help. After taking off the maximum amount of time allowed under the Family and Medical Leave Act, I had to quit my job and enter the hospital two different times in two years. It was clear to me and to my medical team that I wouldn’t be able to work until my disease was under control. My therapist suggested that I apply for public assistance after I’d exhausted my savings and the funds from my 401(k).

At first I bristled. Public assistance was for welfare mothers and people who couldn’t handle their lives. I had an Ivy League education and an advanced degree. I supposed that I could have prospects, except that I couldn’t take advantage of my prospects until I could function enough to read more than a few pages before getting confused. After a lot of convincing from my social worker, I finally looked into getting SNAP benefits and temporary aid. After all, I’d paid thousands in taxes over the years and I finally needed the help made possible by my contributions.

As it turns out, temporary aid isn’t as helpful as the name suggests. Don’t get me wrong; though the quantity of assistance given to a single person isn’t enough to live on, it is really helpful when you have no other income. It’s the process that’s the least helpful part of the process, and it certainly isn’t skewed towards honesty or intellect.

The first time I applied for SNAP — the food program — I was rejected. In my depressed state, it was difficult enough to manage the online application form. But having been rejected, I had to go to the New York City Human Resources Administration office to meet a staff member in person. I took with me a lot of paperwork that showed my expenses as well as documentation that I had applied for Social Security disability due to my disease. It was the reason that I couldn’t earn income. My thinking was that if the federal government considered me disabled, then New York state ought to as well. Mistake.

The “counselor” I met with barely acknowledged me as I sat down at his desk. I was afraid to put down my documentation for fear that it would get lost in his mountain of others’ paperwork. I must have sat there for two minutes before he mumbled a few questions to me about my background. He confirmed my last 10 years of nearly continuous employment, almost incredulously. Then he conferred with his computer terminal for a while, after which he asked, “don’t you have a master’s degree?” I said that I did. My erstwhile counselor then sighed and clucked his teeth as if to say, “what a waste”. Inside I seethed. I didn’t need a man who couldn’t match his tie and his pants passing judgement on me. Didn’t he see that I was waiting on my disability settlement? That my depression and the Social Security Administration were conspiring to keep me out of work and out of money? I let out a sigh of my own and wondered how much longer I had to stay in that civil servant cubicle hell hole. I nearly cried, but was able to refrain from sobbing until I left the building.

After that first meeting, I also had to get some sort of medical exam and another interview with paperwork and groveling at two additional locations. While waiting for an appointment at one location, I overheard two women with infant children talking about the process. One had figured out how to game the system and was giving the other advice on how to get approval as efficiently as possible. Where were the other college grads in the waiting room sharing their tips with me? Statistically speaking, there should have been at least one other person available to tell me, “You can’t tell them where you went to college because they’ll think that you have no business being here.”

But I had every right to be there, in spite of how ill-equipped the public assistance process is to handle a highly educated yet temporarily disabled person. I actually did cry at one of my appointments, one where I and so many others were ushered from room to room like so many cattle for the express purpose of a two-minute meeting with a bureaucrat. My paper pusher didn’t even look at me. He asked my name, asked for my ID, asked for the required paperwork — a piece of paper given to me at another appointment in a different borough — and then sent me on my way. I was a fax machine, albeit one that had to wait with the masses for two hours before accomplishing the task at hand. The system is designed to exhaust you into giving up. I was exhausted. And clinically depressed. Cue the tears.

I’m not sure if this story has a happy ending. I finally did obtain both the food and cash benefits that I needed. Both programs were discontinued for a while because I never received notification that I needed to recertify. Of course, I had no way of knowing that I needed recertification, never having received public aid nor experiencing the recertification process. And I’m now in danger of losing my SNAP benefits because I haven’t yet received my disability award, yet another decision in a different long and arduous process. Perhaps the silver lining is that I’ll know who to call or visit should I have a problem. Though I wish I didn’t have that particular information, that I was able to maintain steady work for long enough to support myself. Until then I plan to cross my fingers, take my medications and maybe hope a Power Ball win will take me away from having to document my life for the government.

