Who am I? What makes me an expert? Why would you want to take my advice when it comes to your love life?
I get it, we’ve never met, and we don’t know anything about each other. One of the most beautiful things that I’m learning about being human is the power of shared experience. And, I believe that if I share my journey to love with you, at some stage along the way, you’ll smile and say to yourself, “Holy shit. I’ve done that, too.” Anytime I get to hear another woman share her story about her path to love, I am reminded: I am not alone. I am not special or unique. I am not bad, and I am not beyond help. I am just a spiritual being having a human experience.
I decided to embark on this soul-level work with another woman in my life, Ms. Warrior Spirit. Sharing my feelings, my innermost narrative, and my experiences with her were transformational. And, it deepened my connection to her, to a myriad of other women in the world and, perhaps most importantly, to myself. I was not always this way; a deep connection is not my factory default setting.
I grew up in Iowa, just west of the Mississippi River. I was such an uncomfortable kid. We moved to Iowa the summer before I began the second grade and I always felt like an outsider there. I was shy. Painfully shy. I was so scared to be me. I was terrified to try to make new friends, and it always felt like I was doing it wrong. I remember I would just sit around and hope that, like, the wallpaper would absorb me. I dreamt of being a chameleon so that I could just be camouflaged by my surroundings.
I’ll admit, it’s strange to write that because it is so different from the woman that I am today. But, that shyness, that desire to blend into nothingness, to become oblivion, still creeps up for me. I meet a lot of people and, occasionally, even if I’ve met you and we know each other, I will assume that you don’t remember me. I assume that I’m wallpaper to people. I assume that there’s no way that anyone will ever remember my face. In the old days, I believed that narrative, and so I would slink and shy away from people. But today, I try to take contrary action around it. So, I do my best to be as outgoing as possible (no matter how awkward it is) and to remember that I’m probably not the only person who has ever felt like wallpaper or who wanted to disappear.
Ok – so what does any of this have to do with my love life?! My formative years and early relationships were molded by this narrative of “outsider-ness.” In preparing for this chapter and this book, I reflected on some of these early experiences with boys and three, in particular, sum them up.
My First Boyfriend
I was a sixth-grader at Bettendorf Middle School when I opened my little yellow locker one day and found a note. OMG. This was not a note from my best friend Krissy Samuels. No, this was a note from a boy. Well kind of. It was actually a note from another girl on behalf of a boy. BOOM. Be still my beating heart. I had seen Saved by the Bell, I had watched Beverly Hills 90210, I was prepared. I knew what I was supposed to do.
I grabbed the note. Shut my locker. Held my notebook tight to my chest. I leaned back on my heels and swiveled around (so that my back was to my locker and my face was toward the hallway) and I rested (casually, very casually) back on my locker door as I read the note. Melissa was asking me – via this note – (a) if I thought that Brad Paulson was cute and (b) if I wanted to go out with him. I thought I was going to jump out of my skin. Did I want to go out with Brad Paulson?? Abso-fucking-lutely. Did I think Brad was cute? I couldn’t tell you; I had no idea who Brad was. But that was only a minor detail, right? Surely, I could say yes to this offer and get to know Brad. And did it really matter? Wasn’t everything in life about who a person was, rather than what they looked like? Yes, Melissa, yes, I would be happy to “go out with” Brad. That would be great. Thank you very much.
I was so excited to be going out with a boy in my class. I felt like I was doing things right and finally, finally fitting in. Two days later, Jessie came by my locker. She cornered me, and in that sixth-grade-girl-kind-of-way, said, “Heidi, are you going out with Brad?”
I confidently replied, “Yep.” I smiled, I was, after all, ready to ride or die for my new boo.
But she threw her head back and laughed. And then she said “Ewwwww.”
And that was all it took. The shame spiral was real, and it was deep. I should have known better. How could I have believed that I was worthy of Kelly Kapowski – Zach Morris love? How stupid was I to think, even for a second, (for two whole days no less), that that kind of love was for me? That kind of love was for other people. Beautiful people. People who belonged, and who mattered and who knew how to live a good, Midwestern life.
