You may want to read Life at 21: Me, Men, Beer & Sex and Life at 22: Me, Men, Money & Drugs for some contex.

 

Part 1: Breaking

I couldn’t remember how many times I’d told myself I would delete dating apps, I would stay single and spend time with myself, but there I was, swiping vigorously left and right on a random Tuesday night, not really knowing what I was looking for. Okay. That was a lie. I always knew what I was looking for. I always knew there was this one thing deep down I could never give up on. I just didn’t have the willpower to hold out for it.

That was how I dated Scott, a mixed-Chinese-British man, late November 2016. Scott was tall and smart and, how shall I say, different, not in a so positive way. The moment I spotted him at the train station on our first date, I knew straight away he wasn’t it. Heck. He was far from it. Not because he vaped – oh well, but because the sight of him immediately sent a wave of anxiety throughout my body which, I couldn’t believe it myself, reminded me of Johnny.

If you haven’t heard of this name before, Johnny was the Malaysian Boston-educated guy who had fucked me over two years earlier, leaving me in tears in front of a trashy club in East London, the guy whom I always kept at the back of my mind as a point of reference for any new encounter I had with men. Avoid boys like Johnny. Avoid arrogant, heartless boys like Johnny. Oh, look, someone like Johnny. Have to get close to him ASAP. See, I really had no excuse. My self-esteem was a low life bitch.

Inevitably, what happened with Scott had the same pattern as with Johnny. We met, things were good, then he would do some shit, I would let him do that shit, and bam, he would keep doing that shit and I became the frustrated, heartbroken girl who blamed herself for all what could’ve possibly gone wrong. Basically, our interactions fell into a destructive pattern enabled by my repeated failing to set my standards. I was strong and grown but not enough. At least, not yet. I was in transition.

At the time I didn’t realise the cogs of my life was slowly turning. It was not just another failed relationship, another man who was like the rest of them, another mistake I had sworn off millions of times but still repeated, even though it might seem like it. Surely, to some extent, it really was that same damn mistake. But I was also learning and changing and reacting like a boiling chemical. And behind all the tears, regrets, what-ifs and stupid decisions, I was breaking free.

This time with Scott, by month three, I could tell my limit was reached. I decided that it was enough. I finally gave up on the thought that I could change our toxic dynamics, or I could change him, or the outcome of this relationship was somehow determinant to my self-worth. My worth was for me to claim, and I would not gain anything by sticking around with him when being with him caused more pain than anything else. I would choose anything else even if it meant without him. I would choose me.

So, I quickly cut my loss and walked away. No shit. I really did, ruthlessly. It surely wasn’t easy. But I no longer entertained pain and bad treatment. At 11 pm after some drinks and an argument filled with his usual carelessness, I slammed my front door on Scott’s face. I was rude but it just had to be done. The last words I heard from him were “Take care of Ellen” to my flatmate. I’ve never interacted with him since.

***

In early 2017, after Scott, I really did quit dating, meaning deleting dating apps AND profiles. Don’t judge me — that was an important baby step. I spent this time seriously focusing on myself, and while it was not perfect and I would still slip down the self-loathing slope now and then, the experience was almost magical. It was strange because on one hand, I felt like I hadn’t really done anything. The life-changing factor was ultimately me taking care of my body and tweaking the thoughts in my head, which had been in my power all along. On the other hand, I knew I’d come a very long way. I’d moved closer and closer to the self I was true to, and it instantly transformed all other areas of my life.

I was gradually happier, more confident, less anxious. People started to tell me I was glowing and I could feel it. However, I couldn’t stay away long from troubles. Without the dating apps, there were still men in real life, obviously; they would still whisper in my ears they thought I was glowing and I would still feel tingles throughout my body, weak in my knees fighting my womanly urges. By the time Evan, a well-built Irish man, sat down opposite me at a bar after work with a handsome, devilish smile, telling me I was stealing his attention, my body had lost all the strength to resist. I gave in.

