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My Greatest Achievement

31 Post author: Swimmer963 12 September 2011 07:26PM

[warning: this is another gooey self-disclosure in the spirit of Alicorn and lukeprog’s recent posts, except more so.]

According to my submissions summary, my first top-level post dates back to February 18th, 2011. (I don’t know exactly when I started commenting, but I don’t feel like clicking through dozens of pages of old comments to find out.) By then, it had already been a month since I embarked on the most deliberate and probably the most difficult act of self-modification that I’ve ever attempted, and definitely the one I’m proudest of. At this point, I think I can say confidently that I’ve fixed one of the most irrational facets of my behaviour. A few people here know quite a bit about this, namely molybdenumblue.

[Aside: some people might find this article very personal. I’ve never had a strong privacy instinct, and since in this case it’s all my personal information*, and I talk openly about most of it with my friends and family, I have no qualms about publishing it. If it makes you uncomfortable, please feel free to stop reading.]

My New Year’s resolution for 2011, which I clearly remember making in my parents’ kitchen, was to experiment more with relationships. I had been in 2 relationships by my 19th birthday: one at age 14 with a much older recent immigrant to Canada who went to my high school, and one at age 17 with a boy who I worshipped when I was 12. Neither of them led anywhere interesting, in either an emotional or a physical sense. After breaking up with my second boyfriend, I was about ready to give up and start calling myself asexual. But since I had very little data to go on, an experiment seemed like a good idea.

I chose my experimental subject carefully: Billy, a boy I met through competitive lifeguarding, who was my age and seemed to share some of my values; he was in good shape, anyway; and whom I found moderately attractive. (I’ve been attracted to girls in the past, but that seemed like a more complicated experiment to set up.) I found him interesting without being too intimidating.

I had had some success in the past with getting boys’ initial attention, and I felt like I knew what I was doing. I started a conversation one evening when I came to swim at the campus pool and he was the lifeguard on duty, and I made an effort to be my friendliest and chattiest self. The next day I added him on Facebook, and suggested via the chat function that maybe we could hang out after guard team practice…The message must have gone though, because less than a week later, after he made me dinner at his apartment, he walked me home and kissed me outside the shared house where I was living. I went inside, shaking all over and not really sure whether I’d enjoyed it, but triumphant: success!

The only problem was that now that I had my result, I couldn’t end the experiment as easily as I’d started it. Some making out ensued, at my place and at his place. I found all of it vaguely embarrassing and a bit freaky, too; my only previous experience was with my first boyfriend, and at fourteen it had seriously grossed me out. By the end of the week, we ended up back at his apartment after some alcohol consumption, and clothes came off. I tried really hard to be okay with it. After all, it was part of my experiment, and I’d thought it was something I wanted. But irrational fears aren’t turned off that easily. When he told me that I drove him crazy, I wasn’t flattered: I was completely terrified.

I spent the next week or so putting on my game face and pretending everything was awesome, while crying on the phone with my younger sister every other night. (I can honestly say that although she’s five years younger, her social skills are much better than mine.)

I thought over and rejected various solutions because, ultimately, I liked Billy okay and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Open communication hadn’t existed in my previous relationships, so I didn’t know what to do. I was also more and more sleep deprived; my schedule had already been busy before, juggling school with two part-time jobs, and now it was unsustainable. The emotions built up, and I ended up handling it in what was probably the worst possible way: walking home from guard team practice, I started crying when he asked me if I was okay. (Bursting into tears when I don’t want to talk about something or do something and someone pushes me is a bad habit I picked up during my days of swim team performance anxiety.) It took at least an hour to get everything out: that I didn’t know what my feelings were, that it freaked me out when he touched me, and that if I had to sacrifice another night’s sleep to hang out I would probably go insane. And also the part I’d been too embarrassed to tell him earlier: I had a condition called vaginismus, and I wouldn’t be able to have sex even if I wanted to and felt ready. He walked me back to my house, carefully not touching, and I went upstairs to bed, feeling like a terrible person but also relieved. At least that was over.

