The scenarios in which I felt the most like I was not allowed to own my emotions were those involving the intense crushes I developed on a few guys over the years. I can trace this issue back to the summer of 1997 when I was on my group trip to Israel with Camp Negev (not its real name) and its sister camps across North America. I had developed a huge crush on one of the counselors, Charlie (not his real name). At the time, he was only the second guy I had ever had a crush on. The first was a counselor named Jonas (also a pseudonym) from my summer camp. I was incredibly lucky that he had not only been accepting and understanding of this but also became my close friend and mentor and remained so for several years. When I met Charlie, I assumed that if I spent enough time with him the same thing would happen. So I followed him everywhere, even walking the perimeter of wherever we were staying in hopes that I would "accidentally/on purpose" run into him. Charlie tried to be nice to me-- and he was nice except for the occasional frustrated snap, after which he usually apologized-- but we sure as hell didn't become friends. The fact that I had spent so much time focusing on him instead of meeting other kids and enjoying learning about Israel eventually became a source of embarrassment to me. After I had time to reflect on that summer, I thought to myself, "Okay, obviously I don't know how to handle these types of situations. The next time I see that I am developing a crush on somebody, I will talk myself out of it."
That next time came the following summer, 1998, when I returned to Camp Negev for the C. I. T. program. As luck would have it, my crush was, once again, on yet another counselor, an Israeli named Omri (again, a fake name). We were somewhat buddy-buddy in the beginning. It began when the camp wouldn't let me work with kids because they were afraid that I might hurt them, physically and emotionally. The fact that anybody thought I was capable of doing something like that was shocking. I was hurt and had nobody to talk to. In a move that would make today's youth leaders and psychologists cringe, the executive staff essentially told me, "You made your bed. Now sleep in it." Not in those words, of course, but I wasn't given any kind of emotional support. People told me that it was my problem, one that I had brought upon myself, and that I had to solve it myself. At least, until Omri reached out to me.
My relationship with Omri began as my talking about the mistakes I had made in conducting myself in the past and knowing that I would have to grow up a bit in order to work with kids. But after a week or so we just talked about regular stuff. We laughed together and offered one another advice. Yes, I gave him advice about a couple things. It seemed like we were becoming friends. I asked him if he would eat with my family on Visitors' Day. He said, "Well, if one of my kids asks me they need to come first, but if not, I would be happy to." We had several interesting discussions in the first couple weeks, all of which ended with a big bear hug "goodnight". Omri impressed me as an intelligent, thoughtful, interesting guy-- all common denominators in my crushes, which never developed from an initial physical lust as with most people (it's called "demisexuality"-- Google it). Because I knew that this crush was inappropriate due to the age difference (I was 17 and he was 23), I realized that I had to rein myself in, just as I had promised. I set very strict boundaries for myself. I was not allowed to go out of my way to sit with Omri at meals. I was not to approach him to hang out until at night after his kids were put to bed. I was to accept that his obligation was, first and foremost, to his campers. I was proud of myself for having set these limits, and I was sure everything was going to be okay and that I could handle this situation and that Omri and I could be friends.
But it was not enough. After a couple weeks, Omri figured out that I had feelings for him and avoided me. On Visitors' Day, he had to eat with his kids and I accepted that. But in the evenings when I would come to him and ask, "Are we hanging out tonight?" he would often say he was "tired" or "busy". I promised myself that if he said those things that I would just turn around and leave, as was the mature thing to do. So that's just what I did. The mistake I made was looking back as I headed away and seeing him warmly embracing some campers and other counselors. Very few people appreciate the sheer willpower it took for me to just leave. Many have been perplexed as to why I couldn't just "let it go" or "accept it" or "give up". Do I really have to qualify that with an answer?
I will say this: even though I followed the strict rules I had set for myself, I realized that they did not work in keeping my emotions in check. I am embarrassed to admit that in the last week or so of camp I resorted to pulling the same stupid stunts I had on my Israel trip: taking late-night walks to "accidentally/on purpose" run into him-- sometimes as late as 2:30 AM-- just so I could see him and, if nothing else, claim one of his bear hugs. And in retrospect I'm sure both he and Charlie knew that I hadn't "accidentally" run into them. I couldn't help but feel great sorrow that my late night conversations with Omri that I had enjoyed during the first couple weeks were over. My racing heart and accompanying adrenaline rushes told me that I was not feeling okay about this, that this was a big deal to me. But I knew I couldn't blow up about it. I couldn't cry about it. I had to find other ways to tame my hijacked mind, especially if I wanted to work with kids second session. One night I sat alone in an office until I calmed down. Another time I took out my diary and wrote about how frustrated I was about how things were going. But my feelings still came and there was nothing I could do about them. They were there, whether or not I wanted them to be.
