Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Cancerous Crush

Trigger warning for a description of a sexual assault, and for discussion of rape and murder.

Captain Awkward recently posted an open thread on crushes and the concept of limerence, and it got me thinking about my past crushes; one in particular, in fact.

It's mind-boggling how different it is seeing intense crush behaviour from the inside, and from the outside.  From the inside, you are all full of the happy and the giddy and even if it's not reciprocal, you just want to do things that make your beloved happy and win yourself sweet precious time with them.  From the outside, you are being an emotionally intense jerk who is running everything through a wishful thinking translator, secretly clinging to the massively entitled belief that if you can just accumulate enough favour-sharking points then eventually the object of your devotions will Owe You Their Love.  Then, the universe will reward you for your epic loyalty by shooting your beloved through the heart with Cupid's arrow, at which point That Thing They Do that you don't really like (but without which Just One Thing they're completely perfect, or maybe two things, or perhaps three but definitely not more than that); those pesky irrelevant things will suddenly cease to be any kind of problem at all due to Mysterious True Love Reasons, and everything will be hugs and puppies at last.

The tanglement this delusionary thinking creates is unpleasant for both Crushee and Crushor in a plethora of complicated ways, some of which will momentarily be highlighted in a story of my own lived experience.

People.  They are not prizes to be awarded to the deserving.  They get to make choices; this right is pretty fucking fundamental to their humanity, in fact.  And that means they get to not choose you.  More relevant to this post, they get to not choose me; and then I get to not waste months and years of my life on pining after someone who doesn't want me, which, after all, is a definite upside, even if it doesn't feel like one at the time.  But hey, as a bonus, I also get to not become a wistful creepy asshat in the name of But Zie Is The One.  

This is a story of when I hadn't figured that out yet.  This is the story of a younger (but not so very much younger!) me who allowed a crush to blind her to reality for far too long, and of the truly awful places to which her ongoing delusions took her.

I got with this slightly older guy right at the end of sixth form, and then all my friends went away for university, so I transitioned entirely into my new boyfriend’s social circle.  Shortly after that he and I moved away to another city, and then two years later we moved back again and broke up almost immediately.  So at the point of our breakup I really didn’t have any friends of my own in my home city, and the only one of my ex’s friends I’d been close to had just gone away to travel for a year.  I went through a period of eight months or so where I was horribly depressed, and thought my inability to feel happiness meant I was still heartbroken over my ex.  I’d always had a romanticised idea of myself as a lone wolf, and such a delusion didn’t allow for the truth that I was simply incredibly lonely.

One day, I happened to bump into one of my ex’s old housemates.  This guy was very much my type physically, and he was witty and delightful with just a hint of it being partly a cover for something unhappy underneath, and I found the allure of wanting to be the person to understand him and Save Him From His Inner Darkness pretty irresistible.  By the end of our conversation I really wanted to see more of him.  I found a pretext to get his number before we parted ways and proceeded to call him most weeks to suggest we hang out at the weekend, but he hardly ever picked up, so after a few attempts to get through I would send him a text, and then try to resign myself to the probability of not getting a reply.  On the scant occasions when a reply did come, it always came last thing on a Friday afternoon, when I was his last resort for someone with whom to get the weekend started I should imagine.  I knew logically that he probably was Just Not That Into Me, and that a wise person would walk away, but I couldn’t get that idea to actually stick in my brain.  Brain kept sliding sideways into thoughts like, Maybe he’s just playing it super cool because he really likes me a lot and doesn’t want to come over all intense and scare me off.  Or, Maybe he isn’t interested yet, but if I can just get him to hang out with me some more, then surely he’ll start to sense this tangible romantic connection that’s hanging in the air like electric between us.

Pretty soon he became all I wanted to think about, all day, every day.  It felt amazing to suddenly be so soul-singing crazy happy after so long, like being on drugs.  I projected all this stuff about my own issues onto him, and then deduced that having this magical ‘insight’ into his feelings meant we were soulmates.  It didn’t occur to me that I might be fabricating a fake meaningful connection after being lonely for so long, because I still couldn’t admit to myself that I was a person who could feel lonely.

