The Sour and the Sweet

the ever-evolving blog of Sandra Vahtel

use your words

I’ve mentioned before my penchant for unavailable dudes, but I’d never have imagined that dating one would drive me to therapy. Yet here I am. Therapy, side note, is wonderful, and I recommend that everyone try it at least once in their lives. There might not seem to be any real benefit to having an impartial ear listen as you work through your problems, but somehow, it helps.

Though that guy’s come and gone from my life, the issues have lingered, chief among them being why did that ever seem like a good idea? But, there’s more. It’s tempting to just blame these men for being wishy-washy, for not having their shit together, for all their addictions. But after several months on this merry-go-round, I knew it was time to look at the common denominator in each of these situations—me. My self-sabotaging behaviors, the barriers to intimacy I erect, all the ways in which I’m unavailable.

What a bore.

In the handful of weeks my therapist and I have seen each other, an issue that keeps floating to the surface is the difficulty I have in giving voice to my needs and wants. I am astoundingly bad at this. So bad, that half the time I’m not even consciously aware of my needs and wants. Don’t get me wrong, they’re there, I have them, they just tend to get expressed by way of everyone’s favorite communication style—passive aggression. On top of all that, the thought of stating my needs and wants to another human being (“asserting yourself” is what my therapist optimistically calls it), fills me with such dread; even writing these words makes me anxious. To me, it feels downright confrontational, and I am nothing if not conflict-averse.

This personality quirk is especially detrimental in the realm of dating. “I’m looking for someone who’s bad at communication and has a hard time telling me what they need,” said no one’s online dating profile ever. I’ve long-adopted a go-with-the-flow attitude, even seen it as desirable, but my therapist (again with him) says that it’s actually through asserting ones needs and wants that a relationship is deepened and strengthened. After all, what better way to reveal yourself to someone than by telling them what you need or want? Well shit. The very thing that feels most safe is what’s standing in the way of achieving what I want most, which is real emotional intimacy. But opening myself up is the antithesis of what feels comfortable. Not rocking the boat feels comfortable. There’s a reason they call it smooth sailing.

But in sublimating my own needs and wants, not only do I deny myself those things, in the process I deny others true knowledge of who I am; a true exchange of trust.

I took the Enneagram test last week and discovered that I’m a Type Nine—no great surprise. According to the results, Nines are “dreamers” who crave harmony but abhor confrontation; we’re prone to living in idealized fantasy worlds where problems get swept under the rug; we’re bad at asserting ourselves. In other words, mindfulness is hard for us.

Mindfulness is a word my nutritionist liked to trot out all the time. The ultimate in in-the-moment living, it’s having awareness of your needs and wants at any given point and choosing to do the thing you truly want to do. No, I don’t actually want that fourth drink, because I’d rather not be hungover tomorrow; I will skip eating that second cookie because I don’t want to deal with looking at the number on that scale. I understand the concept of mindfulness, but I’d grouse about the practice—to keep my true best intentions at the forefront of my mind seemed a Sisyphean feat. After all, how do you be your own best advocate when living in the conscious present is so difficult?

Tests like the Enneagram have their limits, sure, but on some level I was glad to see that I wasn’t alone with what I have always consider to be the worst parts of myself. It’s a comfort to realize it’s just my personality and these traits exist on a continuum, becoming more or less dominant over time. Still, it’s scary to think that doing the thing that feels most counterintuitive is exactly the thing that will get me out of the situation I’m in. I want to be known, I want intimacy, but that means being able to have to courage to assert myself.

I am now very aware of when and how I do this, because I think about it for at least an hour every week, if not more. I’ve come to realize that this is one of the great challenges of my life, just like losing weight was a challenge. And just like losing weight, I have a great coach this time around.

Changing this habit will not be a magic bullet; it won’t make everything better. But I do feel like a more fulfilling life awaits on the other side. And I have been trying, a little bit, but everyday, I still miss opportunities to say what I really want to say, and everyday I feel uncomfortable and anxious (my therapist likes to call this “growth”). It feels unnatural; I was not brought up to assert myself. I grew up in a house where problems were covered over with humor, or silence, and were hardly ever addressed full-on. In finally understanding what a negative impact this silence is having on my life though, it makes perpetuating it unsustainable.

