Monday, September 22, 2014

Left Behind

Up until now, I was always the one to leave.

Sure, my parents abandoned me emotionally, but they were always there physically. When we became estranged, they kicked me out of their house. They made me leave. I had to find somewhere else to sleep.

I was the one who went away to college.

I was the one who left her first boyfriend behind to study abroad in London.

I was the one who quit her favorite job ever to move to New York City.

I was the one who left all of her friends back in New York to move across the country and start a new life in LA.

I didn't know what it was like to be left behind. I was always moving forward.

Until now.

Sure, I've been left before – my affections spurned, romantic advances rejected – but now I find myself holding down the fort in LA while someone I love is gone for two months. And he wasn't exactly mine anymore when he left. And I don't know if I'll be his when he returns.

Two months is a long time.

I remember I'd only been dating my first boyfriend Seth for a month and a half, maybe two months when I had to leave for London in the Summer of 1995. Our relationship was so new that we knew we'd have to break up before I left, but we spent so much time together right before my departure, at the last minute we both kind of looked at each other and said, "We don't have to break up, do we?" That August day I left, he dropped me off at the train station to say goodbye, and I sobbed as I tried to hoist my luggage full of four months' supplies onto the overhead rack.

I was a mess when I arrived in Hudson, NY to join my future roommate on the way down to JFK for our flight to London. It was my first flight ever, and I was anxious, nervous, and most of all, heartbroken.

But then I arrived at Heathrow, took a black cab to pick up the keys to our new flat, arrived in Kilburn Park, and started to settle in. I met my new flatmates and classmates that lived across the courtyard. I started drinking and forgetting. I moved on more quickly than I ever expected.

Right away I started receiving letters and phone calls from Seth. I didn't always answer the phone. The distance from him was too great, and after such a short period of time dating, I started to doubt everything we'd experienced together. I grew cold to his affections. Even though he sent me flowers on my birthday and wrote the most loving things to me, I didn't believe him.

I recently recovered a couple of those letters from storage boxes, and, in reading them, terribly regret how I treated him. He always considered our breakup temporary. He wrote that he would only consider himself complete with my hand in his. That my competition was none. That I remained in the future. That he was mine without question.

I don't know why those words didn't make my heart melt back then. I don't know why I didn't believe him.

No one has ever said anything like that to me since. I don't think anyone has ever felt that way about me since.

Instead of writing him back, talking with him and reassuring him, I had sex with other people, even though I knew that was the last thing he wanted me to do. After I'd been gone for two months and acting increasingly distant, his letters began to express his worry. He asked if everything was OK. He tried to make me jealous by talking about other girls.

When I finally got home in December, I didn't call him right away, though I knew he expected me to. When we finally did talk on the phone, he admitted that his ex-girlfriend (the one with whom I likely overlapped when I started dating him) wanted to get back together with him.

"Maybe you should go do that," I said. And that was it. We were really broken up. I didn't want to come home to him. I'd lived a whole lifetime in four months in London, and I was a different person than the virgin girl he'd taken out dancing the summer before. I was hardened by city life, and by the world. I'd experienced other men, and women.

Granted, I was only 19 years old when I left, and turned 20 while I was away. I didn't know anything. When I came back, Seth said that he had been in love with me, but I didn't believe that, either. After all, although I'd liked him very much, and I'd loved having a boyfriend, I didn't love him. I couldn't imagine him loving me.

And now I do love someone, and I'm the one who's been left behind. I thought my heart would grow cold again – I looked forward to the separation, so I could move on – but my heart still beats hot and hard. I'm not moving on. I'm waiting for the days to pass. I'm hoping to wake up from a coma two months from now so I don't have to wait the entire time out.

I don't know what's going to happen when he comes back. Considering what I did to my first boyfriend when I was the one to leave, I probably deserve however he treats me, having lost whatever love he once had for me in the time since. Maybe he'll meet another girl. Maybe he'll remember things differently. Maybe he'll want something new and unfamiliar when he gets back to LA.

There's no way I can know. All I can do is wait it out.

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The End of Acting Out

I have a long history of acting out.

At age 19, I moved to London for a semester abroad just a couple of months after having gotten my first boyfriend ever and having lost my virginity. At some point, I figured out that there had been some overlap between me and another of his girlfriends. Subsequently, the second guy I ever had sex with was a drunken Irishman in the ladies' bathroom stall in a pub in Galway.

There were plenty of other college indiscretions, of course.

The year I moved to New York City, I spent Halloween night judging a kissing contest between three guy friends. When the winner spurned my subsequent affections, I started hooking up with another one of his friends. When that guy spurned my affections, I hooked up with every fellow member of his band except one (and a few of his other friends).

My parents didn't allow me to date in high school, but they also didn't teach me how to respect myself. They abandoned me emotionally and left me to my own devices. What else was I supposed to do?

I self-medicated with random dalliances.

I manipulated people.

I turned them over to the dark side.

I never learned how to have a healthy relationship. I didn't even know how to start one. (I still don't.)

