His irritation was palpable – I could all but smell the annoyance emanating like cartoon smoke off his skin. His being pissed off pissed me off. We drove home in silence, never outwardly acknowledging our respective animosity. I couldn’t bring myself to ask what was wrong. I knew what was wrong. And the fact that he was making me feel wrong drummed up even more resentment. Looking back now, I wonder if things would have turned out differently if we let ourselves fight once in awhile…flexed our angry muscles in order to really have it out in a knock-down, drag-out screaming match. But neither of us spoke a terse word. We never did. He momentarily stopped the car at the bottom of my parent’s driveway and I exited the passenger side door. I can’t remember if we said goodbye before he sped off in the direction of his home.
It was May 2012. I was 22 years old and still living with my parents. With a humph I sat down on the grass of our sloping side yard. I wasn’t ready to call it a night. I wasn’t ready to be done drinking. I wanted more alcohol and I wanted more cigarettes and I wanted someone to validate all my wanting.
I remember thinking, “I’m too young to be going home so early. I’m too young to be this bored. It’s not my problem he drank too much on his 21st birthday and now hates alcohol and parties and fun. It’s not my fault he prefers to get high and play video games and stay in. I’m TWENTY TWO for fuck’s sake. I’M the normal one.”
Without much thought, I shot off a text message to Zach, one of our friends who I assumed was still hanging out at the party we just left. It was a strange choice, really, because Zach and I weren’t particularly close and didn’t talk a whole lot outside of our frequent group gatherings. But somehow, and to this day I don’t know why or how, I knew Zach would give me what I was after that night.
I don’t know what I said or what he said or the exact sequence of events to follow, but I do know he picked me up outside my parent’s house and navigated back roads to an out-of-the-way dive bar and I paid a ridiculously expensive tab for the shots of tequila and draft beers we consumed as though our insides were on fire and alcohol was the only extinguisher within reach.
“Iiiii didn’t do anything wrong, right?! I mean…we’re in our early TWENTIES. We’re SUPPOSED to want to stay out drinking and partying, right?! He always makes us leave so early. He’s such a fun Nazi!” I complained to Zach while I undoubtedly slurred my words and teetered on a bar stool. He agreed. Of course he agreed – what other option did he have? Zach told me all the things I wanted to hear: my irritation was justified, my desire to party was normal, J was suffocating me. It was the first time in my adult life I was out past midnight, at a bar, with a guy who wasn’t my boyfriend of four years. It felt like the kind of thing I was supposed to be doing. It tasted like freedom and YOLO and just a hint of danger.
I can’t remember who kissed who first, though I wouldn’t be surprised if I made the first move. I’ve never been able to reign in my impulsive behavior all that well. Everything fades to a dark hazy gray after that first kiss at the bar. I don’t know if the overall fogginess of these events has more to do with consumption or psychological self-preservation. I have only one memory of the actual sex: I was laying on my back, suddenly aware of my nakedness and Zach’s nakedness and the fact that this was actually happening. Almost immediately, my consciousness decided to check back out. Somehow, we’d made it back to his bedroom in the basement of his mom’s house.
I don’t remember the morning after. I don’t remember driving home or what happened the following day. I don’t remember how many days passed between the first encounter and the second. I don’t remember if there was a third…I believe it happened twice, but I can’t be sure. I remember face-planting down a hill at a public park while running toward a lake sometime around 2:00 A.M. during a mad dash to strip off my clothes and go swimming. I remember he laughed and helped me up and we continued on our mission to break I don’t know how many laws in order to skinny dip. I remember making him give me a button-down dress shirt to wear while we watched a movie because it seemed like the sexy, grown-up, affair-type thing to do. The driving fast down country roads, the bar, the lake, the basement, the movie, the shirt…I have no idea what happened on which night or when or in what order.
