This post is a submission by an author who prefers to remain anonymous. Please respect their privacy and do not speculate about their identity.
This is a document of my experiences in the hopes that it can bring understanding and validation to others. Please note that it contains explicit (but not graphic) mention of emotional abuse, sexual assault, physical violence, mental disorders, self-harm, and generally a fair amount of unhappiness and violence. Please take care of yourself.
My personal narrative doesn’t crop into a convenient story. It’s easier to pretend that the last few years never happened, and often it still startles me when I’m forced to recognize otherwise. The truth comes in a wave of emotions and the facts are difficult to frame with words. What follows is an attempt to compromise between a disjointed capricious memory and a desire to communicate an identity I haven’t fully formed. I don’t have a convenient resolution to bring together all of my disconnected ideas, but the inconsistencies have played an important part in shaping my view of the world and it would feel wrong to leave them out for the sake of clarity. With that in mind, I’ll try to begin back when the details were still forming into habits in order to set the stage for an understanding of the events that followed.
Start at 16, the first year in which I can retrospectively say with certainty that depression was a part of my life. During high school, my father became despondent from losing job after job and my mother grew to resent her role as the main income provider. I loved my family and did my best to take on responsibilities, to repair fractured relationships, and to keep quiet about family issues. It was never enough, and the constant stress at home brought me down. Unable to change my family’s situation, I began to blame myself for not being stronger, smarter, or more capable. I blamed myself for failing to be more motivated in school and for failing to hold my family together. My contribution to the family wasn’t considered noteworthy, only expected, and sometimes my mother reminded me when I couldn’t support them that I didn’t deserve their support either.
By the time I left for college, I was looking for an escape. However, cell phones allowed obligations to travel with me. On top of family ties, I was spending hours on the phone with a high school friend every week. Toxic and spiteful, she had driven off many of her close friends, but without a support network, I was afraid for her well-being. She was often emotionally unstable and frequently unhappy. One day she said that I was the best thing about high school, and on another day she told me that I wasn’t supportive enough and cut me out of her life for several weeks. As our one-sided friendship became more draining, I told her that she needed to find better help, that our relationship was hurting me and that we both knew I wasn’t helping her. Eventually, one of her occasional bouts of silence turned into six months, and after that, I didn’t pick up the phone anymore when she called.
With that bit of backstory, let’s return my first semester at college. I was at a small school, and even though the prospect of college seemed exciting at first I soon felt out of place. It was difficult to find conversations that interested me and classes were not as exciting as I’d hoped. In an attempt to be more engaged with college life I joined multiple clubs. I found that one of my classmates was also in many of the same clubs, and we soon became good friends through our shared classes and shared interests. My life improved from spending time around someone whose enthusiasm and motivation helped offset my depression. And even though I didn’t feel a strong sense of belonging at my new school, it still felt much more like home than the place where I’d grown up.
I wanted to make more close friends at school but I was not the easygoing and optimistic person I’d like to be, and it had become instinctive for me to be distrustful of others. Although I formed several other friendships, none were nearly as close. As the months passed by, my best friend started acting differently around me and, inevitably, the subject of dating came up. My response was something to the tune of, “I don’t think it would be a good idea.” I wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship but I didn’t feel comfortable giving a flat-out “no” to the person who I shared most of my time with and who was my main source of stability. Spending time around him was an important escape from being alone with my own thoughts, and ultimately I was afraid of losing his friendship. When our friendship turned into a relationship, I felt guilty for my selfish motivations. I didn’t feel like I was in love with him but tried to grow new feelings out of the feelings I did have for him. I told myself that I wasn’t enthusiastic about dating because I wasn’t really attracted to people or interested in sex.
Year two of college began, and I started to regret my decision not to transfer. I was dissatisfied with my classes and lack friends at a small college where the new options were running out. On top of that, my emotional state had stopped improving – my high school friend’s emotionally volatile state and tendency toward extreme responses had made me even more hypervigilant, unsettled, and anxious. I’d done my best to stabilize my life and I was still depressed and dysfunctional, now without a visible path for improvement. I began to lose hope and my mental and emotional stability collapsed.
