Welcome to ¡Hola Papi!, the advice column where John Paul Brammer helps people work through their anxieties, fears, and life's queerest questions. If you need advice, send him a question at [email protected]
I'm working on my PhD in anthropology with a focus on primate behavior, which for me meant spending roughly one year doing research in Brazil. At that point, I’d been with my partner for nine years. We were married after my first year of grad school. We had our troubles. I had an affair with a coworker, we went to therapy, but ultimately we decided we cared enough about each other to stay together.
I left for Brazil in August of 2018. My partner came to visit me for Christmas and New Year’s, and we spent two weeks traveling around. One night, my partner asked if we could open up our relationship because they were really lonely back home. I absolutely understood this and agreed. The idea was that when I got back home we would work on rebuilding our connection.
Well, in April (two days before my 30th birthday!), I got a message from my older brother saying that I needed to call him. I was absolutely certain someone was dead, but I was then told, very bluntly, that my family had found out my partner and my brother's wife had been having an affair for several months. I called my partner to confirm, and they didn't deny anything. I was in complete shock.
My brother and his (now former) wife have a child who was not even one years old when this affair started, and the whole thing devastated my family. I wound up being forced to come back to the U.S. two months before I was supposed to, abandoning my work before it was really done, and disappointing myself and my PhD advisor in ways that have had a huge impact on my PhD work.
Oh, and the cherry on top of the situation is that as I was leaving Brazil to come back to the States ahead of schedule, I had an undetected kidney infection that turned septic, and I actually almost died. I had to spend three days hospitalized and on IV antibiotics and pain medicine because my fever got so high that I was in danger of suffering permanent brain damage. (Shout out to Brazil's public health care system though because I emerged from that without any medical debt!)
On the plus side, after I got back to the States and was a bit more settled, I decided I would start dating again and I met someone. I've told this person some of my backstory, but I haven't fully shared this trauma. As liberating as it can be to unload all of this, I don't necessarily want to go through that process with each person that I want to build a relationship with for the rest of my life.
It's absolutely devastating to rehash and explain everything and then to see how some people look at me differently afterwards. I don't enjoy that feeling and would like to avoid it, but I guess that leads me to the question of how much of our past we owe to our new friends or partners. I don't feel comfortable sharing this, and I don't think it's particularly helpful or useful for me to share it with new people in my life, but I also want to be able to build fulfilling relationships with people in the future.
I'm somehow worried that if I don't share the shittiest thing that has ever happened to me, I'm being dishonest. Maybe that's a common thing for people to worry about. Am I the sum of my worst experiences, and is that the best way for me to "explain" myself as I'm building new relationships? I'm not sure. I’d appreciate your help.
Trauma & Drama
Hi there, TD! There’s a lot going on here, so let’s skip the “Papi breaks the fourth wall” jokes and get to the heart of the issue.
As I’m sure you’re aware, this is a pretty scandalous story. That sucks because the juiciness can distract people from understanding that there are real people involved. It can be hard to come to others with your problem if you know, deep down, that they won’t be able to resist gossiping about it. An advice column that caters to drama-starved internet queers, however? That’s a great place to bring it.
Sorry, I know I said we were skipping those. I will stop. Anywho, once we get over the fireworks, what we have here is a very common, albeit very complicated dilemma: To what extent am I defined by the bad things that have happened to me?
In the sometimes grim project of “being a person,” all manner of things can happen to us, TD: death, divorce, injury, abandonment, rejection, and every flavor of indignity under the sun. Our brains and bodies, charged with keeping us humming along, will often make changes in an attempt to make those things never happen again. We might become afraid of relationships or of being intimate. We might become slow to trust. We might avoid difficult conversations.
Given this, it might seem logical to assume that we are beings shaped by our trauma. Many things in this world are reactions to pain. It’s not uncommon for communities to use pain as a building block. Pain is a universal experience. Try as we might, we cannot avoid it entirely, and it often leaves a mark on us.
But I think some people, maybe most people, perceive the very existence of those marks as moral failures. We believe we won’t be “good” again until we expunge those awful souvenirs: reluctance, bitterness, anxiety, and whatever else.
Being afraid of intimacy, for example, could be seen as a shortcoming to solve. Or in your case, you believe your reluctance to share this heavy event with someone is preventing you from being fully committed. But I want to humbly submit that those reactions to trauma are entirely understandable, and they don’t define us so much as they inform us. The fear might be involuntary, but our reaction to that fear is firmly under our control.
And so, TD, my advice isn’t solidly “tell your partner about this” or “keep it to yourself.” My advice is to get yourself to a place where you feel agency over your traumatic life events. You can’t change what happened. But you can decide how you look at it, what lessons you draw from it, and what you ultimately do with it. Accept that this wild, unfortunate thing occurred, that it impacted you profoundly, and that it doesn’t hold the power to define you. You do.
Also, I’m very glad you didn’t die? Like, wow. You almost died. If all else fails, let’s celebrate that. Sepsis really tried it, but your body and the Brazilian medical community said, “Not today!” Or however that’s said in Portuguese. Hold that resilience close to your heart. Our bodies and minds often play tricks on us, but more often than not, they see us through, don’t they?
Con mucho amor,