Relationship Mono/Poly

Broadly speaking, there seem to be two paths that lead people to polyamory. Some people come at it either right off the bat or early on in their romantic escapades, whereas others seem to arrive at it after a change in trajectory. I envy those who are part of the former group. Like anything that falls into the category of non-normative; a supportive community of family or friends and/or early exposure ends up exacting a huge influence on whether or not we have the confidence to explore certain options later in life.

If you’ve grown up in a culture of heteronormativity and monogamy, the idea that there are different avenues for you to explore may not even occur to you. Or if it does, you might feel intimidated and unsupported, whether explicitly or implicitly: If your community isn’t well versed on these concepts, they aren’t likely to be equipped with the tools to educate or support you.

IMG_0492When I look at young 20-something poly experts, confident in their queer identities and adept at juggling relationship anarchy, I can’t help but wonder how different things might have been for me if I had either been raised in a less normative household, or if I had sought out queer friends in high school and university. Ultimately it was a combination of not knowing what I didn’t know, and not having the confidence to challenge myself to seek out situations that might push me outside my comfort zone.

Monogamy and heterosexuality surrounded me with a lot of hard lines and rules. That wasn’t inherently a bad thing: I like rules (as long as I agree with them). I like clarity and knowing where I stand. The problem with monogamy was that I wasn’t always clear where the lines were.

It wasn’t that I had a hard time being monogamous – I understood clearly what constituted sexual cheating and I believed in fidelity. It was that every other relationship, friendships included, felt like cheating (or at least held the potential for cheating).

It is hard for me to approach a relationship with the notion that it should be categorized with rules for how far it should go, and in what fashion my feelings are allowed to evolve. I don’t, as a general habit, go out of my way to make casual acquaintances. If I choose to develop a friendship with someone, I want the freedom to take it in whatever direction it naturally evolves.

That model didn’t really fit in with what I thought monogamy was. Rather than reject monogamy, I would avoid making friends when I was in committed relationships. Again, this was more about living in a sheltered environment and not feeling brave enough to break the rules (after all, I didn’t really have anyone to break the rules with). It wasn’t until my late 30s (and the internet, and Facebook, and OKCupid) that it became clear that like my sexuality, my relationship style didn’t have to be something that conformed to what society said was ‘normal.’

Coming to poly later in life affects how you approach concepts of non-monogamy. If you’ve been raised in the poly community or as queer spawn, the odds are that your outlook on pretty much everything is tempered by the attitude of “it’s ok to challenge the status quo.” You’re less likely to compare things to the ‘norm’ – or if you do, it’s probably to celebrate that you are breaking the mold rather than reaffirming it.

It’s a bad habit of latecomers to the poly game that we are prone to comparing the poly styles of ourselves and others to what we know about monogamy, rather than acknowledging that polyamory is less about breaking the rules of monogamy as much as it is embracing the freedom to create a relationship style that reflects the wants and needs of the people involved. The existence of polyamory doesn’t mean that monogamy is invalid. They’re just different.

I think it’s natural, when monogamy is the only thing you’ve experienced (whether positively or not) to use that as your frame of reference. I also think it’s natural to approach your first experiences with poly in a piece-meal fashion. Baby steps.

As such, what inevitably happens is that a huge number of latecomers fit a certain profile: married couples that have decided to open up their marriage. They start by dating other people together and establishing a laundry list of rules to keep their primary relationship ‘safe.’

This tends to earn them a lot of scorn from the early adopters.

So what do you do if you are late to the game, but rather than being married and opening up your relationship to poly, you start out single and your first poly relationship results in marriage?

Here I am, finally comfortable in a relationship and relationship style that frees me to fully explore whatever developments might occur in my friendships, no longer internally regulated out of a false sense of obligation, and yet on the outside, I appear to be in a hetero-monogamous marriage. I’ve gone from being a bisexual woman pursued by unicorn hunters, to being in a poly marriage where everyone assumes we’re unicorn hunters.

I firmly believe that everyone is entitled to their own style and approach to polyamory. To me, that’s the whole point, that you define your own relationship style. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also suck to be lumped in with an entire group of people whose beliefs and approach to poly doesn’t match your own.

