“I feel like my life is a train. I pull into a station, cry for ten minutes, the train goes on, only to stop a few hours later to have another emotional breakdown,” I said to my friend in Chicago. I had been riding this train for six months, ever since my partner’s wife revoked her consent for our relationship. When his wife’s lover left, she declared that she no longer wanted to be poly and therefore he should break up with me. He didn’t do that, which resulted in our relationship being downgraded from that of a beloved live-in partner to a reviled mistress. She was ready to divorce him if he did not leave me, so we took a six month break in order to save their marriage.
Any breakup is difficult and painful, but the nature of the polyamorous relationship made it degrading in a way that was truly soul crushing. Over the two years we were together, he had become an inextricable part of me, a partner I loved deeply and wanted to share my life with. I moved from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Windsor, Ontario to become a part of his family, only to be kicked out by the Canadian border agents a few months in. Instead of compassion and help in getting back into the country, I was basically told that that option was now closed because his wife had changed her mind. I felt abandoned and used, like a toy that could be tossed aside once it lost its appeal. Losing her meant to him losing his family, his identity, and a thirty year relationship, while losing me was just losing a girlfriend.
The inequality of this relationship reopened wounds in other parts of my psyche. It stirred my insecurities about race and nationality, that because I was not white or native, I would never be as popular or as loved as the white American children I went to school with. It reminded me of how I wasn’t taken seriously at work because I was young and Asian and female, even though my education and resume were impeccable, and it even brought back the trauma of my Mormon upbringing. All this took place within the larger context of Trump winning the election, and the legitimizing of sexism, racism, xenophobia, and climate change denial (my degree was in environmental studies) across America. Not only was there a Trump terrorizing people like me at the highest level of government, but I also had a Trump in my personal life in the form of my partner’s wife, a figure of monstrous narcissism and entitlement whose motto for our relationship was, “You will not replace me.”
I lost myself in sorrow and felt completely worthless. I would wake up crying at 4am every morning, feeling as if the darkness and silence would swallow me whole. I would burst into tears in the middle of the day, in public and private, feeling constantly as if a disaster was about to happen. I had a hard time eating and exercising dropped to my lowest weight of 102 pounds. I would go to bed as early as nine, only this made me wake up even earlier, starting the cycle of misery all over again. Even more concerning was the cervical dysplasia, for which I was diagnosed last fall and had undergone surgery to remove the low-grade cancerous cells from my cervix. I feared my emotional state was breeding new cancer cells in my body. I imagined my lover at my deathbed wracked with remorse for having killed me with a broken heart. All this while I moved across country in the middle of winter, started a new job, held down sideworking assignments in editing and tutoring, and started a PhD program that piled a mountain of work on my already full schedule.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I sobbed on the phone to my friend, “I’m slowly killing myself. I don’t know how to make it go away.”
“Oh honey,” she said, “You gotta take care of yourself! Get yourself to yoga as soon as possible.”
I couldn’t just go on with the status quo, passively coping with my mental and physical deterioration. If I was going to get better, I needed to fight for my life, and I wasn’t going to get help from my partner. So I went to yoga.
“Stretch your right arm out infront of you, and your left leg out behind you; take five breaths; now pull them in and touch your elbow to your knee.” The instructor was a young Asian woman in grey leotards and a French braid that seemed to relish torturing her students. Fifteen minutes into Vinyasa yoga and I was losing my balance and sweating like a glazed pig. For months, all I wanted to do was contract into the fetal position, therefore, it felt unnatural to open up my body in these long poses. But as I stretched my fingers to the sky, face turned upwards, tear came into my eyes and I thought, more light please, I’m a seedling coming out of the dark ground after the winter. When I finally lay down on the mat, I felt a sense of serenity and groundedness that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
I made a list of all the things that would help me be happier: food, exercise, nature, friends, lovers, and avoiding contact with the source of my unhappiness. I started going to yoga three times a week, getting stronger and more flexible each time. I made affirmation cards such as “I am light,” and “I am loved,” which I flipped through each morning and night, imagining a sun coming into my heart and filling me with light and warmth. Detroit isn’t known for having a lot of nature, but at least once a week I walked to the Detroit River and looked over the rippling waters to the Windsor skyline, and nodded my head to the bicyclers with stereo systems strapped to their rear seats, blasting music on two wheels. Being outside gave me a chance to connect with myself and my environment after a long day at work sitting in front of the computer all day.
