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Sensitivity Girl

LuAnn Billett

LAB Photography Press

Lititz, Pennsylvania

Published by LAB Photography Press.

Copyright © 2018 by LuAnn Billett. All rights reserved of course, though if you really can’t afford the few dollars to pay for the book, go ahead and read it anyway; life’s too short for DRM. It would be rad if you’d tell other people about this work if you enjoy it, whether you paid or not. All profits from this book allow our authors to continue pursuing their passions and producing their work, and if you did pay for it (despite the overwhelming desire to find a torrent somewhere), you’re our fave.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-In-Publication Data

Sensitivity Girl / LuAnn Billett — 1st ed.

ISBN: 978-0692080627


WC: 62,614

1. Memoir. 2. Family Drama. 3. Literary.

Cover design by Joel Holland:

Epigraph by Shearwater:

Formatted in beautiful Missoula, Montana

Printed in the U.S.A.

Publisher info:


For my children.

Without you, I would still be a struggling mortal.

“Stay away from old thoughts old doubts and old feelings.

But keeping it so far down isn't easy

And you know it's too late

Late for a last war

And it's too late

To back out of your real life.”

— Shearwater, Wildlife in America

Sensitivity Girl


When our mutual friend, Jen, called me on the phone in my sixth grade reading class, the students watched my immediate reaction. “...LuAnn needs her friends right now.” I walked out of my classroom and rushed to Sensitivity Girl’s bedside; it was an emergency. With no memory of the drive to her new house or even the words we said at the time, love’s gravity pulled me to my superhero and friend.

As the life altering moments unfolded during those early October days, Sensitivity Girl would exercise strength to confound witnesses, a town would rally to help her, and three babies would grow in a home devoid of sadness.

Our journey together began long before her days of greatest challenge. I am her super sidekick, Impulse Boy. I will never shy from reacting. Unfortunately my knee-jerk tendencies preclude awareness of potential destruction. Thankfully, Sensitivity Girl has a rescuer’s heart; she taught me to better assess collateral damage before my undertakings. She showed me truth and kindness must be in balance in our attempts to save the day. If we are kind for only kindness’s sake, we mislead by providing false security. At the same time, we can be annihilatingly truthful, as we lay others in ruin. Balance is best.

Sensitivity Girl recounts LuAnn’s heroic journey from the earliest recollections to the transitions of many life-stages and challenges. Her insight to the human condition borders on universal, while the narrative pours like a favorite coffee drink. In this story the key players take their places, play their roles, and urge our hero to use her sensitivity super powers. When the dust settles, the powers of good triumph despite repeated blows that would lead lesser characters to surrender.

As a valued player in this epic, I can attest to its accuracy and poignancy. I beam with laser-like pride as I drink in my friend’s well crafted composition that she has infused with experience, wisdom, and most important, truth balanced with kindness.

Shane Long

Chapter 1

Some heroes are born with super powers. Others develop their powers over time, or through a specific incident or accident. Many super heroes are outcasts or oddballs, different from the people around them. Most have no choice in their hero destiny. My own powers come from aspects of all of the above. Especially the oddball part.

Some of my favorite early memories are of pretending to be a single father. Dressing my dolls, feeding them, putting them down for naps, just like other girls my age. However, at the time, I didn’t even think it was weird—when I was playing with dolls, I distinctly remember pretending to be a single dad. While many girls my age were fantasizing about becoming beautiful, confident, loving mothers like Claire Huxtable or Mrs. Brady, I seemed to take my inspiration from the balding Mr. Drummond from Different Strokes.

Another early memory is a kickball game in our yard with my older brother Kevin and his friends on a sweltering summer day. When they all started stripping off their shirts, I did too. I think I had a full sixty seconds of topless joy before my mother intervened and told me to put my shirt back on. I was confused. Why did I have to wear a shirt while all the other kids, who happened to be boys, could run free? It was the first of many messages telling me boys followed different rules than girls.

I didn’t limit my masculine identities to father figures and shirtless footballers. When riding my bike, I liked to wear imitation leather gloves and imagine I was a motorcyclist in a stunt show. I’d ride my bike as fast as my little legs would allow toward a bump at the end of our driveway which would launch the bike and me up into the air. In reality, I may have only gotten about one or two inches of lift, but in my mind, I was soaring several feet above an adoring crowd. Other times I would crawl into my closet with a collection of products I stole from the bathroom cabinet. I’d randomly mix the liquids together and pretend I was a mad scientist, male of course, inventing an evil serum. I never wanted to be a princess; I wanted to be either the guy rescuing her, or the guy who locked her up.

Freudians of the world may be disappointed to learn I never actually wanted to be a boy. I never once wished I could grow a beard or write my full name effortlessly in the snow by simply pulling down my trousers. My choice of alter egos was simply my way of imagining myself as a much stronger, much more independent person than I really was. The boys I knew seemed to just be born that way, with freedom and confidence, and I was jealous.