In the end, Omri wanted nothing to do with me. Back then I had not known about Asperger's Syndrome and just months earlier had misdiagnosed myself with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I recall on the last night of camp crying to one of my friends and saying, "Everybody else is allowed to have feelings for someone, but not me. Why? Because I am obsessive-compulsive. I have to calculate everything I do." While everyone else who liked hanging out with Omri could take it for granted that they had the right to hang out for him, for me it was a privilege that had been revoked. I was not allowed to be his friend. I did not have his permission.
After I went home the next day I drove around with Dad and told him everything. I made him promise not to tell Mom. Why? Because I knew that she would tell me that if only I were more feminine in dress and behavior I wouldn't have scared Omri off. And that is ultimately the sort of thing that did happen when I finally came out to her about having crushes-- more on that later.
In 1999 I worked at a crappy summer camp and met someone who finally reciprocated my feelings. It was with him that I got my first kiss (and a little bit more). He was from Germany, however, so our semi-relationship didn't last (we still are in touch on Facebook, however). Then in the summers of 2000 and 2001 I also had crushes on people at a different camp, this time in Michigan, that I worked at. Both of them ended negatively. Long story short, Joe (fake name), an English guy two years younger than me, was not only friendly with me in the beginning but actually my friend. Then when he figured out I had a crush on him, he canceled his plans to go to Chicago with me at the end of the summer, AFTER I had bought the Amtrak tickets (I was lucky I was able to get a refund)! Instead, he went with someone else-- to GARY INDIANA. He told me I was "fucked up" and told other people I was stalking him. As in the situation with Omri, I found myself hurting and nothing I could say or do would stop the pain.
During my years in art school, I had a crush on Doug (yes, a pseudonym), one of my teachers. I am now embarrassed about this because, as discussed in the linked blog post, he was caught in an underage sex sting on the Internet. In any case, the story is familiar. We began on friendly terms and I eventually developed a crush on him. Just like Joe, Doug eventually said nasty things to me, but much worse. He said that I would never amount to anything. He also lied to keep me out of one of his classes. He told me the class was full, but I knew better. Once again, when I tried to repress my feelings-- telling myself that I was imagining things, or that he must have had a good reason, or that it's none of my business-- my pounding heart told me that the pain would not go away.
Doug was the last crush I had had for a long time. Then, in October 2007, I reunited on Facebook with Sergio (yes, fake name), a Mexican counselor eight years older than me who had been at Camp Negev in 1995. At camp, we had been buddies. When we reunited online, we hit it off immediately. We emailed each other several times a week. We once talked on Skype for two hours. He suggested that we make a film together. We talked about meeting the next time he came to New York City, where I was then living. Once he even emailed me at work to ask if I could talk on Skype (obviously I couldn't). As time passed, I began to feel warmly towards him. I couldn't tell you exactly when it turned into a crush. I can't quantify it, so please don't ask me to do so. But I decided to send him a package for Chanukah. It was a gesture of friendship, nothing more. He told me that he looked forward to receiving it. Sergio left for a vacation in Spain, and when he came back I asked him if he'd gotten the package. He said he hadn't.
Our frequent emails suddenly stopped dead. This was before Facebook added a chat function, so I couldn't IM him and ask what was going on. However, I knew when Sergio was online because Facebook used to have a page that would show you who was online. He was constantly commenting on people's posts but he wasn't answering my emails. I kept emailing him over the course of January, 2008, to ask him if he'd received my package. No answer. None. Zero. I was angry and hurt. And no amount of talking myself down could convince me that everything was okay, not when my heart was racing like I was running a marathon. I couldn't repress this emotion at all. I couldn't deny the pain that I was in. I even asked one of my cousins, "Why does this bother me?" He said, "Because you worked hard to do something for another person and he doesn't seem to care." Well, yeah, no shit. And I realized that this was a valid emotion that I should be able to own. But for years I'd made excuses for other people, told myself I was overreacting, and told myself that I had overstepped my bounds (ie, it's MY fault).