I don’t regret marrying my husband, but doing so has made so many aspects of my identity invisible. No one sees my bisexuality. No one sees my gender non-conformity. No one knows I’m poly.

I’m finally at a time of my life where I can (and do try to) express myself and be who I really am on the inside. But if no one sees it on the outside, does it really count?

/rk

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A Writer Writes

Except for when they don’t.

TWENTY THINGS I DID LAST MONTH INSTEAD OF WRITING

I’ve often said that even when I’m not writing things on paper or online, I’m still actively a writer because I am concocting stories in my head. It’s always been part of my process to mull things over for a while (sometimes a very long while) in the safety of my mind before I birth them fully-formed onto the page.

But in June I didn’t write. Not even in secrecy behind the shroud of my subconscious. I was a blank slate. And my feelings about this alternated between apathy and frustration. But mostly apathy, if I’m honest. I became rather resigned to it.

What I did instead:

1. I moved downtown. I made a bit of a disastrous decision to move out of town last year, for all the right reasons. It didn’t stick. Luckily it was fixable, but not without considerable upheaval for my loved ones. It helps that we moved to one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods ever.

2. I unpacked. In like, 48 hours. I really like our new place and I couldn’t wait to feel settled after feeling out-of-place for so long.

Leading up to our move, I had rapidly devolved into a useless lump who crawled into bed and refused to come out. I barely packed. I barely did anything. Some of this was due to physical pain, but I think it was mostly emotional. The stress of having to move and pack became this insurmountable challenge and each time I tried to fight inertia, I had a meltdown. If this infuriated my husband, he didn’t show it. I think he was just really, really concerned I was having (another) nervous breakdown. Or possibly was too busy packing to properly have time to deal with his own feelings of frustration. Either way, it wasn’t exactly a good time for either of us.

But then, with moving done, I unpacked everything. My stuff, everyone else’s stuff, all the stuff. And it was a relief. I still don’t feel perfectly settled, because there remains some art at our old house that needs to come over, but I feel more… me.

3. I stopped taking my bipolar meds.

MarketFoodMedley

4. I bought fresh produce. One of the best parts of living less than 10 minutes’ walk to a historic marketplace. Truly. I don’t even know whether the quality of the food is better… but the experience is lovely. I like strolling along outside in the open air and the fact that there are different choices every week. Grocery shopping usually bores me. This doesn’t.5. I thought about drinking.

6. I baked a lot of bread. I’ve owned a breadmaker for many years, but it had been stored away, unused for a long while. I dug it out and tried to get back in the groove of things, with initially disastrous results. First I used the wrong kind of yeast (which was a rookie mistake, and made me feel pretty stupid). Then I followed my old favourite recipe and the bread didn’t mix properly. Then I followed the same recipe, but added some water to the mix and mixed it by hand. That worked, but the bread was edible but not amazing and I was still frustrated at having to hand mix something that was supposed to be an automated process. I then tried adding a bit more water from the beginning and bingo! It finally worked. And was delicious.

The whole process annoyed the hell out of me, because my memories of making bread previously were that I was flawless at it, and I had very little tolerance for my newly discovered failures. It probably helped that my husband insisted that it was all delicious, and kept eating it… even the bits that I wanted to throw out.

7. I argued with people on Facebook. And Huffington Post. And the Ottawa Citizen. Less so face-to face.

8. I struggled with arthritis pain.

9. I bought a bench for the shower so a) I can sit down when I’m too weak to stand, and b) I don’t fall over and break my bones.

9. I craved tequila and Coke.

compotecollage

10. I made compote. I cannot explain the unreasonably huge feeling of accomplishment I experienced over this mundane achievement. Maybe it’s because it is the closest I have ever come to making jam on my own. Maybe it’s because I discovered a jam substitute which I can make without added sugar (something I’m supposed to care about as a diabetic, but usually fail at). Husband and child also loved it, which probably had something to do with said feeling. I mean, I would have gladly eaten it all myself, but I am a recognition junkie. Apparently.11. I started losing vision in my left eye. First I started seeing a lot of spots in both eyes. Then one night after being out with friends, I came home and suddenly found myself with a blurry splotch in my field of vision on the left side of my left eye. It would make sense, given my various immune disorders, that this was optic neuritis, or retinal detachment, or any number of things. I have since been to the ER and to an ophthalmologist, but they can’t find anything physically wrong. I have been referred for more tests.

