“I can’t go without shaving down there anymore,” she says. “And it has nothing to do with feminism. Or being anti-feminism. ”
“Oh yeah?” I say. Because I don’t know what else to say. Over the months we’ve worked together, she’s become progressively more comfortable around me. Probably because I never freak out about what she says, no matter how weird it is.
She’s taken this as a sign that she can trust me. That we’re friends.
It’s an uncomfortable place for me because I don’t really become friends with coworkers. I don’t want to get interpersonally attached to anyone there. To get so that I care what they think of me or how they feel about how I live my life. Because the last thing I want is for any social anxiety to make it so it’s even harder than normal to go into work on the days that I already don’t feel like being there.
“Yeah,” she says. “It’s cuz… well, this is weird maybe, but…”
I wait. I figure she’ll tell me no matter what.
“I’m getting white hairs down there.”
I laugh. I nod. And in spite of myself, I respond, “I know exactly what you mean.” I stop just short of saying “ditto.” But she knows I mean “ditto.” I’m hoping that’ll be the end of it and we can finish our category management project. We have another three inventory carts to deal with before she leaves at 3 pm, and I don’t know how we’re going to get done on time if we keep stopping to chat.
But nope. She is not done.
She continues. “I don’t wanna look at my cooch and feel 60. And I sure don’t want any man to. So the hairs have got to go.”
Thankfully, a colleague of ours interrupts at just that moment needing help with something else. One that she doesn’t open up to like that.
Doppelgangers and Transference
At the end of her shift, her boyfriend comes by the store to pick her up. He looks like the ex I’m trying to forget. I’m frankly uncomfortable about how physically attracted to him I am. And how he simultaneously makes me feel sick to my stomach because he reminds me of bad times.
I half want to punch him and half want to make out with him.
My coworker prances down the stairs wearing her winter coat. Plants a big kiss on her boyfriend in front of everyone. Which of course includes me. And it’s helpful, seeing her smooch him; it breaks me out of my daze. Because as she kisses him, the spell is broken. And I am viscerally reminded that he isn’t that ex. He probably doesn’t have anything in common with my ex. This is just some accident of nature, the physical resemblance.
But I’m still standing there, feeling sick.
She brings him over to me. Introduces us. As he speaks, I become even more relaxed, better able to differentiate him. My ex was from Indiana, so he had a bit of an accent to my Maine ears. Midwestern with a touch of Southern.
But this guy? He sounds like a Mainer. Not a Downeast Mainer, like Tim Sample. But city Mainer, like the rest of us.
See? I think to myself. Not the same guy. Stop being so ridiculous.
I’m used to this kind of unhelpful transference though. It always crops up in random places. When I least expect it.
Recovery Is Not Going Well, Even With Formal Help
It’s been a rough couple of years recovering from some pretty bad trauma. Getting over that abusive relationship. Or trying to.
Nothing I do seems to help me. I’ve tried talking to people about it (friends who are not coworkers), but the most they do is get uncomfortable and change the subject. No one seems able to relate in a way that’ll help. And all opening up seems to do is damage those relationships when my friends get awkward and uncomfortable.
When I try group therapy, I do find people who can relate to my experiences but are a lot worse off than I am. Lower functioning. Rude and self-centered. Group is always an uncomfortable place to be. And I don’t leave it with any breakthroughs.
Individual counseling is also pretty weird. No one I try seems to know what to do with me or how to help me. The one counselor I do get close to threatens to fire me as a patient after I miss one appointment (due to being snowed in).
After spending a few cowardly days mentally berating myself and feeling like a poor excuse for a human being, I call her back eventually to apologize. I pay her for the missed appointment but don’t schedule another.
I’ve been seeing her for nearly two years, and that’s how it ends. Just like that.
Quitting My Psychiatrist
My psychiatrist plain doesn’t like me. He gets angry when I research the medications he wants to put me on and bring printouts to our appointments to ask questions. I’m not trying to be adversarial, but he interprets it that way. “You didn’t go to med school, did you?” he asks me.
“No,” I admit.
