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Maya is an Arab-American polyamorist. Here she shares her story of sexuality, mental illness, and the power of family.
I’m a 26 year old woman, and I was born and raised in southern California to first generation Arab-American immigrants. My parents were very religious when I was young, and my siblings and I were taught to pray and fast. We all attended a religious private school at our local mosque for quite some time. At six years old, I asked my mother why I should believe in god if I couldn’t see him. She replied with the standard, “well, that’s what faith is.” I was completely dissatisfied with that. I wanted more, and I realized then and there that religion would never give me more.
Things shifted dramatically for my family following the September 11 attacks. It was a jolt that we needed, something that underscored a very distinct problem within our religion. My parents did a ton of research, which led to my mother deciding to remove the headscarf. Within our community this was such a dramatic and daring move, I can’t even explain it. With my family shaken but thrust into a period of real digging and exploration, life went on. In middle school, I began having little crushes on other girls in my class. I remember watching a certain Beyonce music video over and over, not really knowing why I liked it so much. I never acted on my feelings and didn’t bother telling anyone, mostly because I knew I was attracted to boys too. So my homosexual tendencies weren’t really at the forefront of my mind.
Once I had finished up high school and began to attend college, I began to struggle. Having been labeled as this bright and happy girl for so long, I crashed when I was left to my own devices because I realized that that wasn’t really me. I had so many unanswered questions, and I was very confused about who I was or where I fit in. I’d always been an emotional eater, so I gained a lot of weight during my first year of college. I also began noticing other women more often, possibly because my self-confidence was near-zero around men. I still wasn’t ready to address my bisexuality.
After finishing up college and successfully coming out to my parents and family with an overwhelmingly positive reaction, I moved away from California for graduate school. This was my first time ever living completely alone. Up until that point, I’d always lived with my siblings or immediate family. I gained a lot of weight once again (60 pounds in one year!) and drank a lot. I did well in school, but that was the only thing in life I was keeping somewhat organized. I was struggling in a very real way. Toward the end of my first year of grad school, I met a woman in my program whom I liked, and I finally had my first kiss at 24 years old. It was sensual, soft, and fulfilling.
That summer, I left to travel overseas and have weight loss surgery. I’m 5’6″ and my highest weight was 236. Since then, I’ve lost over 80 pounds. I returned to complete my second year of graduate school and this is when my period of “heavy dating” began. I went on four or five dates per week. I drank a lot during my dates, even though I wasn’t supposed to be drinking at all right after having surgery. It was reckless and unhealthy. I would fade after seeing someone a few times, because I was afraid of having sex for the first time. I’d never been confident about my naked body. Mental images of perfect, cellulite-free models haunted me and made me feel like shit about myself.
I graduated from my Master’s program and got a job in academia. I began drinking even more. I was seeing someone who I didn’t really care for, and after a long day of drinking and smoking weed, I decided, fuck it! We had sex on July 4th, 2016. My body was on fire; it hurt so much. I was bleeding profusely. We got out of bed afterward and sat outside to watch the fireworks. He began discussing the war in Iraq and made some comments regarding the murder of civilians that still make me shudder. He topped it all off with some xenophobic and racist comments about Arabs and Muslims, knowing full well what my religious background and ethnicity were. I left his house like I was dreaming, in so much physical and emotional pain that I didn’t know what to do. I went to work the next morning and texted him that I didn’t want to see him anymore. I don’t think about him at all.
That same week, I met someone at a bar and had a one night stand. From there, I had roughly fifteen casual sex encounters (thankfully I always used protection) over the next two months. I didn’t know how to ask for what I wanted in bed because I didn’t know what I wanted, so I often ended up being used by people just to get off. I was very aware of that.