We caught a movie one weekend, and I, a dirt-poor part-time student, blew my entire allowance for the month on cinema, food, arcade machines, and a surprise marshmallow-barbecue-by-moonlight in the field out back of the movie theatre, because I wanted so badly to seem fun and cool to be around.  On the way home, he offered his hand to help me down a steep slope onto the path, and I panicked about looking like I wanted to hold his hand while simultaneously getting my feminist pride on, and I chirped ‘It’s okay, I can do it!’ and jumped down by myself.  Then I spent the rest of the walk home wondering if it was a romantic advance and I had spurned it and now he would never make another one again.  Also if I had ruined everything by being too bolshy and self-sufficient, and maybe if I had just let him be the gallant knight who was helping a delicate little princess, then that might have been the moment in which true love blossomed in his chivalrous bosom.

Not long after that, he found himself in need of a housemate, and asked me if I’d like to move in with him.  Even I knew this was only a practical and/or friendly offer, but I was still hopeful that our friendship might develop into a romance if we just spent enough time together, so I accepted. He was a daily drinker, I had always been teetotal.  I decided to let him ‘teach me to drink’ so alcohol could be A Thing We Liked To Do Together instead of An Issue On Which We Had Incompatible Values.  One night, not long after I moved in, I got drunk for the first time, and told him I worried about how much he drank because I was concerned he wouldn’t be able to be a good father to our children, and oh, by the way, that I was super in love with him and wanted us to spend our lives together.  He took my hand and said he really liked me as a friend, but, and then I didn’t hear the rest because I was lying on my front on the floor, crying my heart out into the living room carpet and trying to explain all the reasons why we should be together between sobs.

I woke up with a cracking hangover; my first ever.  Crush said to me, firmly, ‘Nothing changes,’ in a way that was supposed to be a reassurance we were still friends and could still be housemates, and I was grateful for it.  Then we acted like nothing had happened.  A couple of months later, we started getting drunk together every weekend, which quickly progressed to getting drunk and making out.  We both knew we felt differently about each other, but we pretended it was cool and I was over him and we could just make out when we were drinking (and only when we were drinking) without it meaning anything; that we were too smart and adult to get emotionally hung up about it or let it cause problems in our friendship.  On a few occasions, making out got intense enough that I felt the need to tentatively say something about running to fetch a condom because we had 'slipped' into doing things that were putting us both at risk of STIs, and at that point, he would sigh like everything was ruined and say ‘No, don’t worry about it,’ and roll over and go to sleep.

That pattern went on until he brought another friend home one night, with the clearly-voiced intention of having sex with her.  That didn’t actually happen in the end, but the violence of my jealousy was a wake-up call to what an idiot I was being, and I stopped making out with him after that.  He seemed bemused and slightly hurt by this, and continued trying to get physical with me whenever he’d had a few drinks.  I would walk away, and he would come and take my hand and try to lead me to his bedroom, and I would quietly say ‘No’ and pull out of his grip, and then go to my room, and close the door, and cry silently because he only wanted me when he was too drunk to care who he was making out with.  And still I told myself that I was happy here, that he was my best friend, and that I’d never find another place to live as good as this.

By this point, my social circle consisted of Crush, Crush’s Older Sister, and Crush’s Sister’s Boyfriend Of Eight Years.  Sister and Boyfriend started coming to visit nearly every weekend around the time when Crush gave up on me continuing to make out with him, and we would all play board games, watch TV, and get drunk together.  One winter night when we were all drinking and Crush was showing Sister something funny on the internet, Boyfriend put his hand down the back of my pants, and I was plastered enough to think this was exciting and encourage him with my body language.  I woke up the next morning feeling sick with guilt, and sick with anxiety from imagining what Crush would think of me if he found out.  I cleaned the whole house from top to bottom in secret penance, and decided to stop drinking so much, since I clearly couldn’t manage to be a decent human being while drunk.

A few weeks after that, an occasion arose where I had been drinking, because that was what we did and I didn’t want set myself apart, but I had been very careful to not get out-of-control drunk in Boyfriend’s presence because I didn’t want anything further to happen between us.  The four of us were at the house of a friend, looking after a dog while the friend was away.  Sister and Boyfriend were allocated the master bedroom, Crush was allocated the secondary bedroom to spare him from his mild dog allergy, and I was to sleep on the sofa.  When Sister went to bed and Boyfriend didn’t go with her, I got this creeping feeling that Boyfriend was waiting for Crush to go to bed too, so Boyfriend and I would be alone together.  It was past midnight and I had nowhere to go to get away from him.  I went to the kitchen, poured my drink away, chugged a pint of water to get my head as clear as possible, went back to the sofa, and tried to fall asleep.  This failed because I was alert and twitchy wondering if Boyfriend was going to try anything, and trying to decide what I should say if he did, so I ended up just lying there with my eyes closed, pretending to be asleep so he would leave me alone.