12. I shaved my head. Not the whole thing, just the sides. Arthritis in my shoulders is making it harder to deal with styling my hair and I am rapidly getting more and more impatient with hair brushing against my face and neck. I also made the decision a while back to stop dyeing my hair and the whole process of ‘waiting’ for my grey to come in is going entirely too slowly.

13. Two weeks later, I cut most of the rest of my hair off, too.

bakingcollage14. I baked all the things.

15. I saw a bunch of plays at the Ottawa Fringe Festival. No acting for me this year, but I volunteered for a few shifts with my husband. With my physical health being so unpredictable, this was a scary commitment, but having him do it with me helped make it go fairly smoothly. I had to use my cane a lot, which always makes me feel self-conscious, but ultimately I enjoyed myself and it was good to be doing something theatre-related, (especially when my own acting future seems somewhat uncertain right now). Volunteering has its perqs (besides free theatre) and we also got free pizza from ZaZaZa and free poutine from Smoke’s Poutinerie. By the end of 10 days, I was exhausted, but well-fed.

16. I wondered if my eye problems were in my mind. The spots haven’t gone away. But they get better and worse. Maybe they’re in my imagination. Maybe they’re bipolar hallucinations. I don’t know what to do with that information.

17. I bought some brightly-coloured pillows for our black couch. I like them. They please me.

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18. I cooked a lot. I think I’ve always been a pretty good cook. But in the last few years my energy and ability to cook has been pretty erratic. Somehow the combination of fresh local ingredients and a gorgeous new kitchen has spurred me on to create. And perhaps create is the key word here — ever since my illness has made acting next-to-impossible (and with my ability to write on hiatus), I have really felt a rather excruciating loss of identity. Food has become my canvas. Which is great, really. I’m eating better. I’m feeding my family. I just worry that like most of my obsessions, this one will only last a few months before I completely lose interest again.

Or maybe it won’t. There is a constant stream of new and interesting ingredients flooding the market. At least until winter. Maybe then we’ll be back to tv dinners and takeout. I hope not.

19. I felt guilty for making everyone move. They’re happy to be here. They’ve said so. It’s a fantastic neighbourhood. We have had beautiful walks, eaten at great restaurants, met some lovely neighbours, watched fireworks on Canada Day (a 10 minute walk from the house!), and played games at the local board game lounge. But I still feel guilty.

20. I broke my toe. It hurt like hell. It still hurts on-and-off and is swollen and a sort of grey colour. Walking on it causes a purple bruise to spread on the underside of the toe and the top of my foot. It is remarkable how much one little toe can cause discomfort while walking. So I’ve been mostly stuck at home for the last few days. Whenever I venture out, it makes it worse. I try to sit with my feet up on the coffee table, but then it aches. I try to sit with it on the floor, but it aches.

So I gave up and crawled into bed.

And started writing.

/rk

(originally posted at http://medium.com/human-parts/a-writer-writes-except-for-when-they-dont-76a82f6c3331)

Urbanitey Nite

We take possession of our new house tomorrow.  It will be a few weeks until our actual moving day, but it’s still pretty significant mentally as the shift from here to there.

The last 10 months have been really tough for me.  I made a decision to move out of downtown to the suburbs; which was sound financially and good for my partner, but unfortunately rather disastrous for me.  I can’t honestly say I didn’t see it coming — I just didn’t want to see it coming.  Sometimes my inner mental and emotional needs (and outer physical needs) aren’t practical.  But I’m finally getting the message that they can’t be ignored.

I grew up in the suburbs, and it always felt like a prison.  It’s difficult to explain.  All I know is that when I was there, I felt oppressed and constricted and trapped.  I started to get a glimpse of urban life in my teens when I got into an accelerated program at a high school downtown.  I ended up becoming best friends with a girl who lived not far from the school and spent most weekends at her house.  But I still had to go home eventually.  In my 20s I moved downtown for a year or two, but that changed when I started dating (and ultimately married) my first husband.  I was back in the suburbs.  Trapped again.