I wasn’t too proud but I also thought, what was the harm. I wasn’t exactly looking for anything serious, or at least that was what I told myself to downplay every new dating prospect. It was reinforced by the fact that Evan was significantly older than me, in his early forties, possibly with a divorce and a few kids in his baggage, which meant the chance of us ever becoming a real deal was thin. Frankly, it was more of a dare for myself. It was the thrill of getting with someone who was way out of my age range which pulled me towards Evan and, well, his bed.

He was my first older lover. Why not? What would stop me, really? I asked myself. It was liberating to step out of those invisible boundaries that society tangled around my feet. Plus, I was determined to confirm a hypothesis that I was operating at a high enough level to handle anyone regardless of their age and professional position, that my intelligence and look was not limited to any audience. I was also confident that I was in a good place, I would have clean adult fun and leave unscatthered. Oh boy, could I be more wrong. The next two months proved to me that this was 99% wishful thinking.

I was right about pushing myself, that my intelligence and look was not limited to any audience, that there was always someone, no matter how old or seemingly fancy, who appreciated me for the package I was. But that was about it. I was delusional about many things else. I was wrong about my readiness, that I underestimated the differences caused by our age gap. It also didn’t help that our connection — mental and physical — was intense, leaving me with little control right from the get-go. I plunged in, soul and body soon naked. I was carried away, once again, unable to maintain my composure and the caution tapes around my heart.

I dropped my games. I showed him the real me. All too quickly. All too late for me to be able to firmly stick to my standards, to realise I didn’t really like him after all. I just wanted to be with him, obsessively. I was vulnerable like a hurt animal. Meanwhile, he was… I could just say, he was an experienced man whose suffering was beyond my understanding. There were too many problems between us that I couldn’t pinpoint one thing to be the cause of our downfall. Though, after all, it didn’t really matter. Clearly, we were incompatible and unhappy together. Even the mindblowing sex and deep talks couldn’t save us. They weren’t enough. They became my bittersweet memories.

Till this day, I still can’t say I have fully unwraped all our shared moments. There were still times I thought of him and tears rolled down my cheekbones. However, it doesn’t mean I want to be with him. I really don’t. I’ve long given up on the possibility of our happily-ever-after. I’m merely mourning over the vulnerability I got to show another breathing being, which felt amazing beyond words, and I’m eternally grateful for a deep learning experience. It was truly significant to my growing. I was no longer fixated on someone’s age or background details. I cared about who the person was on a human level, mostly because I had nothing to prove by being with them. And more and more, I knew my worth. The real worth.

***

My relationship with Evan was short, yet it had brought to my consciousness many of my deepest desires. I was sure I wanted a healthy, stable love. I wanted to be vulnerable with someone who dared to be vulnerable with me and would not rush me out of their bed. I wanted to feel like home in their arms. I wanted to come back to their place again and again and know where they put their condiments and more. I wanted a simple and lasting relationship. I wanted to learn about another human being.

So I thought the first step would be to change my choices of men. No more inappropriately older men. No more emotionally unavailable men. No more rushing sex. No more one-sided interest. It was when I thought of Alex. Alex was 27, British, in banking like I was. We went on a date in November 2016, at the same time I was involved with Scott. It was bad timing. My vagina chose Scott — I know, not my proudest statement, and so, I honestly told Alex I wasn’t feeling it and he deserved someone who was fully in with him. He agreed. He handled the break-off with grace.

We had left it on such a civil note that as soon as my mindset changed in summer 2017, I was convinced he was the better choice and I should give us a second chance. He was sweet, caring, had many similar creative interests to me, and most importantly, he was looking for a relationship. Perfect. The whole time we were together, he treated me exceptionally well and I tried to be the fun, loving soon-to-be girlfriend to him. I enjoyed it. It was nice to have someone to talk to about daily trivial stuff, to spend lazy weekends together, to bring to work party and have all my friends impressed by how wonderful he was to me.

