I bought my first self-help book at twenty-two. Why Men Love Bitches, by Sherry Argov.
Priced at $17.99, and worth two hours at my job, the New York Times Bestseller promised to take me from doormat to dreamgirl.
I read Chapter 5: Nagging No More, while sitting in an ER waiting room at 2:00 AM. Over the pages of my paperback, I noticed everyone passing through triage was accompanied by a significant other. Everyone but me.
“Sorry, I have an early day tomorrow,” my live-in boyfriend of four years had said, rolling over in bed. No matter how many conversations we’d had about him not stepping up, he let me get to the hospital alone, in the middle of the night.
Words got me nowhere, so maybe, as the author wrote, it was time I spoke with my actions. During the next few months, I backed off and focused on myself. What may have started as a game, quickly turned into genuine self-care. I joined a gym and dedicated more time to seeing friends. To my surprise, as my confidence grew, so did his level of commitment.
He no longer looked like a hostage when the topic of marriage and kids came up. We even got a puppy. A Goldendoodle named Duke. But, instead of being happy about his renewed interest, I was resentful. Every act of kindness felt like a betrayal. He would hard for this shit.
This wasn’t who I wanted to be.
The year I turned 30, I read The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, for the third time. I had purchased it a few years back, when the sound of my first husband, eating cereal, made me want to shove the spoon down his throat. Nothing breeds contempt in a relationship like a joint business venture on the verge of bankruptcy.
According to the book, a vision board would help us crawl out of the debt I blamed him for. After all, establishing the first Gracie Jiu-Jitsu school in Northern Canada was his dream, not mine.
I followed the book ’s instructions. To a blank page, I glued pictures of what I wanted to attract into my life: A couple laughing on a beach and a woman meditating on top of a mountain. Above the photos, I spelled out financial freedom in mismatched letters.
Although no amount of manifesting could save our relationship, my first vision board got me through my divorce and made me realize I had dreams of my own.
At the top of my to-do list was: Move to Toronto. I wanted to shed the shackles of small-town gossip. My friend and I packed up my meagre belongings into his mother’s minivan and we drove the 12 hours, where a roommate I met on Craigslist, awaited my arrival.
For two years, I winced at the thought of a long-term commitment. Until a guy I didn’t even like, brought me to the Christmas market to dump me. Dating had suddenly lost all its sparkle. Where was the guy I would live happily ever after with?
I pulled out my copy of The Secret and brushed up on the law of attraction.
In my journal I wrote and underlined: What I want in a man—2016. The list went as follows: Caring, attractive, will treat me like a queen, stable, financially savvy, driven, healthy communication, good sex life, fun.
Three weeks later, I met the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. A friend of mine set it up. A colleague of her husband’s had popped into her head after I shared my list of demands. I trusted her instinct. As a corporate recruiter by day, she got paid to find the best candidate for the job.
We had our first date at a restaurant near my place. We sat at the bar. I couldn’t tell whether it was his strong bicep or soft flannel sleeve that made my hand go back for more. But, this attraction was more than physical, he felt safe.
Safe enough to open up about my roommate's perpetual skid marks in the toilet. But, this would soon be a thing of the past, I told him, because, after months of eating lentils and shopping at thrift stores, I could finally afford my own studio apartment. I had never felt more confident about what I brought to the table.
One date turned into two, and six months later when his new job at a sought-after financial firm required him to move back to Montreal, he asked me to tag along. Not going, didn’t even cross my mind. The idea of sharing a life with him in Montreal made everything I had built for myself in Toronto seem like child’s play.
Unlike him, I had no job, no friends, and no family waiting for me.
Reality set in during our housewarming party when in an effort to help me find work, he talked me up to his well-connected entourage of impressive titles: MBAs, CFAs, CPAs.
The thought of revealing to any one of them, who I was on paper, was mortifying. I had a diploma from a community college no one had ever heard of, and a resume ranging from aesthetician to failed business owner, and everything in-between.
What I brought to the table no longer felt good enough.
Over the next year, while he settled back into his old life, I tried to build a life of my own. If making friends in your 30s is hard, making friends in your 30s when you reek of desperation is impossible. I kept my loneliness to myself, because there was no way he could love such a needy loser.
In the past, my knee-jerk reaction would have been to pull out my stack of self-help books and start planning my exit. But, this time, I had no intention of running. If anything, my love for him was unprecedented. Which posed an important, almost crippling problem: He could leave me like I had left others.
Despite my fears, I maintained the status quo, until he called me out for doing something I swore I’d never do. I left the house wearing what I call my depression pants. The ones that make me look like a walking bathmat. It was as good a time as any to book an appointment with a shrink.
A week later, I got ready for my first session with Dr. Bita, a clinical psychologist I found online. I slipped on the only pair of jeans I felt comfortable in since my 30-pound weight gain. I even did my makeup, something I hadn’t done in weeks. Because, God forbid my therapist should see me at my worst.
I told her about my parents' divorce and the revolving door of blended families that followed. “Oh, and my brother committed suicide,” I added. “But, I was really young and don't remember him, so I’m fine.” No sooner had the words left my mouth, I broke down. Fine was the last thing I was. And, his death still haunted me daily.
After handing me a box of tissues, she pulled out a dry-erase marker and drew a picture of a brain on a whiteboard. “Trauma is like a footprint,” she said. “It never goes away, you just learn healthy coping skills.” This confirmed it, I wasn’t crazy. I was stuck in fight-or-flight, and I could finally stop hating myself for it.
I came out of my first session looking like a raccoon with bloodshot eyes, but feeling lighter on my feet. Like I had unloaded years of garbage festering inside me into the neighbour’s trash. But, we had only scratched the surface.
While I labelled myself a social drinker and recreational cannabis user. I drank to calm my anxiety from being around people, and I used cannabis to calm my anxiety from being alone. So, I was, most often than not, comfortably numb. What was so scary anyway?
If I ever wanted to get to the root of my pain, I had to get sober. Four hundred and ten days of sobriety and defaulted to my first-ever coping mechanism: The bubble bath. Growing up, I spent hours soaking in the tub. It was the only place I could pretend everything was okay. Often, I recited passages from the Al-Anon book my mother kept on top of the toilet:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Of course, back then, I had no idea what it meant. Now, it says it all.