I can’t really take the credit for this next part; if I hadn’t heard from him again, I think I would have walked away from it, not happily exactly, but determined never to get myself into a mess like that again. But I woke up at 6:30 to a text: Check your email. He had written me a long, fairly incoherent message, full of grammatical mistakes, but probably the sweetest thing that anyone had ever written to me, ever, in my whole life. Ending with: “With all that said, I realize that I am not just about ready to give up on us. [...] For now, I see what we have together is worth fighting for.”

I cried, felt trapped, felt miserable, and finally made myself a cup of tea, sat in my living room, decided that I’d gotten myself into this situation in the first place and I would have to cope with it. I phrased my reply carefully.

“I wanted to be everything you wanted me to be, and as soon as I knew for sure that I couldn't be that, I was terrified that you would find out and you wouldn't want me anymore. [...] I'm scared that as soon as I open myself to you, you'll reject me for being such a freak and then I'll lose you AND be hurt. [...] I kinda wish we could just start over, and go more slowly, and I wouldn't get scared and I'd be able to act maturely and not like a 13-year-old in over her head.” The problem wasn’t that I didn’t like him. I liked him as much as I’d liked any other boy. That was the scary part. 

A few weeks later we went out for his birthday. I baked a cake and he blew out the candles. Later he told me that he had made a wish; that our relationship would work out. It was a lot of pressure, and I tried to hide the fact that it still freaked me out when he said things like that. But part of me found it romantic, and that was the part I tried hard to focus on.

I don’t remember the timeline as clearly for the next few months. We hung out regularly, swam together and worked out together, and spent an entire guard team competition getting in trouble with the coach (“no touching!”). I brought him Tupperwares of food when he worked Saturday afternoon shifts at the pool. We did our homework together (him doing economics math problems, me making a colorful cardboard poster for my nursing placement in a daycare, probably the first time in my life I felt like the non-nerd in the room). We both said, “I love you.”

We fought about a lot of things, too, mainly the fact that he always wanted to see me more and I always wanted more time to read, write, swim, and sleep. But we talked everything through and usually came to some kind of compromise. I started sleeping over at his apartment once or twice a week, which I resented because sharing a single bed meant that I didn’t so much sleep as lie awkwardly awake for almost the whole night. We did our grocery shopping together. Gradually we started touching again, and I habituated to it, although some things still freaked me out. I only felt comfortable making out if the lights were on. I didn’t want to do anything at my place, because I was afraid my roommates would judge me. (They probably did.) In short, those months weren’t exactly the happiest of my life: I was stressed, exhausted, and under pressure all the time.      

At some point during the spring, I can’t remember the month exactly, I had my first orgasm when he was touching me. It was a huge surprise: “my body can do that?” Molybdenumblue and my mother both recommended that I practice, so I started masturbating for the first time in my life. But sex was still the main thing we fought about. Eventually we worked out a routine where I could at least satisfy his needs without too much time or effort. The semester was nearly over by now, and at some point we had decided that we wanted to try living together in the summer. We had been dating for less than four months. All of my roommates and many of my friends thought it was a terrible idea. My mother approved wholeheartedly, though, and I trusted her judgment. We moved into a subletted apartment on campus at the beginning of May.

It could have gone badly, but it went incredibly well. We had a double bed and I was actually able to sleep well nearly every night. I was working a lot, usually more than 45 hours a week, and juggling my mandatory exercise routines, but seeing each other at night was the default, rather than another commitment to slot into my schedule. Sex still wasn’t happening, so I went to see my family doctor and she recommended a physiotherapy routine that I could practice at home, and we were having sex maybe three weeks later. About the only thing I liked was that it was over quickly, but it still felt like an incredible accomplishment. My mother bought me chocolate as a reward for my hard work.

It seemed to be the end of the last snag in our relationship, the last obstacle that would have kept us from staying together long-term. We talk about everything, from the possibility of having kids someday (though definitely not soon, even though kids are uber-cute and I have to work with them every day at the pool and I want one too) to my crush on a girl at work. (When I was planning to go for a swim with her at the campus pool: “Aww, have fun on your lesbian date!”)

