They’re young and in love. And they each have a secret

Theyre young and in love And they each have a
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The sun was setting and I could feel the cool summer breeze through my sweater. My partner Leo and I were spending the evening at Dockweiler State Beach, our first night together after spending months apart while at college. As we walked down toward the water, I could feel the tears begin to well up in my eyes. Leo didn’t notice until we reached the water’s edge.

“¿Qué tienes? Did I do something?”

I just smiled.

As his concern grew, so did my courage to just come out with it. “I think I’m in love with you.”

He grabbed my hand and smiled. “I think I’m in love with you too.”

I felt a sense of relief wash over me.

It had been so hard for me to say those words, and for so many reasons. I was only 5 years old when a caretaker’s nephew began to sexually abuse me. He made me pinkie-promise not to tell. “I do this because I love you,” he’d say.

For years, I would carry this lie — that abuse was a form of love — into my other relationships.

In high school, I dated a teen who was also sexually abusive, followed by another boyfriend who cheated on me again and again. By that time, I’d begun what would become a years-long battle with starving myself as a way to feel whole, and cutting myself as a way to feel alive.

Although Leo and I had known each other since we were 10 years old, we didn’t start dating until we were in our sophomore years of college. He’d left L.A. to go to UC Merced to study mechanical engineering, while I stayed home to attend UCLA, majoring in psycholinguistics.

Initially, being in a long-distance relationship seemed to be our only obstacle. We found ways to make the best of it. He’d send me early morning texts full of heart emojis. We’d video chat every evening. He came home as often as he could.

But we were both hiding a part of ourselves from the other.

Each time Leo would drive down to Los Angeles or back to Merced, he’d ask me to stay on the phone with him. I didn’t know it then, but I later learned that driving on freeways was a panic trigger for him. I thought he was just missing me. Sometimes he’d unexpectedly call late at night, even though he knew how early I had to get up. He would insist everything was OK, but sounded like he was in sheer panic. He often complained of feeling tired, tense or just completely out of it. I thought that he was simply “stressed” from school.

Or maybe I turned a shoulder because I had my own things going on.

I kept a rigid schedule. The day started with a no-excuses-allowed workout routine that consisted of running or resistance training. By 8 a.m., I was often at one of my jobs or in class. The rest of my day unfolded between volunteering at a lab, conducting my own research project, more classes or my other job, and would usually end with another workout — swim or a yoga session.

I avoided anything that would throw me off my flow. I had to have that control. I had learned over the years that this was the only way to tame the overwhelming thought that I wasn’t worthy or deserving of anything good in life.

The issues that we could see on the surface in each other seemed minor. We both thought that the other had it easier, better, simpler.

It wasn’t until early 2020, a month before Leo graduated and came back to Los Angeles to live with his parents, that I witnessed one of his panic attacks. Later, after months of endless job searching in the middle of the pandemic, he was spending more and more time on video games, Instagram and YouTube. Soon, even leaving his parents’ house became difficult.

He also witnessed my battles with uncertainty, and constantly struggling with finding a sense of safety and security. Early in the pandemic, I lost one of my jobs, which meant I couldn’t afford to start a doctoral program in the fall as I’d planned. My dad was also fighting stage four kidney cancer. I handled medications, medical appointments and just being there in his final months. Late-night anxiety attacks meant I went through my day feeling exhausted, tense and on edge.

It was difficult for Leo and I to support each other at first because we both just wanted to be seen and heard. His irritability was a sign that he felt lost and alone in his struggle to find a job. My tears were a sign that I wanted to feel safe and supported while being a pillar of service for my parents.

We would frequently misunderstand the other’s cry for help. Sometimes I’d call when I was upset or moody not because I was being demanding or needy, but because I craved a sense of comfort. Sometimes he’d abruptly decide to go home when we were in the middle of a date, not because he wanted to get away from me, but because his anxiety was taking over.

We were afraid to fully share what was going on in our minds and bodies because we believed that in doing so, we would no longer be loved and accepted by the other. I believed that if he knew about my past, if he knew the truth about how I lived every single day, he’d see me as too broken to share a life with. And he worried that I’d judge his insecurities as unmanly.

And we both began to fear our darkness would only drag the other person down.

Admitting our love for each other meant sharing our past, present — and future. Together, we dedicated ourselves to a path of healing. I started to see a therapist. Leo began prioritizing his health with exercise, better nutrition, sleep and addressing his panic disorder.

As we learned how to listen, how to open up, how to feel what the other was feeling, we learned how to help each other out of the dark, sticky depths. He’d validate my frustrations whenever I fell short of my goals and remind me of all the times I had bounced back from adversity. I’d send him encouraging texts every morning, make him green smoothies after our evening runs, and give him a deep tissue massage after a hard day.

Mostly, though, we believed in each other before we learned how to believe in ourselves.

Every act of love, no matter how small, brought us closer to realizing that no matter how broken we felt, we were more than our fears and worthy of all the beautiful things love has to offer.

The author is a psychology master’s student and works as a researcher, writer and caregiver. She is on Instagram @rose_cx_cx and Medium @rose-mejia1998.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email [email protected] You can find submission guidelines here.

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