However — I bet you could see this coming — I soon realised we didn’t really connect with each other emotionally, not on deep, spiritual levels. He seemed to be fine about it and happy with how things were but I wasn’t. I didn’t feel challenged or aroused. I kept comparing our relationship to what I felt with Evan and it fell way too short. This couldn’t be it. If he was my long-term person, we would at least have what I had with Evan and way much more, I thought. Worse, my body didn’t even respond to him when we tried to have sex and it literally pained me. But how was this even possible when he was so consistently nice to me? What was wrong with me? Why could I never accept anything good into my life?

Those were the thoughts that constantly crossed my mind, triggering the end of our relationship. I didn’t want to be that girl who complains about being single while shitting on the “nice guy”. But I couldn’t do any different. At one point, I had to accept that someone was interested in me and treated me well didn’t mean I had to force myself to feel the same for them in exchange for a secure relationship. Plus, they clearly deserved better. So, I decidedly let Alex go and came back to my single life, knowing in my gut I had done the right thing. What perhaps wasn’t done right was that I broke up with him over a long text. This time, he didn’t reply to me. I had no idea how he felt but I hoped he would realise I had done him a great favour.

After that, I did get back on Tinder out of boredom and meet up with a couple of men. They were all high-educated, well-mannered professionals, but I didn’t feel any spark. I thought I could happily do all the casual stuff, having some superficial fun with the pretty boys but even that, I failed miserably. Being in their company and their bed, no matter how momentarily pleasurable it was, just made me feel more lonely and desperate for a true connection. My heart was yearning for one which spoke the same emotional language. I couldn’t care less about age, about money, about anything as long as we felt each other and alive together and eventually could work towards something hands in hands. To my own never-ending surprise, I was still incredibly hopeful.

Turning 23 and growing into a more self-assured, happy woman, I found it harder and harder to settle for less than what I thought I deserved. Though, sometimes I still made exceptions for the connections which might be short-lived but seemed worthwhile. Late October, I met someone who visited the country briefly for business. We had a wonderful time together, which filled my heart with hope and a positive belief that I deserved complete happiness. He even helped me get over Evan by showing me what a good relationship should feel like. I was sad to let him go. But more so, I was glad our paths had crossed. I fully embraced the sweet memories we had together, and for that, I felt loved and strong. After all, I understand that life can get messy and sometimes I have to compromise a thing or two, and it’s okay. I’m determined to keep giving it my best anyway.

 

Part 2: Searching & Being

Late summer 2016, I officially ended the university life and started working full-time in the city. Towards the end of the year, while I was riding the emotional rollercoaster with Scott, the stress from the new job started to get to me. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing with my life. I doubted my own abilities. I was miserable. I cried in toilet booths, on bus home alone, after champagnes with strangers whom I had to impress, yet showed me little mercy. I ditched guys like Alex and fucked uninterested boys like Scott and Johnny and Instagram-whore Stephen. I slept with my make-up on and clothes all over the floor. I just couldn’t get anything right.

I figured I didn’t like myself very much. Because if I had, I wouldn’t have treated myself so terribly. I wouldn’t have stuck around with the men who clearly didn’t think much of me. I would have stopped replying to texts received at 5 am making excuses for endless dick moves, or not coming home on a weekday and having to brush my teeth with my fingers at a “friend’s” apartment — gross. I would have known I absolutely did not owe any man anything for their interest in me, especially not my body. I would have said no firmly when I was not in the mood for sex, instead of thinking if I just let him fuck me, at least he would leave me alone afterwards — pathetic.