In AA, they say that admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery. In the same way, I feel that this awareness is a starting point. It reminds me of when I struggled with health anxiety and realized that in order to get over it, I was going to have to stop googling my symptoms and not run to the doctor every other day. It terrified me, because it felt like letting go of control, but even through my fear, I saw that unless I started doing it, I was going to keep myself stuck in the same pattern. So too now, I’ve identified the problem, and now I must act, or at least try.

It’s OK, or things I’ve learned about dating

When people ask why I’m online dating; what was the impetus, my answer is usually that, since I hadn’t done it much in my 20s, it seemed like the easiest way to get some experience under my belt. Dating was a facet of normal adult life that existed as little more than a hypothetical to me. I had no real idea how best to go about it, since, in the past, every time a potential new relationship ended, I retreated, not wanting to get hurt again. I didn’t know the answers to such questions as, “what do I want from a relationship; with what kinds of men am I compatible?” These were mysteries, and wanting to solve them was a big part of why I set up that online account in the first place. I’ve been doing this a little over six months now, and while my “experiment” has yet to yield much relational fruit, I keep reminding myself that I did this for practice’s sake, not to necessarily find the love of my life (though, how honest am I really being about that?).

So, after approximately 42 dates with 20 men, what have I learned, exactly?

Well, it’s OK to want things for starters; to want a relationship and to hold out for a guy I actually like. It’s OK to reject the idea that an unsatisfying relationship is better than nothing—reject that mindset like Satan! Sure I’ve met guys I’ve liked, but unfortunately they’ve all had other ideas. That’s a more advanced topic, I suppose—getting one you like to actually stick around (soon come, child; soon come)

I’ve learned that my instincts are intact. That doesn’t mean, “be afraid he’s going to shove you into the back a van and kidnap you.” What I mean is, when my instincts tell me he isn’t what I’m looking for, they’re generally right. It’s OK to cut my loses and move on. It’s OK to not engage in mental gymnastics just to convince myself that some guy’s “xyz” quality is so great, especially when I’m certain I’m not feeling it.

When I first started dating, and to some extent now, I felt like I needed to give every guy a chance and then another chance and then maybe even one more, even if I was sure there was no point. That’s not to say I expect them to look a certain way or make a certain amount of money or even that we need a certain amount of chemistry—far from it. Some of the best guys I’ve dated were ones where there wasn’t an immediate spark; that can take a while to develop.

However, I began to realize that I could trust my instincts in situations where I knew, deep down, that things weren’t going to work out. There’s no reason to keep giving second chances if I don’t want to. Looking back, I see that oftentimes, my gut told me right away—usually when I was back at home after a first date, putting my clothes away and getting ready for bed—whether or not we’d see each other again. I’ve hardly been wrong yet, and the times I went against that instinct, the results have been emotionally disastrous.

It’s OK to want and need certain things from the men I date. It’s OK to say no to a guy even if he likes me, especially if the list of things I object to are as long as my arm. I like it when a guy pursues, I feel more comfortable knowing where I stand and when I don’t have to play guessing games or interpret those dreaded mixed signals.

At first I thought it’d be nice to find someone like that, but now that I’ve dated a couple of them, I won’t deal with a man who can’t provide clarity. When it comes to Mr. Clear as Swampwater—as cute as I find him, how good a match, or how well we get along, it’s just not worth the struggle. I value my sanity too much to sink precious mental energy into worrying what he might be thinking about me.

This has been the hardest thing for me to fully grasp, but if the man isn’t calling/emailing/texting/setting up plans for the next date, in the words of Adele Dazeem, I need to let it go. I would have saved myself from three distinct instances of disappointment/heartache had I followed that edict, but each time, when a guy I liked was slow to pick up the ball, I’d try to do it, and it hasn’t worked out yet.

