*content warning grooming, eating disorders and also Looong post warning!
Our teenagers years had been rocky to put it mildly. I’ve been haunted by this part of our life lately and in particular I am having difficulty reconciling the dynamics of a relationship we had with a 30 year old man when we had just turned 16, the legal age of consent in Australia. I have teenagers now and there’s no way in Hell I’d think it was appropriate for them to be dating someone nearly twice their age, but back then it seemed okay to me.
Did I really know what I was getting into?
To give you an overview of our life at the time in one paragraph, it was 2001, we’d just turned 16, we’d quit going to school the previous year, our untreated eating disorder was pretty much dictating our entire world view outside of our 6 day a week job, we were extremely suicidally depressed and we were desperate to get the hell out of home for a myriad of reasons and depending on the day you ask me I’ll probably tell you something different.
Honestly, I didn’t even realise at the time that we were mentally unwell, we were just surviving. I certainly didn’t know what Dissociative Identity Disorder was, or Bipolar Disorder, I just knew I had a shit memory, no concept of time and was generally a worthless unlovable piece of shit.
I didn’t even know what Anorexia was and it was running my life.
All I knew was I wasn’t allowed to let us get fat again and there were strict rules and rituals surrounding food that weren’t really my idea but I had to partake in or I’d be punished by one of the other souls that shared/ intermittently possessed my body for some reason (insert spiritual upbringing and belief in past lives as most probable explanation of the time here) and even hearing the word “Anorexia” mentioned on TV would cause me to experience a sudden and total meltdown freak out which I know now was dissociation and subsequent switching.
Parts of Us knew what was going on, but I didn’t understand them, I didn’t communicate with them really accept for having strict rules recited at me – they were authoritative and for reasons I can’t explain other than they’d always just been a part of me, I accepted them and their opinions remarkably blindly. I knew our behaviour had to be kept secret. I knew people wouldn’t understand but I had no clue I was actually existing within a perfect storm of mental illnesses and We were ripe to implode.
I’m getting off track, this is supposed to be a story about grooming, or not being groomed, or technical grey areas regarding age gaps that We are still desperately struggling to reconcile…
I still have a strong need to cry out that he didn’t ‘groom’ me… not intentionally anyway – I think. I mean can you unintentionally groom someone? Can you legitimately fall for someone significantly younger than yourself who’s just hit the legal age of consent, buy them gifts, shower them with affection, sleep with them and it be normal and okay? I mean there are entire porn genres dedicated to ‘barely legal’, it’s clearly an accepted common fantasy, but is it morally okay in real life?
I don’t know. He was just SO DAMN NICE. Too nice? Thinking about it now with interjected opinions from the others inside makes my head spin. He never spoke unkindly to us or intentionally / knowingly hurt us.
Exactly how does one reconcile the power imbalance of a sexual relationship between a mentally ill teenager and a 30 year old man? I don’t know, but here’s my story and you can decide.
I had originally met him when I was around 12 or 13 but we’d never spoken much. I was friends with his little brother and he was 15 years our senior, we had always just smiled polite hellos in the hallway of their suburban home if we both happened to be there and that was the extent of our relationship.
What happened between us was my conscious choice. I need to say that. It was legal, I had just turned16 so in the eyes of the law I was legally capable of consenting, from a mental health perspective I probably wasn’t, but he didn’t know that.
The first time we ‘hooked up’ so to speak was after some sort of get together at my friend’s (his younger brother’s) house. I was in one of my couldn’t sleep for days, must conquer the world states (now known to be hypomania) and when the party was over, I didn’t want to go home.
My friend’s big brother mentioned he was going to a festival that night and I asked if we could all go with him, he agreed but everyone else piked out and so in the end it was just the two of us. That little intuitive voice of ‘is this a good idea?’ questioned my judgement but I didn’t care enough to listen, I just wanted to keep the party going.
So we got to the festival, met up with some of his mates (all late 20’s/ early 30’s) and watched a few bands play. I felt weird and young among them and was desperately trying to prove how mature I was. We went and sat in a huge tent set up as a bar and because I was with an older group they didn’t question my age.
So we were all drinking, this was a personal rule violation for me – too many calories in alcohol – but I was trying to impress them and as the night wore on I got quite drunk.
His mates slowly started heading home and eventually it was just the two of us sitting on bleachers watching a band play. We were sat very close together at that point and I could feel the electricity in the air.
Oh I played my part, I flirted and pushed for what I knew he wanted, I tried to convince myself I wanted it too… mostly I just needed to be wanted, I needed someone to show me affection and the affection of someone so much older than me felt like winning a grand prize and I was quivering with the excitement and anticipation of being seen as worthy.
We only kissed that first night, right there on the bleachers, but holy Moses I felt like the world finally had a sense of meaning. This grown up man not only found me attractive but he was willing to kiss me.
He drove me home at some ungodly hour, when I got out of the car he was clearly wrestling with something emotionally, probably the whole age gap thing, but eventually he asked “can I see you again?”.
Hell yeah he could. I felt wanted, desired, alive.