This was a powerful turning point for me. Because, although it was not my first heartbreak, it was my first experience of doubting myself, my first experience of seeking the validation of others. If Jessie had a different reaction, I might have continued to go out with Brad. Jessie wasn’t a good friend of mine. She wasn’t a girl that I spent a lot of time with, or whose opinion I trusted. But, for some reason, her assessment of what I was doing mattered to sixth-grade me.
After the Brad Paulson debacle, I had some crushes and did a little bit of flirting, but I just never felt comfortable putting myself out there. And I really didn’t want to put myself out there with anyone that anyone at school knew. Sometimes, I flirted with boys who didn’t go to my school, boys I met through community sports programs, or sons of family friends, but decided that the boys at my school were strictly off-limits. Boys who were available to me were dangerous—they could make me look stupid, like I didn’t know what I was doing. And yet, at the same time, the thought of dating them also seemed quite pedestrian. Wouldn’t it be more exciting if I liked someone who I didn’t see every day? Wasn’t that kind of “love” more exotic?
My First (Real) Boyfriend
But the last segment was titled, My First Boyfriend! Yes, but this is the story of my first real boyfriend. I was fourteen and I signed up to spend a week in Americus, Georgia, building homes for Habitat for Humanity. I was afforded this incredible experience by First Presbyterian Church of Davenport (an unlikely and surprisingly comfortable spot for fourteen-year-old me).
Our little youth group met up with another little youth group from a different part of the state and boarded a chartered bus headed to Georgia. A quick disclaimer: I can’t even begin to tell you the disdain that the words “church youth group” conjure up for me in spite of the fact that I had a wonderful, supportive, inclusive, experience as a member of a church youth group in Iowa. So please, for this little vignette, I encourage you to set aside any prejudice that those words might bring up for you and to, instead, envision us as this little gang of misfits. Heading to Georgia. On a bus. From Iowa. To build houses.
When you’re a kid, there is nothing like a trip without your parents, right? The excitement and overwhelm of getting on the bus. The rush to get a seat near the back. Taking inventory and checking everyone out: who’s a jock, who’s a nerd, who’s a bitch, who is the cute-cool-laid-back-girl, who is the guy-with-a-soft-sensitive-side? Which one am I? Who will I be? No one here knows me; I can be whoever I want! Or better yet, I can be whoever they will like best!! And I will fit. I will fit in.
I spent the entire week flirting with Tom. Tom lived an hour away from me in our real lives. I felt the rush of young love, young lust, and it was exhilarating. We bussed home and parting ways was so dramatic. Would I ever see Tom again? How could my life possibly go on without him?
Well, I did see Tom again. Tom and I talked on the phone. OMG, did we talk on the phone. And our flirtation was filled with a ton of fantasy.
“I can’t wait to take you to my favorite bowling alley.” Tom was a very good bowler.
“Won’t it be great when we are older, and we can go to a fancy dinner?” It sure would beat a bowling alley.
And, honestly, I have no idea what my parents were thinking, but they drove me to see him. And his parents let me stay at his house. And then his parents drove him to see me and my parents let him stay at our house. And even typing this out, twenty years later, sounds totally and completely insane. This young love eventually ran its course. But it was exhilarating. When would he call? When would I be able to call him? When would I see him next? How would we get to one another? There was so little reality to our flirtation and our interactions. But of course, I couldn’t see that at the time. Today I think about this and I have some compassion for fourteen-year-old me, it’s like, you don’t know what you don’t know, you know? At the time this felt like excitement, not heartbreak. At the time, I didn’t think that it was the beginning of a painful pattern of becoming involved with unavailable men. At the time, I just thought it was fun.
Teenagers are delusional about a lot of things, not the least of which is love. But here I was, at fourteen years old, already climbing in my own little car on the unavailability roller coaster. Already checking to make sure that my shoulder harness was pulled down tight with delighted anticipation for each click, click, click that the roller coaster made on its way up for the big drop. Looking back on it, it’s like I skipped the kid version of this ride (you know the little, elephants that just go around in a circle on the rails) and went straight for the ride that has two loops and a death-defying drop. I know this was my first experience reveling in the fantasy of unavailability.