Sex and Bipolar Mania

Today is the first full day of Spring, and I may have Spring Fever.  Or maybe I’m feeling flask_Whiskey_Frisky_pink_4_1024x1024a little manic.  I could be a little depressed.  Or just frisky. I don’t really know how I feel, I only know how I’m acting these days and the times in which I’ve acted like this before haven’t turned out so well.

I’ve written about by first big manic episode involving near-anonymous sex and out-of-control feelings.  I don’t feel like that right now, but I find myself with similar desires.  I very much want to have sex.  Lots of it.  Fortunately I want to be with men that I know and like instead of random dudes from Craigslist.  Still, I feel the same edge, the same need to connect physically that I experienced during mania.  And in order to smooth that edge I’m working towards having two lovers, which I’ve never done before in my right mind, so this is uncharted and slightly scary territory.

My quest for paramours began with Matt, to whom I’m very attracted but whom I’ve only seen twice.  Lately he’s been busy with his kids, work and seeing the other women that I’m aware are on his dating roster.  Though I’d like to have a sexual relationship with him, our schedules haven’t meshed in a while so I’ve had to seek other companionship.  Enter Mike, a friend of a friend that I met a few months ago and with whom I’ve had many conversations over time.  We’d talked about going out on a date and recently I took him up on his offer, meeting for dinner and then bringing him back to my place for the rest of the night.  We had fun, and we’ll do it again, but my desire for Matt has not been slaked which means that I’ll continue to see Mike and Matt at the same time.  I just hope that I don’t utter the wrong name at a crucial point in any crucial proceedings.

So why am I stressing about a simple decision to be non-monogamous?  Because it’s uncharacteristic.  At this stage in my life, I’m usually not about the change. I like doing things the same way over and over again, even if they don’t turn out well.  Particularly in relationships.  I find the guy who’s somewhat withholding, fall in monogamous love with him, get annoyed, get hurt, do it over again.  This time things are different.  So maybe Matt is a little withholding, or at least practically unavailable if not emotionally.  We’ll get together at some point.  Even if we don’t, I have Mike around for when I get antsy and need some company.  But it’s that antsy feeling that troubles me, and perhaps racking up simultaneous lovers to occupy myself with sex isn’t the best way to deal with it.

Sex is a complicated thing, or at least it is for me. I’m probably a typical woman in that I have better, more enjoyable sex when I have some kind of attachment.  And it means more to me than the physical enjoyment of the process.  I realized that I’m one of those women who gets validation from sex.  Way back in my teenaged years I was always the “just a friend” girl.  I always figured that guys wanted to just be friends with me because there was no attraction.  As an adult I know that sex can mean many things, and I’m confident in my ability to attract a man when I want one.  Still, part of me always views sex as a way to reinforce that I’m no longer that unattractive teenager.  It makes sense that sex was my go-to activity when I was emotionally unstable, providing me an emotional boost along with an endorphin rush.

If I’m honest with myself, I probably spend more time with Mike because Matt is unavailable, and part of me likes having two men around because of a lingering sense of rejection from my youth.  And though my rational self would never admit it, some part of me is still recovering from my last breakup and craves the excitement of male attention.  When I think about all of that, I might not be having my healthiest moment.  But I’m certainly not at my least healthy or least introspective.  So, for now, I’ll hang around with these guys that I like.  Maybe I’ll be physical with both of them.  I won’t say or do anything that I’ll regret later.  And I’ll be sure to keep tabs on my feelings should they slip back into mania or depression.

Dating While Bipolar: When to Trust Your Feelings

As you may have figured, Matt and I had another date this past weekend.  Again, it was Manic_Episode-2pretty good as far as dates go – there was talking and eating and kissing, all in satisfactory amounts.  After two enjoyable evenings, I’m starting to feel things for Matt.  Happy things.  Scary things.  Years of bad dates and rejection have made me distrust my feelings in the romantic realm.  Years of therapy have made me distrust my feelings and instincts in many realms.  So what am I supposed to do now?

I haven’t admitted this aloud yet but I really like Matt, or at least I think that I could like him a lot in the future, or maybe I just like having a man pay attention to me.  I can say that I like talking to him, I like that he does volunteer work, and I like the way he looks at me when he’s going to kiss me.  He also reads this blog, which couldn’t be a bigger turn-on. Even writing that confession fills me with something akin to guilt, which is a bizarre reaction.  How can one feel guilty about positive emotions?  Apparently it is possible because right after having a warm-fuzzy about Matt I generally feel like it’s wrong for me to feel that way.

