And that’s ultimately okay, says Ferrett Steinmetz.
When I was nineteen, being both depressive and insecure, I dated a girl called Allie. Allie was perfect for me at nineteen – she was smart, more well-read than any girl I’d ever met, possessed of a wicked sense of humor, and way into Doctor Who.
This was back when Doctor Who was a hipster nerd phenomenon, with the only way to watch episodes on late-night PBS telethons and hand-recorded videotapes, so even knowing Tom Baker’s name was like a secret handshake. We’d go to her house and watch episodes, and cuddle up, and never quite kiss.
We never quite kissed because she liked me, but thought I was a risky proposition to get intimate with. I was prone to dramatic outbursts, fresh off of two spring suicide attempts – that was before I’d noticed my Seasonal Affective Disorder – and I had a bad habit of acting out to get attention when I felt lonely. She wasn’t sure she could trust me.
Which, of course, I didn’t understand. We were meant for each other! We’d both read the complete works of Freud! We both laughed at the same obscure jokes! I was always a phone call away when she was down! How could she think I might be bad for her?
We dorked around like that on and off for about a year, and eventually she trusted me. She kissed me, and I floated on air for a week. She finally admitted that yes, we were dating, and that she loved me.
Naturally, I screwed it up within weeks.
I was insecure because she went to college in another city, and I got drunk, and back in those days I was of the dumbass opinion that if someone loved you, then they’d be happy to prove it to you at any time. So my reaction to insecurity was to have a mental breakdown over something she’d done, gibbering about how much hurt she was causing me – expecting that she’d naturally see my pain and demonstrate her affection in all the over-the-top, Lloyd-Dobler-with-the-boom-box ways that I was prone to doing.
So I did that on a visit.
She kicked my ass to the curb.
No explanation. No reason. She just told me it was over, and told me to go, and next thing I knew I was taking an early train home to Connecticut, completely baffled as to what had happened.
I was cut off.
And it hurt a lot.
Now, the reason I’m digging up all of these painfully stupid incidents from my past is because of this much-maligned piece on “Cutoff Culture”, wherein the guy had a four-month relationship with someone who (it’s implied) is a decade younger than he is, and then was still stalkery heartbroken about it two and a half years later.
The essay is basically a long clumsy cry for help, saying, “How can I possibly heal if you won’t talk to me? How can partners be so mean to cut men off without an explanation? You owe it to me to talk to me to help me along my psychological journey!”
And let me tell you what Allie’s cut-off finally taught me, my friend:
My pain is not anyone else’s responsibility to fix.
And that is quite possibly the most valuable lesson I ever learned.
I was, thankfully, self-aware enough not to be a stalker back then… partially because I respected boundaries, which I did, but partially because my drama took the form of worshipping Allie, with me as her humble knightly servant, and the Queen had exiled me. So I took it as a matter of pride to stay as far away from her as possible.
(Thank God. Oh, thank God I did. Some days I look at my nineteen-year-old self as some rabid tiger, wandering around loose and dangerous, and I wonder who the heck ever thought letting that idiot out on the world was a good idea. I wasn’t a good person back then, but holy crap I could have screwed up even worse.)
But I wondered. I wondered why the heck she wouldn’t want me, when I did everything she needed. I did all of these wonderful things for her, been her best friend, been the funniest guy she knew – she told me that! – and with all that, how could she toss that away so casually?
I analyzed Allie. Was she cruel? Psychopathic? Crying out in her own way for help? Blind to my benefits?
And Jesus, after months of pondering the idea, I finally shucked away the other options to be left with the simple, staring truth that Maybe you were bad for her, you idiot.
It seems stupidly simple, and it was, but I was so fogged by my misplaced affections that I couldn’t do the equation: If she kicked my ass out, I couldn’t have been as good as I thought.
And that thought led to a hundred other thoughts, each of which contributed to making me an actually useful partner:
“How could she not have told me?” Well, the forensic analysis on those conversations revealed that she had told me, at least twenty times – I just wasn’t listening. This wasn’t some abrupt cutoff without warning – warnings aplenty had been given – no, this was me being deaf to the blaring horn of the oncoming train.