When I slammed my front door on Scott’s face was when my life turned its page. I knew I was done with a half-hearted, loser life. I wasn’t ugly, I wasn’t stupid, my family was loving and supportive, and I didn’t lack money, why was I living like this? The breaking point was when I caught myself eating cheap Chinese cakes on a bus with whipped cream all over my fingers. In life, we all do a lot of things mindlessly and we quickly get over it, but this wasn’t one of those times. I was conscious about what I was doing, about all the craps I’d been feeding myself like witnessing a form of self-torture, and it was horrifying. I immediately jumped off the bus, gave the leftovers to a homeless person and headed straight to the gym.

Going to the gym, I must say, was one of the best decisions I’d ever made with my lifestyle. It was not about vanity. I’d never been out of shape. I wasn’t even bothered much with fashion or beauty trends. All I cared to do was to present myself positively and authentically, and normally it wouldn’t require the gym. It was all about my own perception of myself. Working out and taking better care of my body gave me a sense of self-confidence and control nothing else could. It was the power no one could take away from me. I did it all for myself, I knew it. It was such an organic evidence of self-love, self-respect, and even of intelligence. And it made me feel hella good.

I have lots of respect and admiration for the people who manage to change their lifestyle because going through it, I know it requires tremendous commitment and dedication. It seems easy in photos and passing stories but in reality, it’s so, so damn hard, especially when we’re surrounded with so much temptation and social pressure every minute of the day, when instant gratification has been imbedded deep in today’s culture. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I’m superior to anyone for doing this. I’ve certainly not mastered healthy living — heck, drinking enough water is still something I’m working hard on. But deep in me I know, for all the steps I’ve taken, I love and respect myself. I’m capable of becoming the best me. And it means everything.

***

Working out made me feel like a brand-new person. The positive effect of it spread out to all other areas of my life noticiably. I got compliments from friends and family and even attractive strangers. I was more able to hold up my standards. I felt as though I’d leveled up somehow and it was extraordinary, especially in the first four months of 2017 before fitness became my new normal. Though, throughout this period, I was still fighting an endless battle with anxiety and depression. I tried to play the make-believe game, telling myself I WAS beautiful and confident, I had nothing to fear. Underneath, however, were still seeds of doubts lurking around somewhere, waiting for the opportunities to pop out and poison my self-esteem.

Evan was that opportunity. He was my new challenge, my next test. I looked at him and I thought, maybe I was ready to deal with this one — a properly grown man with many things attached to his name and few reasons to bother with low-value women. I wanted to go along with it, to see how far I could go, to confirm to myself that I was ripe enough to match his grown-up level. So I did. I plunged in fast, so fast that I crashed within a matter of days. A hot body was irrelevant. My past lessons were only enough to cover the basics. I continued to make a whole new set of mistakes, one for each new experience I gained with him. Especially, he took me to a new territory: hotel rooms, recreational drugs and adult toys, which was not something I’d been prepared for.

I’ll be honest and tell you now, I had great fun. I felt even more myself. But of course I paid a price — my increasing irrational attachment to our unbalanced relationship under the influence of heavy substances, followed by extreme anxiety. I couldn’t keep my cool. I lost my control. Inevitably, our party came to an end with long, soapy text messages, random hook-ups and… a therapy session. I know. It was a depressing period of me constantly questioning who I was as a person and dissecting my most difficult emotions. But it was also wonderful because unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the start of my very own evolution pushing me to the other side — the actualised side. My pain wasn’t about him. It was all about me and my inner desires and past hang-ups which I had projected on this shiny romantic prospect. It was scary to have to see myself for real. But I did. And I came out all better.

This time with Evan, I was quick to recover from our break-up. I was deeply hurt but I also got so much stronger and wiser. I was extremely grateful that he had given me the opportunity to explore myself in such primitive and intimate ways, which made me so much more self-assured and confident. They say, evolution is never easy or efficient. It takes time, frequent mistakes and lots of changes. It was true for mine. My journey was the opposite of easy and efficient as you could tell. I’d never stopped seeking troubles. I’d put myself in destructive situations with people I had no business being with. But each time, my limit was pushed a little bit further and my thinking was expanded a little bit more. I was challenged and surprised and refreshed. In the end, I always gained so much more than I lost. I was filled with a sense of clarity which was nothing short of a wonder.