That sense of wrongness has some basis in reality, at least for a somewhat cautious lover like me.  I’m very newly seeing Matt – you wouldn’t say that we’re in a relationship – and I don’t feel like it’s in my best interest to care so soon, before I know what he wants from me.  Also, I know that he’s only been interested in casual liaisons since his marriage ended, and while I’m interested in something casual I’ve always been a dating-for-a-serious-relationship girl.  I can’t say that I’ve pictured a future with Matt and me beyond the next date, but I miss some aspects of heavy relationships, like daily phone calls.  And I even feel needy and inappropriate for feeling and admitting that.

Feeling wrong about my feelings also comes from having negative thoughts and the emotions that they engender. Years of depressive thinking have worn a negative rut into my brain, so I’ve learned not to trust my first emotional reaction.  It has taken years of therapy and some nice psychotropic drugs to get out of the negative thinking habit, but not out of the habit of second-guessing myself.  The last time that I used my therapy to solve a relationship problem, it turns out that my first instinct was right. I thought I’d done something to push away my boyfriend at the time because my behavior was pretty unsettling.  I’d gone through some emotion regulation and cognitive behavioral therapy exercises to get a more rational hold on my feelings, only to learn that the boyfriend was cheating on me.

Basically I don’t know how I feel sometimes, and I usually need some time to process my feelings until I can make sense of them.  Which probably means that I need to be less angsty about my feelings for Matt for another week or two.  And regardless of how I feel about Matt, it would be a good idea for me to keep striving toward emotional awareness. Which should be easier without a cheating boyfriend.

Dating While Bipolar : To Sex or No To Sex

As Matt and I near the day of our second date, we’ve begin to explore the layers of our Sex-Positions-Silhouettesrelationship, particularly the onset of a sexual relationship.  You might think that the time between dates number one and two is too early to bring up sex.  Like many things, I’m of two minds about this.  Matt and I have a very strong attraction for each other and agree that we anticipate a strong sexual compatibility.  Also, we’ve both been with numerous partners, he’s divorced and I got out of a serious relationship at about the same time his marriage ended.  Essentially, we’re grown and we can do whatever we want, with whomever we want, whenever we want.  But in spite of my sexual freedom and desire, pursuing a more intimate relationship has as much of an effect on my mind as my body.

My previous, and first, hospitalization was due to a manic episode that plummeted me into a deep, unsettled depression.  My mania had been undiagnosed until that point, and characterized by the typical periods of euphoria and risky behavior.  Sex was my risky behavior of choice.  I was in my mid-30s and I felt the increase in sexual appetite and empowerment that women typically experience at that age.  I was a feminist, and I knew that I didn’t need to be in a relationship to have sex.  I’d also dated a series of men who were unsatisfying in bed and I felt like I needed to go ahead and get mine!  In search carnal satisfaction I went to Craigslist, which was all we had to arrange a rendezvous in the dark days before Tinder and mobile apps.  I picked up a few guys in bars.  And I went to a few sex clubs, none of which were as appealing as I’d hoped.  I don’t quite remember how many men I slept with in those days, but I do remember feeling simultaneously out of control and woefully unsatisfied.

Once the bottom fell out of my own personal orgy and I got healthier, I decided to abstain from sex.  I knew that during my manic episode, I’d engaged in the kind of sex that wouldn’t have interested me if I’d been healthy: mostly anonymous, fairly indiscriminate and outside of any sort of relationship.  I learned that I also sought emotional fulfillment from those manic dalliances, even though I set them up specifically to avoid any kind of connection.  Avoiding sex during my recovery was my way to eliminate that tension and to possibly avoid a damaging relapse.

Now, I find myself in a somewhat similar situation. I’m recovering from a hospitalized episode, and a breakup, and in need of some physical attention. Matt and I have discussed what we want from our relationship and even though my brain and my body have given the go-ahead, my heart still sorta thinks one step into a non-committed sexual relationship will send me into relapse.  If I’m honest with myself, I can admit that I do become attached after becoming intimate, at least I have in the past.  If I’m rational, I can admit that my heart has a fair amount of fear.  It also holds the hurt of past relationships in which I got rejected after making love.  But events in my past don’t have to predict my present.