The Advent of the Internet
Some of you will recall a time when the internet did not exist. Without launching into a nostalgic soliloquy about the days without instant gratification, I will just say this: there was a time when you could not just dial up a man’s attention. When you couldn’t open an app to see how many of your photos he liked; when you didn’t monitor your phone constantly to see how many men had commented on how great your legs looked in that skirt.
I was about sixteen when AOL made chatrooms widely available to anyone who had a dial-up modem. There were some drawbacks. First, connections weren’t always reliable, so on any day you might get kicked off or bounced out mid-chat/flirt. Second, in my house, the computer was in my dad’s home office, which doubled as a Lego room for my brother. So, navigating a Lego minefield was the price I paid to chat, anonymously, with strange men online (#totallyworthit). Third, we only had one phone line in our house, so time spent online had to be negotiated with my parents – which I credit, to this day, for my superb negotiating skills.
AOL chat rooms were incredible because, in them, no one knew anything about anyone else. Obviously, this makes them dangerous and a natural place for predatory behavior. And I probably understood that at the time. But I didn’t care. Because when I was [email protected], I could be whoever I wanted to be or more importantly (as I was discovering) whoever you wanted me to be.
The other thing that I loved about them, was that no one really had to know what I looked like. I was a heavy kid with low self-esteem. It was infinitely easier for me to talk to people while I was hiding behind a screen name. I could say what I wanted. I felt like in this anonymous place—where everyone was unavailable and the truth was what you made it—I could be vulnerable, it was safe to try on a new personality, it was as easy to say things I didn’t mean as it was to say things that I did.
When I was eighteen, I had just finished my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh, and I was back home in Iowa for the summer. I was kind of reconnecting with a guy I had dated in high school when I met a guy online, Darren. Darren lived in Pittsburgh and was maybe a few years older than me. I spent hours chatting with him that summer. Eventually, he invited me to visit him. I did. Which wasn’t a big deal.
The lie that I told my parents – I mean – I’d put that in the “big deal” category. That summer, while most of my friends were “lifeguarding” at Wacky Waters, I was spending my afternoons and evenings working as a hostess in a Cheddars Restaurant. I liked it because I was almost always done by 10 p.m. and I never had to be in much earlier than 10 a.m. I was never in the hot sun. I always got a discount on a meal, and even though the servers had to wear shirts and ties, I only had to wear a button-down shirt and khakis. I was sometimes jealous of the servers (because hello, money). But they treated me like they knew I was a good kid and that they thought I was going places. They were protective, they were kind, they were tremendously patient, and sometimes they bought me booze. And that felt good.
I didn’t have the money to fly to Pittsburgh to meet my internet love. I needed my parents to fly me there. They didn’t know that I was talking to a stranger on the internet. And although they had been so understanding around my first long-distance relationship with Mr. Habitat for Humanity, I did not think they would find this as, hmmm, shall we say, cute. I told them that I was heading to Pittsburgh to visit my friends from college and that I would be staying with them on campus. And they agreed to buy me a ticket. Instead, I flew into Pittsburgh, met this man I had been chatting with online, stayed in a hotel room with him and threw myself into the fantasy of this long-distance “relationship.”
I was lucky that, despite my recklessness, I did not get hurt or assaulted by Darren. That he turned out to be a nice, pretty well-adjusted young man in his early twenties. I look back on this experience with tremendous gratitude that I emerged from it unscathed.
During these years I did not find sustainable, meaningful, or emotionally fulfilling relationships. Shocker, I know. I did, however, discover the lengths I was willing to go to in the pursuit of fantasy, unavailable men, and male attention. I had put myself in danger. And I hadn’t even thought twice about it, I didn’t even blink. If you had asked me then, would I do it again, the answer would have been “Absolutely!” The attention of men was a powerful drug for me. It took me places I never thought I would go, I found myself doing things I never thought I’d do. The price of admission was my integrity and my true self. Things had to get worse before they got better for me. I rode the roller-coaster throughout most of my adult life, but it ratcheted up a notch when I hit my early twenties, and that’s the part of my story I want to share with you next.
This is an excerpt from my book, Relationship Ready: How I Stopped Fucking Randos and Started Cupcaking My Soul Mate available now on Amazon.