I didn’t get a good look at her face, but I saw enough to be pretty sure it was Elizabeth. She was sitting alone in a black Lexus in the parking lot of the fast food restaurant where I had just eaten. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of months, so I walked toward her car and called her name as I approached the partially open window.
As soon as she turned her face toward me, I regretted approaching her. She looked as though she had been crying. Her makeup was a mess. She looked lost and very alone.
“Are you OK?” I asked. I couldn’t think of something more appropriate, so I asked the obvious.
She looked away and I was afraid she just didn’t want to talk. We don’t know each other that well, after all. I had never seen her in a moment of vulnerability of this sort. I had only known her as a charming, intelligent young woman who always had herself perfectly together.
After a long moment, she turned back to look at me. Her face was almost emotionally blank.
“No, I’m not OK,” she finally said. “Everything’s wrong.”
Elizabeth just graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in psychology. She’s moving somewhere — I don’t recall where — for grad school in the fall. She had always struck me as having her life together, being successful and always being in control.
She was still dressed in her office clothes from working Friday. She told me she hadn’t been home and didn’t really want to go. So she was just sitting here — wrapped in the anonymity of a random parking lot — thinking about what to do.
I stood next to the car for a couple of minutes, half bending and half crouching. She finally asked me to come sit in the car with her. She said she needed to talk to somebody and there was nobody she really wanted to talk with about this.
A few weeks ago, Elizabeth found out she’s pregnant. She was already engaged to her boyfriend, so even though the timing wasn’t the best, she was thrilled to be having a baby with him. They would move their wedding up — although no date had been set — and she would go on to grad school. Everything would still work out.
Within days of discovering she was pregnant, the boyfriend — who turned out to be less committed to her future than she believed — was backing away from her. Before the week was out, he had told her that he was going to get back together with an ex-girlfriend, one with whom he already had a son.
Elizabeth said she first took the news pretty stoically and started planning how she would make it with a baby on her own. She still hasn’t told her family or friends. The truth is that she has few friends, she told me. Most of them have pulled away from her over the last couple of years because of her self-destructive behavior. Her parents know nothing of that part of her life. Every time she’s home with them, she’s still the “good little church girl” they believed she had always been.
When I first met Elizabeth more than a year ago, I had been really impressed with her. She was beautiful, intelligent, charming and appeared to live a life I would consider conservative and virtuous.
But as I started mentioning her to other random people I knew who had known her in high school, a different picture emerged. It was one that didn’t match how Elizabeth had presented herself.
They told me she had been “the band slut” when they had been around her at the two high schools where she had gone. They painted a picture of a girl who was active in her church — in all the right social ways that made her parents happy — while she lived a double life that was filled with alcohol and risky sex with whoever wanted her for a moment.
They told me that the guys she spent time with wanted her for sex and then dumped her quickly, because nobody wanted to be stuck with a girl with the reputation of going to bed with everybody. And “decent guys,” I was told, steered clear of her because they didn’t want to be associated with a girl like her.
When I had been told about this past, I had preferred to believe the other image I had seen of Elizabeth. I hoped that the people I was talking with were either mistaken — unlikely — or else it had been a rebellious phase she had outgrown.
Tonight, Elizabeth started confessing all the things which friends had told me, although I never mentioned I had heard most of this. The story was actually worse than others had said. She spoke tonight as though I was a priest and she needed to confess everything.
She told me that she has hated her life for years, because “decent” people didn’t want to be with her and the sort of people who did want to hang out with her were quick to abandon her after the parties were over and they realized just how messed up her life really was.
She had been naively certain that this new guy — they had dated since February — would stick around. He had just gotten out of the Army late last year and returned home. They met at a party. By her standards, he was better than most of the men who were interested in her by this point.
As we sat there, I was silent. I just let her pour out confession. Her narrative was full of self-loathing. She’s miserable. She doesn’t want to live this way. She said several times she’s not sure she even wants to live. She hates herself.