The real me, the day-to-day LuAnn, was afraid of everything. Bridges, loud noises, sewer grates, shadows, movie witches, big dogs, those bugs that look like bushy eyebrows, heights, strangers...even short people terrified me. The tax lady in our town was a tiny woman, like 4’5”. One evening when I was around four, my father took me along with him on a visit to her office. I screamed so much because of this scary little woman that my dad made me wait on the porch until he was finished. Another time, I stayed over at my grandparents' house and sobbed the entire night because I was 100% convinced I was being kidnapped by my own sweet, gentle grandparents. I thought they were going to keep me forever.

With reality out of my control and always looming around me, I felt like the only place I had any power was in my fantasy life. But why did it seem like I’d been afraid from the womb? I lived in a small suburban town in Pennsylvania, in a safe home in a safe neighborhood. Most of our neighbors not only kept their cars unlocked, some left the keys in them. It wasn’t like my day to day existence was especially frightening.

Turns out it wasn’t fear I was born with; it was an inoperable case of relational and emotional sensitivity. Experiences, feelings, and reactions are intensified for me. It is a little like living life in super high definition.

For as long as I can remember I have been able to read the emotions of other people. With about 90% accuracy I can tell, sometimes from across a room, if someone is overwhelmed, happy, uncomfortable, angry, excited, hungry, nauseous, nervous, insecure, etc.… What it also means is I’m acutely aware of how the person I am talking to is feeling about me. I know if you’re happy with me, attracted to me, pissed at me, or generally dislike me. But I don’t just read emotions, I FEEL them. Strongly, deeply, even when they aren't mine.

For a very long time I was not happy about having powerful sensitivity. There was one Christmas morning when everyone else got an Atari gaming system and I got a disappointing sweater. It felt like everyone else my age was blissfully playing Ms. Pac Man while I was sitting around in my stupid wool pullover trying to fake gratitude so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. Back then I couldn't appreciate the merits of its warmth or artfully knitted weave. I would have much rather had the video game system.

Yes, being Sensitivity Girl could suck, and it usually did. It was way worse than The Cypher or that Wonder Twin who could only change into various forms of water—which, if you’re familiar with water, there are pretty much two: frozen and liquid. There is steam I guess, but I don’t recall him using that one. Sensitivity, on the other hand, means you know how people are feeling and you can usually figure out why. It hits hardest, and it often feels like you are the reason. And because you sense this stuff, but can’t change it, the best way to deal with it, especially as a child, is to try going invisible. I would have given anything to exchange my power of sensitivity for invisibility. But when it comes to natural born gifts there is no return period, no exchanges, no refunds.

The best time in my young life was during what would normally be the pre-school years. Instead of sending me to pre-school every day my mother took me to the library, Mommy-and-Me swim classes, and shopping. Once a week we would have lunch in the restaurant of a local, fancy, department store. During those outings, those one-on-one times with her, I felt so special. I also felt like I had the best mom in the entire world. I never wished I had gone to pre-school instead. So why, when I was alone in my room with my dolls, did I imagine I was a single dad?

While normal, even idyllic on the outside, the truth of my upbringing was one of severely mixed messages. I was the only natural child in my family. I came along in the winter of 1973, a few years after my older brother and sister had been adopted. From early in their marriage my parents had been told my mother would never be able to conceive. My father was unbending in his wish to raise children, so adoption had been their best option at the time. When my mother did finally become pregnant, even though the odds were not in our favor, she was able to carry me to term.

Adoption is hard enough on parents and children without adding a natural child to the mix and creating an even more complicated dynamic. My mother was overjoyed to have me in her life, but her happiness also caused her guilt and concern. My sister and brother deserved to receive the same depth of emotion from her, but it didn't occur as naturally. While I felt my mother's love to a degree, I could perceive her anxiety as well. She had a goal of creating a level playing field, and it was always very important to her that things between the kids be equal and fair.

My mother had been the oldest of four children. Her mother suffered from mental illness which worsened as time passed. Mother remembers her early childhood as happy, but when her siblings were born, my grandmother’s erratic behavior and irrational emotions became more of a burden on her and her younger brother and sisters. I think my mother just wanted things to be smoother and more consistent for her own children. Yet emotions and feelings are very difficult to control and regulate, especially regarding family.

I understand it better now, but as a child I could not ignore my siblings’ feelings of insecurity toward my existence. Occasionally, my brother would tell me how I was “free,” an accident, but that my parents paid lots of money for him. I never retaliated or cried and ran to my mommy. Even as a little kid I knew his words were coming from his own uncertain feelings. I could feel his torment. I also knew that bringing this to my mother would force her to confront her own conflicted feelings and anxieties.

My brother and sister might be surprised to learn I interpreted things this way. I am sensitive, not psychic. Their experience of reality was probably a lot different than mine. I only knew what I sensed from them. It was a daily thing, this feeling that I caused others pain. As a child it was incredibly hard to bear.

I don’t have many memories of fighting with my siblings, because fighting with people I love is even more painful than tuning in to their normal everyday feelings. Insight also comes with the ability to devise deep, personally biting things to say to someone. Sensitive people can easily tap into the inner life of others, and this means understanding their weaknesses and insecurities. Because of added understanding I can be a kind, caring friend, but I also have the potential to be the worst nightmare during times of conflict. I mainly chose to push down those awful thoughts and absorb the anger rather than intensify the conflict. Anger, including my own, is something I always wanted to hide or avoid.