The fact that I’ve both lived and blogged through my undesirable sexual past – and the unfortunate emotional consequences – puts me ahead of where I was a few years ago, or at least I think it does. There’s a possibility that I can enjoy a sexual relationship with Matt absent a commitment.  And doing so can be enjoyable for me rather than traumatic, mainly because I’m aware of both my practical and emotional expectations. But also because I’m considering a physical endeavor with someone with whom I feel comfortable sharing my thoughts and feelings.  And at the end of the day, sharing my thoughts and feelings will yield a healthy relationship of any nature.

I guess I’ll let you all know if the sex is any good.

Dating While Bipolar: Messed Up Expectations

I’ve mentioned to you before that I hate dating.  I’m not talking about being in a relationship with someone, but public outings with someone you don’t know well which involve some manner of getting to know each other better, usually through talking.  These pre-arranged outings a deux send my heart into palpitations and are the only activities other than exercise which make my hands sweat.

expectations21So in spite of my hatred, I actually went on a date last night.  His name was Matt.  And it was pretty good.  We talked and laughed enjoyably, we ate and drank, we shared a good-night kiss and he asked for another date.  At least I believe this to be a good time as I think these things go.  I’ve gone on so few good dates in my 30 year dating history that sometimes it’s hard for me to tell.

In fact, talking to Matt last night reminded me of my dreadful romantic past.  While Matt and I recounted our histories I remembered my very first date, one where I’d asked out a boy and he’d brought along his best friend.  And my senior prom which, because I never dated in high school, I attended with a boy that – unbeknownst to me – was actually dating my friend Kate.

Not having dated in college, my first tryst after graduation included my companion getting sick in the bathroom because he tried to impress me by eating extra-hot Indian food.  He wanted to kiss me after that.  I impolitely declined.   After business school, there was the man who showed up 4 hours late and thought we should have sex on my living room floor.  Then there’s Eggbert, the guy that I think had Aspergers but who didn’t think to mention it at any point during our date.

This litany of craptastic encounters would be enough to send a fully healthy person into permanent singledom.  If you add a touch of bipolar and chronic debilitating depression, you can understand why I’ve been single for more years than not during my dating life.  My brain doesn’t process individual romantic failures as unique instances, but rather it turns them into a trend for which I am solely to blame.  It tells me over and over again that I’m not worth of love and companionship.  And it probably sabotages dates that could be good by telling me to be clingy or jealous or just plain odd.

For now, I’m going to keep taking my meds and try to turn off the voices of doubt so that I can get to know Matt better.  In the process, perhaps I can get to know myself better, the self that connects with others and can form new, healthy relationships.  Whether or not it works out, I’m sure there’ll at least be one story for the blog.

Dating While Bipolar: What I’ve Learned While Waiting for Love

So, it has been a long time since I’ve treated my readers to a glimpse inside my head.  I’ve been busy, y’all, but my busy-ness has been put to good use.

First, I’m the new Relationships and Mental Illness blogger on HealthyPlace.  Check it out every Thursday for brief pearls of wisdom from yours truly, plus a few videos if you want to see what I look like.  Having to post every week for them (and getting paid for it, thank you very much) has taken up a bit of my writing time and writing brain, but it’s for the grand cause of helping increase awareness and decrease stigma around mental illness.  I’m incredibly honored that they asked me to participate, so go on over there and have a look around.

While the Gods of Blogging and Mental Health took notice of my talents, I can’t say the same for the Gods of Getting Off the Couch and Getting a Damn Life.  After a few months of hanging around with my cat every Saturday night I decided to take charge of myself and start going out.  My new mottos are: Go Where You’re Invited and Make Your Own Fun.

