I didn’t pick up Geneen Roth’s new memoir Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money (at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, for $3 - shop there!), about losing her life savings to Bernie Madoff, thinking I’d glean some of the most stunning insights into my sex life that I’ve ever had, but that’s exactly what happened as I tucked into this gripping tome. Roth, who’s made her name as a body image/eating disorder memoirist/expert, workshop leader and Oprah favorite, reveals not only what happened after she realized her life savings was gone but how she came to invest with Madoff and, most of all, the false beliefs she had about wealth and value and money prior to the Madoff revelations.
What struck me as I started to read was that the ways Roth approached money, I approached sex and dating and love for a long time. Like her, not consciously, but the links are so clear the book may as well have been written for me—that’s how I felt as I read, like she’d pried into this scary neediness and ass-backwardness way of going about it taking care of it. It really is true: money, food, sex, WHATEVER. If you’re not digging deeper and trying to work on yourself, none of those things will ever work, will never be as comforting as honest, true introspection and self-love.
The same ignorance, the same searching, the same neediness, the same never being satisfied. The insight was so overwhelmingly obvious I couldn’t miss its repeated spot-on application to the point that I almost felt like I was reading two books at once—the story of her money, and the parallel story of my complicated relationship with relationships. While I have mishandled my finances to an extreme degree, it’s been in an opposite way from Roth; she amassed a million dollars with her husband and invested it with Madoff, while I’ve only amassed debt for a youthful three years spent at NYU Law School without graduating, along with other money owed, but that is a topic for another day.
What I want to talk about here are the connections that leapt out at me from the pages of this book in ways that were unavoidable, unmistakable and utterly familiar. I’m sure they could just as easily apply to any of the ways we ignore our own needs and beliefs because there is a comfort in hiding, in ignorance, in fantasy. Roth’s bluff was called and in the process, so was mine. So while I’m going to be talking about what I got out of Lost and Found, I’m not trying to speak for Roth. I’m also not trying to say that I am or was a sex addict or anything pathological like that, that anyone who engages in the same behaviors I have has a problem, or anything beyond the understandings I came to about some very specific people I was involved with. I can’t dissect every one of those relationships here, but suffice it to say that, cumulatively, they were the impetus for me taking this break from sex and dating to get back to whoever I am on my own, whoever I am when I strip away that scary neediness. I’m not apologizing for my actions, simply analyzing them, and why I thought they would work, but never ever did.
Roth writes, “...I was also acting on another core and seemingly conflicting money belief: that there wasn’t—and would never be—enough. Enough love, enough money, enough rest, enough food.” I can’t even think about this without it bringing tears to my eyes because when I look back especially at the last year, at 2010, that is precisely how I behaved around affection, attention, both of which I was seeking from having sex with people who weren’t able to provide more than very momentary affection, and never in the way I truly wanted.
I am hesitant in many ways to put forth even this most personal of revelations, lest it play too easily into the idea that women want love, and men want sex. I have a book whose title pretty much says that on my bookshelf; like many of the others sitting there, it hasn’t been cracked open. I’m not saying that by definition sex per se is the problem, for me or anyone else, but that the ways I was going about looking for those things I thought were missing through my life got played out in extremely unhealthy ways and I kept repeating those patterns over and over and over again. It’s not something I can just close up in a cardboard box and seal with packing tape and ship into outer space, either. It is still very much there and especially when I deal with the people in question, who are my friends, who I still care about very much. The whole point of my writing this post is to let go of any lingering impulse I have to “blame” them for not being who I wanted. It’s not their fault or my fault, but I’d be a failure to myself if I didn’t look at how I can fix those patterns going forward. There is still that part of me that wants to measure up to some mythical standard that I didn’t when I was with this group of people (I have very individual relationships with them, but I say “group” in the sense of my collective relationship to them) so that maybe the fairy tales I’d like to think I don’t believe in but maybe secretly do will come true. That is a very hard thing to reckon with when you’d like to think you’re strong, empowered, feminist, self-sufficient, and come to realize that maybe, deep down, you are none of those things.