***

Towards mid-year 2017, as I focused more on myself, I did another revolutionary change to my lifestyle: I started to read more. I always joked that three things in life you should be glad you enjoy: sex, gym and reading as these things are all critical to personal growth and self-fulfilment. I’d been worried for some time that I didn’t enjoy either of these three. Because first, my body didn’t respond to just anyone — sex had been painful on many occasions. Second, I’d never been a sport person. And third, I loved writing but reading in my second language had been quite a challenge. However, in 2017, I was proven wrong on all three counts, which was a huge relief to me. Seriously, thanks god. Reading was exactly what I needed. It gave me the breadth of knowledge I’d lacked. It made me more interesting as a conversationalist. It was also extremely pleasurable and beneficial to my writing.

Most importantly, thanks to reading and well, many long-hour conversations with my trusted, wise friends, I found the answers I’d been looking for… all my life. As it turned out, the feeling of inadequacy and self-consciousness I’d carried with me all along came from the fact that I wasn’t completely true to myself. I’d been leading a double life in my own mind: working in a corporation and being a writer. I didn’t know how to merge these two identities together. I didn’t know what I should be doing with my life. For the most parts of my early twenties, I occupied myself with various banking job applications which I clearly wasn’t suited for. I wasn’t even sure why I wanted these jobs except that they all seemed shiny and sought after by my peers. Then of course I would be rejected and I would take it personally and doubt myself. I didn’t realise all I’d done was looking for distraction and delaying actually living the life meant for me.

Take it from me. If someone asks you why you do what you do, and you can’t give one good reason that has nothing to do with superficiality, if your heart tells you you’re in a shadow, you’re doing the wrong thing. You’re in the wrong place. You’re wasting your own time. Don’t do it. You’re not living, you’re just waiting to die. Stop hiding from yourself. I know it’s scary but there’s no way else out of this. And the more you push it back, the harder it is to see through all the noise, like money, power, and family ties, to actually find yourself, your true self. I’m very lucky that I came to terms with my own reality at such a young age, and I’d picked up my passion since the day I was a little girl. I didn’t have to deal with all the bullshit most people who focus on living externally early on and become successful in their mid-life suddenly find themselves fumbling around. They might have a sharp brain, a thick wallet, an all-star LinkedIn profile, but their mind is likely fogged. They can’t see themselves for real anymore.

Today, I’m simply me. I’m whole as I come. And I remind myself everyday to be true to myself, to speak from my heart. Because I know, when you’re true to yourself, you shine. You have nothing to prove. You make good decisions. You’re efficient with your time and energy. You do important things, and trust me, in life, there are few things that are truly important. I can’t give you one specific explanation how this all happens because there isn’t just one, but my relationships, my friendships, my job and even my writing have steadily evolved as a result. They’re more meaningful, more joyful, less anxiety-inducing, less time-wasting, and more successful. Since they reflect me and my value, I know I’ve made good progresses.

That being said, this is just the beginning. This is the foundation of many wonderful years ahead. I’ve never been happier and I’m not scared anymore. I know there are still mistakes to make, lessons to learn, goals to achieve, people to meet; nevertheless, overall, I’m well-equipped and I’m ready for new challenges. Over the past 6 years, I’ve done a lot of things — good, bad, regrettable, unforgettable. I’ve grown in so many ways which I never thought would be possible. However, the one thing that has remained the same throughout this process is that I’ve never stopped searching. I’ve never stopped trying to learn about myself, about the world and become the best me possible. And that’s why I’m here today, firm on my feet, and will always be moving forwards, having fun with my life. I’m not worried about where I’m heading anymore because I’m enjoying every moment I’m blessed with. I’m no longer robbing myself off the present, off this precious life I’m given.

 


Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction based on real-life experiences. All names are fictitious.