What felt like a minor benefit at the time was my ability to discover sensitivity in others. Most would become friends who would be in my life for decades. These sensitive companions have provided both strength and comfort. There are a few, additionally, who had something even more distinctive: a spirit and presence that hit me deeper than friendship. When I was young, around age ten, I met one of these distinctive people. A boy so special, so sensitive, so super, he would impact the entire course of my life.

Chapter 2

I learned early on that I could not rely only on friendship to give me strength. I had to develop some other strategies to survive. I tried to build up my strength in sports. My older sister was a natural athlete. She was one of the only girls in our town who could hit a home run over the fence at our local softball field. It seemed everyone in town knew about her talent. My father loved going to her ball games, and even more so, loved bragging about her accomplishments to his work friends. She seemed so happy and confident. I hoped that maybe sports could be the key to winning over my father and feeling good about myself.

My earliest memories of my father relate to my failures, and more specifically, his disappointment in my failures. These failures could be anything from spilling a glass of water to shutting a door too hard. He had this way of talking to me and looking at me like I was the clumsiest, most clueless person on the planet. It was hard for me to live with the quiet feelings of my siblings, and it was unbearable to live with my father’s very clear messages of dissatisfaction in me.

It turned out I was not the natural athlete my sister was. Not even close. My father expected me to play softball because he had played baseball as a kid. He liked the sport and understood it. I don’t even remember it being a choice for me. Unfortunately, I was terrible. I spent two miserable summers standing in right field, alone, squinting into the burning sun and wishing I were anywhere else. I was uncoordinated, and worse, terrified of flying projectiles. I prayed the balls would land as far from me as possible. I didn’t even have to use my super power to read my father’s disappointment; he would share this information willingly. My father tried urgently to help me become a better player, but his unique teaching approach included too many phrases such as, “How will you ever improve if you insist on throwing and running like a girl?”

Later, to please him, and because I was tall, I tried basketball. He’d been on a State Championship basketball team in High School, so he was even more jazzed about this than softball. However, sensitive people like me do not do well in sports where other people are doing unpredictable things and trying to keep you from doing things. I could dribble, and even shoot baskets well—at least until a stranger came barreling towards me at full speed. If this was going to work I needed to find a zero-contact physical outlet where I had maximum control over most of the parameters.

After a few years of utter misery, I couldn’t take it anymore. I could no longer spend my free time playing sports I hated. Behind his back, with the help of one of my friends’ moms, I signed up for the local summer swim team. It was very unlike me, to do anything against my parents’ wishes. I was just so desperate to do something I enjoyed. My feelings about ball sports were bad enough to risk either punishment or additional paternal disappointment.

Many parents either think or pretend to think every blessed thing their child does is spectacular and genius. Every poop, every scribble, every mud pie is a freaking masterpiece. My father was never one of those parents. He appreciated measurable success, and not only were my mud pies far from award winning, my swimming skills were barely chart-able.

“You can't possibly enjoy your swim meets,” he’d say. “Doesn't it embarrass you, coming in last all of the time?” Translation: “I don't enjoy your swim meets. I am embarrassed that you come in last all of the time.”

No lie, early in my career I was probably the worst swimmer in our town—maybe in the whole state. I was one of those kids who flailed across the pool, banged into the lane lines a few times, and eventually came up sputtering on the other end. My swimming competitors were often completely dry, changed, and eating snacks by the time I pulled myself out of the water. I am convinced I earned last place in every race I swam during my first year on the team.

Astonishingly, my shameful swimming skills and my father’s steady stream of disparaging remarks did not discourage me from riding my 10-speed bike across our town to the pool every summer morning. I loved the swim team and everything that went along with it. I enjoyed the practices almost as much as the meets. The time in the pool, even when it was filled with other swimmers, allowed me to experience a quiet and meditative state I have yet to find elsewhere. When I was swimming, I felt like I belonged in the water. The pool provided a sensory deprivation situation where I could mute my sensitivity and find peace from the constant barrage of emotions that came from my interactions with people on land.

I also had my eye on one of the team swimmers. It wasn't just because he was, without a doubt, the cutest boy I had ever met. It wasn't just because no one really knew him, and he kept to himself in a very James Dean-esque sort of way. He was the type of swimmer I could only dream of becoming. When Chris swam, it looked like he was moving in slow motion—effortless. He could beat every competitor by a full body length or more. I counted the moments to every swim meet just so I could watch him glide through the water, and hope maybe, just maybe, he would talk to me.

Looking back, it’s clear there was even more to my crush than his looks or his swimming. Chris had an alluring combination of strength and vulnerability. I had plenty of crushes both prior to meeting Chris and after. Yet there was something different about him and something unique about how I felt around him. He was a powerful swimmer, but he also seemed a bit sensitive. Was he also a reluctant super hero? I wanted to get close enough to him to find out. I didn’t realize my chances were slowly slipping away.