Avoiding my partner was the really hard part. I tried everything from deleting his number from my phone, to defriending him on Facebook, to deleting all chat apps. But I still broke down and called or texted him within days of doing those things. Finally, I set up a calendar in a word document and blocked the day in purple if I called him, green if he called me, and yellow if neither of us called each other. By monitoring my behavior around those calls, I was first able to refrain from calling him, and then to stop the phone calls all together. Some days it felt like I was hanging on hour by hour and it was all I could do to not pick up the phone. When I had gone two weeks without talking to him, I felt what a person trying to quit smoking must feel like when they finally go for a week without picking up a cigarette. The victory of self-control was sweeter than the healthful effect of not indulging in something toxic.
I also started dating. Even though I didn’t feel much like it, just the act of looking, my friend Stephanie promised, would pick me up and remind me that there are other options. On the first day of reactivating my Okcupid profile, I received 55 messages. After I had eliminated the one word ones, the stupid pick-up lines, and the blurry, serial killer photos, I narrowed my prospects to twenty. I messaged a handful back, and ended up making plans with four. One of them was Greg, a thirty-nine year old doctor from Flint, Michigan.
One our first date we met at an Asian restaurant where Greg ate a bowl of spicy noodles while I ordered Philadelphia and spicy tuna rolls. Greg worked in Flint with a resident population ravaged by unemployment, water poisoning, drug addiction, obesity, and all kinds of mental and physical illness. He was not the best looking of everyone I met, but he was the most interesting to talk with. Because he grew up in poverty as the son of a single mother with multiple abusive boyfriends, he knew what it was like to be the people he served. As a political activist, I was fascinated by his first-hand stories of the people that our government lets fall through the cracks (or in this case, outright poison), and admired his compassion in helping them. He literally swept me off my feet on his motorcycle, and three months into the relationship we were looking at furniture together for his new house and dreaming about living together in Colorado. However, even though he knew about my relationship philosophy, he turned out not to be polyamorous. Once he understood that I hadn’t stopped dating even though our relationship had become more established, he no longer wanted to see me.
The person he specifically could not get over my seeing was Kevin. Kevin and I had only gone on two dates, but hit it off enough that we were planning on a third. On our first date we met for coffee. I admired his boyish looks and he confessed that my smile made him forget what he was thinking. We talked about polyamory and our agreement that monogamy messed up relationships. On our second date we went to a leather shop with a sex section in the back that sold bondage gear, followed by a visit to the ice cream shop where he gave me stunning kisses that intimated what would be possible if we took it further. He was an actor, director, musician, and writer with a boundless sense of humor and confidence to match. He radiated a life-giving energy that I soaked up like a sponge.
Kevin lived three hours away on Lake Huron and he didn’t come down to the city very often, but he made sure that I had a good time when he did. He took me out to eat at all the greasy, local joints coney dogs, burgers, and meat pizzas. We went to parks and malls and the beach, even having sex in a forest while being eaten alive by mosquitos. He took me to his childhood haunts, told riveting stories about his adolescent antics, and his many romantic encounters in exotic parts of the world. He was not only thoroughly entertaining, but also a great listener and with a storyteller’s sense of empathy for human longings and travails. We talked at length about my situation with Art and Guin. “You deserve so much better,” he said, “Why would you go back into a relationship that has caused you so much pain? I know you love him, but you want a primary partner, and he can’t be that for you.” I struggled emotionally with what he was saying, but I was touched by his caring of me, and kissed him tenderly on the forehead.
Despite his passionate nature, Kevin was never interested in long-term committed relationships at any point in his life. “I like my relationships to have expiration dates,” he said. In October, he left for Atlanta, Georgia, where employment prospects are better for a career in film. He told me that I was the one bright spot in a bleak year of moving back to Michigan to live with his parents, with no job, and childhood friends in various states of dysfunction. This was even more true for me, struggling as I was with my horrible primary relationship. “But you never let that get to our relationship,” he said, “you are always so positive, and I have no doubt you will get through this.” In November I received a postcard from him from Atlanta, in which he wrote, “You are my favorite thing of 2017!”
Greg and Kevin gave me physical and emotional sustenance in a dark time in my life. Their presence alone enabled me to focus on something other than my depressing situation. For one hour or one day, I would be absorbed in their stories or lose myself in the pleasure of their touch. They served as a mirror in which I could look at my emotions objectively. But more than being pleasant distractions, they made me feel that I was lovable. They saw beauty in me and freely gave me their time, attention, and affection. If my relationship with Art made me feel worthless and despicable, my relationship with Greg and Kevin made me feel seen and appreciated.