My friends noticed my change in behavior and started to act uncomfortable around me. I began to withdraw because I didn’t like seeing them look at me in a way that suggested that something about me scared them. The ostracization stung and I didn’t want to feel like I was hurting the people I cared about. Even my best friend stopped smiling when I acted nervous. I learned to pretend that nothing was wrong just so he would act friendly toward me. He was the only one capable of being present to support me and I couldn’t afford to lose his friendship.
The pretending wasn’t enough. He treated me like I hid an ugly secret from him, even after I told him that it had nothing to do with our relationship. Having learned that I was helpless to fix failing relationships, I soon stopped trying to convince him otherwise. I became defensive and uncomfortable around him, which furthered his current course of action. Again, able to only watch the deterioration of our friendship, I turned against myself. The relationship was failing because I couldn’t hold in my own problems and I felt guilty for my emotional decline.
I didn’t see him for two weeks over the winter break and it helped pull me out of the tunnel vision I’d developed. When I returned to school in the spring I broke up with my best friend, not because I wanted to, but because I knew I won’t have the strength to do it later. Without another person to structure my life around, my mental and emotional state continued to unravel. I felt consumed with grief and guilt that were fueled by nightmares and intrusive waking dreams. I sought out counseling, finally, and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. They prescribed me pills that dulled the sharpness of my feelings and made me tired enough to fall asleep. Unable to imagine living with my family, I continued to take classes even though I was often too dysfunctional to complete the work. The semester turned into a recurring nightmare and by the end I only wanted things to be better again. I wanted to be cared for, to be forgiven so I could learn to stop hating myself.
Near the end of the semester, my ex and I started talking again, a little glimpse of so many good memories that I couldn’t recreate on my own. Then we started spending time together again and it felt like things falling back into place, like finding myself after months of being lost. When he wanted something more physical out of our relationship, I didn’t argue. I just wanted for things to be alright again.
Classes ended and I told my parents that I was taking time off school. To their credit, they didn’t really argue with me. My mother made it clear that they would not support me financially if I chose to not live with them. I couldn’t imagine living with my parents, nor could I imagine burdening a faraway friend. With nowhere good to go I moved in with the sort-of boyfriend and started looking for work. I told myself that I was stronger now, that I would make communication happen, and we’d build a more stable relationship with words.
He felt there wasn’t much to say, and he didn’t ask when it came to my body. I did not call the situation what it was at the time, though I knew he had hurt me. Three years later I didn’t deny that he could hurt someone else, but I held out on calling what he’d done rape until then because I wanted to believe that it was a misunderstanding, or that I was an exception. It was easier to see myself as a particularly terrible person so that what had happened was an exceptional situation, so that the exceptionally horrible couldn’t be so painfully ordinary. I wanted so badly for it to mean anything other than the fact that my best friend didn’t give a thought about my well-being, that the people I trusted the most weren’t safe to be around, and that no matter how much I cared about someone, it could mean nothing. Eventually, I started to come to terms with the fact that the only closure to being raped that I’d ever have was the one I’d write for myself. I began to think of him as my rapist, because it became the only thing he could be in order for me to move on. Eventually the good memories started to fade like the bad ones. We would have been like perfect strangers, except that I knew his habits all too well.
But three years ago, it was all too present for me to confront, and the most pressing consideration was figuring out how to manage my year away from school. I got a job offer and looked for somewhere to move immediately. I’d made a friend who was a student across the town, and I moved to his house where there was a room for rent that I could live on with my service industry wages. He was kind and supportive and not shaken when I cried, which happened often. In fact, he was basically everything I needed in a close friend, except for an understanding that the last thing I needed was another romantic relationship. So it began again.