There was a frenzied nature to what I was doing, to who I was seeking out, to repeatedly turning to people who had explicitly made it clear they were not interested in the kind of relationship I was interested in, yet I kept returning to them for those momentary hits of a combination of attention and pseudo-intimacy. I couldn’t pause long enough to focus on any one of them because I knew that individually they had already rejected me, so I reached for as many people as I could find. Yet I also see that I sought out people who were out of my reach, perhaps in the way that Roth was willfully ignorant of what was happening with her money. I hung on to the false hope that I would suddenly measure up in the eyes of the people I’d imbued with so much power over me, and every time I actively believed they had the power to make me more than I was (and that if they didn’t want to do that or just weren’t that into me, that therefore I was, by definition, less than, much, much less than), I was denying my own role in choosing, daily, whether I was going to advance my life or stay back in the darkness.
It’s easy to want to change, but it’s hard to actually change. Very, really hard.
You have to be willing to be uncomfortable, enter the unknown, do things your ego doesn’t want to do. You have to value being true to what you glimpse as possible—to the heart of your heart—more than you want to be right or get your own way or be uncomfortable.
And then you have to act on what you discover.
I am facing a lot of uphill battles in various areas of my life, ones I’ve ignored because they were too pesky, messy, sad, frustrating, too full of self-recrimination. Instead of making even the smallest steps towards ameliorating these issues until just recently, I threw myself into being some fictional ideal of a good girlfriend, a good lover, whatever that means. I thought that if I just, say, brought the right snacks to a boy’s home, or was good at sex, or was available at the drop of a hat, or fixed the broken links on a webpage, or whatever act du jour I imagined would secure me some place as Awesome Sexy Girl, rather than sitting with and examining my reality, I would magically leap over all my problems, that they somehow wouldn’t exist, or wouldn’t be important, because I would get that importance high off of being with someone else that that rush would overcome all those other challenges, erasing them as easily as I blocked them from my mind.
It wasn’t quite as conscious as that, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since I turned the white noise of relationship drama to the lowest possible setting I’ve started to take major steps toward fixing some of these looming issues, some basic functions of Being an Adult, like setting up my home so I can have guests and finding a doctor and accountant and saying hard things to people I respect. In my mania, instead of picking up even a few of the pieces of laundry littering my home, I washed other people’s dishes. Now, there is nothing wrong with washing other people’s dishes, but looking back I see how desperate I was, how I let myself fall into a place where being left felt like the worst feeling in the world, where I was sitting refreshing my inbox when I should have been doing much more important things, my heart lighting up like a slot machine when I saw a certain name there. At the time that felt natural, and I kept returning to those same people from that same place of extreme neediness. I also assumed it was invisible, that I didn’t radiate my desperation quite as clearly as I probably did.
And even when I thought I’d purged those habits, I keep being reminded how easy to fall back into they are, how easy it is to think that if I just find that person who can see past all my neuroses, all my messes, all my flaws, they will validate me in a way I can never do myself. I also had this immense urge to fixate on the ways I thought I’d been done wrong, rather than the ways I played into the demise of those relationships. And, like Roth not absolving Madoff, I’m not saying that some of those relationships couldn’t have ended in a kinder way, but how I handled them is my and only my responsibility.