When People Invite You, They Usually Want You to Show Up

Accepting all invitations was actually hard for me, since I think I have a touch of social anxiety.  When invited into a new situation, I’m generally very nervous about meeting new people and I often believe that I won’t have any fun.  But I reminded myself that my friends are pretty cool, and most of their friends are probably like-minded, and I’m not a social reject.  Also, if you show up for someone’s event, they’re generally happy to see you so there’s no cause for fearing rejection.  Over the course of a month, I went to a few new restaurants, a few birthday parties, a comedy show, a wine tasting and a couple of bars.  I spent time with my classmates, friends passing through town on business, and my cousins that I don’t get to see as often as I’d like.  I laughed a whole lot, got closer to people I didn’t know that well and rekindled friendships that had fallen by the wayside.  Challenging my comfort zone has been refreshing, and entertaining.  Sometimes it really isn’t, but I’m sort of a walking party.  At the comedy club, I heckled the acts that nobody liked and made the audience laugh.  So, basically even if an evening is a total bust – like that awful internet date I went on earlier this year – I can at least amuse myself.

Party in My Head and You’re Invited

Which brings me to making your own fun.  Single people have no business complaining about being single if they, like me, alternate their time between working and napping on the sofa with the cat.  Whether you have a mental illness or not, there’s tons of fun to be had going out with your family, friends, whomever makes you feel good instead of waiting for your mate to walk into your house and sweep you off your feet (you know it ain’t gonna happen like that, right?)  The good news is that if you plan the fun without worrying about what other people think of you, you’ll probably have a good time and others will vibe off your vibe.  Misery may love company, but happiness also likes a party and is a better host than pity.

Speaking of parties, my new roomie and I are planning one, complete with helium balloons and signature cocktails because that’s just how I roll.  My most recent foray into fun and frivolity with friends led me to a 63rd birthday for my best gay boyfriend (every girl needs one) at an unknown gay bar in midtown Manhattan.  Your average single gal approaching 40 might not want to venture forth into that space because of the lack of eligible “targets”.  In truth, I’d recently cut down on my time with my gays because I’d been concentrating on meeting a man;  how could I find a boyfriend surrounded by men who wanted to date each other?  Fair enough, but my BEING fun and going everywhere edicts were about getting out of the house NOT about desperately seeking male companionship.

Of course, I had an amazing time at the party with fun people.  I did my share of making jokes and dancing, which are two of my favorite things in the world because I can enjoy myself while encouraging fun in others.  I also met a guy that I’d like to date. Yes, he’s straight.  Which brings me to what I’ve learned during my most recent involuntary dating hiatus.

Emotion Regulation and Burgeoning Relationships

I may have just jinxed myself by using the term “burgeoning relationship”, but I’m going to use it in terms of the guy I met at the gay bar on Friday.  Actually, I met him several months ago and thought he was cute, but had no occasion to see him again until last week.  He flirted with me and laughed at my jokes.  He paid me sincere compliments; I looked at him like he was on drugs but kept dancing and telling jokes.  We hit it off famously.  Onlookers told me that it was painfully obvious that he was hitting on me.  We left the bar together and, yadda, yadda, yadda,…we were both very tired the next morning.  In a very PG-13 way, of course.  We parted amicably, not needing to exchange numbers because we have each other’s work information.  I should mention that his company works with mine, but that we don’t actually work together.  I made no declarative comments about seeing him again (CURSES!) but he did friend me on Facebook.  Isn’t that a requirement for dating these days?

Anyway, Erik – not his real name – now has an open line of communication to me and vice versa.  I made a pithy comment about breaking a lamp in my bedroom (yeah, we’re hot like that), to which he responded. I’ve also invited him to aforementioned balloon-and-signature-cocktail party.  And because Facebook is the purview of psycho stalkers and obsessive relationship rejects of all kinds, I check the event listing for my soiree at least 10 times a day to see if he’s RSVP’d.  I also check Erik’s Facebook page to see if he’s commented on anyone else’s wall or had any modicum of contact with another woman since he left me on Saturday afternoon.

Yeah, obsessive.

I may not be able to control my internal monologue about not giving away milk for free or stop kicking myself internally about not saying “we should do this again” or something like that. I can, however, control my behavior towards other people.  I WILL NOT initiate further communication with Erik because nothing I do can or will make him respond to me if he doesn’t want to.  I also cannot make him like me if he doesn’t, but I will succeed in making him think I’m ridiculous if I (publicly) cyber-stalk him.  Also, the whole “we sort of work together” issue is politically charged, since Erik’s boss is on Facebook and they follow each other.  I have the common sense to tell my boss that he’s not allowed to friend me on Facebook, Twitter or any social media vehicle other than LinkedIn;  he has graciously complied.

