Of 12-Year-Olds and Burping Contests: When Successful Self-Talk is a Bad Thing

When I was just starting junior high school, the boys, and even a few of the girls, in my class were utterly obsessed with burping contests.

Does anybody know why burping contests are a piece of growing up? Is there anyone out there who hasn’t come across the burping-contest pre-teens sometime during their development? If that’s you, I’d like to shake your hand. You fulfill a long-cherished dream of mine, though I’m not convinced you exist.

My classmates would sit at the round tables in our school cafeteria, never far enough away from mine, and go around the table, competing to see who could burp the longest or the loudest. As a shy, introverted perfectionist, I was utterly revolted.

Convinced I would never be like them, I decided, at the strong and mature age of 12, that I would never burp again. And here’s the thing: I succeeded.

I’m 23 now. I’ve come close to allowing myself to burp, especially when I can tell that I need to and I try to talk myself through the process, but I have not actually burped since that moment in the cafeteria, sitting disgusted and furious, trying to concentrate on the book I’d brought with me to lunch but unable to tear my ears away from the bubbling soft sounds of the monster-burps behind me and smelling the rotten air of someone else’s half-digested food drift above my cafeteria macaroni. I quite seriously un-taught myself how to burp. And as it turns out, burping serves an important biological purpose.

For the next couple of summers, I would find myself with “bubbles” of trapped air or gas in my upper abdomen if I drank liquids too quickly on a hot day, especially if I drank a lot of something sugary or carbonated and then walked or ran around a lot outside. Given that I spent my summers as a waitress in an outdoor restaurant, I spent a lot of time walking or running around outside on hot days. I learned, after some scary days of dry-retching into the sink after my shift, that I needed to drink liquids in small, controlled sips with lots of time between them or not at all. I’m pretty sure I wrecked my hydration habits those summers. And all because I had un-taught my body how to release trapped air from my abdomen, because I had un-learned how to burp.

From this story, you can probably see that my mental control over my body is pretty strong. The scary part is, I didn’t even realize what I was doing until I sat back, a few years later, and reflected on the patterns to try to figure out their source. I used self-talk and determination to convince my mind that a certain biological action was unnecessary for me, and then, as a physical person interacting in this world, I reaped the consequences.

Unfortunately, burping was not the only thing I convinced myself I was above and beyond during my angry, introverted middle school years. I also watched the burgeoning romances in my teensy-tiny middle school, wrinkled my nose at them, and told myself I would never be involved in something so distracting, icky, and trivial.
In retrospect, I kind of want to smack my middle school self, right after I salute her in respect for her mental strength. She laid the groundwork for a highly successful academic career, because I was never distracted by romance or relationships. She also led to some pretty deep repression and emotional inhibition.

A few weeks ago, I asked Nova, “What does it feel like to be attracted to someone?” I honestly had to ask that question. I’d been on four formal dates, with three different men. I’d been kissed once on the mouth, and three times on the hand, in an adorable habit by the one gentleman that I actually went out twice with. Each date had felt stilted, uncomfortable, and, in the unintentionally harsh words I used to explain why I didn’t want to go on a second date with the poor male friend who was my first date: “I feel like I’m starring in a bad fanfiction.” I knew what fanfiction romance looked like. I knew when I should take someone else’s hand or shift the tone conversationally. But I didn’t feel like I was actually experiencing romance, and up through my teens and into my early twenties, I honestly didn’t know what attraction felt like, in a physical sense. I had told myself that I wasn’t interested in feeling it — and my body complied.

When I asked her about attraction, blushing and glad to be driving for the excuse not to make eye contact, Nova told me a story from her high school sex ed class (which was apparently way more liberal and progressive than mine — not what I’d have expected from a Catholic high school in the American Midwest!). One of her professors, a priest, for goodness’ sake, had told the class, “Every generation, our youth stumbles through the process of sexual awakening on their own. And every year, we fail to figure out the proper words to tell the next generation about it.” And then they went on to take personality tests and attraction assessments and all sorts of cool things. My school was learning how to jerry-rig the Baby-Think-It-Overs so the dolls stopped crying and demanding to be ‘fed’ (read: have a key turned in their backs, because that’s totally how babies eat). I think she got the more useful side of the equation.

