This week, I am 13.
I am 13 because that is the age my therapist ordered me to be.
Remember 13? When crushes felt like they were literally squeezing your insides. When the first touch of skin on skin — even holding hands — sent electric chills through your body. When a good makeout sesh was the height of sexual excitement.
At 13, there was possibility.
When I was 13, that’s when all those good things stopped, and shame entered the equation.
When I was 13, I had my first trauma. After that, everything got messy.
My therapist was intrigued but not surprised when I told her that when I cheated, I set a firm line with my co-conspirators that mirrors exactly the first sexual boundary of mine that was ever crossed: My pants stay on, and your hands stay out of them.
The kissing, the hand-holding, the sexting, the feeling up — all these things are cheating. As my therapist said, “The affair started before you even touched.” But I have always been able to commit these acts with relatively little remorse. It is only when I violate my own rule (or have it broken for me) that the guilt kicks in.
That invisible boundary exists even in my incredibly loving and stable relationship. I’m generally happy as a clam (pun intended) to round bases 1 and 2, but anything beyond that, and I have to work really hard (pun also intended) to stay present, and even harder to, ahem, get there.
It’s been 13 years since that night at my friend’s house, but the results are often still the same: An arbitrary line of sexual conduct is crossed, and I freeze up.
Apparently, I’m still 13. Sexually.
Because that’s when I last felt 100% safe and 100% excited about sex. The last time I still had 100% ownership of my own body.
And so I seek out that 13-year-old feeling of novelty. I go for the forbidden to give me butterflies in my stomach. In short, THIS is why I cheat. At least in part.
Another part? My brain is trying to heal that original trauma. At least, according to my therapist.
There is a psychological term for this, called reenactment. (Also repetition compulsion). It is very common among survivors of trauma, whatever that trauma was. Essentially, people place themselves — consciously or unconsciously — in situations similar to those in which the trauma occurred, sometimes many times, in the (typically subconscious) hopes of being able to “resolve” that incident: In other words, to get a different outcome, one in which they are in control and the trauma does not happen.
So this, too, is why I cheat.
Whenever I would get myself into a situation where there was potential to stray, I would tell myself, ‘This time will be different. This time, I’ll just not do it.’
I would set benchmarks of behavior for myself, as described above.
“This time, we’ll only hug.”
“This time, we’ll only kiss on the lips.”
“This time, we’ll only make out.”
But every time, I would go past that. Every time.
At the very moment that self-imposed rule was flouted, the emotional effect is immediate and very, very familiar. Excitement turns to remorse, sexiness to shame, confidence to disgust.
Just like when I was 13.
I would say that my therapist has taxed me with reliving this trauma, but the truth is, I have relived it a million times. I have been living it, folding the shame associated with abuse into the whole of my sexuality.
So the only difference in reliving it now is that I have a trained professional and a loving boyfriend at my side to help me: She makes sure I don’t freak out during therapy, and he makes sexy time fun by respecting me when I say no, reminding me that I’m safe and loved, and by generally being up (or down) for anything I need. Which this week means pretending we’re 13 again.
Remember 13? When crushes felt like they were literally squeezing your insides. When the first touch of skin on skin — even holding hands — sent electric chills through your body. When a good makeout sesh was the height of sexual excitement. When the threat (or promise) of sex wasn’t a dark cloud of expectation hanging over your heads, but an exotic location to be visited someday.
13? It’s looking better all the time.