“That’s what I thought,” he says.
He isn’t cheap. I’m paying hundreds of dollars that I don’t really have to see him. Our relationship becomes more and more contentious. The meds he puts me on make me feel worse and carry a lot of side effects.
When I tell him in our last session that I don’t want to see him anymore, that I’m going to try to go without medication, he is livid.
“You’re making a huge mistake,” he says.
“Maybe,” I say back. And then I add, “What would you say if I came back 10 years from now and I was doing really well? Happy, hadn’t been committed again. At a good place in my life.”
“I would say that you were very lucky,” he says.
Well good luck to me then, I think as I leave.
Three years later, I will read online that he’s lost his medical license and has been written up by the ethics board for writing prescriptions for friends and family members and an improper conflict of interest relationship with a drug company.
But in that moment, I have no idea that this will happen. And no idea that I will find the strength to move forward, figure myself out, and make it.
That one day I will become much more than he’s planned for me to become without his help.
Sometimes It’s Easier to Recover Out of Spite Than Out of Self-Love
There are many times over the following years that I think of that doctor. Especially at times when I’m angry and want to give up. When I want to stop working on myself. To just crumble into a heap of unhealthy coping mechanisms. To stop doing the hard work of keeping it together and fall into the much easier act of simply destroying myself.
It’s at those times that I find myself thinking of him and saying, “No. You’re going to fucking live. And you’re going to thrive. You’re going to prove him wrong.”
Now, I won’t love myself for many years. That’ll only come after I’ve found a supportive group of people, people who really seem to understand me and care about my well-being.
When I’m on my own, it’s much easier to work to get better out of spite than out of self-love.
Whatever works, right?
The Choice You Make Over and Over
These stories always sound heroic in hindsight. After you know the hero has healed, conquered their demons. But when you’re actually going through it, when you don’t know how the story ends, it’s pretty soul-crushing work. It’s ugly. Lonely. And it often feels like it’s going nowhere. That you’re making no progress.
And my own recovery is riddled with odd moments where I’m randomly reminded of something traumatic. With no warning. Where I find myself frozen in place. Vertiginous, nauseated. Terrified.
Staring at a man who is not my abuser but that my body has confused with him. My fear centers working on overdrive.
And when my co-worker pulls me aside the next shift we work together and asks me, “Hey, were you okay the other day?” I’m faced with a decision that I’ll be confronted with over and over again: Do I explain all of this to her? Do I open up to her about what’s happened to me and how it’s affected me?
Or do I find a way somehow to avoid doing that? A lie for privacy or a conversation change. Any way to keep mum so I don’t have to explain how and why I’m so broken. And open myself up to judgment from her.
In that moment, I’m torn. When you’re the way that I am, it’s a choice you make over and over. Because part of me is longing to share that and have someone understand. But having already experienced so many bad interactions with what I thought were close friends, I’m pessimistic about the odds of any good happening with this co-worker.
And as I mentioned, the last thing I want to do is create an awkward situation at work where it’s even harder to come in than normal.
But she seems so devoted to getting to know me better (for some reason; I’ll never come to know why) that in the second that follows, I hear myself beginning to tell her the story. The short version of the story. About how I’d been with a bad man who looked like her good one, and it’s throwing me for a loop.
Surprising me, she is sympathetic. Asks a lot of questions. The short version turns into the long one.
And she comes up with a plan. “You should spend more time with my boyfriend,” she says. “I think it’ll help you.”
So I start to eat lunch together with them whenever he visits the store. And she has us read lines together from a play she wrote that she’s going to put on. A play in which our characters are dating each other. And slowly but surely, the strange feelings surrounding him fade.
My co-worker and I never become friend-friends. We work together for a few years and after we leave the store, we don’t speak with each other again.
But she manages in that time to teach me a lot. Both about when to tell others about your trauma (when it’s relevant and the person seems like they want to hear more about it) and when to keep it to yourself (when it’s irrelevant or the person doesn’t seem interested at all). And how to help myself condition the sting out of what’s bothering me.
And the rest? I power with spite.
Books by Page Turner: