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Brandon* was my first kiss.
We were in his back yard, having a bonfire with all of our friends right after my high school graduation, when he kissed me goodnight. The next day at work I was touching my lips and smiling all day like I was in an early 2000s Hilary Duff movie.
He was also my first boyfriend, and the first person I had sex with. When I came home from my second year of college for the long weekend, we consummated our relationship in his basement, likely while his parents were upstairs cooking Thanksgiving dinner.
Looking back on my high school years, I think I always had mild depression. I constantly felt like (and sometimes still feel like) everyone else on the planet was having more fun than me.
Things got really awful when I began my first year of university. I started locking myself in my room and taping the curtains to the wall so it was always dark. I spent most days trying to sleep, and if I wasn’t sleeping I was crying about how on earth I was going to pass any of my classes and why God why was I such a fucking failure. I still don’t know how I made it through that first year.
When I returned home for the summer for work, things improved exponentially. I spent the whole four months working and camping and going to the lake with all my best friends and Brandon. I was more in love with him than ever and it seemed like I was having more fun than anyone! It was one of the happiest and most magical times in my life to date. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that summer and relive it, because I can’t think of any other time in my life that I have been so deliriously happy.
My return to school was difficult. Brandon and I were living 10 hours away from each other, but we agreed that we would try a long distance relationship. My once manageable depression soon returned with a vengeance and took over my life. Our nightly phone calls turned into conversations that mostly entailed me sobbing and telling him I didn’t want to be alive anymore. When we did see each other on holidays, we were constantly fighting because he wanted to go out and drink with his buddies, and I wanted to lie around and spend time with him.
By Christmas, I was somehow even more depressed. I returned home for the holidays and I couldn’t stop fighting with Brandon or my parents, who I have always been very close with. I was miserable and I was weighing down everyone around me. I could not shake the self-hatred and the constant feelings of failure. Brandon continued to drink excessively rather than hang out with me, and I continued to cry and think about how I might end my own life.
Things didn’t get any better when I returned to school in January, and Brandon and I were hanging on by a very weathered thread. I loved him, but when you don’t want to be alive anymore it’s hard to love anyone. I was lonelier than ever and I fell back into the cycle of sleeping all day and crying all night.
I didn’t really tell any of my friends or family just how bad things had gotten. I also did not seek any professional medical help. Still, I was desperate to feel like someone cared about me, and cared that I was suffering this much.
One night I went out drinking and dancing with a couple of my closest friends. Tom and I had been close since my first year of school and he had quickly become friends with all my hometown friends, too. We spent a lot of time together just talking and laughing, and although a lot of my friends thought I had a crush on him, I had never felt romantic toward him at all. We were just really good friends.
It was the best night out I had had in a very long time. We laughed and danced and drank. I felt happy to be alive(?!). It was as if a part of me had woken up from a long restless sleep.
On the cab ride home, Tom asked if I wanted to watch a movie in my room instead of just going to bed. I said yes. It wasn’t unusual for us to hang out alone together. We both had significant others and we had never been involved in that way. I took a shower and put on full flannel pajamas (basically the most unsexy outfit I own) while we watched an episode of Girls.
I was drifting in and out of sleep when I felt him pull me closer until we were cuddling. I cannot even explain to you the euphoria I felt at that moment. For the first time in months, I felt cared for. I felt the crippling loneliness I had been suffering from fade. Feeling his warmth against my back soothed me. It was such an incredible feeling of relief that I silently teared up.
The episode ended and I turned off the computer and said I was going to sleep. Tom pulled me back in so that I was lying on his chest with his arm around me. All I could think about was how I wouldn’t have to sleep alone for once. Someone who gave a shit about me was here to hold me and just be with me while I slept.
I know I was really naïve, but I didn’t anticipate anything else happening. I knew it wasn’t OK for me to sleep with another guy, but the relief was so intense I decided that cuddling with my close friend was the kind of guilt that was bearable for me at that point in my life.
It didn’t turn out that way. Tom turned my face toward his and began to kiss me. I didn’t really want to kiss him, but I had let him sleep in my bed, hadn’t I? We made out for a while, and then I told him I thought we should stop. He stopped, but a few minutes later he tried again. The pattern of me stopping him and him listening for about five minutes, only to try and kiss me again continued for a while.
Eventually I gave in until my clothes were coming off. I was confused -- I felt such intense relief from the cuddling, but I still didn’t really want to kiss him. We didn’t actually have sex, but what we did do definitely constitutes cheating.
Let me be really clear about this: Tom didn’t sexually assault me. It took me a long time to figure out what exactly to label the incident, and to make peace with it. Was I completely respected in this particular sexual encounter? I don’t believe so. I consented because I felt I was supposed to, and although Tom wasn’t overly concerned about my feelings, he is also not a mind reader.
The night ended. He woke up the next morning and went to work without saying anything. We stopped speaking and he dropped the class we were taking together. He asked me not to tell anyone about our unfaithfulness and I agreed. The last thing I wanted was to lose my boyfriend and all my (and his) friends, and I knew that if our friends found out they would take his side. Because why wouldn’t they? I was completely in the wrong and I have never denied that.
I felt like the absolute worst person on the planet, and the depression took over once again. I don’t think it was really a big deal for Tom, because he had been cheating on his girlfriend since he left for school. But I had never even kissed anyone else. The guilt soon became unbearable. Still, I knew that was not emotionally stable enough to handle the consequences of telling Brandon what I had done.
Brandon had actually cheated on me before, and I remembered how heartbreaking the whole ordeal was. How could I have done that to another person!? I constantly wished I was dead and began thinking more seriously about ending my life. I stopped leaving my room. The time spent sleeping decreased and the time spent crying filled in.
One of my girlfriends noticed that something was seriously wrong with me. She came to my room to see me one day and I had a complete emotional breakdown. I was crying hysterically and I was inconsolable. I told her everything. I told her how awful I felt and how I knew I had to tell Brandon but I wasn’t sure if I could do it.
What she said has stuck with me, and I often give other people her advice: “You are the only person that has to live inside your head. If you don’t look out for your best interests, no one else will. Yeah, you made a mistake, but ultimately you have to do what’s best for you, even if it is selfish and morally wrong. Because you know what you can handle right now, and no one else is going to look after you, your mental health, or your best interests.”
I never told Brandon about what happened that night. I knew he would never understand the loneliness and desperation I had been feeling, and that our relationship would end if I were honest with him. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing the only person left in my life.
Eventually, the following summer, Brandon and I broke up. We had grown apart and we weren’t even remotely happy anymore. I saw a doctor and started taking antidepressants and finally started feeling better.
If you're thinking that there is never an excuse for cheating, and I should have been honest with Brandon, I agree with you. I think it is cowardly and unfair that I have never told him about it. And cheating is never OK.
But ultimately I have decided that I have to protect myself -- even if that means being selfish. I am finally recovering and forgiving myself, and I am not willing to sacrifice that for anything at this point in my life.
If this experience has given me anything, it’s empathy for other people and the ability to forgive. When I hear about someone cheating, I can make a moral judgment on their actions, but I refuse to make a judgment on them as a person. After all, I don’t have to live in their head, and I haven’t had their unique life experiences -- both uplifting and damaging. My bad choices may help shape me and make me who I am, but I do not believe they define me.
*Names have been changed.
Send your pitches about cheating or being cheated on to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line 'Cheaters."