Both of my parents (but my mother in particular) conditioned me that way. At first glance it appears that I told myself, without any prodding, to squash my feelings of hurt in terms of Omri, Joe, Doug, and the others. But I also learned this elsewhere. Whenever friends at school shunned me, Mom would blame the fallout on me and also tell me, "Relationships change." If I was upset because Jonas wouldn't write back when I sent him an email when I needed to talk (always about something I wasn't comfortable telling my parents), Mom told me that I needed to understand that he was in college and that he had a girlfriend and... take your pick. Any excuse. I shouldn't be upset about these things. Ever. Oh, and because Jonas lived hundreds of miles away, I shouldn't be focusing on him. At all. I would think that all of these things would be completely irrelevant to whether or not somebody should want to talk to you. So in the case of Omri, I took that advice when I walked away and sat in the camp office and squished my feelings. Same when Joe suddenly decided to go to the shithole that is Gary Indiana instead of to Chicago with me. I said to myself, "Well, I guess he has his reasons and I have to respect that." And actually, when Mom found out about Joe a year later, that's exactly what she said, that I should have respected his decision.
As for Doug, Mom told me that I was misinterpreting constructive criticism as nasty comments. When I knew he had lied to keep me out of the class, Mom told me that I was imagining things. When it was clear that Doug had been lying, Mom told me that I had obviously pushed him to the edge and instead of telling me point blank he didn't want me in the class he lied because he didn't want to hurt my feelings. No. I'm not stupid. He didn't give a damn about hurting my feelings. He lied to avoid the inevitable confrontation (and he did eventually let me in the class, after I called his bullshit and essentially twisted his arm). Mom also told me that I should have respected his decision to keep me out of the class. But sorry, when somebody is paying $30,000 a year to go to college, you do not lock them out of a class just because you don't like them. You bite the bullet and deal with it like an adult.
And in terms of Sergio? When weeks passed without a response about the package despite clear activity on Facebook-- and despite three weeks of gently prodding Sergio for an answer to what was a simple yes-or-no question-- I stepped out of work one day and called Dad in hysterical tears. I told him that I had a crush on Sergio and that I was embarrassed about it. Dad told me that I had nothing to be embarrassed about, that Sergio was probably just busy and that he would get back to me, that he probably just hadn't gotten the package yet. I confessed to Dad that I had done something stupid: The night before, I had reached my limit. I had felt like Sergio was fucking with me. I had sent Sergio a barrage of emails in the period of about an hour demanding why he wouldn't respond, why he was ignoring me. Then I sent him a video message via Facebook asking the same thing, and in that video I broke down crying. I then unfriended him, saying things like, "I can take a hint. You don't want to talk to me. I guess I fucked up again. The mature thing to do is unfriend you." When I woke up the next day, thinking to myself, "What the hell did I do?" I apologized and tried to refriend him. But it was too late. He ultimately blocked me and we haven't spoken since.
When I couldn't hold it in anymore and I told my mother a few days later about what had happened, she started screaming at me that I had smothered Sergio, that I couldn't differentiate between a casual acquaintance and a friend (months later I showed a therapist the emails from Sergio. She assured me that it was very clear that he had been my friend). She told me that my sending him the package was overfamiliar and inappropriate... oh wait, I should tell you what was in it. You'll never believe the stuff I sent him: A clay dog that I had made, a drawing, a DVD of camp videos, and... gasp... a T-shirt. Yes, a T-shirt. I really sent him a T-shirt. No, really, I did. And you know what it said? It said, "Brooklyn 718." No, really, it said that. I swear.
Yes, both of my parents and others told me that sending a damned T-shirt was too personal. You'd think that I had sent Sergio a jock strap by the way they reacted. Mom told me that I should have just thought, "Well, I guess it made him uncomfortable when he didn't acknowledge the package." So in other words, I guess I should have said, "Oh, fiddlesticks. I guess I fucked up. Next time I'll walk on even more eggshells and make sure I don't fuck up."
Mom also played the "relationships change" card (Relationships change in three months? Really?). In a pathetic attempt to tell me a "good lie", Mom even said that maybe Sergio cared about me so much that he was also trying to protect me from getting emotionally hurt in the long run by backing out when he did. I guess Mom forgot that this very transparent lie wouldn't work on a 27-year-old. That bad "good lie" (which perhaps she was telling herself as well as me) reminds me of this scene from a Simpsons episode:
Lisa: So there I am, being nice to Alex, and she takes all of my friends and ditches me!
Marge: I'm sure they didn't ditch you, honey. Maybe they went off to plan a surprise party for you.
My dad and my brother even commented on my weight (I was overweight at the time) and my tomboyish appearance, saying that Sergio wouldn't have reacted as he did had I looked-- and acted-- more feminine. My brother especially thought my appearance might have been what drove away Sergio. Never mind that he wasn't seeing how I looked each day in real time, just a few photos.