Conclusion: Billy left for a four-month exchange in France at the end of September, just before I went back to school for another semester of madly juggling school, work, and exercise, hoping that I would be able to cut back on my workaholic-ism; it’s irrational to think I’ll actually go bankrupt if I only work one shift a week. I was optimistic.

...And that was when I realized that I don’t feel like a scared thirteen-year-old girl anymore. I don’t feel like a freak and I don’t feel inadequate. I don’t find the day-to-day of a relationship stressful. I’ve made a ton of compromises, smoothed off some of the stubbornly contrarian aspects of my personality, and I don’t resent it; I feel good about it. My feelings are no longer as unpredictable as the weather, and when something does upset me, I almost always understand why and know how to fix it.

I couldn’t have achieved this on my own. I’ve relied on my mother, my sister, my best friend, and molybdenumblue. Not to mention one of the most incredibly patient, open-minded, and persistent people I’ve met in my life: Billy himself. But it’s a success story for me, even so. I wanted to be stronger, so I tried to change myself, and it was harder than anything I had ever done before, and I could have given up and walked away, but I decided to keep trying. And that's what makes it my greatest achievement.


*Billy has read this and ok'd everything I wrote, too.

Comments (29)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 12 September 2011 07:32:18PM 8 points [-]

(I don’t know exactly when I started commenting, but I don’t feel like clicking through dozens of pages of old comments to find out.)

Your first comment was made 9 Feb 2011.

Comment author: Swimmer963 12 September 2011 08:02:51PM 3 points [-]

Is there a fast way of looking that up which I didn't know about? Or did you actually scroll through pages and pages?

Comment author: komponisto 12 September 2011 08:27:07PM 9 points [-]

Your entire history on one page, courtesy of Wei Dai.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 12 September 2011 08:11:17PM *  8 points [-]
<http://lesswrong.com/user/Swimmer963/?count=10&after=t1_3j7g>

If you look at the structure of the URL, it includes a comment ID ('after=...') relative to which it searches for a given number ('count=10') of particular user's comments. I just did a binary search on the ID value (which is an integer in base 0..9,a..z) to find the first comment, never clicking Next/Prev links.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 12 September 2011 11:01:53PM *  6 points [-]

The only problem was that now that I had my result, I couldn’t end the experiment as easily as I’d started it

This line made me think of some sort of mad scientist. I'm not sure exactly how to do turn it into a Hollywood blockbuster but maybe something like: "One scientist tries to experiment with romantic attachment. But how far will the scientists go? What happens when their romantic test subject decides to experiment on the scientists? Dun, dun dun!" Unfortunately, Don LaFontaine is no longer around to narrate.

Regarding vaginismus, you may already be aware but their are a variety of treatments for this. You may want to talk to a doctor about that and see if any of those work for you.

Comment author: cousin_it 12 September 2011 08:52:14PM *  14 points [-]

Upvoted for not conditioning your behavior on romantic love!

I feel a strong urge to give some advice that may or may not be applicable, so feel free to disregard: a significant percentage of relationships like yours eventually end because the boy grows too emotionally dependent, which makes the girl lose attraction. So try to take choices that make your boyfriend a stronger person.

Comment author: Friendly-HI 12 September 2011 09:41:23PM 3 points [-]

For what it's worth, I agree. "Attractions is not a choice" they say and there are few things as unattractive, as a man who is too needy. If one doesn't keep an eye on such developments, they may slowly suffocate the relationship and suddenly one wakes up and the flame of desire is extinguished.

Comment author: Swimmer963 12 September 2011 09:05:54PM 4 points [-]

Thanks for the advice. I don't know whether it will be applicable; I've already spent the last 8 months trying to REDUCE his emotional dependency from "has a bad day if he doesn't see me" (I don't know, but I think it'd be pretty depressing to live like that) to "can go a couple of days without absolutely needing to see or talk to me." If it starts to rise again, though, yeah that'd be pretty annoying.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 13 September 2011 11:03:14PM 2 points [-]

Yes. This applies (less frequently) to too-dependent females also. Presumably "hey, maybe I could do a lot better" is the obvious implication - so if other factors defeat that implication, I guess it's fine or may even be pleasant or reassuring.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 September 2011 09:45:41PM 25 points [-]

high-five

Everyone, please spread this so I can be internet famous for advocating female masturbation.