The work issue notwithstanding, I could easily communicate with Erik via phone, text, email or carrier pigeon since Facebook is too public.  In the past I would have done all of the above in an attempt to wrest control of the uncontrollable:  other people’s feelings and behaviors.  Now I know how pointless that is because it not only makes me look desperate, it also causes me undue stress and reinforces my control issues.  I may have said these words before, but I’ve never actually followed my own advice, so I fully expect you all to applaud my self-awareness.

This Friday, I’m going to a Halloween party.  Instead of looking around the room to see what single-looking men are there, I’m going to pour my energies into enjoying the people who invited me.  I’m going to wear a funny costume, laugh a lot and be thankful for friends who desire the pleasure of my company.  If Erik isn’t going to be one such person, I won’t put him into the big “unfriend” pile.  After all, friends are really important to a single girl.

The Friend Boy Chronicles: Wallowing in freakish misery

I’m feeling some kind of way.

All up in my feelings.

One of the characters from Golden Girls called it “magenta”.

What is this feeling?  The short answer is jealousy.  The long answer is like a Facebook relationship status:  its complicated.

Here’s what happened.  One of my classmates went on a date with a guy I used to be interested in.  Right now everyone reading this is groaning and yelling at the screen, “what do you mean USED to be?  You obviously still like him.”  And when I got that strange “magenta” feeling after learning of said date, I agreed with you.  However I’m not concerned about carrying a torch, necessarily, if that’s what it is.  I’m preoccupied with my preoccupation with actually KNOWING about a burgeoning relationship between a girlfriend and the guy formerly known as “Friend Boy”.

Watching someone I used to like get interested in someone else must be some kind of aversion therapy. It makes me feel so odd and uncomfortable that I have to keep doing it to prove a point.  Like, I don’t know, I’m a masochist and I like to wallow in my own misery?  Like feeling uneasy makes me feel alive or some shit?  Apparently it does because I find myself going out of my way to be the virtual third wheel with Friend Boy and a friend I’ll call “Class Girl”.

It so happens that I had plans to have dinner with Class Girl and some other friends the same week that she and Friend Boy were going out on their first date.  I knew something was going on because Friend Boy told me about her and I felt simultaneously empty and envious.  Empty because I believed I was over Friend Boy, and envious because…I don’t really know exactly, but it didn’t feel nice.  Cue positive self-talk:  “Friend Boy was unreliable in our friendship which showed me that he was unworthy of my romantic interest.”  “I am too wonderful a person to spend time worrying about those who are not worth my time.”  “I deserve to be with someone who wants to be with me and wants to pay attention to me.”  See, my rational mind is as much an overachiever as my intellectual mind.   But it’s very hard for me to toe the therapeutic line when I see a man I wanted to date, or used to date, being the person he never was with me.

Believe it when I say that the force is strong with my self-saboteur and she is hard to vanquish.  I’ve gotten to the point that my emotional mind has nearly been silenced, but it asserts itself most frequently when I confront my romantic shortcomings.  When I make a misstep at work, instead of crumbling amidst self-doubt, my brain effectively repeats, “What I do for a living is not what I am,” and all is well.  Not so in the face of an ex-boyfriend or – in the case of Friend Boy – an unrequited love.  My first, emotional reaction is a ping of envy and, thanks to 8 years of therapy, I acknowledge my negative feelings then accept their existence.  My second reaction is rational, the aforementioned self-talk reminding me not to wallow, and I congratulate myself for being so well-adjusted.  At this point I should disengage, walk away, get out of dangerous territory while the getting is good.  Instead, I overcompensate by getting all wrapped up in the ex-boyfriend’s love life.  In the case of Friend Boy, I ask him what he thinks of his new love interest.  I text him about her for 30 minutes as if to prove how well I’m handling my shit.  Then I start talking to Class Girl about the date like I never carried a torch for this man.  All is fine until she shows me the sweet, cute texts he sends her and I’m right in magenta territory.