That’s good, right? Coming to that realization? Being to willing to let things go means that I’ve also learned to keep my expectations low, like bargain-basement low. Should it be this way? I dunno; I dunno much about 21st century dating rituals (as I’ve made clear), but I’ve found it’s easier to not hold onto these things until it’s made explicitly clear that the guy is A) interested and B) interested in more than getting in my pants. At this point, I don’t expect to hear from a guy again, even if we had what I thought was a great first, second, or even third date. I’ve gone out with guys where the chemistry is instant and intense; perhaps there’s some furtive making out, or bold declarations of interest on his part, that are only to be followed up by radio silence. In light of that maneuver (to be fair, I’ve done it, too), it’s definitely OK to remain skeptical, to keep my emotions in check. No more getting ahead of myself.

By and large, dating’s been, if not necessarily a barrel of monkeys, then definitely interesting. Perhaps it’s telling that I decided to give it a whirl right as I was getting into a book my nutritionist recommended about learning how to curb self-sabotaging behaviors—it’s funny when you see yourself repeating patterns.

What will the next 20 men bring to the table? Oh, dear God I hope there are not that many more; but probably more of the same, and hopefully a little something different, too.

scrapes and bruises

I’ve been online dating since October; dipping my toe into the pool, so to speak. Since then, I’ve gone on more dates with more men than all my previous dates combined. That’s not a brag, it’s just fact—the pool is deep and the pool is wide. Some dates have been good. Some … less than good. But most of them played out in a series of awkward, stuttering starts and stops. Not one transitioned into anything remotely approaching comfortable exclusivity, until one did.

Or almost did.

Until it didn’t. Until it stopped. Suddenly; without warning.

I felt like Wile E Coyote in an old Warner Bros. cartoon, running so assuredly that I’d failed to notice I’d run off a cliff and was now simply treading air.

In the time we’d dated, I’d become quite accident prone. I stumbled twice hiking; took a rather Buster Keaton-esque tumble, rear-end first, into the bathtub; tripped over the corner of a box of bottled water at 7-11, and just last week fell while out for a walk in the neighborhood. That last one hurt, a lot, my knee opened up and bleeding after its run-in with the concrete, my jogging pants looking like I’d stolen them from the middle of a crime scene. It had been so out of character for me, so abnormal; I hardly ever fall down. I’d begun to wonder if it was some kind of sign, a thought I shoved to the back of my mind, until my phone rang.

And then there was one last inevitable fall.

How do you so quickly go from the top of someone’s A-list to the bottom of their D-list? Romantic relationships are the only ones on Earth that function this way and it’s jarring. One day someone’s a normal presence in your life and the next, your cell phone sits silent on the nightstand, refusing to buzz.

To say I feel heartbroken is not quite right. After all, we were only involved for six weeks, and that, in the grand scheme of things, is not so long. Even so, the hurt is palpable, the loss real. Heart-bruised sounds a bit better; maybe heart-scraped. It was a fall, but not from a height that shatters.

In an attempt to, I don’t know, feel better? Distract myself? I thought I’d take my dating experience thus far and turn it into some kind of art project. Those seem to be de rigueur amongst a certain set of artistic types; a way to differentiate my pain from the ordinary pain of everyone else. They also seem to be the jumping off point for blogs and book deals and appearances on The Today Show, so I thought, “here’s my chance.”

dates

My plan was to harness the power of Google Maps and literally pinpoint the location(s) of every date I’d gone on since October—my dating life, visualized. I spent a fevered afternoon at a nearby coffee shop, color coating each set of points to correspond to each man; eleven different shades in total, meticulously plotting out a first kiss here and a final goodbye there. Later, at home, I started to fill in the details of each point—number of drinks consumed,  conversation topics, fashion choices—but then something happened.

Or more accurately, nothing happened. I didn’t feel good, I definitely did not feel empowered. It wasn’t catharsis through art. There was no taking of the brokenness and using the pieces to make a beautiful mosaic. Instead, I felt worse; I felt pathetic; my only realization being that I have an apparent affinity for making out in the back seats of cars.

So I stopped and put it away. Maybe later, maybe one day, when all of this is not so fresh …

It’s been a week since that phone call, and while I’ve pretty much stopped crying and the tightness in gone—the squeezing in the center of my chest cavity that feels like something between suffocating and vomiting, I still feel sad. And I’m not sure over what, exactly. Lamenting the loss of relationship, yes, but it’s more than that. I can’t adequately point to my sorrow and say, “this is why I’m sad,” not like pulling up my pant leg and giving you the origin story of this peeling scab or that yellowing bruise. Somehow this pain defies definition or easy categorization, and that’s where I have to stop right now. Yes, I could try and extrapolate meaning and significance from what I’m feeling, but it’s not time yet.