Comment author: Friendly-HI 12 September 2011 09:34:50PM 13 points [-]

Congratulations.

Also, you've quite possibly picked the least judgmental crowd in the known universe to tell your story to, so I wouldn't worry - and you're still anonymous anyway, since you didn't use your real name here. I also didn't know about vaginismus before, which is really weird. (I mean the fact that I haven't heard of it yet, not the condition). I guess you never stop learning.

The only thing I'm curious about - did your accomplishment have anything to do with LW or rationality? Not that I'd sneer if that wasn't the case, I was just expecting some connection, since you started off with writing about when you first posted here.

Comment author: juliawise 15 September 2011 09:10:21PM 3 points [-]

I also didn't know about vaginismus before, which is really weird.

People aren't exactly eager to talk about it.

Comment author: Solvent 13 September 2011 07:25:38AM 3 points [-]

the least judgmental crowd in the known universe

Where did you get that impression? (I'm not disagreeing, just asking.)

Comment author: Friendly-HI 13 September 2011 09:54:06AM *  3 points [-]

I've noticed that I got less and less judgmental, the more rational I got and I noticed a similar lack of judgment in the writing style of others around here. I suppose once you boot out beliefs like free will, or become more aware of biases like the "fundamental attribution mistake" (the tendency to interpret the behavior of others in terms of their dispositional character, instead of their situational circumstances), there is little room left to judge.

Judging people (in the personal, emotionally laden way) just seems like a waste of time. So where did I get the impression you ask? Well it's just the sheer absence of judgmental language it in the way people write around here, and I'm not under the impression that it's just being repressed for reasons of social etiquette. Perhaps I'm assuming too much by inferring from myself and projecting onto others, but I'll just make that assumption for now and continue to update on new evidence as it rolls in.

Comment author: lessdazed 13 September 2011 10:24:45AM 6 points [-]

Well it's just the sheer absence of judgmental language it in the way people write around here

Sure, the people around here aren't judgmental, but the last LW/OB meetup I went to, Suicide Rock was there, and let me tell you that thing couldn't have been more sanctimonious.

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 12 September 2011 10:55:35PM 8 points [-]

What has this to do with rationality?

Comment author: MrMind 13 September 2011 10:33:55AM 5 points [-]

Instrumental rationality applied to oneself.

Comment author: Swimmer963 12 September 2011 11:02:05PM 7 points [-]

A lot to do with luminosity and tsuyoku naritai. Kind of inspired by Alicorn's post on polyhacking, since I think a similar level of self-modification was involved.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 13 September 2011 10:59:08PM 3 points [-]

There are people (of great intellect, even) who go on for years without trying to consciously optimize their situation. I've even been one of them ("this is good enough for now - why stress?").

If I believe thinking about things rationally helps, and I have a problem, and I've always got something else I'd rather be doing than to analyze the problem or plot its solution, what gives?

Comment author: Nisan 14 September 2011 04:33:32PM 2 points [-]

That's a beautiful story. I want to comment on it in the third person, since I don't know you well enough to respond to you personally.

This is what storytelling without the illusion of a unitary self looks like. It starts with a conscious decision — an experiment in romance — that quickly spirals out of control. Several desires come into conflict, and the consensus on running an "experiment" no longer exists. Some of the desires are labelled "irrational", but they manage to make themselves heard anyway. At a critical juncture it is the desire not to hurt the boy, and the fear of not living up to expectations, and no doubt some other things besides, that cause the relationship to proceed.

Eventually, the mind notes that personal growth has happened. There is more emotional self-awareness now, and there are skills pertaining to romantic relationships that weren't there before. The conscious mind, in its role as PR office, declares the experiment a success. The success was due more to a fortuitous confluence of different desires than to a unitary desire to be stronger. But that is true of everyone's accomplishments. In this case, the conscious mind has decided to appropriate the outcome of the relationship as an achievement, and in doing so reclaims its locus of control.