But there is a difference between distracting myself with friends, lovers, and work, and grappling with my emotions and come to terms with them. I was finally able to do this in September at a five day silent meditation retreat with no phone, no internet, and no talking to other meditators. I was nervous whether this kind of isolation would be good for me, but it seemed the only way I would really get to the bottom of this.
I had attended other retreats before, including a ten day one in the aftermath of a very long and painful breakup, but I found this one even more difficult than the first one. My first day of meditation was dominated by anger. I was so angry at Art for betraying my trust, so angry at him for justifying his poor treatment of me because of his partner, and so angry with the world for all the bullshit in politics, I couldn’t sit still. I imagined myself screaming and screaming in a field. I called Art on the phone, asked him the same questions and received the same responses that made me feel worse about myself, and missed hours of meditation and risking a migraine. On the second day my anger was tinged with more sadness. My thoughts were mostly, why doesn’t he love me as much as I love him? Why can’t we be together? How can I go through life missing him as much as I do? I meditated with a towel in my lap to soak up all the tears. The meditation teacher recommended that I meditate on compassion, compassion for myself and not hurting myself more by judging myself for my reactions. She also taught me to meditate on suffering in general, how everyone has suffering, and that having compassion for our own suffering is also helping to heal others.
On the third day I began to meditate on my state with more compassion. I thought of myself a child whose parents thought they wanted and then changed their mind after it was born. I offered my only toy to the child that already had a room full of toys, while my beloved watched and did nothing. I felt compassion for Art who was torn between his love for two women, who never really experienced love and understanding in his marriage, and who was so eager to please that he repressed his own needs to satisfy others. I even felt compassion for Guin who did not get the love she wanted in her marriage and felt that the only way to get what she wanted was to drive out her competition. And I thought about my fellow meditators, my friends, and everyone in the world who have all experienced heartbreak in some form, or are going through crises much worse than my own–a debilitating illness perhaps, or the illness or death of a loved one. Thinking about their suffering made me feel less alone and less unfortunate.
On day five of the meditation I spent hours lying in the grass, the September sun warming my back. It felt good to just lie there, among all the growing things, breathing the last of the summer air. Whereas before it felt like the sun was above me, now I felt that it was inside me. More light please. Let me be the sun so that my love and compassion could heal the world. At home, I bought myself a sun pendant to remind me that I am the source of healing energy.
A few weeks after I came back from meditation retreat, Art felt that his marriage was still salvageable so he decided to stay in it. I met James, a twenty-nine year old scientist who was polyamorous, single, and as interested in a serious relationship as I am. I was amazed by how easy our relationship feels without all the compromises and complications in my relationship with Art. With no children, other partners, or commitment issues to overcome, we could spend time outside of work together whenever want, we don’t have to ask permission of anyone, and we can plan our future without consulting anyone. It feels wonderful to be in a relationship with so much compatibility and possibility.
In addition to lovers, my friends also provided countless hours of empathy and support, and I am so grateful for their love. My friend, Katie, who actually is a therapist, called me every week to talk about our relationships and she heard my every complaint, frustration, strategy with superhuman patience and good humor. My friend Jane also talked to me throughout the summer and we texted almost daily to share our struggles and give sympathy. My friend Stephanie, who I only met in April, went out to dinner with me at least once a month and was always a source of inspiration and reason. Other friends, Wade, Josh, and Zach, who started out as dates, turned into friends who let me cry on their shoulder. I also started my own poly support group with a group of polyamorous friends; we text each other and I host a call every two weeks. These relationships were lifelines in addition to the romantic relationships.
I spent Christmas with James and his family in Michigan, who welcomed me as if I were their own. As I look around at the live Christmas tree sparking with golden lights, the pile of presents we just opened, and this lovely man who adores my company, I recognize that I made this all happen. There was no Prince Charming to rescue me from a bad relationship and whisk me into a good one. I could have succumbed to depression or suicide, or resorted to unhealthy eating, drugs, or alcohol, instead I proactively sought to improve my well-being and open my heart to laughter and intimacy. I also gained ten pounds!
I’m still open to polyamory, and I want my lovers to have the freedom to pursue other relationships, but I’m a lot more wary of the harm that it can cause to others, and more aware of my own need for something more stable and reassuring. I’m learning to ask, how can I love myself? Instead of trying to please others and hoping that they will give me the love I want. I want to learn to say “no” to situations that hurt me. The relationship I healed was not the one with Art, but with myself. This winter solstice, the sun shines brightly on the freshly fallen snow, like love waiting to be discovered.