I loved being around him at first, his voice was hypnotic, his words like poetry. He spoke softly but with conviction and always knew what to tell me to make me feel wanted, his eyes were wise and he seemed so knowledgeable. Adults had been telling me I was mature for my age for as long as I remembered but he made me feel mature, he made me feel desired in a way nobody else ever had and I wanted to prove to him that I was as mature as he thought I was.
When I brought up our age gap he told me how he’d had conversations with his friends who were worried about the age gap too, but he told me I didn’t seem young to him, he saw me as an equal. Despite that, he did seem conflicted at times, I think he was as desperate to win approval for our relationship from his friends as I was to win his.
Mr30 was raised in a strict Christian family, I’d known his parents for years through his younger brother. They’d always liked me but were less than thrilled that I was dating their oldest son. He had denounced Christianity and become a Pagan when he had left home. He invited me to some parties and told me a little about his new found religion, it seemed really interesting, the parties were fun, there was alcohol and bonfires, two of my favourite things, but it was also a little scary at the same time in ways I can’t articulate, I get uncomfortable shivers when I recount it now.
I know his friends started to accept me more after that but we still hung out mostly at his house, I loved making out with him, his kisses were electric but I hated having sex with him, it was quickly expected every time we saw each other and while I had always consented, I found it quite painful and ended up feeling lost and spaced out like I was watching the whole ordeal from far away. I remember just wanting it to be over but also not wanting him to know how I felt because I didn’t want him to think of me as a child.
He told me he was falling in love with me. He showered me in gifts every time we met, teddy bears, flowers, expensive lingerie… He even held the car door open for me like a true gentleman. I didn’t love him back, but he made me feel like the smart, in-control adult I was so desperate to be, so I told him I loved him too.
Perhaps he subconsciously or consciously saw me as someone to save in the beginning, I was a broken, frightened teenager, I was his little brothers friend and needed protecting and yet he’d agreed to take just me to the festival on that first night, he’d happily kissed me and asked to see me again, then he’d suddenly announced he was in love with me and started saying he wanted to marry me in a traditional pagan style ceremony.
Was he really my knight in shining armour?
I had no idea what a pagan wedding entailed but it sounded fanciful. He told me one of his friends would be able to make me a beautiful medieval style wedding gown and he wanted me to meet her so she could measure me up. I tried to ignore my inner misgivings about potentially marrying a man I knew I didn’t love and focused on the fact that someone actually wanted to be with me and making sure I was slim enough for a beautiful medieval gown should I be presented with a ring at some point.
I had still only asked a few questions about his paganism, mostly because I wanted to pretend I knew more than I did and for whatever reason I hadn’t bothered to look it up. He always seemed a little secretive about what happened at some of their gatherings and when I asked to go with him he told me there were some things I wasn’t ready for yet, but in time he’d show me.
It simultaneously pissed me off that he didn’t want to show me right then and quietly terrified me wondering what actually went on there, but I wasn’t game to show fear, I didn’t want to seem childish in any way whatsoever so I just went along with everything he said, smiling and nodding at all the right times.
Mr 30 had trained in psychology & counselling for a time and knew exactly how to make you feel comfortable quickly with his hypnotic words, he had a way of making you okay with being vulnerable. I know we told him things we’d never tell another soul. Revisiting that thought now fills my heart with awkward confusion – perhaps there was a saviour complex there, but with his training he should have been able to see that I was clearly a fucked up teenager and even though I wasn’t his client, as the adult, shouldn’t he have held up boundaries even if it was hard?
One day he announced his lease was up and asked me to move in to a new place with him and his existing flat mate, who I got along with quite well. I jumped at the chance to escape my home environment, we already wanted to get away from people we feared might eventually put a stop to our eating disorder madness and I vaguely recall a thought loop of the desire to ‘be in control of our own fridge’.
Our mother was born with her head in the sand, our father worked long hours and the rest of his time was spent zombied out on antidepressants so they were no threat to our Anorexia or my relationship with a 30yr old man.
We went house hunting and found a nice little two story unit that would be perfect and I immediately announced to the world I was moving out of home. My parents just accepted it of course and I wasn’t stopping to ask questions why, I guess I just assumed that I’d talked them into it somehow, he’d met them both and shaken my fathers hand.
The people I worked with however were very unimpressed by the age gap and the idea of the relationship in general and I know several of the staff (all adults) had tried multiple times to talk me out of the idea of moving in with the guy but of course I was a stubborn and stupid sixteen year old who thought she knew better.
One day we went out on a date, we sat at a little cafe and he said he had something to say that would be hard for me to hear. I automatically assumed this meant that he was breaking up with me but instead he said he still loved me very much and wanted to marry me one day but thought that it was maybe too early for us to move in together.
I played along as usual, smiled and said that I agreed and thought it was probably a bit quick for such a big decision although I was internally crushed at the perceived rejection. I was left wondering what had I done? I don’t think he explained why he’d changed his mind. I don’t remember.