During my second (common-law) marriage we nearly went into financial ruin because of my push to move back to downtown.  It was an obsession, definitely, but I knew I wouldn’t feel right again until I was there.  And I did feel right once I was there.  Unfortunately I also felt trapped because of the relationship, so I left the husband, moved out of the house but stayed downtown.

Again, we were briefly pushed out of downtown when I became disabled and couldn’t afford the rent there while we waited the three months for the disability payments to come through.  But as soon as they did, I cut out of my lease after only six months and we moved back to our old neighbourhood downtown.

So what, exactly, made me think I could survive another move out-of-town.  Not just to the suburbs either, but the far suburbs.

I guess the simple answer is that I didn’t want to make it a money issue between my husband and I.  He’s a very practical person.  I wanted to be practical.  It was hard for me to justify the additional expense because of a feeling I had.

A feeling.

It’s interesting how, as someone with mental illness, I get angry when others diminish the impact of the effect of emotions on me as a sufferer of bipolar disorder, and then turn around and do the same thing to myself.  I guess when it comes to me, I can be a bit of a hypocrite.

So we moved to the suburbs and everyone adjusted quite well.  Except me.

I mean, I put on a good front for what seemed like a long while.  I tidied the house, I made dinners, I took the dog for long walks.  I tried to adjust.  But the bad feelings started to creep in, anyway.

I stopped doing much around the house.  I stopped showering.  I spent most of the day sleeping.

That went on a long time before I finally spoke up to my husband to tell him that I wasn’t happy.  It’s a really hard thing to tell someone you love, at a time when you’re supposed to be happy for finally being together, that you’re not.  Especially if they can’t change the thing that is making you unhappy.

So that’s where we were stuck for a while.  Me feeling unhappy and trapped but trying to fake my way out of it, and him being unhappy that I was unhappy and feeling stuck with no way to fix it, until finally thanks to some unexpected financial changes, we found a way to fix it.

At no small cost to them, mind you.  My son has to change schools again.  My husband now will have a long commute to and from work everyday.  All because I couldn’t hack it.

That’s a huge responsibility.

On the one hand, I’m relieved.  I’ll be back in the hustle and bustle of downtown.  Close to people walking and moving and being.  I don’t know what it is that is so important to me about that.  Something about knowing I can walk to everything.  I’m not trapped by needing a car.  Things are laid out in a grid and I can find my way around.  I guess there’s something about being downtown that makes me feel very self-sufficient.  Very un-trapped.

But there is also a certain amount of pressure, because I worry about everyone else adjusting.  If they hate it, I will be to blame.  Which I guess is why it was so difficult for me to speak up in the first place.  I don’t like always being the squeaky wheel.  Except unfortunately, I am always the squeaky wheel — or at least the wheel that squeaks the loudest.  When I’m miserable, everyone is miserable, because my misery tends to get amplified by my mental illness.  I hate that about myself, but I also can’t deny it.

The next two weeks will be the hardest as we dismantle our current house and set up the new one, and I have to deal with mixed feelings of exhilaration and guilt.  I want to jump ahead to when we’re settled in and know that it hasn’t been a huge mistake to put my needs first.

/rk

 

This is My Story, Not My History

There is a huge difference between a memoir and a biography.  It’s not that I don’t care if my recollections are accurate — I do.  But a memoir isn’t about facts.  It’s about impressions and personal experience.  I can understand why biographies appeal to historians and genealogists:  their focus is on dates and where a person fits into history.  Memoirs just serve a different purpose.  Memoirs are about storytelling.

reena7 - Version 2When I write about my personal experiences, I do so honestly and earnestly, but with limitations.  These are the things I remember.  That’s not quite the same thing as reality.  It’s close, but it’s coloured by my perceptions.  There are pieces of the puzzle I don’t have.  I make certain assumptions about the motivations of the other players in my story, but there is limit to my insight.  If you ask my siblings about their recollections, I’m sure they have very different memories.  And the simplest explanation that I have for this is that they are not me, and I am not them.

I would also be foolish to deny that my mental illness has fundamentally impacted my perception of events in my life.  But it is conversely true that events in my life have impacted and moulded my mental illness.  They are tied up in one another and I cannot pry them apart.