He had started on our team as a young kid, but his family eventually moved about 45 minutes away to a completely different county. He felt connected to the team, so while he swam for the bigger, more competitive team in his town, he continued to swim with us at most of our meets. I don’t remember him ever earning less than a first place in any race. To my naïve mind, it seemed like such a positive situation, having him help us out at the meets.

Many of the girls my age had crushes on him. He was the cute boy from a different town who swam like a rock star. Of course, the boys probably weren’t as excited about having him there. More specifically, the mothers of the boys he beat at every meet were not at all happy about having him on our team. It was pretty much a given that if he was in a race, the best anyone else could do was second place.

Three years after I joined the team, the helicopter moms finally pushed hard enough to have rules created to keep kids from out of town off our team. Chris was forced to quit our club. Yet the few short moments during the few short years I had with him on the swim team stuck with me for a very long time. There was a connection between us that I did not fully understand but could not forget. I would see him again someday. Yet, I would have to get through a little heaven and quite a bit of hell before that day would come.

Chapter 3

I collected quite a few reluctant super heroes into my circle in the years after Chris left my swim team. I tend to be drawn to people who possess a combination of strength, talent, a unique form of sensitivity, and a dram or more of damage. Mostly friends, and a few more than friends. I can’t always explain how or why, often early on, I get a feeling about a person, a vibe, and I must attempt to pull them into my little world of, super sensitive friends. My Homo sapiens superior. Once they are in my club, there is very little they can do to escape. It is a lifetime membership.

One of my main sidekicks is my friend Shane. Shane began teaching middle school at the boarding school where I teach photography. When I first saw him, I thought he looked like a guy who taught Sunday school and maybe played an acoustic guitar with a strap covered in peace frog buttons. In his sweater vests and brown loafers, he just looked very very normal. “Normal” people didn’t usually “get” me or want to, so while I was nice to him, I didn’t go out of my way to get to know him.

It took a few months but eventually I learned how wrong I had been. Shane was not only super weird, he was super funny. Like, inappropriately funny. He was also very open and sincere. If there is a common thread among my closest confidants it is sincerity, and Shane’s got buckets of it.

Like me, he is also a bit damaged. His damage just comes in a more visual form. Shane was born with bilateral microtia. In simple terms, Shane was born without ears. While it must have been incredibly hard for him as a child, it is the only life he has ever known. Doctors were eventually able to construct ears from tissue harvested from other parts of his body, but they look a bit different than average ears. He has also had to wear different types of large hearing aids throughout his life.

Shane has never been able to hide the thing that makes him different. The benefit is he had been able to come to terms with it faster and more completely than people with more hidden struggles. Shane had learned to accept what made him unique and found a way to be comfortable in his own skin. He wasn’t afraid to be himself, and he also wasn’t afraid to stand up for himself. I not only wanted him to be my friend, I wanted to learn how to be more like him.

I was in my mid- 20’s when I met Shane, and while I had grown quite a bit from the girl who wanted to be invisible, and had toughened up as well, I still had a long way to go to become a true super hero. I still shied away from conflict, and simply did my best to avoid difficult people. I also naively believed that in a school, a professional setting, all I would have to do is be nice and work hard, and things would be smooth sailing.

I had fallen in love with photography in college. I connected to the shooting, the processing, and the printing instantly. It can be a very introspective, and somewhat solitary art form. The darkroom, like the pool, is a sensory deprivation place. I shot and printed obsessively, which lead to strong and interesting photos. I gained a reputation as one of the best photography students in my peer group. I’d finally found a skill I could truly be proud of.

I had been working at the girls boarding school for a few years teaching photography prior to Shane being hired. I had confidence in my teaching and knew my subject well for a young teacher. However, I quickly found that there were a few difficult personalities among the faculty. No matter how nice I was, and how hard I worked, these people tended to kick me around. Throwing minor mistakes in my face, or just generally being unkind to me.

About a year into our friendship Shane witnessed a common interaction with one of the difficult teachers. The older teacher and I were planning a field trip together. I had originally thought the museum opened at a certain time, but recently learned it opened earlier, which could make the day's schedule smoother. I was sharing this with my colleague and she immediately tore into me.

“You said it opened at 10am, but now you are saying it is 9:30am?”

“Um, I said I thought it opened at ten, but when I called for tickets the woman told me we could come at 9:30am.”

“It’s called COMMUNICATION, LuAnn!” she yelled.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. “I could change it to ten, but I was thinking if we arrive at 9:30am we won’t have to cover classes for the extra half hour.”

“Leave it at 9:30, but next time get your information straight before we start planning.”

She said this loudly and stormed away. She was barely out the door before Shane started laying in to me.

“What the hell was that? She treated you horribly and you just flipped over and showed her your belly?! You apologized and had nothing to apologize for. I never want to see you take that from anyone ever again.”