When Crush went to bed, I went right on lying still and breathing evenly.  After ten minutes or so of continuing to drink and watch TV, Boyfriend crept along to my end of the sofa and started touching me.  At first, it was over my clothes, and I hesitated to react, hoping he would get a kick out of it and then go to bed without there having to be an ugly dramatic scene.  I did not want to appear responsible for bringing conflict and problems into our social group if I could help it; I was still very much a believer in Conflict Is Evil and Drama Llamas Should Be Exiled.  I was also trying to assess what Boyfriend might do next if I ‘woke up’ and ‘caught’ him touching me sexually.  He was twice my weight in pure muscle, leaning right over my body now, pushing my top up over my breasts and breathing hard, and at last it began to dawn on me that I had no idea what this man was capable of.  I had thought him my trusted friend, someone I could rely on to have my back in a crisis, and I would have scoffed mightily at the suggestion he could do something like this, so clearly I knew nothing about what he might do; nothing.  If he were capable of a drunken sexual assault on a sleeping person, did it not follow he might also be capable of a drunken rape?  Should he choose to hold me down and jam a hand over my mouth and tell himself I obviously wanted it while he forced his way inside me, I would not be able to stop him.  And then, when he was finished and I was crying and the gears in his head started turning and he figured out what he’d just done, what might he do after that?  If alcohol were all it took for him to justify raping me, might he not then be capable of holding a cushion over my face in an intoxicated panic about the consequences?  He could drive, it was the middle of the night; he could take my body anywhere.  Probably nobody would ever know what had happened.

Thus ran my frantic thoughts.  On the one hand I was frightened that trying to fight Boyfriend off might escalate the situation into something considerably worse, and on the other I was terrified that not punching him in the face meant I was giving my consent; that not fighting back would make this a betrayal of Sister that Boyfriend and I were engaging in together.  I was scared of getting thrown out of my home and cut out of my friend group by Crush, on the charge of being a slut whore who destroyed Sister’s life by leading Boyfriend astray.  It’s hard to believe in retrospect, but this seemed like the scariest possibility of all, and in the midst of being sexually assaulted, I chose that the most important thing was to ensure that Crush’s good opinion of my character would remain intact.

I know now that being sexually assaulted was in no way my fault.  But prioritising Crush’s opinion of me over my own truth about what was happening was my mistake, mine alone; and I have paid the price for it dearly.

Boyfriend’s hand went up under my bra, and a short while later, he pushed it aside to use his mouth on me.  I continued to silently panic and pray for him to get bored.  When he unfastened the button and fly of my trousers, some line in my head got crossed – I think I would have stopped being able to tell myself it really wasn’t that big a deal, if he took events down there – so I finally murmured and shifted and pretended to slowly wake up.  Boyfriend shot back to his end of the Couch of Plausible Deniability and under his Blanket of Nothing Is Happening Here faster than I would have thought possible, and I earned the relief of realising I was at least neither going to be raped nor killed.  My panic finally connected itself with my legs then, and I scrambled off the sofa and bolted for the door.  I was afraid Boyfriend might change his mind now I was actually running away, and chase after me.  My trousers fell down to my ankles mid-flight and I had to stop and bend over to drag them back up before I could run on.  Bizarrely, I experienced a flash of worry and guilt that by bending double like that, I was making Boyfriend a deliberate sexual invitation, and that it might count against me at a potential later point if Crush and Sister were trying to work out whose fault the 'cheating' had been; but there was no sound of movement behind me and then I was up and running again and out of the room.  I pelted up the stairs and bumbled through doorways calling for Crush, who would, I was sure, be Fair and Just and Strong and would Protect Me, and maybe as a bonus his heroic rescuing of me would even Finally Bring Us Together, just so long as I got to him first and made sure he didn’t conclude it was all my fault.