But my intent is never malicious.  I strive for honesty of emotion.  This is my story and these are my feelings.  They don’t necessarily have to be fair, but they are real.  How I felt back then and how the past has impacted my present — that’s real.  Even if I get it wrong.  Because even if I strive for it, objective reality is pretty difficult to glean, especially if the other players in your history aren’t forthcoming.

As an example, I give you the (true) story of the pillowcase:

I once described to my mother how, as a child, I would lie awake at night for hours, unable to sleep.  My entire body would feel electrified and I would visualize repeating patterns of light behind my closed eyes, turning in spirals over and over.  (I’ve had bouts of this during my hypomanic phases of insomnia, so I realize now this was probably a precursor.)

She said, “That reminds me of your father.  Right after you were born, I remember I would sometimes wake up to find him staring at the pattern on the pillowcase.”

An innocuous statement.

Fast forward to several years later and my father, in an off-hand comment, said “There were times when I was sleeping around so much that when I woke up, I had to check the pillowcase to remind myself whose bed I was in.”

Clarity.

The first person (my mother) doesn’t have all the information.  Her recollection is mostly subjective.  The second person (my father) knows the missing information.  You could argue that his recollection is objective.  But the meat of the story is the third person:  me.  The child in the middle.  The one who now has to carry this guilty knowledge.

That a thing happened to a person is simply history.

What it does to them and how it shapes them — that is storytelling.

/rk

 

Lies and Magical Thinking

It’s a common stereotype that young girls idolize their fathers and build them up to epic proportions.  My young mind certainly did build a mythos surrounding my dad, and in the early years it was largely positive.  My mother was superbly effective at keeping us in the dark to any conflict between her and my father – she didn’t speak ill of him around us and picked up the pieces when he broke promises or cancelled plans.  So for a time, it was easier to focus on the good things, even as the bad threatened to seep in through the cracks.

My early attempts to create an identity for him were slightly misguided.  My mother tells a story of how (pre-divorce?) I would watch him on the television as a toddler – he had a brief stint here in Ottawa as a newscaster – and try to talk to him through the screen.  I was infuriated and didn’t understand his lack of response.  A cute anecdote, I suppose, but to me it remains symbolic of the nature of our relationship as a whole:  both of us talking, neither of us communicating; separated by a virtual wall.

We were, I suppose, poor.  I was certainly aware that we did not have a lot of ‘stuff’, but my mother always ensured we had what we needed.  I know now that it was a lean time.  My mother worked with sporadic financial support from my father.  We sometimes drank powdered milk and my brother wore my hand-me-downs.  A lot of our so-called poverty was masked by my mother’s pragmatic sensibilities.  When she taught us to respect what we had and not waste things – I just thought she was strict.  When she bought fresh fruits and vegetables instead of junk – I just thought she was a health nut.  She grew her own bean sprouts and cultured her own yogurt; something my childish mind could not comprehend for things you could just buy in the store.

freetobeBecause cable was not a necessity (my mother later told me that her benchmark for deciding whether something was in our budget or not was if we would die without it), our television held limited entertainment value for us besides weekend mornings.  If we craved entertainment beyond books, the record player was the way to go.  We had a few kids’ albums (I still think Free to Be You and Me is the coolest album ever!), but I developed a few favourites among her folk and pop collection.  Among them was a John Lennon and Yoko Ono album.

The image of the couple stuck with me.  And a weird parallel began to form.  The thing about someone being absent from your life for long stretches is that you find yourself filling the blanks – I didn’t have much in the way of pictures of my dad, and here were two people that bore more than a passing resemblance to my father and stepmother.  Logically I suppose that I knew that they weren’t the same people… but privately pretending they were quieted some of the anxiety I felt over his absence.

Like many part-time fathers he tried to make up for lost time, and visits to my dad’s in Toronto were designed to impress and were highlighted by expensive outings.  There were frequent trips to Canada’s Wonderland, the Toronto Zoo, Ontario Place, the Old Spaghetti Factory and the Organ Grinder Pizza Restaurant (if you were lucky enough to go there during the 70s, 80s or 90s, then you know what an amazing experience it was – in my early 20s I even insisted some friends take me there for my birthday).