So, what to do?  They say admitting you have a problem is the first step, so my name is Deltra and I’m a Picker.  That is, I pick at emotional wounds so they don’t scab over and heal.  Or, I act like they’re healed because I’m annoyed to be sitting with feelings that I can’t control.  Maybe I did harbor some hope in the back of my mind that Friend Boy would be interested in me.  Maybe every rejection by a man stings more than any other rejection (and no, I don’t have Daddy issues).  Perhaps I feel unworthy of male companionship, or ugly, or emotionally broken so much so that I’ve got to stick myself in the middle of someone else’s happiness to realize how unhappy I still am.

Wait, was that a breakthrough?  I certainly hope so, because I have no intention of stalking Class Girl’s and Friend Boy’s Facebook pages to find out how their date went.

Addiction, Mental Illness and Disrespect in American Culture

Yesterday,  Amy Winehouse died.  Her death was probably drug related since the singer suffered a long-term addiction to various substances – heroin, crack/cocaine, crystal meth and alcohol if I remember correctly.  But I’m too sad to Google it.  Not because I knew Amy and feel the grief of a lost loved one.  Rather, I’m sad about how our society views addiction and, similarly, mental illness.

courtesy of People.com

It’s very easy to criticize people from the comfort of your right mind.  Winehouse‘s death reminds us of her arrests, her bedraggled appearance, her inappropriate public behavior, and we unilaterally judge all of those things as though they’re purposeful.  American culture doesn’t accept anything other than Manifest Destiny, that people are sometimes powerless to control themselves in extenuating circumstances.  So, “it was the drugs”, or “addiction is a terrible disease” don’t really sit well with our bootstraps society.  Similarly, we don’t really understand or accept the trauma or pain that often drive people to drug use in the first place.

I’ll admit that I’m not an addict, or at least I’m not addicted to chemical substances other than the ones prescribed to me by my friendly neighborhood psychiatrist.  But I understand the pain behind the addict’s behavior, the inability to regulate difficult emotions to the point of just wanting them to go away.  I’ve met plenty of addicts in “Double Trouble” meetings, where mental illness and substance abuse intersect.  Some attendees sought out drugs and alcohol to escape abuse or poverty – tangibly horrible circumstances.  Others I met started using because their brains just couldn’t process garden-variety horribleness (yeah, I know that’s not a real word) like rejection or loneliness and needed a little something to take the edge off.

The inability to handle, to control our feelings and behavior is antithetical to living in the United States:  here we learn that effort is always rewarded with success; that tired, poor, huddled masses can attain freedom; that self-determination is the greatest of all values.  America disdains anything less than absolute self-regulation and relegates lack of self-possession as shameful and inappropriate.  The fact that we’re all really hiding something, or hiding from something for fear of being judged as “less than” feeds our obsession with watching addicts crumble.  Well, at least addicts who are famous.  Only through impersonal lens of celebrity and the external comforts it brings can we level the unbridled criticism we’d like to heap on ourselves.  We look at addicts like Winehouse and Whitney Houston and wonder how ordinary people with such extraordinary talent can fall so far so fast.  We don’t understand how people with money, comfort, careers could possibly be unhappy enough to escape from reality.  And we hold tight to a secret fear: if the material success that I want doesn’t lead to happiness, what’s going to happen to me?

Witnessing the ravages of mental illness brings out the same covert fear in people.  I don’t mean really seeing what mental illness does to a family or an individual because that’s real shit.  I mean witnessing the behaviors that mental illness engenders:  anger, social withdrawal, crying jags, self-injury, unpredictability, irritability, depression, homicide, suicide.  We judge people like Charlie Sheen, or Maia Campbell (who I’ve written about here) because their behavior doesn’t make sense to us, doesn’t square with the American Dream of fame and fortune that we think cures all.  We can’t see the internal struggle so we pass off the behavior as intentionally “bad” and dismiss the perpetrators as “crazy”.  They can’t hold their shit together, they must be weak or lazy – how very un-American.  Then the comedians, the talking heads, the social media voices jump on the bandwagon and we build a culture that holds actual, suffering humans at arm’s length.  No wonder I write this blog under a pseudonym.

So today, I’m hoping and praying for people wrestling with their demons – be they chemical or psychological or even material – to find some peace.  And for the rest of you to find some compassion.