The first time I said the words, “I love you,” to someone who I was dating I was 21 years old. I was eager to be with my first partner — obsessed even. The line seems blurry now, but back then everything seemed meant to be. Inevitable. I felt connected, safe, cherished, by a woman I’d matched with on Tinder. She lived miles away from my home of Boston. She was a couple of years older. I mistook lust for love. She made me want. She made me rush home after class to rip off my clothes and message her dirty, dark things. I kept my phone with me at all times, it tethered me to her, without it who knows what could (would) happen.
I’m almost 24. My birthday is next week. My phone is still tethering me to others – ex’s, partners, friends, family. It stopped working, though. It stopped bringing me any sense of safety or comfort. My phone has become a hindrance, a painful reminder of my past. It makes me desperate, obsessed, and anxious. I’ve stayed up days at a time, talking myself down because my mind reads “ok” as “bye” and “fine” as “you fucked up.” Putting down alcohol 70 days ago was tough, but it pales in comparison to this, this emotional OCD I’ve diagnosed myself with; this demanding compulsion that ties my self-worth to a white bubble and a handful of words.
The first relationships texting ruined for me was back in high school. We were given school address books listing the numbers of every student. I felt compelled by what I can only describe as a very peculiar, but convincing force to obsessively text message several upperclassman. They were my peers, and our lives were somewhat entangled between extra curricular activities and peer tutoring, but definitely not to the extent I wanted it to be. It got so bad, my texting that is, that I was called into the guidance counselor’s office and told there would be repercussions if I didn’t stop. My messages can probably be summarized easiest by: want me. I wanted to be wanted. I wanted to be liked. But, I wanted to be wanted and liked not like they wanted and liked me, but how I needed to be wanted and liked. I was completely lacking the comfort of friends my own age. I wasn’t getting what I needed at home. Texting felt safe, felt easy, felt like the closest I could get to the connection I so desperately craved.
Texting came back to haunt me in various ways throughout my various relationships. I’ve been told too many times to count some variation of “you want more than I can give.” It stings, truth be told. Still, the sting wasn’t and hasn’t been enough to break a habit I can truthfully say I’ve had since I was 13 years old.
Augustan Burroughs in his self-help book, This Is How, writes on drinking,
In 100 percent of the documented cases of alcoholism worldwide, the people who recovered all shared one thing in common, no matter how they did it:
They didn’t do it.
They just didn’t do it.
While Burroughs was talking specifically about drinking, I’ve thought several times about his words in response to what I’ve deemed my “emotional OCD” or the compulsions that drive me to stay up all night, phone gripped in my hand, terrified that I’ve ruined my relationship with my partner. Do you have any idea how terrifying that is? Almost as terrifying as it is to find oneself bent over, vomiting up shots of something from the night before, on the T-platform, late for work, with zero idea how you’ve got there and no idea how to stop. What worked for me in the last 70 days isn’t necessarily advisable, I’d say it’s even borderline crazy, but it’s worked. For 70 days I haven’t picked up a drink even though, no matter what, despite, etc. I just haven’t. I just didn’t and don’t and can’t and really, really hope, I won’t. Can you drop a defense mechanism as easily? Maybe. I think it’ll take work. It’ll take practice and more tears and writing and talking to my therapist about it. It’ll take being honest even though this is one of my deep, deep dark secrets. The texting thing isn’t a thing I wear proudly on my sleeve. It’s not a truth I discuss openly with friends. I’ve told two people in this world: one I see weekly and have seen weekly for going on four years, the other is my partner, the catalyst for making me want to break right on open, no matter the risk, no matter the complete and utter vulnerability.
What if? What if we breakup? What if the world ends tomorrow? What if I get run over by a bus? What if I fall in love with someone else 5, 10 years from now? What if she does? What if one day we get married and have children and live happily ever after? Will it matter how many texts we’ve sent? Will it matter how many words were exchanged back and forth through corresponding blue and white bubbles? Will GIF’s play a role in forever? I ask myself questions, I have been asking myself questions, in my last three essays, mostly because I don’t want it to seem like I have all (any) of the answers. Asking myself questions is a way for me to figure things out though, to untangle the mess my brain makes of things, to see where a thread is loose, to recognize where and when I need to ask for help.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
When my friend Christina first shared his words with me I was stumped. I’d rather live the answers, I thought. Wouldn’t you? But, upon, going on three weeks of asking really specific questions about sobriety, and love and life and god, and now texting, I’m not so sure. I’m not sure I’d rather know the answers to the things that remain unknown to me. Are they unknown for a reason? Would it to any good to find out? Maybe. I take comfort in knowing that questions make me think and thinking makes me talk and talking leads me to connection – the same connection I sought for so long via text, but better.
I still am figuring these very basic communication things out. I want to say “okay” and mean it. I need to be able to trust my girlfriend when she says we are, “fine.” I need to know that a one-word response doesn’t mean the ending of our relationship. But, I need her to know how my mind works. I need her to know that I am working, everyday, to find solace in the quiet spaces, to trust that love won’t runaway after a few weeks, to understand that two humans reconciling two complicated pasts together isn’t an overnight job. It will be work. It will be play. It will be utterly devastating and entirely new. Perhaps, one day, gradually, we too will live into the answers.