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Young love is a business. Adult women are sold it in films like Twilight, the Notebook and Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and for two hours buy into the fairytale they're given. They want to be Kristen Stewart, Rachel McAdams, Claire Danes – the one falling so deeply for the boy promising them everything – and at no point does it appal them: the disconnect between what's happening on screen and what happened to them in real life. Men are no different. Though they often feign cynicism and pretend young love barely even exists, their denial of what happened is the same: They can't stand looking backwards and admitting the truth.
It's in this period of young love that many of our wounds and insecurities are created – the same wounds and insecurities that keep us from finding a present-day love to make us happy. Perhaps if we found it easier to look back, we'd find it easier to heal those wounds and move on with our lives. But we don't because we're afraid to. But why? Is it the memory of what some boy or girl did to us? Or is it the memory of having once been so earnest – of having promised the world not just to these boys or girls but to ourselves, before work, money and real commitments came along to crush us?
Is it young love we're afraid of, or having once been young? I decided to selflessly retrace my first clumsy romantic steps in an attempt to find out.
K – 1997-99, AGE 10-12
1997. Ireland is utter shit. Our social services are dying, 10.3 percent of people are unemployed, and the abuses of the Catholic Church dominate the media. In the general election, Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern is made prime minister on the back of promising tax cuts, as well as the total abolishment of the Residential Property Tax. Suddenly, the cost of owning land and houses is much cheaper.
I am a fat 10-year-old who, despite getting the best marks in class, can't claim the dominant social position he requires. Our class is hormonal. Every boy seeks a mate, wanting only a girl everyone else wants, and K is one of these girls. By luck I'm sat beside her. I am conversationally retarded – a sweaty, stuttering mess – yet, when the planets align, I can crack a joke and make her laugh.
What her laughter gives me is a sense of the social position I yearn for. I look around me, see all the other boys staring, and like it. What she gives me is a sense of hope – hope that my future will be different than my present, and that I'll no longer be bullied for being fat. And because of this, I tell myself I love her. Both as an act of appreciation, and as a pledge that I won't allow what she is giving me to end.
I pursue her in a roundabout way for two years. Then, on the last day of primary school, the whole class goes to the cinema to celebrate. I've given everything my shyness has allowed to her and feel it's time to be rewarded with a kiss. Needless to say, I don't get one. She kisses one of my thinner classmates instead and I sit there in the dark of the theatre utterly devastated.
It is, up to that point, the worst moment of my life.
M – 2001, AGE 14
Even at an early age, we crave love not just for its transformative powers but as an extension of our chemistry, as a replacement for the physical attachment we had with our mothers. This is called "contact comfort". At birth we seek bodily intimacy with our mother to trigger the release of the pleasurable hormone oxytocin, and as we grow older seek to replace this trigger with someone else. And only love will do – casual sex, for instance, doesn't trigger the hormone's release, whereas "romantic" sex, with lots of holding and touching, does.
At 14, M is a girl who begins hanging out in my circle, who goes through three or four of my friends before getting to me. Why she even gets to me, I don't know – I haven't gotten any skinnier, I'm still conversationally inept. But we text each other constantly. Texting allows me to express myself without things being crushed by my shyness – when we meet, however, I'm still the same stuttering fool. This causes me no end of frustration. I can visualise myself being more confident but something, I can't understand it, is holding me back.
Every week my mother gives me £10, which I immediately spend on phone credit. As texts are so dear in 2001 I burn through the credit in hours. M is a pretty girl but knows the power she has over me and uses it to elicit compliments and thus feel validated. She never compliments me – also, as she doesn't push for us to meet up either, I have to assume that, at heart, she's embarrassed by my fatness.
I tell her I love her but it feels more like blackmail – something I'm saying to dissuade her from cheating on me. But cheat on me she does, and then blames me for being so awkward and "not a normal boyfriend". I'm relieved it's over but, after a while – to spare myself – I construct a different narrative in my head: She is heartless, I was a great boyfriend and she fucked me over simply because I'm nice.
I begin wondering if all girls are so cruel because it's starting to seem like it. All I want from them is for the love I'm giving to be returned.
S – 2002-2006, AGE 15-19
S has sex with a lot of men. Being faced with someone so sexual frightens me but at the same time I can't help but feel attracted. She is everything I fear and yet, because she's fucking everyone else, my need for validation requires she fucks me, too.