And Yet

This month I officially got to the 40-pound mark on my “weight loss journey.” I only have 25 left to go to reach my goal weight. I can no longer be categorized as obese; I fit into size 10 pants. All of this is great; or it should be, anyway. And yet …

And yet, when I look at my body in the mirror, I see a smaller frame, but many of the same “problems” exist. My stomach refuses to flatten. My thighs are still dimpled. My arms. Don’t even get me started on my arms. I would think that after losing 40 pounds I would at least begin to have a body that would be considered “nice looking,” yet I look like a woman twice my age from the neck down. This is what happen, I suppose, when you’ve been so heavy for so long. So all the effort I’ve put in since October feels like a lot of nothing, truly.

I’m mad about this. Disappointed. Pissed. Yes, blah, blah, blah, health, I know. My fitness and cardiovascular stamina is unlike it’s ever been. I’m sure my health markers—blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol—are all much improved; not that they bad to begin with. But to be completely honest, I didn’t contact my nutritionist last fall because I felt the sudden desire to gain control of my health. Not quite. I felt like my weight was out of control and I needed to find a way to stop it so I wouldn’t get any fatter. This was my way of yanking the emergency brake.

~

One of my biggest fears is the thought of any man seeing me naked. My assumption is that when they eventually catch a glimpse, they’re going to cringe, they’re going to be disappointed, they’re going to leave. This shades my interaction with men. Even if I’m not doing in consciously, I’m always aware that I can’t let things get out of hand, because, you know, eventual nakedness. When your body’s been the punchline of many a joke, it’s hard to believe that anyone could ever take serious delight in it. What I see in the mirror today certainly doesn’t help dispel that fear. Sure, there are men who have wanted to get physical, but each came with a distinct whiff of fetishism, and I’m not talking about those kinds of men. I’m talking about someone who will love my body and embrace it fully, complete with all its imperfections; the dimples, the curves, the folds. That man surely does not exist, is what my fears tell me.

I spent several days lurking around in this head space; a dark place, let me tell you; until this week. Last Sunday at church, Joseph asked the congregation to think about those things in our lives that we feel like we just can’t live with out, whether through loss or because we never attain them in the first place. My mind went to my career and my relationships, and I thought, “no, I don’t struggle with that mentality, at least right now, anyway.” It wasn’t until Monday that it dawned on me what my “just can’t live without it” thing is—it’s my body, or rather the image of that “perfect” or “good enough” body that I’ve carted around with me for so long. I’ve lived with a desire to be thin, to have a “nice” body, or even a “normal-looking” body for years, as soon as I was aware of the difference between my body and everyone else’s.

For a long, long time, that desire existed purely as fantasy; going through several stages of weight loss this past decade was an attempt to turn that fantasy into a reality. Now, on the precipice of actually meeting my goals, I’m realizing that it could very well remain a fantasy. This is unfair, sure,  and that I need to let it go. When I lose those last 25 pounds, I’ll be in the “normal” weight range, but I know that I will still have a body that’s far less than perfect, far from good.

~

Now, it’s a hard sell in 21st century Los Angeles to be happily content with a fat body. No one thinks losing weight is a bad idea; even Christians think it’s good and virtuous (Self control is a fruit of the spirit! Your body is a temple!). You wouldn’t believe the amount of compliments I’ve gotten these last nine months—and they’re never because of how healthy I look, they’re always about how (relatively) tiny I’ve become. And yet, the smaller I get the worse I feel about myself, paradoxically.

Then this thought occurred to me; maybe I’m meant to be large. Whoa, I almost needed to sit down for that one. The moment that thought crossed my mind, it felt like the low ceiling that I’d been crouching under suddenly lifted. Maybe constantly holding my size at arm’s length, pretending like it’s not my reality, trying desperately to make it go away, seeing it only as an extremely negative thing, is denying a part of myself that’s truly a good part. Then I realized that all my empathy and my sense of justice comes from being overweight. I know how vain and arrogant I can be to begin with; if I fit into the current socially-accepted definition of “hot,” I’d be completely insufferable. I’d be a straight-up bitch. Now that’s a paradigm shift.

