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I was 17 and he was 23. He hung around with my friend Elizabeth and her older sisters Mary and Leah. It was a family of girls I went to church with and he was sort of the cool adopted brother.
He was attractive, tall, and athletic with dark deep-set eyes, full lips, and a terrible buzzed haircut. In a small Texas congregation full of completely boring people and stereotypical ideas, he was the only person who acted wholly committed to Christianity. I was beyond fascinated.
A large part of the allure might have been because he lived in his truck. Yes, you read that correctly. Inside of his truck.
The rationale behind this was that in the Bible, Jesus told his disciples to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor. He took all of that quite literally. He told me he would rather sacrifice his own comfort in order to help more people. All of which sounds exquisitely romantic to a 17-year-old church girl.
He took every aspect of Christianity to the extreme. He didn’t believe in killing anyone, even in self-defense. He thought women shouldn’t be in positions of power (in a church or out of it) because God declared man the “head of the household.” He believed all Christians should live like nomads and give away everything they own to people in need. His clothes had holes in them because he refused to buy new ones.
I somehow found myself spending all of my time with him (which horrified my parents) and he quickly escalated the relationship from friendship to romance.
Because I saw myself as such an ordinary girl, I could hardly believe that this amazing, unattainable guy had picked me. I even remember telling my older sister, “I feel like I don’t deserve him.”
My sister tried telling me I was an idiot, but I was in love with him.
A few nights later, we were making out in his truck, parked in a dark alley by his office. Since I was a minor, if anyone found us, he would have gone to jail. That just made it more exciting for me.
I pictured myself as a storybook princess, defying all authority to pursue forbidden love. However, like all fairy tales, the story soon darkened.
“Put your mouth on it,” he told me.
I tried to tell him no, but he asked, pleaded, and eventually demanded. I hadn’t really thought we would do anything sexual because that’s so contrary to Biblical teaching, not to mention I had no idea what oral sex even was (repercussion of being homeschooled by my paranoid mother).
My mom had given me a “True Love Waits” ring, a constant reminder of what was expected of me. I told myself that God obviously brought us together, so we weren’t doing anything wrong. Unfortunately, he didn’t share my optimistic point of view.
Each sexual encounter was this strange parade of adrenaline, excitement and shame. He would go into these long rants about how we were being impure, we needed to confess our sins to someone, and how it could never happen again. But it always did.
A year went by and he told me that according to the bible we have to get married because we’d been sexually immoral with one another. We never had actual sex, but I guess God sees that as a technicality.
I thought about all my dreams of proposals and rings, but I knew that if I mentioned it, he would only chastise me for being vain.
At the time I was very aware it wouldn’t be a normal engagement, I now see it was more akin to a dominant submissive relationship. I had grown up learning about marriage through Bible stories and the roles were predictably the same. The man made the rules and the woman followed them. So, like the good little woman I was taught to be, I took a deep breath and smiled.
I followed him to 6 different churches a week in order to learn the “whole truth” about God. We volunteered at a nursing home, the local Boys and Girls club, Habitat for Humanity, and even visited a felon in prison. We attended a university pagan student group to convert them, Catholic meetings to try to accept them, and atheist/agnostic meetings to enlighten them.
We attended Mormon bible studies together, Russian Orthodox prayer services, and even a Jehovah’s Witness meeting. He tried to make gay people stop being gay. He tried to convince his Muslim friend to stop following Islam. He was so charismatic that you wanted to believe him.
He told me it was wrong to go shopping, so I stopped. He said wearing make-up is vain, so I threw it away. He told me women with long hair are more beautiful, so I never cut mine. He says my body shouldn’t tempt other men, so I wear baggy athletic shorts with T-shirts.
He says I spend too much time focused on my piano degree and studying for exams, so I do the bare minimum. The harder I try to make him happy, the more miserable I make myself.
Next were the confessions. I still remember what it was like the first time. He was face down on the pavement, sobbing and apologizing. I lean against his truck trying to process what he’s telling me. He has a pornography addiction. He tries to make me feel better by saying “But none of them are half as beautiful as you.”
I am devastated. He was supposed to be better than this, but he is just as messed up as everyone else.
The fundamentalist world I had grown up in didn’t allow me to back out now. As much as my mother despised him, she told me I had already taken this too far.
As my mother said, “God told us to obey, he didn’t say it would be easy.”
He wore my purity ring on a leather cord around his neck.
After many tearful prayers, I settled into a martyr-like satisfaction with the idea that perhaps I could help him work through his problems. If God has a plan for everything, then maybe I was the person God sent to save him. Because trying to save someone always works out, right?
Weeks went by and he became more controlling, dictating where I went and who I spent time with. If I had a friend he didn’t approve of, I was expected to stop seeing them. Any time I argued with him, his eyes would darken and the volley of criticisms against me would begin.
One time he barricaded himself in my bedroom, howling and screaming about how I was keeping him from following God’s plan. Once, on our way to visit my grandparents, we got into some argument in the car and he became so frustrated with me that he hit my leg with his fist.
That was what my life was like. I was crying over something every week. Another fight, another porn confession, more arguing, and more tears. I began to believe that maybe our unhappiness was actually my fault.
We did this for 3 ½ years.
Then one day he said, “I’m not in love with you. I never was.” My hand shakes as I hold the phone to my ear. He says it so plainly, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. He explains that he only loved me in a “Christian” way, nothing more.
He tells me that this whole entire time he’s been in love with Leah, my friend Elizabeth’s older sister. He says that her devotion to God, her humility and selflessness, is what he needs in a wife. I hang up and self-destruct.
I eventually find out that he had called Leah that same day and confessed his undying love for her. And Leah’s response? “I’ll pray about it.” Classic.
I then found out through her older sister that Leah used all of her college scholarship money to get a boob job, which is irrelevant but beautifully ironic.
He left voicemails and sent emails begging me to forgive him and of course saying we should get back together. But it was too late. I was finally free.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not in love with you anymore. I wish I never had been. I hope you, Leah, and her scholarship-sponsored boob job will all be very happy together,” was my final reply.
So many years of my life had been spent trying to know the truth about God, searching for meaning inside religion. I was willing to sacrifice who I was, what I felt was right, even my family and friends. Because the Bible told me so.
It took me a long time to understand that I didn’t need religion to be a good person or to find significance in my life. I didn’t need a perfect Christian relationship to validate my self-worth. I didn’t even need to believe that some all-powerful God loved me. I needed to love myself.
I guess in the end I did find the truth that I was looking for.