I began to cry. He was right. I was an adult, and I shouldn’t have put up with bullying. Especially from a colleague. Yet growing up, standing up for myself only seemed to make things worse. I had survived for so long by avoiding conflict, I didn’t really know how to handle it. For over 20 years, I could operate in a fairly conflict free mode most of the time. I was really good at either avoiding conflict or preventing it. As an athlete I just had to do whatever the coach told me, work hard, and swim fast. As a student I simply showed up for class, on time and prepared, and met every deadline. Even in my first job in a restaurant, which I held from High School through college, I just worked hard and did what I was told. I was easy to deal with and do my job.

I was a bit shocked as my long-term method of operation did not seem to work as well in the professional, educational realm. It was more like typical high school than my own high school experience had been. In high school I was a bit of the weird art room girl, but at the same time I got along with most people. I didn’t get bullied. For the most part, people left me alone. At the school where I was employed however, there was an established clique of teachers, and I was not part of that clique. They seemed to always be in a position to pounce on any perceived screw up or flaw. Even when they weren’t overtly nasty to me, my sensitivity revealed the plain and simple fact that these people did not like me.

As a child, for as long as I can remember, I wasn’t treated with respect by my father. I also learned early on that standing up to him only escalated things. Arguing with him just made him angrier. This was because he had power over me. I was a kid. I needed him. I also felt that maybe I deserved to be treated that way because I wasn’t good enough.

So, when those experienced, older teachers treated me poorly, I think I figured I deserved it. I was a good teacher, but maybe not as good as they were. They had been at the school longer and seemed so sure of themselves, at least on the surface. I believed that they somehow had power over me, so I just took whatever they dished out.

I loved my job, however, despite the nasty adult bullies. I was being paid to teach photography to groups of bright, motivated teenage girls. I was in charge of a full darkroom and had access to supplies and equipment that I could never afford on my own. I would meet professional photographers and they would tell me how lucky I was. When I wasn’t teaching, I could make photographs that I was interested in making, and I never had to please clients. In addition, the students and the administration seemed to like me very much, and those were the only opinions I should have cared about.

Everything began to change the day Shane called me out for my wimpy behavior. I had built up strength from years of being a good photography teacher. I knew in my heart that I deserved to be at that school, and I did not deserve to be treated like I had been. Yet my default setting was still that of a little girl who was never quite good enough. Shane showed me I had to change my default.

So, cautiously at first, I began to stand up for myself. I didn’t yell, I didn’t treat people poorly. I just stopped taking their shit. I learned to call people out when they tried to intimidate or belittle me. I learned to stand up for ideas I had that deserved to be considered. I walked a little taller, and I no longer shied away from conflict.

And you know what? It worked. Not magically, not overnight. But it worked. Early on, every single time I would stand up for myself I would call either Shane or my mom and tell them all about it. I needed their emotional support. It was also a bit scary the first few times, facing the bullies. Eventually, as it kept working, as the world did not end when I stood tall, it was no longer scary. It felt amazing.

That day in the faculty room, Shane gave me the push I needed. Standing up to those people was a huge step for me. It not only felt good, but those same individuals started treating me with more respect. Through my sensitivity powers, I could still tell they didn’t like me all that much. Yet, it didn’t matter. I didn’t necessarily like them either. It was only important that they treated me like the professional colleague I was. It didn’t turn off my sensitivity, it didn’t end bad treatment or conflict in my life. Learning to stand up for myself gave me the skills to fight the even tougher battles on the horizon.

Chapter 4

Fall, 2002. I was 29, alone in my apartment, and the phone was ringing. Because I knew who was on the other line, the sound of the phone suddenly reduced me to feeling like that silly, uncoordinated little girl from high school. Through a church connection between his grandmother and my mother, Chris, epic super hottie from swim team, had my phone number and was calling me. I can't recall the exact transcript of the conversation, but what I do know is that I resorted to my unfortunate nervous habit of uncontrolled babbling and swearing. Somehow, between obscenities, he agreed to meet me for coffee. I'm not sure if it was out of curiosity or perhaps from an intense fear this woman with the mouth of a longshoreman would kick his adorable ass if he didn't.

I didn't know what to do with myself. I paced around my kitchen in a combination of exhilaration and pure panic. I called my best friend and swapped my normal voice for the voice of an awkward middle school-er who just got asked to the winter formal by a 14-year-old version of David Beckham, sans tattoos.

“Oh my gosh, Shane, he was the finest, cutest boy I ever met. He also had the most adorable butt! I can't believe that he called me. ME! I have a date with the hottest guy on the swim team!” Then the vain part of me asked: “What if he is fat now? Or a huge nerd?” Shane calmed me down and reminded me that I didn't have to marry this guy; it was just a date.

A few days later, there was a knock at my door. There he was, the adult version of Chris in the flesh. He was still adorable. He still had it. It’s so hard to put in to words what made this guy superior to other humans in my mind. While I understand emotional insight, the experience is not easy to define for others. Adjectives rarely do the job. It’s a gut thing, a vibe. Many times, it is simply the level at which I am drawn to a person or repelled. It is a little like describing why you like certain music. Sometimes it just comes down to how you feel when the song plays. What I do know is that when I was around Chris, even at a young age, a spectacular song was playing. When I like a song, I want to listen to it on a continuous loop, forever.