Comment author: Swimmer963 14 September 2011 05:06:05PM 3 points [-]

Several desires come into conflict, and the consensus on running an "experiment" no longer exists. Some of the desires are labelled "irrational", but they manage to make themselves heard anyway.

That's exactly what it felt like, too.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 September 2011 11:23:48PM 1 point [-]

It sounds like the experiment was very successful! You identified something about yourself you wanted to improve, you knew the limits of speculation without experience, you jumped in despite considerable emotional peril (it could so easily have gone badly), and it sounds like you learned a lot about who you are, how you operate, and how flexible your limits are.

You say "tsuyoku naritai"; I say "ganbatte!"

Comment author: scientism 16 September 2011 06:48:18PM 0 points [-]

If I've read this correctly, you're saying you were 19 when this happened? That seems too young to be under such tremendous pressure to be in a relationship or to extrapolate anything meaningful from the success or failure of prior relationships.

Comment author: Swimmer963 19 September 2011 09:19:53AM 1 point [-]

Possibly. But I was worried by the fact that it seemed awfully tempting not to do relationships at all and just to declare myself off limits at the start. I didn't want to do that without definitive evidence. And I had been watching a lot of my close friends engage in casual or serious relationships for years. 19 is not that young.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 13 September 2011 10:53:40PM 0 points [-]

Congratulations. I'm sorry what's so easy for many people (sex, I mean - everything else is hard) used to be so difficult for you.

Would you have described things differently midway through (or, did you, when confiding in real time)?

What seemed like tension between what you wanted and what your partner wanted would have concerned most of us, were we not hearing the fait accompli "contended ending" version. It seems like this tension existed between parts of you, and that your conscious decision was to override those parts and allow yourself to be pulled by your attachment to your partner (from the very beginning, you planned to do so with someone).

You must have learned how to communicate about difficult things, openly. It must have been quite hard for both of you, but along the way, a reservoir of investment, affection, trust, love, fear-of-loss, whatever, must have filled. I think sometimes giving up on "us" is absolutely the wisest decision (there will always be others!) but in hindsight you don't want such advice. I think the idea that you had to make it work with someone first (even as that chosen person becomes specifically significant) was a good guess.

I'd like to think that you could have developed deep non-family relationships even if you weren't able to be "normal", but of course it's good that you were able to become more typical in a way that you enjoy - it means more opportunity in general and a more compatible relationship with your current partner.

Comment author: Swimmer963 14 September 2011 09:19:11AM 0 points [-]

I think sometimes giving up on "us" is absolutely the wisest decision (there will always be others!) but in hindsight you don't want such advice.

Absolutely. But there were a couple of reasons (which I reluctantly repeated to myself at the time, when I really wanted to give up. (One) If I gave up this time, there probably wouldn't be another time. The initial stages (i.e. first 5 months) of the relationship were disruptive enough to my routines that I found it exhausting. I wasn't emotionally bothered by the thought of being the 40-year-old virgin, but I also didn't want that to become the outcome by default. I think my thought was "if I can make it work once, I'll have the confidence to make it happen again if I have to." (Two) Various people told me, and I had to admit, that Billy was approximately the best guy I would find for this, in terms of agreeing with lots of my values (thriftiness, physical fitness, etc) so that there was less to fight about, and also in terms of sheer patience and willingness to talk about and work on my problems. I think a lot of guys have been socialized NOT to talk about these things openly, which would have made it nearly impossible to solve the problems that we did.

Comment author: MrMind 13 September 2011 10:39:42AM 0 points [-]

Good work with your experiment! I've had an ex-anorexic girlfriend, and my actual fiancée suffers from secondary vaginismus, so I can relate to many of the problems and delights that Billy experiences. If you want to take in consideration further ways of self-modification, you could try hormone therapies. If I understand them correctly, topic estrogen therapy could be an improvement for the vaginismus condition, while testosterone therapy could increase your sex drive and the general harmony in the couple (contrary to popular belief, a testosterone increase does not promote aggressivity). Caution however, since t-therapy is considered mildly experimental.

Comment author: juliawise 15 September 2011 09:07:01PM *  0 points [-]

This site, though poorly designed, changed my life.