I lied to J and everyone else about the scratches on my face – the result of my inebriated tumble down the steep embankment. I begged Zach to keep what had happened a secret. He promised he would, but part of me always knew this was going to rise from the ashes of my past and end my relationship someday. I was a bundle of nerves every second of every day for weeks on end and only as I write this do I realize the fear and anxiety of getting caught were places to hide, just like getting drunk or high or throwing myself into a new project were places to hide.
I was a cheater.
God, I hated that. I wanted erasure…a time machine…a do-over. I certainly didn’t feel capable of copping to the truth – it would have broken us. So I buried my dirty little secret in a box in the basement of my mind. Days collected between me and the cheating. My boyfriend and I moved in together in November 2012, which provided the change of scenery and routine I thought we needed to catapult us out of the funk into which we’d slowly descended.
But for the next two and a half years, following college graduation and settlement into a life and self I didn’t want, my drinking kept growing and morphing like a time-lapse image of a sprouting plant. I cheated again awhile later on a business trip and woke up incredulous. How the FUCK did I let this happen again when I felt so shitty the first time?!
Logically, I knew I was supposed to be racked with guilt, but a kind-of void existed where those emotions should have lived. Somewhere along the way, my integrity started to wither and die and the only thing that shocked me was how little I felt at all. I was becoming numb to the aftermath of my drunken shitty behavior. But, I was doing everything in my power to avoid touching the ground and again, the days collected between me and the cheating.
A bizarre compartmentalization took place wherein I worked really hard to keep up appearances and prove myself valuable in various other categories of my life. If I wanted to keep drinking and balance out some of the karmic damage I’d done via cheating, I was going to have to kick it up a notch. It all felt exhausting. Life was one endless parade of chaotic exhaustion and juggling nothing all that difficult, but I felt like I was hanging by a thread…stressed beyond my meager ability to hold it all together.
Household chores were high on the list. Keeping my surfaces neat and tidy was an important element of the grand illusion that was my life. I decided I should jump into a financial planning designation in order to prove to my bosses and my boyfriend that I was serious about corporate America and the life they all wanted for me. I made it a point to try and f*ck like a porn star, cook like an all star, support my boyfriend’s academic efforts, and work my way up the employment ladder.
My insides were not neat and tidy. My insides were dying. I kept pouring beer and wine and liquor all over everything because facing my mess would have meant breaking all over the place…shattering the illusion.
There’s a kind of madness that sets in when you break promises to yourself over and over again, despite good intentions and all the sincerity in the world. I blacked out again and cheated again and what little integrity I had left turned to dust and floated away. I thought maybe I was going insane.
Glennon Doyle tells us to speak from our scars, not our wounds. This one…this cheating thing…this putting hurt out into the world thing, felt like it may never transform from a wound to a scar, like it may never heal.
Becoming whole costs something; it is not free or even cheap. Healing takes place when we pay the toll…when we allow ourselves to shatter and become salt in our own wounds.
I still don’t have a great answer to the question: why did I cheat and lie and cheat some more? I doubt I’ll ever have a satisfactory answer to that question.
Nevertheless, unfaithfulness is a scar I proudly bear, not because I’m at all proud of my behavior, but because I’m proud of the work and the healing. Making peace with the fact that I deeply hurt someone I loved has been, and continues to be, one of the most difficult challenges of my life.
During particularly rough days, when I feel as though this wound could reopen, I walk myself through the following:
- It’s okay to hate the fact that I did despicable things and inflicted immense pain. But it’s also okay to believe in divine purpose – to know that this particular pain was as much apart of his journey as it was mine. And to find solace in the knowing.
- All of it, every moment before this, had to happen and was always going to happen exactly this way.
- Time itself does not heal. I could have spent the next year or ten or fifty hiding in the folds of substance abuse and self-avoidance. But that’s not what happened. Finally, finally I chose love over fear and I started showing up and I let myself break into a billion pieces.
- I am not who I was. I don’t live there anymore.
Sometimes I forget, and maybe we all forget, what it means to be flawed and human. Which is a shame, really…because there is so much grace and humility and truth to be found on the ground amidst all those beautiful, shattered pieces.