The older Chris wore glasses, and though he was only a few months behind me in age, he looked more innocent somehow. For the first hour or so he seemed to look only at his shoes and never directly at me. I worried that perhaps he’d changed his mind. Maybe I do swear too much? As he continued to study his feet I became convinced he was plotting an escape.

But this nervous rabbit quality about him made him so much more endearing than I even remembered. As we walked down the street, I kept expecting him to scamper away and hide in the bushes. I tend to be loud, borderline obnoxious when I am nervous. I flail my arms and hands when I talk. I tried to tone down my speech and arm movements, so I wouldn't startle him or send him away screaming in terror. I’ve often been described as both intimidating and just plain "too much" by shy or reserved people, so I tried my best to keep my fear inducing tendencies and abhorrent qualities in check.

I must have done something right because our date lasted for hours. He captivated me because he shared so much about himself, but at the same time he continued to have trouble looking at me. He was sort of an enigma. He talked about swimming, told me about a painful breakup after a long relationship, his family, both good and bad. I shared a lot, too. The ups, the downs, and craziness of the previous fifteen years of my life came pouring out. I found myself wanting to keep talking to him forever. To hear what he was thinking and feeling about virtually any subject. I felt like I could tell him almost anything. I was getting the exact same vibe from him that I had as a kid on the swim team. That beautiful song was still playing in my head and my heart.

However, I was holding something back. After the evening ended I kicked myself for not asking the big question, but I was too scared. Did he really remember me? I mean, really remember?

Before we knew it, it was almost midnight. I was just so comfortable with him that I didn't want it to end. It almost felt strange for him to leave. Instead, I walked him to his car and he shook my hand. It was a bit incongruous. I suddenly felt as if we were concluding a very successful job interview. For maybe the first time ever, my epic sensitivity could not decode the feelings of another person, which was simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating.

The strong basis for my internal conflict stemmed from the fact that the last time I had seen him had been an extremely significant time in my life. Perhaps, one of the most significant of my entire existence. I was certain he didn't remember, and certainly it couldn’t mean much to him if he did remember. It wasn't just because the last time I had seen him I was still in that gawky middle school stage and was not the most attractive girl in town. It was because what happened that night was burned into my memory.

Back when I joined the swim team my life at home was unbearable most of the time. It is challenging to describe all of the details as an adult because honestly, I didn’t really understand what was going on with my family at that point in my life. What I do know is there was a lot of conflict, which mostly involved my brother and my father. The conflicts were angry, loud, and sometimes violent. I never knew what each day would bring. I loved my brother very much and had always looked up to him. To see him so angry and out of control was both sad and scary for me. Especially when the rage was directed my way. No matter what I did it always seemed to be a mistake. It felt like every problem in my home was my fault. I was too young to understand how little power I truly had over any of it, in any way.

However, the power of intuition combined with observation made me aware that my home life was not “normal.” I felt like we were living in a war zone without the benefit of air raid sirens to warn of the next bomb drop. I knew regular families were not supposed to function this way. I didn’t feel comfortable having friends over to my house very often. When I did have a friend over, there would always seemed to be some sort of angry or downright embarrassing scene. Though my friends seemed okay, I couldn’t handle it. When I was at a someone else’s home I noticed that no one seemed jumpy, and the mothers didn’t have sadness or fear in their eyes. Other houses in my town in the 1980’s just seemed so calm and happy.

It was difficult for me to watch my mother suffer through constant chaos and drama. I was so connected to her that even at a young age I was tuned in to her desire for a peaceful home life. It clearly hurt her very much that her family and household were so out of her control. I constantly prayed to God for things to get better. For the longest time, or what seemed like the longest time, things only got worse and worse. I would ask my mother questions like, “Why can't we have a normal family?” and “What have we done to deserve this?” or “Why does God hate us?” She didn't have any helpful answers. At the time, I didn't have the life experience to understand things eventually can and do get better. For me it seemed like life would always be that way, which felt unbearable. Now, as a mom, I can only imagine my own mother's torment and suffering.

Eventually I became a better swimmer, and while lap swimming still provided a needed escape; I was also able to collect some self-esteem from winning races. When you feel ashamed and apologetic for things that are truly out of your control, an undeniable win in a competition is very important. A blue ribbon that proves you were the best in a race, that you did a great job, is so incredibly rewarding. The more I won the more I loved my time with the swim team, and the more I could avoid the battleground at home. I started feeling like I might be okay and felt like I had some value too. I vividly remember virtually every race I ever won, and certainly the earliest ones. In many ways, swimming saved my soul and self-esteem.

But the most noteworthy moment, proving I was worth more than I felt, didn't come in a race or a swim meet. I was in seventh grade and our team had just wrapped up the best season we’d had since I joined. I was on top of the world after winning two major races at the championship event and taking home two beautiful trophies. At the end of each season, our parents organized a huge picnic complete with food, awards, games, and a sleepover for all the swimmers. It was always the highlight of our summer, but this picnic was even better because we had done so incredibly well all season. We had a lot to celebrate that night.