I began to feel distinctly bored, empty, and unhappy. I’d been going to therapy and taking antidepressants for years because I’d always been anxious and sort of depressed, but combining the alcohol with prescription drugs was not working well for me. I fell into a pit of depression, HARD. I couldn’t focus on work, so I was falling behind. I was calling my parents long distance every day at lunch to cry over the phone. They didn’t know what was going on and I wouldn’t tell them because I was so ashamed that I was drinking and having sex. I switched medications, and that’s when the shit hit the fan. Suicidal thoughts overwhelmed me. What pushed me over the edge was receiving a formal warning at work. I planned to kill myself that afternoon. I picked up a bottle of liquor from the store on my way home and had a Xanax prescription waiting for me at the pharmacy. I was driving to the pharmacy when I unconsciously reached for my phone. Seriously, I don’t even know how or why I did it. I don’t remember.
I called my mom, who lives in a timezone twelve hours ahead and was asleep. She woke up and picked up the phone. I was sobbing so hard I thought I would never stop. My heart was broken and I had to finally ask for help. I did. My mom, a very mild-mannered and soft-spoken woman, is the strongest person I know. She asked me to promise her that I wouldn’t hurt myself. She asked if I would throw out the bottle of liquor and just go home and rest for the day. She told me that she was going to support me no matter what. That my whole family was standing behind me if I would let them. We agreed that it would be best for me to quit my job and move back to California to figure things out. I hung up the phone, and the time was 5:02pm. The pharmacy had closed at 5.
At 6am the next morning, I received a phone call. It was my brother, and he was in front of my apartment building. He had taken a flight across the country with two layovers so that he could get to me as soon as possible. Still dazed and feeling worn out from the day before, I fell apart when I saw him. We were headed back to California within a week.
I was not myself for a while after that. My parents came to visit me a couple of weeks later, and I could tell they were shocked when they saw me. I was on a heavy dose of benzodiazepines; I wasn’t eating at all; I was smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee around the clock. I’m sure I must have looked dead behind the eyes. I was having lots of sex, still sort of meaningless and unsatisfying, but I had a lot of time on my hands and I was restless. I jumped into bed on the first date pretty consistently, and I could never really figure out why I still had so much energy when I was being so active with so many partners. Now I know that it’s because the sex didn’t hit me on any emotional level, so while it was physically draining, it didn’t affect me mentally. I was always overthinking, not at peace, and generally unhappy.
Strangely, and I think this is important to mention because of this post’s topic, I have never felt guilty about having pre-marital sex. On the contrary, I’ve always been pretty opposed to the idea of getting married and settling down, so this just seems to be the only viable way to live my life.
I had my first meaningful sexual relationship around October of last year. I was still fragile and recovering. I hadn’t had a drink since mid-August, before my breakdown. I was being weaned off my medications and doing okay. That’s when my partner brought up the question of exclusivity: did I want it? My knee-jerk reaction, much to my surprise, was no. I enjoyed our relationship but I saw no need to restrict myself from seeing other people. He was definitely monogamous, and the breakup was drawn-out and unhappy.
Since then, I’ve learned to be selective about taking on partners. I’ve learned to ask for what I want in bed. I’ve learned to be a good lover and a mature partner. I identify as solopoly because I need a lot of time to myself, and the pressure of a primary relationship feels like too much at this point in my life. That being said, my experiences have been fantastic. I’m assertive, mostly dominant, and I have found some remarkable people who like to play with boundaries and explore some crazy fun things with me. It feels insanely good to be giving in bed, to be kind to someone in some small way, like gently stroking their neck or giving them a kiss when they least expect it. The intimacy that comes along with sexual contact is something I struggle with, because I went without it for so long. I am learning to open up and let my guard down with partners.
It mostly happened during the unhappiest time of my life, but there you go. My story. And maybe my point in spilling all this is to say that we can all rise up and that each one of us can break free and find a place of comfort, of satisfaction. I found mine in polyamory. I can never completely reconcile my cultural identity with my sexual identity, but I can definitely find some peace in specific places that I’ve created for myself.
Have you struggled with faith, mental illness, and sexuality? Share your story!