At this point, time seems to speed up because I’ve forgotten most of the details. Things went, I thought, surprisingly well between us for the next year. As the spring came around, he graduated from college and I prepared to transfer to a nearby school. My partner, who had been excited to leave college, found himself unhappy with life post-graduation. Not an outstandingly cheerful person to begin with, his mood began to decline as his disappointment grew. And by the next year, I was tired with his constant state of discontent, of how set he was on being negative and how things could never be good between us for long before he would act out to see that I still cared. A friendship that had once been helpful when I needed it most had become emotionally draining. Also, I had decided that my sexuality was important enough to not be placed second to someone else’s, and he wasn’t interested in hearing about the parts of our relationship that I wasn’t interested in anymore. So I broke it off with him, but we continued to be friends. And we continued to live together in part because it was what he wanted, and in part because I hated the idea of having to ask my parents for the money I would have needed in order to live on my own. I was working part-time but needed all my spare time to get through my classes.
My friend’s (and now ex’s) mood continued to decline and our relationship continued to deteriorate as he became more possessive and I pushed for more distance. By the next year, our living situation had become so tense that I began preparing for a conversation to ask him to move out. While I was working on a way to communicate this idea delicately in a fragile situation, he broke down in tears one night and pointed a knife at me. In the end, nobody was physically hurt, and unlike in previous relationships I was able to assert to myself that this was not something to be easily forgiven or forgotten. The event marked the end of our friendship, and my stability began to improve without a constantly stressful relationship. Having it impressed on me that attempting to survive day to day wasn’t enough to provide any insurance for my well-being, I began to consider what I needed and how I could steer myself toward healthier ways of fulfilling my needs.
I don’t remember when I became aware of the term “asexuality,” only that it became part of my knowledge during high school. I have a vague impression of hearing the word defined in a comment not directed towards me, to which my reaction was, “well, duh.” Of course there would be asexual people in the world.
The term fit me – I had no doubt that I’d never had any interest in any sexual activity – but I didn’t start identifying as asexual at the time. It didn’t seem important to me; many of my friends were single throughout high school or their relationships were not the central focus of many discussions. I figured that people varied in their desire and actual interest in sex and romantic relationships, and I didn’t see anything unusual with the way I perceived people. I didn’t tend to have strong feelings for people, and none of the feelings were actually about forming romantic or sexual relationships, but I imagined I was too shy to be motivated to act on my feelings. I figured that I had never envisioned specific ideas about being in a relationship because I hadn’t been in one. Anyhow, I didn’t like applying labels to myself – once you had a label, people could shelve you into a category and then make assumptions about your behavior based on the labels you applied to yourself. I would have rather attempted to overcome social biases through personal interactions than with labels.
My experiences have caused me to lose faith in the idea that people will come to understand and acknowledge my sexuality without an explicit statement that I am asexual. Even this statement rarely generates understanding or compassion from friends; usually I am met with confusion, discomfort, or even silent denial in the form of attempting to steer the conversation elsewhere. When I finally made a public statement on coming out day, it was largely fueled by a desire to avoid seeing these reactions in person and hearing the strangely ubiquitous statement of “oh” that tries to affirm but sounds more like “please, let’s just never talk about this again.” Since coming out, nearly every time I’ve been questioned about asexuality it has been silently backed by a personal interest in my disposition toward dating and sex. More and more, I’ve learned to perceive attraction toward me as an insincere form of affection.