I'm not sure why or how it all happened. Maybe it was something in the air, perhaps it was the energy and the high I was feeling from all those wins. Something gave me the courage to finally talk to Chris. I wish I could remember what we talked about. I was so mesmerized by him I probably didn't make much sense regardless of the topic. Later in the evening as the sun set, we all played games, which mostly consisted of silly races across the pool. Somehow, I found myself beside Chris in each race. He was funny and playful and liked to cheat to make me laugh. He would pull my leg and wrestle me to hold me back from winning. It was the first and last time in my entire swimming career that I didn't care whether or not I won. My friends and I were all having fun talking and laughing with Chris. It was the first time he really opened to us and we were all happy when he asked his parents if he could spend the night at the pool.

It was a strict rule that boys and girls had to sleep in separate tents, but in the few hours before lights out we could visit any tent we wanted. We all ended up congregating in Chris's tent and someone had the bright idea of playing spin the bottle. We were in Junior High after all and that is what Junior High school kids did. At least in the 80’s it was. The kids on my swim team spent so much time together in the summer that we were practically like brothers and sisters. The kisses exchanged were usually very quick pecks through giggles and funny “gross out” sounds. Then, it was Chris's turn to spin, and everything changed.

I couldn't believe it. The look on my face must have been priceless when the aerosol nozzle of the hairspray bottle we were using stopped right in front of my crossed legs. I couldn't breathe as Chris leaned in to the center of the circle. As my heart beat insanely inside my chest I knew I had to lean in as well. Chris put his lips on mine and gave me the first real, beautiful, electric kiss of my life. I will remember it clearly until the day I die. Everyone in the tent looked stunned, and he leaned back with a huge grin. The next time it was his turn, he simply turned the bottle with purpose and pointed it right at me and kissed me again. It was like a freaking 80’s movie where the dorky chick gets the guy. There were so many girls on the team who were cooler and prettier than me, and I think they were just as surprised. Little did I know this would be the last time I would see him for the next 15 years.

Chapter 5

“Are you cheating on me?” I asked my husband in a stern and knowing voice.

“No!” he answered with shock and anger. “Why would you ask that?”

“I found your cell phone bill, and you call this phone number more than two times a day, every day. The calls are always during your lunch break and on your way home from work. I called the number, and it belongs to a woman.”

“What!?!” he exclaimed. “You called it! She is a business contact! That is why I talk to her.”

I argued the fact that he was never at work when he called her, and he gave me a pile of excuses. I was not convinced at all, but I really couldn't prove a thing. I just had that intuition that women are supposed to be blessed with. That would hardly hold up in a court of law. Besides, what if I was wrong?

Suspecting infidelity and knowing it are two different things.

In my 20’s I still did not have a good grasp of the depth of my sensitivity. I tended to doubt the reality of my concerns and suspicions. This carried over from my early life and may have rendered me overly critical and left me unable to trust others. On one hand, I was pretty certain he wasn't being faithful, but I had no proof. I also felt guilty because if I was wrong and he wasn’t cheating, it meant I was an insecure, horrible, suspicious wife. Women are told constantly to trust their instincts but that is much easier said than done. Does any woman ever want to believe that the person who swore to spend the rest of his life with only her would pull his pants down and get naked with another woman?

A few weeks later, completely by accident, I discovered more hard evidence of his infidelity on the internet. It was one of those silly married people arguments. He was supposed to pick up dog food while I spent the day volunteering for an arts group. When I arrived home, I found out he’d played around on the computer the entire day and didn’t do the one and only thing I had asked. We rarely argued, but I was exhausted and pissed. After a quick verbal scrap, he stormed out the door to buy the dog food. In the heat of the moment, he forgot to log off the computer.

Within one click I found his profile on an adult website that connects men, women, and couples to other people who are looking for sex. It wasn't just a profile; I could tell he’d been contacting and interacting with other users. There were exchanges saved in a folder. It appeared he may have met with at least some of them, and most likely followed through with showing them the "skills" he had outlined in his personal description. I felt sick in the pit of my stomach. I finally had proof of his infidelity, or at the very least his plans for infidelity, but I didn't exactly feel good about it.

My first husband's dual life crumbled after that night. When he arrived home I immediately showed him the computer printout and kicked him out of our apartment. I also found out he had been emailing his “business contact” through a secret email account. The next day I began the humiliating process of telling my family and showed them the profile as well. I felt like I had no choice. I didn’t trust anyone to support me without concrete evidence. The nature of his profile shocked them, as they’d had no idea about this side of him. They’d always liked the guy, and I needed them to see I had a valid reason for booting him. This wasn’t just a slip up, or some drunken mistake. There was an active pattern of behavior I was dealing with.

It wasn’t long before I heard from him again. He wanted to work things out. He kept promising to change. I explained if there was going to be any chance of us staying together he would need to be completely honest about everything, even the smallest detail. Sadly, I caught him in lies almost immediately. I think this was even harder than learning of infidelity—the absolute knowledge that there was little or no hope of ever knowing if he would be honest about anything.

