My mother used to say, “Daring the Devil isn’t the same as seeing him arrive.”
Her advice crossed my mind as I stood at the courthouse, pen in hand, staring at the still wet ink on the papers in front of me.
The documents had been signed. My divorce was official. I was single.
A single woman—in my thirties—living in the United States.
For a terrifying instant, I remembered watching Sex and the City for the first time, when I’d nearly died of embarrassment.
Was THAT what was expected of me?
Uh-oh. I was in deep trouble!
And while I don't want to sound like Doña Chea, an old lady who used to yell at the TV villains in her telenovela, those sitcoms in which friends all slept with each other (sometimes within days) with everybody acting so friendly and nonchalant—as if nothing had happened—this casual attitude really bugged me. TV portrayed “single life” as a festival of promiscuity, and that was disheartening. It reinforced my fear that as a newly single woman I was heading up to bat in a league in which I didn't belong. A league in which I did not want to play.
Perhaps you can understand if I transport you through a worm-hole into the distant galaxy where I grew up: that of middle-class, Catholic family in the Dominican Republic, also known as “The DR.”
So let me confess.
Are you ready?
Are you sure?
I was a virgin when I got married. Already in my early twenties, I married the first—and until long after I was divorced the last—man who’d ever kissed me.
And here I slap my forehead and shake my head, asking myself, “Who does that in modern times, for goodness sake? It's bad enough to buy the first car you see, without comparison shopping, let alone without even test driving it.”
But according to my religious parents and the nuns in my high-school, everybody did that. Everybody knew you saved yourself for marriage – assuming you were a woman, of course. Men were expected to get sexual experience before marriage so they could guide their virginal brides. Also, men were better husbands if they’d “gotten it out of their systems” by sleeping around in their youth – while women were better wives, more worthy of trust, if they’d proven their honor by arriving at their wedding night as virgins.
(Is it me, or am I detecting a tiny bit of a double standard here?)
Yes, my mother maintained that virginity among single women was the norm. “If you heard anything to the contrary, It's a lie, don't believe it. People like to gossip. People like to brag.”
(Weirdly, I’d soon become a medical student, delivering babies from unwed fourteen-year-olds).
But now I was in a new millennium, in a different country. Luckily, I wasn't alone. Nobody really knew what the bleep was going on.
As a compulsively good student, I binged on scholarly self-help books – and not-so-scholarly Cosmopolitan articles – with scientific interest, determined to understand the world of single life. Women wondered:
“Is it okay to sleep together on the first date?”
“Do you sleep together on the fifth date? Or is is on the third date?”
“No,” an “expert” would answer, “You sleep together when it feels right.”
“No, no,” said another expert, “To prevent premature bonding due to oxytocin release you avoid sleeping with a man until you've dated him for at least three months.”
And here I was covering my ears with my hands and closing my eyes while begging, “Please, people! I still haven't decided if I can sleep with a man before I’m married to him!”
But the wedding-first-sex-later thing didn't work for me the first time. I needed to arrive at a new gold standard with which to measure myself, and to reconcile the contradictory information bombarding me.
On one side there were my Christian, conservative friends, with their own sub-genre of romance literature, “Christian Romance,” where the thirty-something-year-old engaged couples were waiting for their wedding night to do it (Geez! At least in the DR they got you married in your twenties and you didn't have to wait THAT long!) Yet on the other hand, there was Sex and the City. And also the hospital lounge chit-chat where burnt-out doctors entertained themselves gossiping about who had slept with whom.
Which made me wonder: can people who share the same space live in parallel dimensions? Can people who interact with each other see different realities?
But of course! What was I thinking? Republicans and Democrats! Duh!
Maybe extreme opposites are needed to bring balance to society, same as in the human body. If blood sugar gets too high, the pancreas releases insulin to lower it. If it gets too low, the body releases different hormones – glucagon and cortisol – to raise it. Adrenaline and noradrenaline work to raise our heart rate and blood pressure, while the opposing party of acetylcholine – the parasympathetic system – aims for the opposite.
One of the first terms I learned in Medical school was “Homeostasis.” It means that the human body is equipped with organized chains of feedback loops to return to balance once it's altered. For example, in natural circumstances you can't kill yourself by holding your breath. Once the levels of CO2 rise in your blood, the chemical receptors in your brainstem (afferent loop, or sensor) sense the imbalance of too much CO2 and a more acidotic blood, immediately overriding your will with automatic fast breathing (efferent or motor loop), getting rid in that way of excess CO2 and returning your body to its natural balance.
Another example: The region in the brain called the hypothalamus contains receptors for both blood volume and osmolality (concentration). If you get dehydrated – or bleed – and your plasma volume is low, those sensors notice it and send an order for you to feel thirsty. You'll crave and drink fluids until the problem is fixed. Even more interesting, if the problem is dehydration or loss of volume, ANY type of fluid will appeal to your thirst. Juice, soda, soup, water – as long as it's fluid, it will do. On the other hand, if your blood volume is fine, but it's your osmolality which has gone too high (let's say, you just had a sweet desert and your blood sugar is high), you won’t crave soda or juice, what you'll crave is water – the fluid which will dilute you back into balance.
Isn't that fascinating? Doesn't that make you want to clap for that wonderful machine, the human body?
For balance is the natural state of the human body, if only our psychology wasn't interfering with it.
For example, the mind can play a trick on the body. To wit, our hypothalamus contains sophisticated mechanisms of hunger and satiety which make us stop eating once we're full and our blood sugar is restored, preventing us from getting overweight – but as we all now, this is easier said than done! Hopefully when someone manufactures “Humans, version 2.0” they'll remember to fix the glitches of eating out of stress, eating to fill an existential void, or eating out of boredom.
So, yes, that unconscious intelligence running the human body knows how to find balance. So, why is it that balance is so difficult to achieve, especially in our personal lives?
Everything always starts with the sensor.
Yes, the first step in a feedback system is the afferent loop which receives a signal, analyzes what’s going on, and then activates an efferent signal to correct the problem.
And THAT was my problem that day, holding the pen in my hand, panicking about entering single life. I no longer had that sensor.
I'd grown so used to following rules, I'd lost connection with my own conscience. That gut feeling of comfort and discomfort that, as when a metal detector beeps, tells you when you're wandering closer or farther from your concept of truth – your concept, that is, and not the one force-fed to you by your elders.
So, to restore balance in the single-cell my life was – and that was my only way to contribute to restore balance to that whole body society is – I first had to re-learn to listen to the sensor of my conscience. For that, I needed to re-connect with that universal intelligence (Super Ego, Higher Power, God, whatever you want to call it) by looking inside, inside of me.
Good news! I did find that sensor through my nights of journaling and reading. (As usual, I was the queen of theory and not of practice). It started with a simple entry in my journal, “To hell with Samantha Jones and Barney Stinson! If I don't know a man well enough to trust him with my car and my wallet, I won’t trust him with my body.” And I eventually arrived at more clear, articulate answers. “I will only sleep with a man when we are in a monogamous, committed relationship. And for me to want to be in a committed relationship with a man, he must’ve earned my love and – even more important – my respect.”
Years later, when I shared with my soulmate-husband, David, how proud I was to have arrived at these epiphanies, he looked at me with that look of compassionate-adoration he gives me when I’m acting innocently clueless, and answered, “Honey…everybody knows that!”
Well, maybe that’s true. I have a tendency to overanalyze my personal life and miss the obvious, appearing clueless to the observing eye…but that's another story.