I jumped from guy to guy (and sometimes from guy to girl to guy) trying to fill this huge vacant space inside of me, and it kind of worked. I had plenty of stories to tell. My phone was always buzzing. I rarely had to be alone if I didn't want to be.

New York City is like that. Sex is in the air.

If one guy rejected me, I could walk down nearly any street and find another. I knew which bars to go to, and at which times. I stayed until they closed and the doors were locked with me still inside. I drank and I got them drunk. I didn't always know their names. I didn't always remember their faces.

Although I began two years of sexual avoidance in 2008 after disastrously falling in love with two different people who would never love me, I bounced back with a vengeance in 2010, and I started pursuing nice guys with the same obsession that previously targeted bad boys. I had my groove back, and my hands full. It seemed healthy – just having fun, celebrating life, celebrating my new body after a recent dramatic weight loss.

And then I moved to LA.

Life hasn't been easy in the three and a half years since moving here, with two layoffs, inconsistent work and money, and persistent loneliness. The romantic and sexual interest once felt so strongly in NYC has since been timid, hidden, or non-existent. I've had to work much harder for it. No longer does anything just fall into my lap, so to speak.

I mean, I've had my moments in LA for sure – a couple of bartenders, a late night hot tub, a rock star. When I lost my first job in LA, I ran directly into the arms of someone who was completely emotionally unavailable. When he spurned my affections one night, I hooked up with his housemate.

But I've made progress. I ended things with a cute guy who'd only call me at 2 a.m. I cut off the guy who was weirdly obsessed with what he considered my fat body. I stopped dating the guy who never acted like he liked me in public and then expected sex at his place at the end of the night. I refused to be the other woman. I finally asked for what I wanted, rather than just accepting whatever came my way.

Still, old habits die hard. When I recently realized that the person I'd been faithful to hadn't been faithful to me – and probably had no intention on being faithful moving forward – my first inclination was to act out. I texted former lovers. I went on Tinder. I joined OKCupid. I was desperate to find somebody else to make me forget, to help me punish him.

I've only had a few days now of putting myself "out there," and you know what? I'm done. I don't want this. I don't want some other guy in my apartment, in my bed. I don't want to have meaningless chitchat with somebody new. I don't want to take my clothes off, though they used to come off so easily.

I want the love that I felt when I was with him. No crazy sexcapade is better than falling asleep with his head on my chest as he whispers, "I love you."

I hadn't been with anyone for six months before him, because I'd been looking for someone like him. Maybe he wasn't a perfect match, but I'm not going to settle for something else now.

And maybe that means I'll have to be completely alone for a while.

Or maybe I just have to get used to the idea of being alone forever.

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Fix Me

When I was a kid, my mother used to always threaten to call "all those teachers" who liked me so much at school, and tell them what I was really like.

It was as though she thought I had the whole world fooled into thinking I was this sweet, obedient, smart, model student, when in reality I was some kind of dishonest, abusive devil child.

My mother always said I reminded her of the father that used to beat her.

She always tried to convince my father – who wasn't home much, while working two jobs to support us – of how bad I was. She would describe these fits of mine that I could never remember, things I would say and do that I never recalled.

She had me convinced that I was going crazy, and that it was manifesting in these amnesiac episodes.

But when she had the opportunity to record them on a tape machine provided by my father, she never did. In fact, she always refused to.

So although I never had any proof of anything besides my known temper tantrums and crying jags when I would just be sobbing and cowering and begging for it to stop, for everything to just be over, somehow my mother had convinced me that somewhere, deep down inside of me, something was wrong with me.

It started early on – as early as I can remember. When I was three years old, my parents sent me to a psychiatrist whose sessions consisted of my confessions of whatever naughty things I'd done that week, and how I'd felt about it.

"She has a lot of anger," he told my parents.

Later that year, I was diagnosed with such strong astigmatism, I was nearly blind. My eye doctor was not surprised by the tantrums.

As I got older, I had a number of strange physical symptoms, from post-dinner stomach aches that made me writhe on the kitchen floor, to growing pains that made walking difficult with my aching legs. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia when I was 15 years old, five years after my mother's diagnosis with it (and the same year as my sister's). I've lived with chronic pain for nearly 25 years since.

And I'm still wondering what's wrong with me.

My parents forced me into psychotherapy again the summer of '93 or '94, one of the summers I spent grounded, and perhaps the summer I finally slapped my mother back after years of receiving corporal punishment from her, and the resulting bruises on my nose. My new therapist – a Syracuse University grad student, because that's all I could afford on my summer wages, since my parents refused to pay – listened to me explain the conflicts with my parents carefully, and offered, "Neither one of you is wrong. You're just different."

This was unsatisfactory, because of course my parents were wrong, and of course something was wrong with me.

In college, having been disowned by my parents and on a self-destructive course of drinking too much and not getting enough sleep (as college students do), I became convinced I had ADD. I couldn't concentrate in class. I was underperforming, compared to the 99th percentile I'd been in during high school. I was desperate for a diagnosis, and I got one but it wasn't ADD: it was dysphoria.

