In times of danger, we look for shelter. Intuition kicks in and we find the means to protect ourselves. Perhaps we hide beneath things or build a fort, putting a barrier between us and the potential danger. I had not noticed how many years I’d spent building such a shelter. A place in which the threat of getting hurt is greatly diminished.
It was not until I needed to step outside of this precious comfort zone, that I realised how robust and impenetrable the barriers I have built truly are. With every experience in which I was hurt, I laid a brick. A brick for the stranger that, uninvited, grabbed my crotch and when I pushed him away assaulted me in the street. A brick for the boy that slept with me when it suited him, under the cover of dark, but left before I had been woken by the morning sun. A brick for the boy that blamed his misery on me. A brick for the man who left me on an unknown street with 1% battery to get home to my bed, because I had refused to return to his. A brick for the boy that let our friendship waste away due to the demands of his new girlfriend. A brick for the man that promised the world and delivered nothing at all. A brick for the boy that I loved, who all of a sudden did not love me back. Bricks for every single comment made about the way that I look. A brick for every time I felt insignificant and unworthy. A brick for each rejection of my affection. So many bricks. Layers and layers of protection, no longer a wall but a fortress, in which I felt safe, secure and distant from the experiences that had caused the need for such a shelter.
Inside this shelter, fear and pain can be harnessed to benefit me. It can all become a joke; the story of the cum on my skirt is now one that I own, it becomes a funny anecdote rather than a memory which makes me feel empty and embarrassed. Mantras float around the room that make me feel strong, independent, autonomous. I decide. I decide my own worth, how beautiful, funny, intelligent I am. I decide what words I use to describe myself, how I spend my Friday nights, my Sunday mornings and what I do with my body. Because for so long I handed all of those responsibilities over to people with a loose grip; butter fingers. Hands unable to keep hold of such precious cargo. But, of course, they never should have been holding them in the first place. My barriers have enabled me to take back power, to learn what it is that I am worthy of, what it is that I want. But in doing so, in building such a strong formidable shelter, I can no longer reach those things. I am safe inside the fortress yet bound by the boundaries I have created for myself.
‘G, you’re going!’
I retreat further inside the walls of autonomy.
‘It’s good for you, you haven’t been on a date in what? 2 years?!’
God. Has it really been two years? Two years of protection against the external forces of love and romance. I have forgotten what it feels like to trust, to share, to fall with a person that you might one day love. Am I broken? Am I permanently single? Does my vagina still work?
‘I don’t want to go.’
‘You’ll be so fine once you get there. You just have to go, get over this first hurdle and then it won’t all feel so scary.’
Ellis and Holly, my flatmates, have been hoaxing me out of my shelter for days. Explaining the benefits of going on a first date, but I think I’ve watched too many episodes of YOU and I think I’m happy as I am. So why am I bothering?
I looked around me and I realised how high my walls were. How much hurt that I had hidden in my suit of armour. How I had perhaps mistaken my independence for fear. Fear of feeling anything that I had felt before. Fear that all of this protection and self-love and worth could be turned to rubble at the hand of a careless man. But how can I test my defences if I never face any force?
What I was truly nervous about before this date was not the date itself. It was not whether I did or didn’t like him, I don’t care about any of that. I care about the strength of my independence and the amount of love and respect that I have for myself. It is easy to think that a chair you made is strong, until someone sits on it and it breaks. It may have four legs, it may look a chair, but does it work? Is my sense of self-worth only so strong because I have not let anybody impact it? Perhaps.
Cue date. It’s time to put this independent, strong, self-loving woman to the test, because believe it or not, despite the feminist slogans, the grossly out of control armpit hair and the incessant masturbation, I do still believe that I’d like to fall in love. I cannot do that within the confines of my fortress. So, I got changed, it sounds simple but I changed into clothes that represented me. I did not tone down the colour, or the crazy because I was meeting a boy that could potentially be put off by massive Dr Martens and a yellow flair, I exercised independence. It felt good not to dress in what I thought a stranger might like. Perhaps the self-worth can hold its form.
I had a gin and tonic on the tube, to calm my nerves. I arrived first and I bought him a drink for when he sat down, because that’s what I would have liked if it was the other way around. He walked in, we hugged, we sat and we spoke. I slowly recognised that I was slipping into old habits, namely laughing in appeasement. I noted that this is where I have gone wrong before, in agreeing or even encouraging behaviour, humour, comments that do not sit well with me, it can lead to later confusion. So, the next time he made a joke which alluded to us having sex or to him being good at sex or to me being wet in any way I said:
‘Do girls that you date normally find that kind of humour funny?’
I knew it could go one of two ways; he would either respect my directness and my clear knowledge of what it was that I liked and disliked in a person, or, he would get defensive and call me frigid or uptight or something. Thankfully it was not the latter, which enabled me to be more open. To speak about things that I knew in the past I had initially tried to hide. Things that I now put on the table because I want to be able to say ‘if you don’t like it, lump it mate.’ Of course, we’re still testing the chair, I cannot confirm that I would be completely resilient and bullet proof to triggering comments about my body. That’s why the walls of the fortress will always remain, but brick by brick I’m beginning to allow in a little light.
He walked me to my station and I let him kiss me, mainly because I wanted to check if my fanny flutters still worked. They do. Although, I’m not sure if that was his doing or whether they were just excited to be awake after what feels like a decade long coma.
I sat on the tube and I smiled. I smiled because I had not let the pain of my past effect my present. I know that in order to fall in love again I have a lot of work to do. A lot of bricks to take down, to assess, to process and to let go of. But I think I’m ready to do that, because I think the chair that I’ve built can withhold weight. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to pop a baby elephant on it straight away but ounce by ounce, step by step the resilience that I have brewed within the walls of my fortress is ready to endure pressure.
I think when you’re ready to glance beyond the walls that you have built to protect yourself, you should take the lessons you have learnt but leave the experiences. Know that all of those bricks carry weight and that they are important but, they are not definitive. What defines you is how you have used that fear and that pain to become stronger, more knowledgeable, more resilient. Take all of that to the dinner table. Be unapologetic, take risks, know your boundaries and your worth, you don’t have to break down your barriers all at once.
After just one date, my shelter became a little less necessary, because all that I had been working on within those walls built of pain and hurt, proved to work. The love and respect that I have for myself remains in my own hands and I have no intention of handing it over to anybody. Slowly but sureley however, outside the fortress walls, I do intend to let people sit on my chair and I have every faith that it will not break.