Nova was wonderful and brought the feelings of attraction down to purely physical phenomena, the ‘symptoms’ of a crush: A twisting, warm feeling in the lower stomach. A jittery feeling in the hands. The literal sensation of — sorry, this is an erotica blog — the clitoris pulsing when engaged in particular thoughts. And I realized, to my surprise, that I had experienced some of those feelings, albeit in a sort of muted way. I had just, in my typical self-effacing way, ignored them.

Later that day, I took half a nap. I laid back in the sun, closed my eyes, and imagined. I forced myself to think of hazy people — men, women, mostly just ghost images, but partially formed of the images of people I knew. I focused on their bodies, and I tried to imagine which ones might prompt the feelings Nova had described.
The answer was unilateral, immediate, and practically tangible. I was attracted, with the ‘symptoms’ of attraction Nova had described, to women — and not at all to men. That explained, partially, why my dates with men had felt so strange. But the fact that I hadn’t acknowledged my feelings of attraction to women… That was more the fault of my own repression and my not knowing what I was looking for, pushing any hints of those feelings aside because they didn’t mesh with my understanding of ‘normal.’ I’d never allowed myself to learn what attraction felt like, and as a result, I hadn’t felt it.

But during that nap, and then later, as I opened my eyes and forced myself to think and feel and remember, I started realizing what I’d been avoiding. And Nova was right, with all the ‘symptoms.’ I experienced all of them, to varying degrees. And in a conversation with a friend, as I came out to him — both as a lesbian and as finally figuring out what in the heck I am — I unintentionally articulated the words that felt right to me to define a moment of actual attraction in my mind:

“Wow, she’s beautiful. I’d like to hold her.”

Up until age 23, I had never really felt that feeling. I’m sure part of that was just late development — another pattern for me — but part of it, given how quickly and deeply those feelings surfaced once I listened for them, was almost certainly my self-talk. I had self-talked myself into believing I wasn’t attracted to anyone; and so I hadn’t been.

I’m not sorry for the time I spent not dating. I have lived, and continue to live, a full and fulfilling life, and I enjoy lots of parts of it. Between work, and school, and goals, and projects, I spend lots of time dashing from piece to piece, and I enjoy pretty much all of it. (If I don’t enjoy it, like grad school — ugh — I make a pretty concerted effort to either finish it or get rid of it as soon as possible.) And in some ways, I’m grateful for the time I spent figuring out myself, because if nothing else, I know who I am. I’m independent. I can stand contentedly on my own (with my dog) and run my own life, and I don’t need to depend on anyone else for my happiness, my sense of self-sufficiency, or my ability to live and to grow.

However, I’m also grateful to Nova, and to life and to time, for helping me figure out my sexuality and acknowledge what I’m looking for in life. I think I needed the time I took to get to where I am, but now I’m here, and I’m excited to explore this side of myself. I finally understand why, although I’ve wanted most of my life and have been fascinated by the process of pregnancy since my mother allowed me to buy a How Your Baby is Born book when I was 5, I’ve never really cared where the guy was in the pregnancy equation. I know a bit more about me.

To be clear, I haven’t put that knowledge into action yet. I haven’t kissed a girl. I haven’t held a woman’s hand. I haven’t put my arm around a woman’s waist, even though the body part I’m most attracted to, in the hazy images I play with in my mind, is a curvy hip.

But I know that I want to. For me, that’s a milestone all its own. And I’ve found LGBT gatherings and groups and places to be, and in my conservative little town, I’m wearing a rainbow bracelet. So who knows? Maybe it won’t be too long.

What I am certain of is, the roller coaster has taken a turn. I’ve learned something new about myself. And I am not going to ignore it any more.

Bring it on, world. Bring it on.

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