We begin a friendship and even after five or six rejections, her openness with me never eliminates the possibility in my head it will happen. But the years pass and nothing occurs but heartbreak. I grow older and long for her more and more but nothing. In reality she's one of the only girls I know, and takes a magnified position in my head because it seems I'm the only guy she's rejecting. It drives me crazy. Is she telling the truth when she says she doesn't want to ruin a great friendship or am I really that defective?
In this period, Ireland is on the rise. The property market is booming under Ahern's leadership, developers are borrowing billions to build housing estates in every town, city and village, and though social services remain shit, no one is worried as the value of their houses is up 266 percent. Even ordinary Joes, freed by cheap credit and low taxes, begin taking out second and third mortgages to flip houses and make a quick buck – buy one, wait a day, and it'll inevitably be worth more. The future is paved with gold.
Never one to swim with the tide, I drop out of school early due to what is, at the time, an undiagnosed nervous breakdown. I spend my days texting S, professing not just my love to her but my depression too, as if it's some act of martyrdom done for her benefit. I pin everything on her. Though I'm a secondary-school dropout with an interest in nothing, I believe I'll be OK because her love – when I get it – will guide me through.
S, for her part, always listens but, with my love and depression, she can do nothing. Even at 19 she is too young to understand, as I am, and the weight of my insecurities get too much for her to bear. The drift begins: me towards possible suicide and her – because of her promiscuity – towards a life of misery which, no matter how bad, still doesn't need me to save it.
F – 2007, AGE 20
I lose weight, running through the town at night with my iPod on, losing myself to 4/4 beats, the cold wind on my face, thick sweat dripping down my lower back. I meet F through a friend. She is S's antidote: a respectable member of society, university-going.
As she goes to uni on the other side of the country, I see her only on weekends, getting to know her slowly and over the course of many months, ingratiating myself as best I can for someone still so socially awkward. Then I go see her, a trip I undertake in my mother's Honda with all the deluded romanticism of my then-hero Jack Kerouac. It's to my destiny I feel I'm driving on that hot May day.
We begin boozing as soon as I arrive, exploring each other's personalities in-depth, and it's to my great shame that I lie about a lot of things. I feel I have to – I'm a no-hoper with what is then only a small, far-fetched ambition to write, and she is going places, places I'll never get to. We are hammered by nighttime. We leave her apartment and stagger down the hill to the city below and in a nightclub sit yawning, desperately wishing to be back at hers. That night we sleep together, and in the harsh, hungover sun of the morning I awake and walk around her apartment, a victory lap, soaking in whatever it is I'm feeling. When she wakes we make plans, plans to see each other soon, and then I'm back in the Honda, roaring towards home with a smile on my face.
F proves a good distraction from my mother's recent diagnosis. She is terminally ill with cancer, expected to die soon, yet when the doctors repair her broken hip and zap the tumours on her spine with radiation, she appears almost as good as new. She's delighted when I tell her about F – I have never mentioned a girl to her before and she figures, I suppose, there's hope for me yet. She makes jokes about how I'll be "off" soon.
But nothing happens. F stops answering my texts and, though she continues to come home, it isn't to see me. I hear from my friend about an ex-boyfriend. I pretend to take it on the chin but mention nothing to my mother, who continues to make jokes, which kill me. I know she is dying but that any hope I have of making her proud is dead already.
I read more voraciously than ever, revelling in Kerouac's dark period – in the pathetic self-affirmation of Big Sur and Satori in Paris – before going deep on Zola, Celine and Dostoyevsky. I am blackened, bored and on the verge of suicide. Meanwhile, Ireland has reached its peak. In every sector jobs are plentiful, a record number of people are going to college – for a time Ireland has the sixth-largest graduate percentage in the world (44 percent) – yet, for me, it might as well be 1982. I have no job, no appetite for higher learning, and spend my days in a haze of alcohol, writing down things on paper before ripping them up and throwing them away.
Every night though, no matter what, I run. I leave the house and speed through the town for miles, taking the road past F's house in the hope she'll be there, see me and change her mind. I even run while drunk, my heart pounding out of my chest, sometimes crying and letting the tears mix with my sweat. Am I in love with F? No more or less than I was with the others. I am in love with the future they promised.
Then, in the autumn of 2007, I hit bottom. My mother dies.
B – 2008-PRESENT, AGE 21-NOW
Even I, wallowing procrastinator though I am, must admit it's time for a change. I refuse to continue as I am – I must either kill myself once and for all or move the fuck on. I begin approaching women in bars, and though I make a fool of myself and get nowhere, it feels good to be leaving my comfort zone and trying something constructive.
