By Ariel RB
Featuring the words and illustrations of William Steig’s The Lonely Ones
You walk into one of the very few bars in town and you find your own personal Hell. Your abusive ex-boyfriend is kissing a young woman–a public display of affection that he never liked to engage in with you. He dances to the bluegrass band with her. You try to shrug it off, but you have spent the last year feeling sub-par, and feeling like you have been responsible for every mood swing of this person. Old habits die hard. You remind yourself, “He was in my way. I’d be locked in a tower somewhere if I were still with him, crying myself to sleep every night, cleaning his dishes with no indoor plumbing.” Just like you used to do.
Your heart fills with dread and fear for this other woman. You’re not sure what to do about it, though, because you are still very fearful and part of you still believes you may be crazy.
Your world feels tiny. Your world wraps itself tighter and tighter around you like a boa constrictor crushing its prey. So you spin around and search for something and someone to grab onto. You spin around and see a Good Friend walk over to Abusive Ex and, with gusto, Good Friend slaps him on the back and gives him a hearty, enthusiastic hello and they are just so psyched to see each other, and you’re like, “What the fuck?” Several months prior to this, you had a friendly conversation with Good Friend after which Abusive Ex had berated you for it because you were talking to another male person.
“I keep thinking that maybe you’re too smart, too good-looking, and you have too many friends,” Abusive Ex had told you, “Maybe it was a mistake to date you.”
You had always labored under the assumption that being smart, good-looking, and friendly were positive traits. But, the way he had said it made it sound like you were damaged, cursed by these attributes. So, you had tried to shrink yourself.
Now G.F. and A.E. are BFFs, you guess. You watch as several of your friends follow suit and pat A.E. on the back. He is a swell guy–who knew?
Maybe it is just you. Maybe you are crazy, maybe you are difficult, too emotional, too demanding…this fucker’s voice echoes in your head.
You are humiliated. Humiliated isn’t even strong enough a word.
You get drunk and you dance with this tall, handsome guy who you believe may be some kind of white supremacist. But you’re drunk and you’re wounded. And humiliated. And he’s much older and he tells you that you’re perfect. At least you know better than to take him home. Around midnight, you head home, leaving a half-empty beer on the picnic table outside. You start to walk home, but soon you find that you’re running as fast as you possibly can into the night. Cars are driving by and the people inside probably think you’re a lunatic or that you’re in trouble. You are in trouble.
As you’re running home like a drunk maniac, you feel a chill in the air. And you know that the cold is coming, and the cold brings snow. And the snow brings road closures and you will be trapped. And your world feels even smaller than it already did. You get home, gasping for air. You cry into the night and think about how much your life resembles Twin Peaks. You develop a distaste for many people you thought you loved and trusted. You feel that chill in the air again, and you feel cold dread. It’s coming. And you think to yourself, “What the fuck have I done?”
You are trapped. Even going to the grocery store becomes a terrifying experience. So you decide the only way you’re going to get through this is medicating yourself, whether it be self-medicating or through a doctor. For the first time in your young life, you seek professional help. You get medication to curb the anxiety.
For some reason, you choose this exact moment to quit smoking even though your anxiety is completely out of control. But, you do quit smoking. And you go on these really intense hikes that make your lungs scream so that you remember why it’s important to quit. The medication makes you feel weird.
It gets easier, but only after a while.
Eventually you start to feel better, but you’re not sure if it’s because of the meds or the exercise or a full night’s sleep. You start doing stuff like flossing, reading, taking out your contacts every single night. You don’t spend time with people.
You feel better, but you’re still constantly looking over your shoulders whenever you’re around town like you’re being followed or chased. A friend asks you to watch football, and you have a panic attack. But you do it, and it’s fun and you enjoy yourself, and your team wins.
You talk to your family every day. Things get better but you still think to yourself, “What the fuck have I done?” when you feel that chill in the air again. Someone tells you about a wedding happening, and you brace yourself in fear and panic for some reason. You’re not even invited.
Occasionally you come home and dry heave uncontrollably. But way less than you used to. You used do it every day. It’s surprising when it happens now, which is progress, you guess.
You realize more and more that not everyone gives a shit about you. When you first moved here, you thought everyone gave a shit about you. Because everyone sort of told you in different ways that they gave a shit about you. You now know that just because someone pretends to be really interested in your life, it doesn’t mean that they are actually interested in your life. That’s just the way people are in small towns. You come from a city, so this is a brand new lesson.
You’re homesick for the honest indifference you find on a city street. You think about the city subways and how everyone is hyper aware of each other but no one is looking at you or caring about you or, more importantly, pretending to care about you. You know exactly what’s going on. There are no falsehoods. You think about sitting at bars in the city and how no one pays attention to you and no one wants to talk to you or ask you about your day or your work or your future plans. Because no one really cares. Because they can’t.
And you know now that the people in this town don’t really care because they either can’t or choose not to. You tell them about your horrific experiences with this person, and they choose to ignore it and be polite and enable him.
The difference is that they pretend to really care, they pretend to love you. They pretend you are their tribe. You fall for it. You take it to heart. So, ultimately, you end up heartbroken.
You decide to not give a shit about them. You retreat to your own personal space and don’t invite many people into it. You take it day-by-day, and make plans for Halloween, for Thanksgiving, for New Years. Because you don’t want to waste these joyous occasions. You long for that honest indifference that you left back East. The honest indifference you thought you would never miss.
Somewhere in the thick of your indifference and disdain, there are these people who hassle you every day to hang out, who ask you how you are, who want to make art with you and eat food with you. You’re deep in hiding, and yet they still find you. You’re at your worst and have nothing to give to anyone, and yet they surround you with light and affection. And at some point, it works. They keep working, and digging, and nurturing. They brush you off like a plant buried in dirt, and you blossom. You come back to life. You start to listen to your music again, and dress like yourself again, you wear red lipstick and eyeliner, and you approach social situations with confidence.
It took a while, but you no longer live in constant fear and self-doubt.
You now listen to your gut like it’s the gospel.
This has been a hard lesson, but consider it learned.