“How could she be so cruel?” She could be so cruel because I’d been an overemotional jackass to her on multiple occasions, and though she’d been quietly trying to change my behavior, I stubbornly refused to stop.
“Why was this so sudden?”
It had been a slow burn, and I was just too self-obsessed in my own needs to see it coming.
Yet when I checked with my friends, the ones who were honest? They all saw it coming. To them it was a tsunami of stupid, and they were just waiting for it to hit shore, but I didn’t even feel a drizzle.
And what finally occurred to me was that I was the villain here.
Which is not to say that Allie was without flaw. I’m not going to make the stupid nineteen-year-old mistake of idolizing Allie, claiming she was perfect and oh God I brought down Heaven itself (which was, sadly, the self-flagellation mode I took for years afterwards). Allie had her own flaws, and in truth we didn’t actually share the same sense of humor, and we didn’t actually love the same things about the books we’d read, and I was a Peter Davison fan when she loved Tom Baker.
Really, such a relationship could never last.
But what I started to learn with Allie (and ultimately had to finish up with my wife Gini, who thankfully I did get it right with) was that I had a really selfish MO, perhaps taught to me from years of therapists who’d been paid to listen to me: When I was upset, I thought it was someone else’s job to calm my ass down.
And it wasn’t. I was actually a walking stickybomb, expecting everyone else to tend to my needs, and what Allie taught me – bless her – is that nobody else is responsible for my pain but me. I can talk to other people to try to fix it, and it’s helpful if they do, but they are by no means obligated to help me in my journey.
More importantly: if I screw up their lives to an unreasonable extent, they’re perfectly within their rights to eject me. Nobody should be expected to tolerate someone who’s actively toxic to them.
And viewed in that light, the very least I could do to Allie after heaping psychological trauma upon her is to leave her the heck alone and not try to get in touch with her.
Yet to this day, on the rare occasions I’ve written about Allie, I get people chirping, “Well, you should get in touch with her! You never know! See if she’s forgiven you!”
But hey, this is the age of interconnectivity. My name’s a Google away. I’ve seen her name float across my Facebook page a couple of times, which means I’m sure she’s seen mine. I even used her real name in some early blog entries back in the year 2000, before I realized Google would actually put that data somewhere she could find it (I’ve since erased them).
I’m 100% certain that Allie knows where I am, who I am, and has no interest. And that’s fine. As I’ve said in my essay “How I Never Forgive Someone“:
It’s not that I don’t believe in the act of forgiveness, repentance, or growth. It’s that for me, these people have shown me to be not worth the risk of having them around. They weren’t perfectly toxic in the first place, or they never would have been my friends; there was something I liked about them, enough to give them multiple chances. They probably did at least one very good thing for every two bad things they did.
Eventually, I realized that I didn’t like continually wondering what hurtful thing they might do next. The damage of always cringing in preparation for the next blow is, in some ways, worse than the actual blow. And as such, letting them back into my life would mean cringing on some level… and I won’t do that.
They’ve burnt their time with me. I hope they can learn to make other people happy; I hold no malice. But they’re not allowed back, no matter how many proclamations of change they make, no matter how many people vouch for them. It’s not that I think they are bad, it’s that I am no longer willing to find out.
That’s who I was for Allie. And that’s why no, I don’t get in touch with her. She deserves a life free of cringing in expectation of the next blow. And honestly? Even at the age of forty-four, I’m still kinda dippy.
That wound still aches. It’s an embarrassingly teenaged regret to reveal here, but yes – I’d feel better, on some levels, if we were friends, as it’d be proof that somehow I’d made up for my old tiger-level stupidity.
But I am friends with Allie, even if she is not friends with me. And since I am a true friend, the best way I can show my friendship is to let her not worry I’m going to hurt her again.
I’m no longer her responsibility. I’m my own.
It is, actually, better this way.