There’s a parking garage about half a mile from my home—it fringes the outskirts of my town, marking the point where the gentle lull of quaint suburbia meets the hustle and bustle of a small-scale urban landscape. In my teenage years, the rooftop of this parking garage was a frequent haunt for me and my friends. There wasn’t anything exceptionally noteworthy about it, but I guess something about a precarious perch, littered with broken beer bottles and crumpled bags of Flaming Hot Cheetos, instilled a certain brazenness in us. It was like we were caught in a total rapture that hung in some liminal space: literally on a ledge, and figuratively on the precipice of adulthood, ravenous for any opportunity to prove to the world that we were independent.
One fall night, my girlfriends and I climbed the winding staircase that led to the rooftop, giggling stupidly, a gaggle of boys from another local high school in tow. One of my best friends was smitten with one of said boys, and the entire event was likely organized for them. That night, I watched as she climbed atop the edge of a four-story parking garage and tiptoed daintily across it in a love-drunk trance, like a nimble tightrope walker, trying to impress the boy by matching his adventurous energy. I stared, stunned, as her small frame moved slowly and carefully in the dark, illuminated by the soft, ironic orange glow of the hospital across the street. All the while, the boy was talking to another girl in our friend group. Once my friend realized this, she clambered down from the ledge, embarrassed by her uncharacteristically impulsive behavior. I looked at her, dumbstruck, and questioned her foolishness. She sniffed at the air and spoke with a feigned aura of nonchalance: “I wanted his attention for a moment, even if I couldn’t have it forever.” I was shocked. In one utterly insane and desperate move, my friend had literally risked her life for the mere possibility of being noticed by a guy. Not only this, but she’d betrayed her refined and cautious personality, sacrificing a piece of her individuality in order to satisfy the “vibes” of some moppy-haired 15-year-old boy wearing a Baja hoodie.
It would be a while before much of this made sense to me, but what I could discern at that point in time was that my friend’s attempt to be romantically recognized was rooted in some indulgent form of self-deprecation. When discussing that night years later, she vocalized to me that her choice to act so impetuously was largely due to her lack of confidence. Before I got to college, my own struggles with self-esteem—particularly when it came to boys and my appearance—had been internalized for most of my life. College offered me countless positive opportunities and experiences, but it also provided me with a breeding ground for self-destructive behavior. Experimentation with alcohol, horny men, and pent-up insecurities converged to create a shitstorm of emotional highs and lows for the first two and a half years of what should have been a period of personal growth. Instead, I unknowingly exacerbated my anxieties by engaging in a toxic form of thinking and behavior that led me to be treated terribly by men, time and time again. Like a cycle of addiction, I found myself relishing the exhilarating rush of every “you up?” text, turning down any and all advice from knowing friends. And of course, I was constantly let down, left feeling utterly devastated by the way it always ended—swiftly, and with a polite lie that I was the only girl to whom he was talking.
Undoubtedly, every one of these interactions was coupled with an inability to communicate normally in person. I would see whatever guy walking toward me from a distance, and a surge of excitement would rush through me as I attempted a nonchalant hair toss. But despite seeing me, they always kept their head down, deeming me not the girl who would get to meet the parents, but some unsung Friday night fix. It never made sense to me—they could gawk at my naked body, illuminated by moonlight on a twin XL bed covered in their dirty laundry, but they couldn’t say hi to me as we stood in the line for omelettes in the dining hall.
I suppose I expected every guy I ever got involved with to be able to read my mind. I wanted someone to ask me about my family, the things I loved to do, why I’d been oddly obsessed with tornadoes as a kid, and why I didn’t like cheese unless it was on a burger or pizza. Maybe my standards were too high, but I assumed it was normal to want to know these things about others, particularly those individuals you see naked two or more times a week. When I was met with uninterest in all areas other than sexual gratification, I began to engage in a process of self-blame that allowed the petri dish of my already extant insecurities to fester. What was I doing wrong? What aspects of myself needed to be improved? I knew the matter of physical attraction wasn’t an issue, but I allowed myself to become totally absorbed by appearance. I kept a small bag of makeup with me at all times—no matter if I was headed to track practice, class, or the library, I was paralyzed by the thought of being caught looking “bad” in any way. The most fundamental aspects of my personality came under the harshest revision, and I resorted to critiquing my most defining traits as a way of reassessing myself and mining for all the things that could be wrong with me. But it wasn’t just the fuckboys who were at fault—I was a willing participant in my own mental and emotional demise. Accepting our own role in personal injury is perhaps the most difficult necessary evil to confront.
My borderline obsession with ensuring that I would be noticed in the way I wanted to be was channeled mainly through social media. I tailored my Instagram and Snapchat posts to an unprecedented level of specificity, in an attempt to meet the creative desires of my hookups. Blindly and naively, I assumed that just because my caption was a Led Zeppelin lyric, a specific fuckboy would realize that I was the one. I’d become the girl who was an anomaly from his weekly rotation of women—simply because I had included some half-assed allusion to a classic rock song or a demonstrated a niche sense of humor similar to his own, I would have transcended the “side-piece” label, earning the title of “the girl who had changed him.” Rather than being penciled in for 11 PM on Tuesdays, I would become the girl who he’d sip a glass of red wine with over a steaming stove of mushroom-asparagus risotto. It didn’t matter that I actually did love classic rock, cats, and Star Wars, and that I had for as long as I could remember. What mattered was that they loved these things, and it was my job to capitalize on these interests as a way of gaining their attention and boosting my confidence. Doing so would allow me to move away from being an object of sexual attention, and closer to being an object of romantic affection. Or so my illusory logic went.
Despite the emotional turmoil that defined much of my time in college as a result of my desperate grasps for some semblance of love, I wouldn’t change a thing. While I might not have balanced atop a parking garage ledge, I submitted myself to a vicious game of emotional hopscotch, feeling like I was moving forward yet ultimately always moving backward. My sexual escapades were often my way of trying to unconsciously process and work through my insecurities. Even if I was being mistreated—emotionally, physically, verbally—my insecurities forced me into an “it’s okay because he still thinks I’m pretty and that’s what counts” mindset. It didn’t matter to me that my standards for common decency were at rock bottom, because I was getting the validation my insecurities so desperately needed in order to be sustained. By focusing solely on the attention I was receiving from others, I neglected to pay attention to myself. A Band-Aid can’t mend a gaping wound, but I spent a very long time trying to slap one on anyway, hoping a temporary solution would both contain and heal a deep-seated infection.
Perhaps most importantly and positively, all of this gave way to the acquisition of a very critical new skill: the ability to clearly recognize when I was actually being treated well. The first time I was shown genuine respect, kindness, and eventually love from a guy was a beautiful and painfully poignant moment for me—I was overwhelmed with happiness at finding someone who valued me in the ways I wanted to be valued. At the same time, though, my dismally low standards, utter disregard for self-care, and irrational thinking were finally laid bare to me. Yet I continue to believe that every hurtful relationship or moment shapes us deeply, contributing to the larger experience of life as an opportunity to learn and grow. True, seeking validation from others may indicate a certain level of insecurity—but it’s not all that bad. Strangely, it’s the times we face destructive heartbreak, the times we’re dealt a devastating blow to our self-worth, that reinvigorate our spirits the most. Slowly, naturally, beautifully, peacefully, we learn to fall in love with ourselves once more.
By Gabriella Ferrigine