One woman played the Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus card, saying that I have to accept that men need more time to process things. Oh yeah, doesn't matter how the woman is feeling. She has to just suck it up and wait for the man to be ready to talk. It's always about women being nurturers and men just doing what they do. To this day I hate that book almost entirely because of that conversation. Another case where I couldn't just own my feelings. Everybody and their grandmother was coming up with some simplistic, stupid answer that I was just supposed to say, "Oh, okay" to.
The expression I kept hearing from everyone around me was, "Let it go." Let it go? Funny, when I was a kid and I would be perplexed about why girls would go ballistic if their crush didn't like them back, Mom would say, "Well you have to understand that this is a special feeling." But of course when I get the arrow in the butt it means I'm crazy and I just have to "let it go." Oh, hey, after all, I'm just obsessive, right? And obsessive feelings aren't real, are they?
One night the song "I am a Rock" by Simon and Garfunkel played relentlessly in my head. The lyrics took on an entirely new meaning for me. I ended up going to therapy, and it took me 1 1/2 years to get over Sergio. The first shrink I went to was ridiculous. I told him about how Sergio and I had talked about meeting in New York the next time he came and that I had looked forward to riding the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island with him-- we both love roller coasters. And what did he say? He said, "Don't you have other friends you can do that with?"
There was a time when I would have tried to make myself look on the bright side, that yes I do have friends who would ride the Cyclone with me. In fact, one night in 1998 when Omri and I didn't get to hang out, I thought to myself, "Well I had a really interesting discussion tonight with this other person. That's positive." But I look back and see that then I was repressing my feelings. And when my shrink asked me if I had other friends I could ride roller coasters with, I told him exactly what I thought: "I want to ride the roller coaster with Sergio." I was finally owning my feelings. I wanted to ride the goddamned Cyclone with Sergio, and I wasn't going to pretend I felt differently. Needless to say, I found a new shrink.
One thing that Mom said when this nonsense with Sergio happened was, "Why do you always fall for guys who are out of your reach?" My answer is this: It's an unfortunate coincidence (except for the one guy who I was briefly in a semi-relationship with), but she seemed to think I was doing it on purpose. She even asked me if I had ever had a crush on my best friend, Eric (not his real name). I supposed she was desperate that I have feelings for someone who lived nearby. No, I don't have a crush on Eric. I never have. It would be like having a crush on a first-degree relative. And jeez, I would think that Mom (and anybody else) would know that you can't control who you fall for.
Sergio eventually unblocked me and accepted my subsequent friend request. But he still didn't answer my emails. And when summer came and he posted a profile picture of himself standing on the train platform of what was clearly Newark Airport Station on New Jersey Transit, I was crushed. He had come to New York and hadn't bothered to contact me. I was supposed to squish those feelings. And a few months later Sergio unfriended me again. When I tried to refriend him, he blocked me again. Mercifully, I haven't had any crushes in seven years, since Sergio.
Was I stupid in terms of the way I panicked and sent Sergio the barrage of emails and that video in which I broke down crying? Yes. But he also drove me to it. And what also drove me to it was the years of accumulated bad experiences in which I couldn't own my emotions, in which every thought I had had to be repressed to keep not just me sane, but also my parents. But it didn't keep me sane. It only delayed the inevitable. I cried a lot growing up and both of my parents often chalked up my frustrated tears to overreacting and immaturity. But the repression didn't work and it sure as hell didn't make me sane. My racing heart kept telling me what I knew logically, that something was wrong and that I was hurting. Sometimes we have to cry, and sometimes we have to cry hysterically. Sometimes we have to scream and shout explitives. Sometimes we have to punch a pillow or break an expensive vase. We have to own our feelings, even if other people don't understand them. And as for the rest of you, you have to let us own these feelings. You have to accept that we have them even if they make you uncomfortable. Even if you don't know what to say, don't just tell the person to let it go. Or, if you think they should let it go, give them advice as to how instead of hoping the three magic words will make a difference.
And for crying out loud, what is so difficult about saying the following?: "You know what, I confess that I don't understand how this is making you feel, but I imagine it must be frustrating and painful." That helps a lot more than you would think.
Finally, I want to end this post with a metaphor. As I mentioned earlier, people held me to different standards in terms of how they felt I should handle crushes. The metaphor is this: Sometimes people get very hungry, and there is a giant bacon cheeseburger nearby. Most people take it for granted that they can eat the bacon cheeseburger, or at least get a whiff of it. As for me? I was expected to be on a perpetual religious fast.