For the past two and a half years, I’ve been living the dream. At least, that’s what everyone keeps telling me, and they’re pretty much right. In the wake of debilitating trauma and the end of a 15-year marriage, I did what few would do in those circumstances. I started traveling through Europe, living in other people’s homes and watching their pets.
At the beginning, it was frankly for survival. I told myself that if I was going to cry every day and walk in a zombie-like stupor through the ruins of my life, then I was going to cry every day in Europe and walk zombie-like through the historical streets of ancient cities, art museums, and breathtaking countrysides.
After a time, the tears stopped.
After a little longer time, the hope for reconciliation with my husband faded.
Finally, at the beginning of the third year after he left and five years after the assault, I was ready to be part of society again.
Living with Complex PTSD is a constant struggle. Anxiety. Depression. Hypervigilance. etc… Most of my time was spent in isolation. Certainly I had friends and made new friends, but by far most of my activities were done alone. From kayaking in Scotland to snowshoeing in the Alps, I did it alone. I went to the theatre alone. I went hiking alone. I went to the movies alone. Days would go by where I wouldn’t talk to another human being that wasn’t a barista at Starbucks.
Occasionally I’d meet a friend for coffee, then talk so so so much, grateful to have a conversation with someone who wasn’t covered in feathers or fur.
People scared me, especially men, so I was content on my own. I was at peace. I would binge-watch Netflix and tell myself how great this was.
I didn’t need a relationship.
I didn’t want a relationship.
I was happy alone.
In fact, it wasn’t just something I told myself. It was true. Sure I got lonely from time to time, but mostly I was doing really well, as I’ve recorded in my emotional regulation workbook. Rated moods of 8 out of 10 all the week long for months at a time.
So who-the-fuck-knows what possessed me to start dating again this year!
It all started with game night at the Black Sheep Pub in Ashland, OR during a petsit there this past holiday season. After another tearful, lonely Christmas (as the holidays are the hardest), I made some New Years Resolutions. I normally don’t do that, but this year I did because I was determined to push my boundaries, face more fears. I vowed to myself that I would talk to 3 strangers a week. I vowed that I would go out with the neighbor’s friend who had expressed interest in me. I vowed I would go to game night, walk up to a group of strangers, and say, “Can I play with you?”
What was the worst that could happen?
They might laugh.
They might say, “Ha! You? Why would we want to play with you?”
Of course the likelihood of that response was pretty slim. If they were cruel, I would just go home and cried until I didn’t cry anymore. That I knew how to do. I’ve survived so much worse, so I had nothing to lose.
I went and I asked. No one said that, so I made new friends. The next week it was easier, and the week after that easier still! I was doing this! I was talking to people and socializing and filling up my life, and I was doing it all on my own.
Then I met him on the last game night before I was leaving Ashland to return to a 5-month stint in Portland. Patrick.
When Patrick walked up to my table, I suddenly albeit momentarily lost the ability to speak. (For me, that’s saying something!) I invited him to play with our group, and I loved every minute of it. He was adorable and geeky, an English professor, and — get this — a petsitter! I thought the universe was giving me a clear message: there are available, intelligent, nerdy guys out there. Although a month earlier I never would have, I gave him my number (because what did I have to lose?), but alas, he never called. Although I was a little disappointed, mostly I was inspired that there were other people like Patrick out there who would call.
After meeting Patrick and going out with the aforementioned neighbor’s friend who started throwing up glaring red flags after 10 minutes, and I not only saw them but heeded them, even though he was kinda cute, I felt ready enough to join a dating app and really start to date again.
Ironically perhaps, I asked my dear friend and ex-fiance Paul advice on dating apps. I knew he had used Zoosk, but when asked he suggested Bumble because it was run by women and tailored for the safety of women. Women had to make the first move by initiating contact within 24 hours of a match. If the guy responded in another 24hrs, the conversation got started. This model made me feel safe from the beginning because one of my fears of getting back on a dating app was how the vulture descend on every new woman that signs up. Dozens of messages in the first day. Incomprehensible messages without sentence structure or grammar. Perhaps just a “UR HOT” or a meek “Hi,” with nothing else. Then there were the dick pics, of course, because there are always dick pics since it’s a widely-known fact that women seek a relationship with a disembodied penis.
With Bumble, I was protected from this initial onslaught because I had to make first contact. It was perfect.
February is a rough month for me, since it contains both the anniversary of the assault and the anniversary of when my ex-husband proposed. So this February, I was going to keep busy by dating. Casually dating, mind you. After all, I was very happy on my own. It was more practice socializing than dating anyway. It was learning how to be direct and make assertive requests with nothing to lose. It was testing the waters where I could both recognize and respond to red flags.
It was a perfect plan. I would practice here and gain confidence, so that when I returned to the UK later this year, I would be ready to properly date there and finally meet my dream Englishman.
I Bumbled along, swiping right on many men. I wasn’t looking for my next husband after all; I was merely learning and exploring. I made myself an ambitious goal of 10 dates in the month of February. It would distract from the anniversaries and Valentine’s Day. It would be fun! I even set up a section in my Bullet Journal for dating where I would write down the name of the man, any red/yellow flags, and my thoughts on the date.
I had set myself clear boundaries.
1. Only daytime dates
2. Be frank about what I wanted and ask what they were looking for
3. Assert that I was only interested in friendship
4. If they breathed like a misogynist or tried to talk me out of any no — no matter how insignificant…
They were gone.
5. If they used words like “baggage” and “drama” to describe human relations and emotions…
They were gone.
Sex was the furthest thing from my mind. Certainly was not ready for that again.
Just socializing, that’s all. Practice.
Several men wouldn’t respect my choice of a daytime date and tried to talk me into an evening one.
One man made a #MeToo joke.
One man had been married for 25 years and just divorced a little over a month. He said his wife had “issues” and he got tired of always being understanding and the happy one…
One could’ve been the man who assaulted me. It was creepy.
Several were nice, but either a little creepy or awkward or didn’t heed nonverbal cues. Two were great, one of whom I’m still in contact as a casual FB friend. The other fell out of touch before the second date because he really was looking for a romance, not a friend.
Then it was time for my 8th first date. . . I figured, like the rest, I would see him, have a nice conversation, make note of all the red flags, and politely thank him, never to see him again. All part of practicing for when I would really start dating in the UK later this year, when I was ready for a new relationship. (Spoiler alert: I never went on # 9 or 10)
This man—recovering goth with a B- in adulting, as his profile said, lover of Harry Potter, cats, and geek culture—walked in with his purple spiky hair and adorable dimples. We spoke fervently about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter and Disneyland, computers (he’s a programmer) and technology, 80s music and Gothic goodness, and all the things, as he would say. After lunch he asked me to coffee, and I accepted, much to my surprise, as it was over the hour I allotted for the first date, but I didn’t want to stop talking with him. I was having a wonderful time. When we said goodbye, I gave him my spiel about friendship, etc … but added, as I didn’t to the others, that I would be open to more, but it would have to start there.
He was fine with it. Didn’t even blink. He liked talking to me as a person. Then he asked and waited for consent before he hugged me goodbye.
For the next week I couldn’t stop thinking about him. We had a second date the following week, and it was better than the first. Then a third, fourth, fifth… and now it’s been over two wondrous months. Totally unexpected. Totally amazing.
Neither of us were looking for this, but we both know there is something different here. We’re old enough to have had the experience with relationships (& divorce) to know when something is unlike the rest, and it’s incredible. Who knows what the future holds, of course, but the present is wonderful. We’re enjoying every minute together, reminded of what it’s like to be blindsided by love.