That's right, while my mother was convinced I was psychotic, I was actually just sad.

Throughout my adult years in New York City, I had a number of other weird, unexplained physical ailments, including a visit to the emergency room with abdominal pains that resulted in no diagnosis or treatment. Sometimes these things would go away on their own, and sometimes it seemed like they were a sign of something more deep-seated going on – some secret malaise that would finally be revealed in a big aha moment of "Oh that's what it was!"

My uncle died strapped to a bed with schizophrenia. Maybe that's what I have.
My other uncle is an alcoholic. Maybe that's what I have.
My therapist says that night terrors can be an expression of PTSD. Maybe that's what I have.

Maybe I need a colonic.
Maybe I need a cleanse.

Maybe I need a 12 step program.
Maybe I need antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication.

Maybe I need religion.
Maybe I need an exorcism.

Or maybe I just need someone I feel close to, who I can talk with.

Maybe I need to not be alone so much.
Maybe I just need someone I can trust.
Maybe I just need to feel safe for once.

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Photo Essay: Painted Rocks at Fort Irwin

If you're curious about visiting Fort Irwin and learning about some of its history, your first stop (and, if you don't have much time, your only stop) should be its Painted Rocks monument...

...a pile of military boulders outside the security checkpoint...

...known as "The Rockpile"...

...where squadrons visiting Fort Irwin for training are permitted to paint their insignias... remembrance of how they braved the sun, the wind, the sand, and the heat... this "desert retreat."

They may have started painting these rocks on a lark...

...but now these units have established a tradition...

...carried on by subsequent soldiers who pass though...

...on their way to fight for their country...

...some of whom never come back.

It's a living piece of history...


...feeling something like a folk art work-in-progress (like Salvation Mountain).

Out there... the middle of nowhere...

...30 miles from the nearest somewhere...

...these silent rocks speak of hope and fear... and pride...

...and camaraderie and bravery.

I wonder if they were painted on the battalions' way into training...

...or on the way out, on their way to battle?

Make no mistake: this is no graffiti site. No civilian painting is allowed, and all new rock paintings must be strictly permitted by Ft. Irwin. (This is the military, after all.)

But go and watch the sun rise from behind the rocks, listening to the sonic booms in the distance...

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Photo Essay: A Fake Iraq in the Middle of the Mojave Desert

So I'd been around Fort Irwin plenty of times in my explorations of the Mojave Desert. You can hear its explosions or sonic booms when you visit Calico Ghost Town next door. I got lost near there trying to find Harper Dry Lake and Rainbow Basin.

I knew it was an active military base, but I had no idea what actually happened inside there.

It turns out that Fort Irwin – located 30 miles outside of Barstow, CA – is home to the National Training Center...

...where soldiers go to learn how to brave the desert heat, navigate the arid landscape, and fight insurgents before being deployed to the Middle East – namely, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The grounds themselves act somewhat as a museum for historic tanks and other retired military vehicles...

...and they welcome visitors from all over to come explore the base...

...and have a very affordable, generously portioned meal... their cafeteria.

But the main attraction here is getting on one of the busses...

...crossing the "international border"...

...and arriving in one of the 14 mock villages... a fake Arab country...

...built like a movie set to acclimate soldiers to the foreign culture they'll be facing...

...and try to simulate the most stressful situation possible...

...with street vendors barking in a language they don't understand...

...surrounded by unfamiliar religious traditions... the high desert heat.

To me, even as the military vehicles arrived for their training operation, the training area (known as "The Box") appeared more like Pioneertown or Paramount Ranch than any medina I'd ever been to in the Middle East (though, granted, Morocco and Tunisia are more North African than the Arab countries the U.S. tends to fight).

The mock operation included lots of pyrotechnics including fake bombs going off and the resulting fireballs...

...a suicide bomber collapsing in a cloud of fake red blood...

...hand grenades, smoke, casualties, and other elements to prepare soldiers for their potential "worst day ever" out in combat (without totally breaking them down).

The soldiers are surrounded by a number of American citizen (but often Middle East-born and Arabic-speaking) role players, who have relocated to Fort Irwin and live in barracks in or near the villages, working fulltime as insurgents, vendors, townspeople, local police, or maybe even the mayor.

Everyone on the ground is equipped with laser tag-like gear that monitors when they've been "hit," and what the severity of their injuries are. They then receive a casualty card, indicating treatment needed, so the soldiers can attend to the wounded properly, and reduce any further loss of life.

It's an immersive experience both for the soldiers-in-training and also civilian visitors, in such a remote location, in conditions that so closely mimic Afghanistan or Iraq. It's also a bit upsetting to witness, at such close range, what military personnel face when they get deployed out to these types of warzones.

And although for years Afghanistan had become a bigger problem than Iraq, the latest ISIS-related events have brought Iraq back into the forefront, making the NTC's activities even more relevant now.

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