This piece was first published on Soberistas in May 2017
Sometimes I still get angry when I think about my ex boyfriend. I look back on our four and a half years together and I curse myself for the million minuscule decisions I made along the path to choosing him, and staying with him well after I realised our relationship was deeply destructive to my sense of self. I yearn for the power to turn back time, reset the clock, reclaim the years and the energy that I lost. Not to mention the money. Long story.
I used to express this sentiment to my therapist, who would nod in his wise, empathetic way and then, without fail, remind me of his belief that everything happens for a reason. “This relationship was there to teach you something, Jojo,” he would say. “Maybe you don’t know what it is yet, but some day you will.” I wanted to believe him, but my inner voice wasn’t ready to drop the complaint. Sure, I had stuff to learn - for example, how to spot the signs that you’re being emotionally manipulated – but did it really have to take four and a half years? It seemed such a terrible waste of time. No matter what I did to move forward, when things went wrong I would find myself going back to that anger and regret. If only this, if only that. If only I’d never answered that first, second, third email. If only we hadn’t walked home together that time. If only I’d paid closer attention to the early warning signs. At every crossroads things could have been different. I would look back and see a spider’s web of failure and poor choice, and I would wish the pointless but inevitable wish that things had just been different. I spent a lot of time hanging out in a dreary, uncomfortable past in which I couldn’t really trust myself. Not fun, and not conducive to positive change.
Of course, when you’re living in Regretsville, it’s not easy to see a way out. It wasn’t until I saw a friend doing the exact same thing that I really understood what I wanted – what I needed - to change.
This friend of mine has vaginismus*, an extremely painful condition that causes involuntary vaginal muscle spasm during any attempt at penetration. There are various types of vaginismus, various degrees of severity, and multiple contributory factors, both physical and psychological. It’s also a lot more common than you might expect. Vaginismus is a royal pain in the vagina, and causes huge amounts of shame and distress. Over the past year, my friend has found the courage to start talking about vaginismus, and also, slowly, about the relationship that dominated her late teens and early twenties. This long, seminal relationship was characterised by shame, non-communication, and a concerted effort to show the world that everything was just fine, thank you very much, even though it was a long, long way from fine. Unsurprisingly, my friend looks back at this relationship, and at the ‘lost’ years after it, with a profound sense of regret. She’s angry and sad that things aren’t different, and she’s scared that it might be too late for her to have everything she wants from life: a loving partner, a fulfilling sex life, children. I get this, but at the same time I see her getting stuck in Regretsville and I want to shake her. “Look at what you’re doing, woman! Look at the courage and bravery you’ve shown and are showing every day! Look at how you’re opening up, reaching out, sharing your pain! This is phenomenal,” I want to cry. “This is triumph and victory and EVERYTHING.” I’m so astoundingly proud of her for the work she’s putting into unpicking years of shame and secrecy, and I just want to hold up a mirror and show her how glorious she is. And no, I don’t know if she’s going to find a partner and have a fabulous sex life, and then a child. I can’t promise that, much as I would like to. But I do know that those things definitely aren't waiting for her in Regretsville.
So I realised: At some point you simply have to STOP WISHING FOR A BETTER PAST. Stop wishing for a better past, because that wish is never going to be granted, and in the meantime you might miss all the possibilities for a better future that are opening up in front of you. In Regretsville, all streets lead back to themselves. Maybe you did mess up. Maybe it would have been better if you’d
made different decisions. But what happened, happened. The point is, you’re doing something about it now. The point is you’re seeking to understand, to change, to grow, to move forward. And you, my friend, deserve to celebrate that, every single day.
It’s now been over five years since my old, strange, shoddy relationship ended, and over that time I have, step by tiny step, come closer to a place of acceptance. My therapist was right, I have learned so many lessons from the mistakes I made, and I’m sure there are still more lessons to uncover; lessons that make me a smarter person, a more empathetic coach, and a far better partner and friend. Now, when I catch myself giving the side eye to Regretsville I remind myself: If you learned something from it, you get to let it go.
* There are lots of great resources out there for women suffering with vaginismus, including one very recently set up by the friend mentioned in this blog. You’re not alone! If you recognise these symptoms, reach out to your GP, or a psychosexual counsellor. You can also peruse this great website, and this fantastic blog. And here’s a link to some revolutionary new dilators available from Sh!