In my head I questioned if I had shown my immaturity somehow? Was it because I’d be bringing my dog with me and he wasn’t much of a dog person? Maybe his friends talked him out of it or maybe he realised that sixteen year olds can’t legally sign leases and got cold feet…
When it came down to it I was far more devastated at the prospect of not being able to leave home than I was about not moving in with him. I’d already told the world that I was moving out, I sure as shit wasn’t going to back down now. I might not be moving in with him but I was still going to find somewhere else to live.
It was better this way anyway, I’d still have complete control over my own food intake, hiding our eating disorder behaviours from him on dates was exhausting let alone trying to hide it full time. Plus living together would bring an even higher expectation of sex, the unfortunate consequence of pretending to be an adult.
We spent hours scouring the ‘flat mates wanted’ ads in the newspaper. We must have rung 30 people and got rejected at every turn. Nobody liked the idea of a 16yr old with pets, the fact that I worked full time didn’t seem to matter. We were about to give up, but there was one last ad in the paper and there’s a whole long side story that started there but to sum it up for the purposes of this post, we got the room and moved out.
The first few months into new share house life, I went on frequent dates with the Mr 30, the guys we lived with had made a few concerned comments about our age gap but I ignored it. We knew best, I believed I was in control and was unwaveringly hell bent on proving that I was just as much an adult as they were.
The gifts were still coming with each date, it felt like every time they were more extravagant. I started to dread it. I felt guilty for feeling that presents were getting annoying, I knew I should have been flattered, people love gifts, don’t they?
But when it’s constant and for no discernible reason it doesn’t feel special anymore and loses meaning. Like why would you hold the car door open each time I saw you? It’s raining, it’s quicker to just unlock the bloody thing so we can both jump in!
Soon after I started regularly drinking with one of our housemates after work, he’d initially seemed to hate us for no apparent reason and rarely spoke to us or acknowledged our presence. As a terminal people pleaser I needed him to like us or at least not think We were an idiot so craving his approval, I broke the ice by asking him to buy me a bottle of Vodka.
Turned out he got pretty talkative and a little too honest about his feelings when he got drunk. He was a few years older than us, a classic Aussie tradie, crude, full of politically incorrect jokes and an alcoholic who appeared to have a complete lack of care for what anyone else thought about him after a few beers.
I think we found it refreshing that he wasn’t trying to impress us and we felt comfortable talking to him about how annoying our boyfriends relentless chivalry was becoming. He said the relationship was “creepy” and “do you realise he was probably having his first wank around the time you were born?”
There’s another super long story here but in short after enough drinking sessions we actually started falling for our crude, smart ass housemate* and he reciprocated. Looking back at it now I think it was probably his authentic not giving a shit attitude we were most attracted to, a trait we were utterly desperate for in our own life.
So, wanting to pursue a fling with the housemate I knew we’d have to break it off with Mr 30 – honestly this was more due to our housemates surprising integrity than ours. We have never been good at confrontation or saying no, if he’d pushed we wouldn’t have stopped him. Our MO was to try and make peace with everyone so we didn’t get hurt, do what we were told and then run away if things got hard, either physically or in our mind.
Finding a way to break up with Mr 30 was beyond difficult, displeasing people had always ended badly for us so ending a relationship with someone so much older who kept professing his undying love for us was a frightening foreign concept.
It took three weeks of beating around the bush but in the end, Anorexia ended the relationship for us, well our alter Bel did. He took us out for a meal and gave us yet another gift, it was a fancy lingerie set. We looked at the label and it was a size bigger than we actually were, okay, annoying but the clincher was he bragged about how the sales lady had asked if he was certain about our size and he said “yes, I know my girl” blah blah…
And that’s where I fade out…
You see, getting the size wrong of someone in the throes of an eating disorder? You may as well of told Bel that she’d gained 100kg, she was triggered out immediately and she was fuming.
Bel was extremely controlling back then but rarely did more than backseat drive so to speak which was fine because she tended to be angry and impulsive, traits we avoided exhibiting for safety reasons. Unlike the rest of us if Bel confronts a situation she does it head on, so true to form she dumped him there and then.
While I know the relationship ended at that moment, I don’t actually remember ‘the dumping’ happening myself, I don’t know what she said, if she was polite or just told him to shove it or how we got home that day… I guess I have to give her credit because she successfully ended a relationship that potentially could have ended in a very unhappy ‘don’t know how to say no’ marriage when no one else had been game and we were all safe and grateful it was over.
It’s weird, now that I reflect on it all – to me it felt like that was a year of our life but in reality we only dated Mr 30 for about four months and I know there were many other crisis’s going on during that same period that I personally can’t even really recall or relate to. Time is strange.
If you got to the end of this well done, sorry I didn’t think it would get that long! What are your opinions on appropriate and inappropriate age gaps? Was it an abuse of power or appropriate consent? Should we have been grateful for the gifts? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
*We ended up marrying that housemate. In 20 years of marriage he’s bought us flowers twice, if we complain about it he tells us how he distinctly remembers us telling him when we met him how much we “didn’t like lots of gifts”. He also says that if we ever divorce him he’ll sue us for the bottle of vodka we never paid him back for. Smart ass.
** images from the WordPress free stockpile