In the last two months, I’ve started taking steps toward fixing some of the holes I’ve dug for myself. I have not always made the right choices, even now, but even the fact that I’m actually sitting down with my “issues,” and trying to figure out how to tackle them is a major improvement over, um, internet-stalking someone. I still do that a little bit, which is probably natural, but part of what I’m doing in this year off is trying to figure out how to actually be friends with people who I have a complicated history with, how to move past that because for all the heartache and painful moments in the last year, I do get something out of all those friendships. I’m trying to get something actually healthy and meaningful out of them, instead of replicating those old patterns, and navigating that is not easy. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say there will always probably be at least some sexual tension between me and this group, though group makes it sound like some sort of orgy and it’s precisely the opposite. The fact that I have these really strong connections is the blessing and curse of all of this. If I didn’t have any connection it would be easy to walk away (I think) but ultimately I think I’d be losing out. Yet these are people I have to keep somewhat at a distance, and I’m not used to that. I am not very good at putting up walls and barriers with people I care about, and I’m especially not good at it when I think they have something to teach me. But if it comes down to it, and the choice becomes dropping those friendships or re-experiencing that really searing sense of rejection, I will choose the former. At least, I hope I will choose the former.
It’s an extremely slow, lonely process, on so many fronts that sometimes it feels entirely overwhelming and many nights I’ve been tempted to seek relief from that overwhelmingness in someone else’s bed. I know that that option is there, and I know too that in the moment, it would feel really fucking good. In the moment, I wouldn’t have to be the girl getting letters from tax collectors, the girl stepping over a morass of belongings, the girl with the failed book, the girl with the number on the scale that she despises. I wouldn’t have to be anything in me I don’t like in that time, and perhaps that is the crux of the problem: I don’t want that escapist kind of sex anymore, no matter how wonderful it feels in the moment, no matter what lies I might be able to whisper to myself to validate it. It feels so counterintuitive to how I’ve lived my life for the last fifteen or so years to keep turning down sex with people who are smart, kind, sexy, simply because they want only those moments, and not what comes after. Part of me, often a very big part, wants those moments too, thinks I deserve them, would rather be anywhere than at a Starbucks with R.E.M. playing on a Friday night.
I’m much more curious about what everyone else’s life looks like than what it looks like in those hollow places inside of me. It’s not pretty to face when you’ve made the same mistake over and over and thought the next time would be different, the next time you’d be deemed better/hotter/more worthy. Roth’s interviewee, Michael, says in the book, “It’s as if the muscles of my heart started to atrophy.” Whoa. I underlined that because, yes, when I was bed-hopping, boy-hopping, frantically rushing to get that fix, that high, my heart was long gone most of the time. When it was there, though, I was all in, all in in a way that was ultimately so dangerous, making me so unstable.
I’d given up on my heart, left it way, way behind, assumed that love, the big, special and beautiful kind, was for other people. I got the scraps of it, the secondhand love, the almost-but-not-quite love, and I don’t want to be someone who is content with that, who thinks so little of herself that she is ready to accept that as all she is worth, while the other ladies get the real thing. And the more I kept seeking out utterly untouchable, unreachable, unavailable people, the more I let my heart atrophy, because, like I’ve done in almost every area of my life, I set myself up to fail from the outset. There is a difference between trying and simply realizing it isn’t going to work. When I’ve done that, I’ve been able to be friends with and make peace with the people involved because I know that there is something valuable there. It just isn’t what I thought it was and could never be. I was so besotted by my own romantic visions of how I wanted people to see me that I couldn’t accept how they actually saw me. Again, I thought I just had to “work harder” at being me in order to, to grab a phrase from the zeitgeist, be winning. And since February 1st, when I decided to start my sex and dating hiatus, I’ve stopped trying to work harder on “being me” and have just been being me, which is sometimes humbling and sometimes euphoric.
I wrote the previous words, with a few slight edits, the Friday before last, but couldn’t quite finish it, and since then, a few things have changed in my life, but the work I’ve been doing on myself is something I am determined to continue, whether I’m in a relationship or not (for the record, right now I am, more on that and the abbreviated hiatus another time). I think separating how I think of myself versus how any of that group from my past thinks about me is a vital step in moving forward, in learning new ways of interacting that don’t involve that level of desperation, that don’t turn anyone in my personal life into my own wannabe Madoff savior.