When she finally got everything out, I started talking — just in general terms — about how she can change her life if she really wants to. I mentioned that she would surely be eligible for free counseling when she started back to school in the fall.
But as I was starting down the path of discussing change, she interrupted me. She sounded bitter.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” she said. “If you had asked me about any of this yesterday, I would have told you I’m perfectly happy with my life. Nobody knows how I feel. I lie to everybody and I even lie to myself.
“Right now, I’m hurt enough to be telling you the truth about everything. I’m being real because I can’t hide it from myself. I just had to tell somebody. But if you see me tomorrow or next week, I’ll tell you I was just emotional today and say I don’t want to change. I’ll tell you I’m happy with my life and if anybody doesn’t like the way I live, they can get out of my life. I believe that most of the time.”
But Elizabeth knew better in this moment. She started crying.
“Do you know why I do that?” she asked through tears. “I am so scared I can’t change that I won’t even try. I want somebody to love me and stay with me. I don’t even like the guys I sleep with. They’re mostly creeps, but it lets me feel wanted for a little while. And then I hate them and I hate myself. But I know I can’t change, because I don’t deserve anything better.”
I tried to tell Elizabeth that she deserved to love herself — and that she deserved to be loved by others. I told her that she could decide for herself what she wanted her life to be and that she could change her direction if she wanted to.
But she doesn’t believe that.
“Everybody says I’m a slut,” she said. “I know what they say. I even say it about myself. I tell guys I want to be treated like a slut. A lot of them get off on that. I hate what I’ve become, but it’s the only way I know to get the minutes or hours of approval and affection I want. That’s my only drug to make me feel worth something. Well, that and the real drugs. I haven’t even told you the things I take when I want to escape from life.”
She had become calm again by this point. She was back to the emotional exhaustion I had seen when I first spoke to her tonight.
“I want somebody like you to love me,” she said. “Not really you specifically, but someone who’s decent and honest and all the stuff I’ve run away from. Since good men could never love someone like me, I have to take whatever I can get. Sometimes it can be exciting when it’s some older guy with money and position. That makes me feel important for a little while, even though I know he’ll dump me.”
I could tell she didn’t want me to argue with her. She didn’t want me to tell her the truth — that she can change her life if she decides she wants to. She doesn’t believe any of what I would tell her. What’s worse, she believes she is too worthless to change — and too worthless to be loved.
When we parted, I left her my card and asked her to call or send me an email so we can continue this conversation. She said she’ll call, but I know she won’t.
Elizabeth is too scared of change — and feels too worthless — to allow herself to have more discussion of this sort. She’s too scared of the vulnerability she showed tonight. I suspect she was being completely honest — with both of us — when she said that if we talked about this tomorrow, she would say she doesn’t want to change.
Elizabeth has a wall of denial around her heart. She’s scared. She’s hurt. She has no hope.
Change isn’t easy for any of us. I understand being afraid to attempt difficult change, because I’ve secretly felt the same way. I didn’t admit that to Elizabeth tonight — because it didn’t occur to me until later — but I’ve felt that way about some things in my life which I allow to remain broken. Just like Elizabeth, there are some things I fear changing — because I fear I would fail.
I hope Elizabeth will surprise me. I would love for her to call me and ask for help in figuring out how to get her life on track. I’m not qualified to help with all her problems, but I could certainly point her in the right direction — toward people and resources that could help.
But I don’t think she’ll call me. In fact, I suspect she’ll avoid me entirely. She will prefer to pretend this conversation never happened.
She will probably go right back to her double life. She will probably be in some stranger’s bed by tomorrow — hoping to briefly feel as though she has worth — while she hides what she’s doing from her parents and the few people left who don’t know what she’s become.
Elizabeth needs help and she needs love, but nobody can help her — and nobody can love her — until she’s willing to take a chance on herself.
Until then, Elizabeth is stuck craving love and feeling lonely — and eagerly accepting a counterfeit since she believes she can’t have the real thing.
Note: The name and some identifying details have been modified to protect Elizabeth’s identity. Quotes were reconstructed from memory right after our conversation.