I was recently introduced to the phrase “experiential avoidance”. A friend of mine has been working through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is a type of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). She reached out because she thought I could benefit from the exercises, since she saw a lot of overlap in my experiences.
Experiential avoidance is an umbrella term for all kinds of avoidance; not seeing people, not going to places, limiting your life in an attempt to avoid the painful stimulus. It’s applicable for me because it’s exactly what I did in the first 18 months after the break up. I moved to a different town, stopped going to the monthly music nights where I used to see most of my friends, stopped going to certain pubs and bars. I wanted to avoid running into my exes because it was too painful. And in the short term it worked. But it the long term, my world became smaller and smaller. I lost touch with most of my friendship circle, spent more and more time alone in my new house. I became lonely and insular, and my depression worsened.
Behaviours that seemed normal and reasonable – avoiding running in to my manipulative ex – ended up hurting me in the long term. I was so busy avoiding painful experiences that I limited my opportunity to experience good things.
It was only when I started writing this blog, when I started acknowledging my history and my experiences, that I was able to start dismantling the walls I has built around myself.
I went back to the pub that I used to attend – with a new group of friends – and even though I thought I might have a full on panic attack at one point, nothing bad happened. I didn’t run into my exes. Nothing awful happened. So I went back again, and again. I went to other locations I had been avoiding, and still nothing bad happened. My anxiety started to reduce, and I realised that I had been catastrophising. Even if I did run into my exes, what was the worst that would happen? They’d ignore me? They’d confront me? About what? They’ve moved on. I hardly mattered to them when I was dating them, I certainly don’t matter now. They probably don’t even think about me. What was I so worried about?
The whole point of this blog is to stop avoiding my past and start processing it. I’ve done my best to be honest about my experiences. I don’t want to give the impression that I was always some kind of victim – there was definitely a period where I was actively involved in the adventurous sex and kink and so on. I still consider myself to be kinky. And I met some of my best friends at fetish clubs.
But the fact remains that I was only 17 when I was targeted by a 28 year old online. An older man who I trusted implicitly, who I looked up to for guidance, who delighted in showing me off at fetish clubs because it made him look good. Older doms with much younger subs are so common at these clubs that it goes beyond a cliche. Several doms on the scene are famous for their ever-changing parade of vulnerable young women.
For the first couple of years things were mostly good. I loved the way he showed me off; it made me feel special. I was happy in our polygamous relationship too. It was fun, exciting and new. Things only started getting difficult when I moved in with the then-boyfriend full time. Over a hundred miles away from my own friends and family, and suddenly utterly dependent on my partner, the dynamic definitely shifted. By this point, we’d been seeing our girlfriend for about a year, and it was slowly transitioning from weekend sexcapades at the fetish club to her (and her children) spending the night almost every night.
I wanted to make our odd little family work, but I’d never really wanted children and I certainly hadn’t planned to be anyone’s step mum at 21. The fact is, this set up didn’t work for me, but I spent the next 6 years trying to make it work. I loved my boyfriend, and I loved our girlfriend. I genuinely loved the kids, even though they were hard work. I kept thinking that if I stuck at it long enough, I could get back to the relationship dynamic that I had enjoyed in the beginning, before I got too sick to have sex; before I got too sick for my bf to value me.
Unfortunately, the person that I fell in love with wasn’t real – it took me a long time to realise that the person my then-bf had pretended to be while we were dating wasn’t actually who he was. Everyone tries to be the best version of themselves while dating, but as long as we were doing the long distance thing he was able to keep it up. It was inevitable that that wouldn’t work once we were living together.
That whole relationship became deeply toxic. Part of it was just people not communicating their needs, part of it was outright dishonesty, and I think we all played our roles to some extent. What I’m saying is, I can talk about the damage that toxicity did to me – especially the spectacularly terrible way that it ended – without laying 100% of the blame on any one person. That’s not what this is about.
I’m simply trying to process a decade of gas-lighting, emotional conflict and toxic relationships in the best way that I can.
I’m extremely lucky to be in a space now where I can process those things. At times during that period of my life I was actively self-harming and suicidal. I was convinced that my self worth was completely tied in to my ability to have sex – that no one could love me if they couldn’t fuck me. I felt broken.
It takes a lot of work to undo years of thinking like that. I’m learning to love myself, and I’m learning that I’m worthy of love. I’m not going to apologise to anyone for taking the time to do that.
After the relationship ended, I grieved for it. That’s normal. I grieved for the loss of people who I thought loved me. I grieved lost friends, my lost home, even the loss of my unusual family. I needed time to contemplate a future that would be radically different from what I had planned.
New home, new town, new friends – new life. It’s no wonder that it took me a while to process it enough to talk about it.
I’m lucky that the majority of commentators have been sympathetic and supportive – as for the rest, never mind. It’s easy to say “get over it” when it’s not your pain, but I don’t expect compassion from every stranger on the internet. If you feel the need to leave negative comments about other people’s experiences, I’d argue that says a lot more about you than it does about me.
As for me, I’m going to keep writing. It makes me feel better. It’s helping me heal. I’m not avoiding any more. And maybe, one day, this might help someone else who finds themselves on the same journey.