I had always told myself if the person I married cheated on me that I would divorce them on the spot without thinking twice. The reality was quite different. Our families were in so much pain, and so was I. He had wonderful parents, and they were very upset and hurt by it all. Mine were worried how I would make it on my own. My hair was falling out. I was short tempered, lonely, and grouchy. There were many times I considered taking him back just to stop the pain. I finally understood why women sometimes put up with bad relationships.

In the short term it might have been easier just to forgive and forget, but I knew in my heart I could not stay in a relationship without trust, and I saw no evidence that his dishonesty was going to go away. At one point I told him, “I would have to suffer the rest of my life wondering if you were going to cheat again, and you would get to live your life knowing that I never would.” It was a very difficult year, and at the age of 27 I was divorced and living on my own.

When I got married I thought I had finally had relationships and love figured out. When I married my first husband, I thought I had worked out all of my issues and knew exactly what I wanted. He had not been my first long term relationship. At 23 I felt I was smart enough to get married. I had learned from past relationships, but clearly not enough.

In my late teens and early 20's there was Mike. We met while I was home on a Winter break from college and love was the furthest thing from my mind. My friend Chrisa was friends with the lead singer of an Industrial music band. She invited me to see them play in a divey little club. Mike was the keyboard player and I noticed him immediately. He was tall, slim, with light hair, and strong German features.

Mike wasn’t just handsome, he was also a very talented musician. He was incredibly passionate about making music and it was thrilling to watch him create industrial songs. He would spend hours composing music and lyrics, and I loved every minute of watching him compose. I have always been drawn to creative people, and I become especially attached to those who can do something that I can't. He was also sensitive. He felt things very deeply, and cared so much about his friends, his family, and his music. His super power was making music that moved people. I fell fast, and I fell hard.

For some reason Mike always seemed to keep me at arm’s length. I just wanted to spend as much time as possible absorbing him and it probably made him uncomfortable. Like a permanent groupie he couldn't get rid of. I was a less ballsy version of Sally from Peanuts, and he was my Linus. Mike was a few years older than me, and much more comfortable with himself. I was needy, young, and still trying like hell to figure myself out. He wanted a relationship as an enhancement to his already full life. I wanted a relationship to complete my life and to complete me. It is easy to imagine how it all worked out in the end.

It took me many years to figure out that incredibly sensitive people have trouble with love. It isn’t because they can’t find it, it is because deep love has the tendency to provide incredible highs, and devastating lows. It is heroin for the sensitive.

Let me explain a bit better. When I am deeply, head over heels in love, any distance from the person, either physical or emotional, is incredibly painful. When I’m with them and they are engaged with me it is fantastic. This constant ping pong between high and low is quite taxing, not only for me, but for the other person as well. Additionally, if there is a situation where the other person is not as deeply in love, the pain is always there in one form or another. It is hard for highly sensitive people like me to understand when the average person does not respond to love as deeply as the sensitive person does.

I’ve known for most of my life that to feel this range and intensity of emotions is not normal. So, instead of expressing these feelings, even to a friend, my tendency in the past was to pretend everything was fine. It’s important to stress that sensitive people are usually not dramatic, and we don’t like to call attention to ourselves. It’s a personal failure to make any situation worse than it already is. I would always try my best not to rock the boat. Forget my birthday? “Oh, you’re busy.” Change plans at the last minute? “Let’s just re-schedule.” I became a doormat made of braided strips of unexpressed emotions. Such a thing is not easy to sustain, even for the strongest of people.

The saddest part about my relationship with Mike is that after three years it was me who decided to break things off. It hurt too much to be in a relationship where things felt so imbalanced. I knew in my heart he just wasn't as nuts about me as I was about him. I couldn't change him or me, and I knew we would both be better apart. I knew I was building up resentment from three years of feeling neglected by Mike. It wasn’t his fault that I never spoke up, but the frustration and anger began to replace the pain I felt when he wasn’t around.

A year after breaking things off with Mike I met the man who would become my first husband. Sadly, I was hell bent on finding someone completely different from Mike. The new guy was classically handsome and always knew the right things to say. Our marriage lasted five years before I found his internet profile. Like an idiot, I had ignored the golden advice that is passed on to women from generation to generation. “Once a cheater, always a cheater. Men don't change.” He actually told me he had cheated on other girlfriends in his past but wouldn’t cheat on me. RIGHT! (I know, I know, I just smacked my forehead really hard as I typed this). I just kept focusing on the fact this handsome, smooth, guy had chosen me. The reality was I wasn't all that special, just one of the few women who was dense enough to believe his lies.

I think I was also trying to take a break from emotional roller coaster relationships. Subconsciously, I was not strong enough for another relationship where I was deeply in love. It was much easier to be with my own stupid version of a trophy husband. He knew how to play the surface part of the good husband, how to say nice things and give attention when it was needed.

If love is heroin, I married my first husband to quit opioid love cold turkey. The relationship was just so surface and easy. We liked the same things, and we looked good together. We were very good roommates that also spent time socially. Yet, I couldn’t keep my sensitivity, my predilection for reading people, down for long. One does not get over a problem by avoiding it, as it will certainly resurface.

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