I’m not advocating that I gain back a bunch of the weight that I’ve lost. But I do think it’s important to come to terms with the fact that just because my body is imperfect, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s a part of me, it’s what makes me unique. It can actually be a strength when all I consider it is a weakness. I should take care of it, yes, but I don’t need to deny what it is, wrestle with it, fret over it, be harshly critical towards it, or keep trying to desperately turn it into something it will never be. Phew. Even typing that feels like a sigh of relief.

~

And the man thing? To quote Mad Men and paraphrase Balzac, “our worst fears lie in anticipation.” Despite my strong belief to the contrary, I know that God would love to totally surprise me with a husband who will absolutely delight in every square-inch of my imperfect, life-ravaged body.

Not to sound twee or anything …

Recently, I’ve been trying to figure out what percentage of current, working writers have online presences (it’s high) and in my research I found Jami Attenburg’s tumblr and as I read it, I started to feel these stirrings within. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been laid up sick for the last three days—days I was so enthusiastically looking forward to use in the advancement my fifth and (hopefully final) draft—or what, but sitting here, looking at photos of book tours and jacket covers, it dawned on me that that’s what I want; like really, really want. Maybe it’s the sickness talking, in crazy fever dreams, but I have never had a clearer picture of my desired future before.

I want to pull the trigger and finally get this book done. I want to find a literary agent and then an enthusiastic publisher. I want to see my book on the shelves of bookstores and leave little notes inside. I want to go on a reading tour. And then I want an advance so I can do it all again.

And I’m not sure if it’s going to happen with this novel, or three novels from now, but I do know that I’m too far in to just stop and back out now. I’ve invested too much time, gone into too much debt, spent too many months on unemployment just to shrug my shoulders and say “meh” now.

Here is praying I’ll feel better enough tomorrow to get back on this horse.

Oregon Field Guide

I know what I just said about Los Angeles, but being in Oregon for three weeks reminded me just how nice it is to step out of the big city from time to time.

My roommate and travel-mate, Noemi, had never been to Oregon before, which is rather strange given her predilection for camping and hiking and the outdoors. She’s a curious sort, so while I might have chosen to sit in front of the television all day on my own, together we explored the northern half of the state, having adventures I’d never had as a young girl growing up in the area.

Herewith, I give you a visual tour of our trip; mostly pictures of plants and rocks and water (there’s a lot of that going on in Oregon).

on hitting milestones

Milestone one, it’s my birthday. I guess that’s not really an accomplishment, except that fact that I’ve lived for 32 years. Although that’s not as impressive as living say, 92 years. I’ve got a way to go.

Milestone two is a bit more … milestone-y, I guess. I finished the fourth draft of my novel today. This is the draft I started working on when I got laid off from my job in January. I’ve been working on this book for two and a half years, but this is the first time it’s got a beginning and an actual end, so for me this a real, live accomplishment-accomplishment. Let me just pat myself on the back for a moment, if you’ll allow me.

Now it’s out of my hands and off with a few readers. They are trusted friends—some editors, some just avid readers—who will traverse all 390-some pages of completed manuscript and tell me all the ways it’s inadequate, so that I might make it right.

I got a little emotional sending it out, I have to admit. I don’t feel precious about the material in any way; I’m not even fully convinced it’s any good, all put together the way it is. That’s why I’m letting people look at it now, so that I can hopefully make it suck less. What I was getting emotional over I think was simply the burden of working being lifted off my shoulders. This story has been with me for a long time, nagging me, always tapping me on my shoulder when I take too long in the morning to get going or dawdle too long on the internet. It exerted a certain kind of mental pressure, and with the completion of this draft all that pressure dissipated as I sent it along as an email attachment; finished for now. Finished. Good work, you’re done, exhale.

Tomorrow, my roommate and I embark on a journey to Oregon. She for two weeks, me for three. I know that when I get back the pressure will start to build again as I begin to get feedback from my readers. It will be time to incorporate. It will be time to correct. It will be time to start draft five.

But for now, for the next few weeks anyway, I will enjoy my freedom.

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