When I found Crush I started crying hysterically, which was mostly genuine shock and trauma, but also part alcohol and part manipulation attempt because I desperately wanted him to believe I’d done nothing wrong, but wasn’t sure myself whether I had or not.  He jumped out of bed and took charge like a hero, cupping my shoulders in his hands and demanding to know what had happened.  I told him I’d fallen asleep on the sofa, and woke to find Boyfriend molesting me.  I said nothing about the incident I’d encouraged weeks before, or about the implicit lie of my fake sleeping state.  I knew, I think, without even being aware that I knew, how vital it would be now to appear as the pure and innocent victim in all ways; knew that the slightest blemish on my character would be pulled out from my story, highlighted, and used to dismiss me as ‘one of those dumb sluts who goes around getting herself into situations’.

Crush calmed me down.  He appeared to contemplate things for a minute.  Then he asked me if I was sure.  ‘When I woke up, my top was up here, and my trousers are still undone; of course I’m sure!’ I sobbed.

He encouraged me again to calm down, and said he believed me.  ‘Really?’ I wailed.

‘Of course I do.  You’re my friend.  I trust you completely,’ he said, with all the power of direct eye contact.  It was immensely reassuring.  He put me in his bed and said he would sort everything out.  He told me to get some sleep.  Then he and Sister, who had been woken by the commotion but didn’t yet know what was happening, went downstairs to talk to Boyfriend.  I tried to hear what they were saying, but they were speaking too quietly; I could hear voices but no words.

The next morning, it took me two hours to get out of bed.  I kept hoping Crush would come by and play the hero some more, or at least ask if I was okay and tell me what had happened so I would know what I was facing before I went downstairs, but nobody came, and eventually I had to go down and face them all together.  All three of them breezed me a ‘Good morning!’ and acted as though it was just another day, which was completely surreal, and I had neither the courage nor the fortitude to do anything but weakly go along with it, in a vacant and spaced-out sort of way.  We went out in Boyfriend’s van and spent the whole day doing things together outdoors, and when we got back to my home at Crush’s house in the evening, Sister and Boyfriend decided to stay at our place for the night.  While they made the short drive home to get blankets, I sat quietly in an armchair, a blob of tension and confusion in human form, waiting for Crush to start telling me what had happened now his family were gone.

Crush went into the kitchen and started preparing dinner.   After ten minutes or so, I made myself go out there.  I leaned on the side and said, faux-casually, my heart hammering even worse than it had been all day, ‘So... what happened last night then, when you went downstairs?’

Crush was chopping carrots, and didn’t look at me.  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘we found Boyfriend asleep.  He said nothing like that happened.  He didn’t know what you were talking about.’

‘I see,’ I said.  Neither of us said anything for several seconds, and then I crossed the kitchen and went to look out of the window.  Everything felt like a dream, like it couldn’t be real.  Then I said, ‘You believe me, though, right?’

Crush hesitated before saying, ‘I believe that you believe something happened.  Like, maybe you were having a dream, and then a tree branch banged on the window and scared you, or something, and you got confused.’

I sputtered.  ‘My trousers were – ’

He flung his knife down with a clatter, turned to face me, and demanded, ‘Well, what do you want ME to do about it?’

The hero was gone.  I went back to looking out the window, and after a moment, Crush went back to angrily chopping vegetables.  I was furious, but I was also desperate.  I couldn’t process the truth: Crush knew perfectly well that Boyfriend had violated my body in some way, but had decided to pretend to himself that Boyfriend couldn't possibly do such a thing.  This allowed him to preserve own his self-image as Crush, The Good Guy Who Is Always There For His Friends, without having to pay the admission price of actually doing the things that would make him that person.  In short, he was not my friend and he cared precious little for my well-being; but this fact, I would not accept.  I rationalised that, without actual proof of what Boyfriend had done, Crush could hardly be expected to go against eight years of family and friendship with the guy.  It was only natural that he should be suffering from torn loyalties; it wasn’t his fault he didn’t know who to believe.  I would fix that problem, I resolved with rage-fuelled determination.  I would get proof.  I would stick it to Boyfriend, for daring to make Crush not trust me.  Then, when I had proved Boyfriend’s guilt beyond refute and smashed his lying defence to pieces, Crush would believe me again and not be angry at me anymore, and he would go back to being the hero.  He would roar at Boyfriend and valiantly defend me against harm, and comfort me, and be gratifyingly sorry and furious with himself for ever doubting my word, and I would forgive him at once because of course his dilemma had been totally understandable, and it must have been so hard on him.  And the experience would strengthen our friendship, and bring us closer together.

So, after taking a few moments to beat my feelings of anger and betrayal back into their box, I replied ‘Nothing.  Don’t worry.  I’ll deal with it,’ and then turned and marched away to my bedroom to think.