Years after I’d first heard about asexuality, I stumbled across the term “aromantic” and had another “of course there are people like that” moment without latching onto the term personally. In a desire to be more knowledgeable, I started reading up on the various terms people use to identify their romantic orientations, and soon found myself starting to consider my own feelings in terms of identities along the gray area of the aromantic spectrum. There wasn’t one term that seemed to fit me particularly well, and if someone had asked about my romantic orientation (which they never did), I would’ve responded with “I don’t know.” Although there was some allure in wanting to say that I was aromantic, it didn’t feel like a fit the way asexuality did. In my very limited exposure, people who identified as aromantic and asexual were able to assert that they weren’t interested in dating and to stick by it. And while I could affirm that someone’s behavior should not limit which orientations they could identify with, I also judged myself for how my desire to be self-sufficient could vanish at a chance for intimacy or affection, even if it meant getting mixed up in someone else’s sexuality and romantic notions. When I cut ties with my last partner, I felt heavily dependent on others and was quick to compromise some of my needs in order to get the very minimum of what I needed most. To this day, I don’t feel that I am always able to turn down the affection of others because it is a struggle to make myself believe that my perceived attractiveness is not a necessary component to my value as a friend. Navigating close friendships where attraction plays a factor is an ongoing struggle between needing stability and closeness to others, being afraid of vulnerability and dependency, and learning to maintain boundaries I’ve grown accustomed to not having or feeling I have the right to enforce.
I’m learning to value my feelings of discomfort toward romance and desire to not be associated with it. I’ve never experienced much attraction towards people, and it’s not something I feel motivated to act on. I’m tired of feeling guilty that I can’t match other’s enthusiasm or infatuation and I’ve felt less and less “attracted” to people the less I try to make it happen. Every trauma has made the world a little flatter, a bit less sparkly. It’s not fun anymore to romanticize how a relationship with someone could develop while the possibilities are still infinite, because the imagining tends toward darker ideas. I don’t mind anymore. I identify with a lot of the more common terms on the aromantic spectrum, but for simplicity I’ve started to call myself aromantic. The more I think about myself this way, the more fitting it becomes. Even with a very limited vocabulary, I’ve found that identifying as aromatic has helped me shape a meaningful narrative to describe my experiences.
Identifying as aromantic and asexual is not uncomplicated for me. Happiness is conflicted because often I don’t know what I want. I feel a strong need to be close to people and can enjoy a certain amount of physical intimacy, but I know that my enthusiasm for intimacy can be skewed by an underlying desire for compromise over conflict. My perspective during interpersonal interaction is frequently warped by unhealthy expectations set by past experiences. It can be difficult to distinguish beneficial compromises, giving in, and having reservations about my actions because of anticipation about how others will perceive my behavior. Some days I just want things to be simple; I want to be able to say that I’ll never get mixed up in anyone’s romantic affections again and learn to be happier with myself than anyone else. I don’t want the dissonance of identifying as non-binary, aromantic, and asexual while knowing that some of my actions encourage the perception that I am in a heterosexual romantic relationship. But I’m not set to be a solitary person. Over time, I’m learning to accept that I can’t pinpoint who I am, what I need, or how I will change. A lot of learning to be comfortable around people again is learning to trust myself and believe that who I am today won’t irreversibly mess things up for the person I am tomorrow.
I worry about becoming too invested in friendships that won’t last. I’m afraid of miscommunication and violence, but I also fear the loneliness in the possibility that my friendships will eventually be neglected when romantic relationships take priority. It hurts not only to feel left behind, but to feel like I’m being reminded that I’m only as valuable as the potential behind my perceived attractiveness and that close friendships rarely last. Years of building a trusting relationship with someone can be quickly eclipsed by another relationship whose romantic or sexual nature allows it to bypass the slow process of setting a foundation for intimacy and dependability. It’s easy for me to form negative associations with people and difficult to hold onto ideals strongly enough to try to make positive changes in my relationships. However, both for my own well-being and for the people I care about, I am working to break my habit of compromising and waiting for backlash. Now that I have the energy to begin facing my own difficult questions I am working toward the goal of attaining a lifestyle I once took for granted was possible.
I want to shape a life for myself with sustainable and fulfilling friendships. By talking more about my identity, I hope to find better ways to describe myself that generate empathy instead of dissonance. And with support and continued practice of self-affirmation, I know that I can grow confidence in my own beliefs and decisions. I’m grateful to the people who’ve help create the words I use now, and I want to add my experiences to the vocabulary surrounding relationships and orientation in the hopes that they can be useful to someone else. This is my first attempt to do so. I hope my words, disorganized as they are, can create something meaningful.