My stepmother often accompanied us on these outings, but not always.  One summer our annual trip to Canada’s Wonderland involved a guest – a young woman who worked with my dad at the newspaper.  My dad picked her up on the way to the park; she spent the day with us and even ate dinner with us at the Organ Grinder.  She seemed pleasant enough, although when she got out of the car to go up to her apartment at the end of the night and I picked up her stuffed bear (that my dad had won for her at the park) to hand it to her she yelped “no that’s mine!” – assuming perhaps that I intended to keep it?  I don’t think she was accustomed to being around kids.

lennonokoWhen we got home and my stepmother asked how our day had been, I told her, including whom we had gone with.  It hadn’t even occurred to me to leave that part out.  She completely blew up at my father and they stormed upstairs, leaving my brother and I in awkward silence, with me trying to process what I’d done wrong.  The guilt was a heavy weight – I liked my stepmother and I felt devastated at being the catalyst of her hurt and anger.  I also felt a great deal of shame for being clueless and stupid about what was going on.  Even now, I cannot fathom what my father was thinking, making us complicit in his deceit of his wife.  He must have realized he’d get caught.  I suppose he justified an outing with another woman with his children present as proof of no wrongdoing.

My father lied about most things – most often to impress, sometimes to protect himself, and often just to cover up other lies.  Some lies weren’t meant to be lies – they just started out as promises and he never had the sense to back down and admit to commitments he couldn’t follow through on.  When I was 4, he promised to take me to Disney World – he never did.  I’ve never doubted that he wanted to; but by the time he had the money to, I was no longer a child and it made more sense to take my sister.  An off-handed promise to a 4-year-old might have gone forgotten after a few years.  But he didn’t let me forget.  With that initial promise, and every time I’d ask, he’d describe the trip in elaborate detail.  What the hotel would be like.  What we’d do. What rides we’d go on.  He bred a need in me where I had not previously been aware one existed.  It became an lucky pebble in my pocket – something to turn over and over and give me solace in those times when I doubted his love for me.  Whether he sensed the weight of that and it was why he couldn’t bring himself to shatter the illusion by breaking his promise, I don’t know.

As an adult, I wrote off my father’s need for deception as a simple reflection of his narcissism.  I figured he just thought he was ‘that good’ that he would never get caught.  I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this explanation, though, because so often he seemed genuinely hurt and baffled when it ended up destroying his personal relationships.  I know for a fact that he loved my stepmother, even after their separation (they never divorced, in spite of being apart for more than a decade), but that didn’t stop him from being unfaithful.  He joked once, as we sat watching tv, that he was really good at getting married, just not staying married.  I just smiled thinly and faked a chuckle, but on the inside I was stung by the callousness of the remark.

Perhaps, though, his pathological need to fudge the truth was more ingrained than even he could control.  My mentor, originally from Belfast, has some theories about lying as a form of survival.  She thinks deception is a learned trait of the Irish – when used to soften up a young woman or spin a fanciful tale; they call it blarney.  But there’s a darker side to it – a need to misdirect and never tell full truths as a matter of survival.  The Irish have deep trust issues (or at least trust of authority figures).  And when lying becomes a way of life, you soon find yourself lying about the small things as much as the big.  It becomes hard not to do it anymore.

My father’s side of the family is a few generations removed from the emerald isle, but from what little I know of them, they were a colourful bunch.  There are tales of the Belfords buying (faking?) their title, and some question of them possibly selling children on the black market.  On a lighter note, the latest generations seem to be made up of writers and storytellers, so perhaps we’ve mostly managed to steer our talents towards the creative rather than the destructive.

But while that gives an explanation of context, it doesn’t wash away all sins.  Even if I understand why the man was the way he was, or even where the behaviours came from, it doesn’t excuse it.  The lies he told to the people around him were at times unbelievably cruel – but I don’t think he ever intended them that way when he started. He would just begin with a small one and keep having to cover with new ones when cracks appeared in his story.  It was no wonder he doubted we loved the real him. He didn’t even know who the real him was – how could we possibly be expected to?

/rk