I found it difficult to write about a specified topic, just like I always found it hard to read an assigned book in school. I love to write, and I adore reading, but being TOLD what to read or write -- that's an entirely different thing.
The topic given by the contest was "tell us when you first knew true love". I immediately knew I didn't want to write about having a baby or getting married, but something else entirely. Before either of those two things could have happened, I had to learn to love myself. It was a battle I very nearly lost and if I hadn't somehow struggled through it, I wouldn't be here to write this now.
I decided to go ahead and share the story here. It's certainly not the most interesting story I could tell you, but it's absolutely a turning point in my life.
I knew true love when I smelled the irregular sheets.
In 1999, I spent a miserable, lonely day moving my paltry belongings from a catastrophically failed relationship into a house I was fairly certain I couldn't afford. The house was old and quaint, an adorable 1940's cottage. Every room was tiny, which seemed fitting, considering how small I felt, how battered my emotions were, how incredibly microscopic I felt in the grand scheme of life.
A year ago, I thought I had it all. I'd graduated from a stellar university with a promising future. I'd found what I thought was the strength to leave a complicated three-year relationship only to fall right back into the same pit I'd just climbed out of.
"I'll take care of you," he said.
"I'll treasure you."
" I love you."
The relationship started with sunshine and promises. Weeks passed, then months ... a year. As if on a predetermined schedule of existence handed to me at birth, life started derailing right on schedule. Slights, then fights. Slammed doors; nights left to steam alone in bed; angry, nasty taunts.
A couple of shoves.
And then, the ultimate denouement -- I was told to move out.
As miserable as this man had made me, as unequipped as he'd been to sustain a lasting relationship with so much as a house plant, I was still utterly and completely crushed. I'd been chosen and then abandoned by people for years. Years. Even my childhood had been a series of neglect, upheaval, and complete crazy-making.
I was thirty years old and I'd finally hit rock bottom. Rock bottom had been searching for me for those thirty years, sometimes fading into the background, but all too often rising up to yank me closer to the depths of dashed hopes and anguish. Rock bottom was being too confused and tired, too miserable and beaten down to consider anything as dire as suicide. Rock bottom was being forced to live.
The irony didn't escape me.
The irony didn't escape me.
Struggling to hold myself together, I reached out to a co-worker to help me look for an apartment. The idea of walking into empty rooms alone was more than I could bear. We quickly discovered that living in a university town meant skyrocketing rental prices, so I attempted the previously unimaginable -- I started house-hunting.
Newly out of college and with no savings, my price range hit somewhere between "tenement" and "does not exist in this market". The first house my agent showed me had plastic sliding doors, three windows, and a resident mouse. The second house had so much mold and mildew in the basement that both the realtor and I bolted up the stairs and out into the dirt yard gasping for breath. The third house showed promise until we climbed the stairs to the second floor and realized no one taller than 5'8" could possibly live there in an upright position.
Hot, dirty, and dejected, we drove through the neighborhood toward the agent's office. As we sat at a stop sign, still trying to catch our breath from the moldy basement, the heavens opened up and the angels did sing -- another real estate agent was right at that moment hammering a "For Sale" sign into the yard of an adorable white cottage.
I was all for accosting the agent then and there, but apparently, that's not how things are done in polite society. My realtor made a phone call and we set an appointment for the next day.
For the first time in ages, things didn't look so dismal.
I'll never forget walking into that house. Only 888 square feet, it was a haven built for one. A miniscule fireplace, but plenty of windows. An adorable little kitchen and a narrow but deep back yard. Two tiny bedrooms and one dollhouse-sized bathroom. It even had a sweet dining room just big enough for a table for two -- should I ever find a "plus one".
We wrote a contract immediately. There was only one catch. The owner couldn't move out for two months.
Two months. Two torturous months living holed up in a room in my ex's townhouse.
Could I do it? Could I handle the put-downs, the new girlfriends being trotted in front of me, my inability to feel the slightest bit of self-worth?
I had no choice. I had no where else to go.
Living with family was not even on the table. Most of my friends still lived overseas, still enlisted in the Air Force, where I probably should have stayed. I couldn't afford a hotel for two months. I had to swallow what little pride I had left and fall deeper and deeper into self-loathing each and every day.
I nearly didn't make it. To stay out of the way of the ex-boyfriend, I woke up at 5am to go to the gym, went to work, drove back to the gym again as soon as work was over, and then limped to my personal room in hell to swallow a handful of pain killers left over from a recent surgery so I could fall comatose and forget where I was. I lost too much weight. More frighteningly, I lost time. I found myself sitting at a traffic light with no idea how I'd gotten there or what road I'd just driven. I was close to a catatonic state most hours of the day.
Finally, moving day arrived. All my possessions fit in the back of a pickup truck with room to spare. With a promise of marriage given early on by the ex, I'd sold or given away my entire household when I moved in with him -- furniture, dishes, anything remotely useful to a new home owner. I had nothing but a couple of suitcases, boxes of beloved books, two cats, and fear.
I spent the first three days in my new house in a haze of cleaning, painting, hammering, patching, and organizing. I visited a furniture store for a mattress and sofa, the grocery store to stock my empty fridge, and the hardware store to buy light fixtures and paint. I spent that weekend -- Thanksgiving Day weekend, interestingly -- building a nest for the broken-winged bird I'd become. I needed to heal, and I needed a home. I needed a safe haven, and it needed to be mine and mine alone.
I had decided to give up on dating. One failed marriage and several disastrous long-term relationships were enough. The pain and anguish were just not worth it. I needed to learn to love myself and figure out who I was when not defined by the man I was with. In a fit of pique, I decided if I was going to spend my nights alone, then I deserved luxurious high thread count sheets -- even if all I could afford were the irregulars from the discount store.
That night I lay on my back in my tiny bungalow, clutching my irregular sheets up to my chin. I watched traffic lights pass across my ceiling. I buried my face in the sheets, taking in a deep breath, smelling the calming scent of fresh laundry. I'd expected to dry tears on my sheets that night, but instead, I felt a strange calm.
Suddenly, I got a chill as I realized in a moment of crisp clarity -- this, this room, this house, was all mine!
I couldn't control the grin on my face. I knew tears hadn't been completely vanquished, but I felt myself fall in love with my house, my home, and I felt I could learn, over time, to fall in love with myself.
All it took was the spark of hope from the smell of irregular sheets.
Lori Anderson creates jewelry and bead kits as well as collaborative mixed media art with her son, Zack. Visit her shops by clicking here. She is also the creator of the Bead Soup Blog Party tm and author of the book Bead Soup.
Join her at the Facebook group Bead Soup Cafe for bead chat, swaps, challenges, and lots of eye candy!