There followed a Nancy Drew style entrapment, in which I cornered Boyfriend alone on his way out to work the next morning and got him to snivel and apologise while I recorded the whole thing using a small device concealed on my person.  That evening, I brought the recording to Crush, and got him to listen to it.  He stared out the window, stony-faced, while the sound of Boyfriend saying he was sorry for touching me while I’d been sleeping, that he’d been drunk, that he’d never do it again, and to please not tell Sister, filled the otherwise silent room.  Then Crush contemplated silently for a couple of seconds, before finally asking, ‘Are you going to tell Sister, then?’

‘I don’t know yet,’ I said.  Meaning, of course, that I hadn’t yet figured out which course of action would best fix my friendship with Crush.  ‘You know her better than me, do you think she would want to know?’

Crush fiddled with my recording device for a long while, turning it over and over while he thought.  At last he said, ‘I’ll have to think about it.  Leave it with me.’  Whereupon he handed me back my recording device, graced me with a curt nod as he rose, and didn’t speak another word to me for the rest of the evening.

He never showed any remorse for refuting and trivialising my sexual assault, or even asked me if I was okay.  I don’t know if he ever said anything further to Sister, or to Boyfriend.  Around me, he went directly back to acting like it never happened, which left me feeling confused and lost and as if I had no other recourse but to trust that he was handling it in the way he thought best, and to let it go and stop making problems for everyone.  I had several other recourses, of course, just none of which Crush would have approved; which ruled them out of the realms of possibility as far as I was concerned.

I get it now.  I didn't understand for a long time, but now I do.  I insisted on subscribing to my delusion of Crush as a hero, a delusion he encouraged because he rather liked to believe it himself (who wouldn't?), and it skewed my view on everything.  When I played Crush that recording, I thought I was showing Boyfriend as he truly was.  But of course, Crush already knew who Boyfriend was.  He knew, and he had pretended to himself that he didn't, and so what my recording actually did was to force Crush to confront himself as he truly was.  He was not the Dark Knight who would break down any barrier to stand fierce and strong in front of a friend in need, after all.  He was just another cowardly, wretched drudge worker on his way home from the office, choosing to avert his eyes from the stranger being mugged in Gotham City's darkest alleyway, for an easier life.  I had no idea what I was doing, sure as I was that Crush would morph directly into Batman; but oh, how he must have hated me, for backing him into the corner where his own true self waited to greet him with open arms.

Sister and Boyfriend continued to come to our house most weekends.  And I, faced with the choice between cutting loose from my only social group to find a new home with strangers and risking the awful loneliness all over again, or joining with Crush in pretending my sexual assault was a thing that didn’t matter so everything could continue as normal and I could hang on to a shred of magical thinking that one day it might still work out between Crush and me...  I opted for the latter.  I continued to live there, continued to spend my weekends playing board games and watching TV and drinking with them all like we were all still the best of friends, for another eighteen months.  I continued to wish and hope that one day, Crush might look up and suddenly see me through new eyes.

About six months after Boyfriend assaulted me, Crush met someone else and fell madly in love with her, and I was silently devastated.  On the night they had sex for the first time, he texted me from the bus they were heading home on and asked me to leave a condom on his bedside table, and I actually did, patting myself on the back for doing such a good job of Being Cool About It.  That was what was great about me; I was Cool About Stuff.  I didn’t go making waves about petty little things like my feelings towards him, or my feelings about being sexually assaulted, like some of those vapid girly-girls might.  I was mature enough to divine the difference between what was important, and what wasn’t.  And one day, Crush would stop being so shallow as to date girls he was attracted to, and he would mature enough to realise what a great and rewarding quality maturity was in a person; and then I would be there, waiting, and Being Cool with knowing that he hadn’t been ready for me until then.

Crush moved Girlfriend in, and in a few months things went pretty sour between them, and then our house became an undeniably horrible place to be because it was full of miserable people who were all silently angry with each other all the time and I finally, finally looked for and found another home.  I met someone else, someone lovely, and slowly began to recognise Crush for the douchecanoe he had been.  It was a process, and it took a long time.  I stayed friends with him for years before I finally figured out the important stuff.

Firstly, that his response to my sexual assault did not deserve either my forgiveness or my continued friendship.

And secondly, that nothing, not even proof I’ve been the victim of something heinous, can ever oblige anyone to feel more for me than they do.

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