When I was 16, I had a boyfriend that I didn’t cheat on. Our relationship lasted perhaps six months, and then he broke my heart. After that, I made sure to always have an understudy nearby.
I don’t do “alone.” The second I think I am single, or may be abandoned, I begin hearing—and believing—the echoes in my brain that say I am fat, old, ugly and will be lonely forever. I used to believe that having a boyfriend—or a husband—was armor against an unsafe world.
The characters on General Hospital were my role models growing up. I had no reason to believe that people were anything more than their genitals and that all relationships were primarily sexual. My parents had several divorces between them; my mother had many overnight “friends” and tended bar, and my older sister was a topless dancer. I learned very early that men were a disposable commodity. And I was an ugly girl who had to be grateful for any attention.
I cheated on my first husband before we were married, with a man who got drunk and frightened me. Despite being scared, I went back for more. The infidelity was easy to justify: Ray, my future husband, was withholding sex as a way to punish my bulimia.
We got married shortly after I became pregnant, but even that didn’t seem to be a reason to begin practicing fidelity. I practiced my eating disorder and nurtured our daughter, and Ray got drunk and wet the bed on a regular basis. It took me two years to decide to leave and even that wasn’t for myself, but because I didn’t want my daughter to grow up thinking this was what marriage looked like.
If infidelity was something to outgrow, I was stunted.
An epic telephone battle with my father sent me out to a bar in search of sex one night. I never paused to consider my actions. I knew I was using sex and men to soothe a need but it never occurred to me that my choice might not be healthy, or that anyone else was doing anything any differently. I wasn’t even sure about what would trigger the desire. I just knew that when I was meeting a new man and getting laid, I felt both high and worthwhile. I was still pretty enough to fuck.
The night of the telephone battle, I met David. When I passed out drunk in his arms, he mistook this for trust and decided he loved me. Our relationship was never healthy. He read my private journals repeatedly and smoked pot every day and although I broke up with him over and over, he wouldn’t stay away. I mistook his tenacity as a sign that we were meant to be together. I cheated on him furiously. There never seemed to be any other way to behave and since everyone laughed when I freely joked about it, I thought it was funny. I thought I was being honest: just not with David.
I created so much distance between us by cheating and lying that I might as well have been alone. But then there was another child and there was money and I was always struggling to meet everyone’s needs. The backlash was that cheating became a sweet secret I gave myself, something that was just for me. I always hoped that somewhere out there I would find the answers to my entire life: something to make eating okay, and the Right Man to make monogamy possible.
I pushed cheating as far as I possibly could. For the last two years of my marriage, I worked as an escort. My husband never knew, or chose not to know. I left when I realized that I was waking up every morning wishing to be dead. I still wasn’t looking at myself, but running away because I believed that David deserved better.
Even the leaving wasn’t enough: I took all my problems with me. I began therapy and discovered alarming things about my past and about my early sexual experiences that helped me to understand my behavior. An early episode of incest, followed by sexual assaults, had reduced my lens on the entire world. I’m still learning how to forgive myself. I am beginning to understand that sex is a weapon I use against myself, and that the answers to my challenges won’t be found in anyone’s bed.
I try to take responsibility for what I’ve done without blaming myself. I’m not very good at that. The reasons for my cheating: my fractured soul, my anger, and my ignorance, offer little solace when I consider the people I’ve hurt. But even now, when I am feeling badly, I make up lists of men who might still be willing to sleep with me. If there’s any sign of growth, it’s that I haven’t called any of them.
(This piece appeared under the title I Became an Escort, at content partner The Good Men Project as part of elephant love and relationships and GMP joint submissions call on the theme: Why Do Good People Cheat? Check out our other pieces How to Be a Cheater , Forgiving Adultery, When a Marriage Melts Down and Why Women Stand By Their Cheating Man.)
Felicity Hodgman currently lives in Vermont with her husband and two rescue dogs. She spends her time with a tribe of writing friends who often rescue her from herself. Felicity’s work is included in the Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks anthology and can also be found in Fifth Estate magazine. When she’s not wrestling with words, Felicity enjoys hiking, skiing, yoga, and dance. Visit Felicity’s blog Risingsunhouse.
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Assistant Ed: Lori Lothian
Ed: Kate B.