Ireland, meanwhile, returns to shit, back to the toilet from whence it came. After eleven manic years the property bubble finally bursts. Mass unemployment reigns again, 11.82 percent, and those housing estates built in every town, city and village must be torn down or else lie empty with grass growing up to their windows. Town centres offer boarded-up shopfronts and For Let signs, hundreds of thousands of people flee to Australia and Canada, and Shane from Westlife loses a cool €20 million and is mocked simply for doing what everyone else did on a larger scale.
Bertie Ahern resigns as prime minister and is replaced, temporarily at least, by one of his cronies. In 2010 he admits that, if he "had one regret", it was the abolishment of the Residential Property Tax in 1997. But people have no time for regrets – their debt is suddenly real, the IMF is at the door, and the mood is one of sadness and panic. The only thing that remains unchanged are the dire public services.
And yet I sleep through the fall of my country the same way I slept through its rise. I want nothing – and have never wanted anything – except that which money can't buy. I meet B on the 23rd of December, 2008. She is like F only more so, somebody going places, however I'm so damaged by the rejection of F and the others that, in a ridiculous reversal, I resist her where she doesn't need to be resisted, play games where no games need to be played. I think I know what will happen: She'll abandon me and leave me to suffer like every other woman in my life, my mother included.
The proof of her divinity is that she stays. She sees something in me and sticks around to coax it out. She urges me to talk about my past – my mother, the heartbreaks, the depression – and after months of resistance, I finally give in. I reveal more of myself than I ever thought possible, and she too to me, and the love I've sought all my life is suddenly right there in front of me.
I enter life, meeting new friends and her family, at one point even following her to a new country to work a job I hate. I know all I have to offer are my thoughts – if I even have those – and so every free hour I write, piling up pages and pages of utter shit but which I know, because B tells me so, will one day lead somewhere. And there is struggle, still – life sometimes weighs us down so that not even the hand of the other can lift us up – but our relationship can always be relied on, the other is always there to push us forwards, past the transparent, petty bullshit that's so intrinsic to life.
To say I'm surer today what love is, what real love is, might be kind of presumptuous. But the purposes it serves compared to back then are certainly much different. Back then, clearly at times of great pain in my life – being fat, bullied, depressed, my mother dying – I gravitated towards and became obsessed with girls I knew would spurn me. What else were they going to do when I was so fucked up and awkward? Thus I used them and their rejection as magnets for my pain; I was spurned and so would go into mourning over girls I barely even knew because the grief there – no matter how bad – was almost manageable compared to what would've awaited me had I really thought about, and confronted, the dire state of my life.
I was punishing myself with these girls, both out of laziness – it suited me not to move forwards – and because I wasn't the boy, and then man, I wanted to be. I knew I could lose weight and be more confident – and, most importantly, be free of my stupid obsessions – but I could never make the effort and take the final step to put these beliefs into action. I hated those girls because they rejected me but, really, I hated myself more because I rejected life.
Did my mother dying affect my idea of love? Probably. Because when she died it seemed like she'd already been dead for a while. I was so wrapped up in my own puny suffering that I didn't give due attention to hers. Her dying made me realise, though not at first, that the people in my life who did give me love, even family and friends, weren't to be overlooked simply because their love didn't serve my ego. It's cliched, but I learnt that, one day, they and their love would be gone.
To romanticise or be cynical about young love is a form of self-protection. We protect ourselves from the horrible (and sometimes ecstatic) truth of what went on because we believe, deep down, that we don't deserve to learn from this period and liberate ourselves from our wounds and insecurities. We punish ourselves because we think we've failed our potential and gone back on the promises we made to ourselves when younger. How did I possibly think I could find love back then when I didn't even know what it was? How can we expect anything but dissatisfaction from our present-day love when we deny our past suffering and what we've learned from it?
I suffered because I had to but freed myself because I wanted to. I could've gone on as I was, resisted B forever and fucked things up with her, and fucked things up with other women and on and on until I was just so tired that I either resigned myself to being alone or settled for someone I wasn't completely satisfied with. I wonder if that sounds familiar to you?
If it does, try to remember. Force yourself to recall how pathetic and painful it was to be in love back then – and maybe even write it down – and see if your life doesn't improve. Because what's worse? The pain of looking backwards while moving forwards, or the pain of standing still?
Follow James on Twitter: @0jnolan
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