It started with a recurring, if slightly odd, compliment: “Your voice is so soothing! I use your podcast to fall asleep to every night” or “I had to re-listen to your episode this morning because I fell asleep to it last night.”
Sleeplessness is really how I got into podcasts myself. Having struggled with insomnia my entire life, I discovered a few years ago that listening to someone speak helps me drop off. “If I’m going to listen to a voice each night,” I eventually thought, “then I might as well absorb good content while I’m at it.”
So I started listening to Tara Brach – psychologist and meditation teacher, prolific podcaster – each night. Eventually her wisdom and gentleness began to seep into my waking life. I’d run into an anxious moment and, unbidden, her words would come to me: “May this serve the awakening of my heart.” I began practising her meditations. I cultivated an increasing ease with the present moment and with the often restless aliveness of my own body.
And so, being told that my podcast helps people sleep feels like a supreme compliment. I know from my own experience that we are at our most receptive just as we’re dropping into slumber. I know that modern life is rushed and often anxiety-inducing, and offering a small antidote to that feels like a deep honour.
From this came the idea to devote an entire podcast to gentleness.
And at the same time, to provide a platform for budding storytellers.
The idea behind The Storytelling Collective is simple: You send me your story, I read it. And perhaps people use it to fall asleep, or simply to accompany them through their days, transported into the worlds we have created.
I don’t know every detail of how this will play out yet. I know that I’d like to keep my scope as wide as possible: While gentleness is the theme, I don’t think stories need be limited to sweet little fluff pieces. I think that it is possible to tell a gripping tale AND soothe the listener. I think that social commentary, and tales of personal heartache and longing, and epic folktales, belong on this podcast just as much as cheerful bedtime stories do (and perhaps more so).
I would like to include many voices on this podcast. Many ways of seeing, many ways of being. I’d like to collaborate with writers from different genres and paths to create a varied, flavourful anthology of story.
If this speaks to you, then I invite you to send me your tale(s). Let’s make something beautiful.
P.S. For an idea of how your story might sound as read by me, you can listen to my other podcast, Case Files of a Fool for Love. On #7 Do Not Avert Your Eyes, I end the episode by reading some of my own writing, which serves as good illustration of how I read.
See “Submissions” for more information on the story submission process. Both fiction and non-fiction are welcome.
Almost exactly three years ago I was discharged from a psychiatric clinic after spending three strange and illuminating weeks there. I was 28 years old, wobbling my way back into the world, eyes stinging from the beauty around me. I felt reborn and also very, very old.
‘Everything is about to change,’ I told myself. ‘Everything is different now.’
And it was. It is.
I had done a lot of self-work in the ten years prior to my visit to the clinic: Seen therapists, journaled, cultivated self-awareness, read Women who run with the wolves. But now I intended to work harder. Dig deeper. Cultivate more nourishing friendships. Exercise more. Eat healthier. Heal.
I did not factor Covid-19 into my plans, of course. Nor had I really thought about the effect of living in late-stage capitalism, in a prolonged world-wide existential crisis, in a looming climate disaster. Nor had I really reckoned with the depth and intensity of my own childhood trauma. I was going to yoga it all away. I was going to do magic mushrooms and make uplifting Spotify playlists and listen to good podcasts and go for long walks and I was going to be ALL BETTER.
And, credit where credit’s due: I don’t know where I would have been had it not been for long walks and Spotify playlists and yoga and good podcasts and psychedelics. And good friends. And my dog. And nourishing food. And breathing exercises. And journaling. And the foundation of self-inquiry that had been laid over the past decade. Thank fuck for routines and good books and self-care.
And also, I AM NOT ALL BETTER.
I don’t even know what ‘better’ means anymore.
This is a life update, because some of you have been asking me what’s happening and why I’m so silent on my blog. I have a million other things to do, but I’ve just spent three hours in foetal position on my couch staring into the void – nothing else is about to happen, so I might as well write this post.
I am turning 32 soon. A lot of people tell me they don’t feel as old as they really are, but I definitely do. Not that I’ve become remotely good at adulting, but my heart feels heavy with all the lives I’ve lived. Not exhausted exactly, but laden with sorrow and pungency like tea that’s been left to steep for hours.
I know some parts of the world have been coming out of hiding, but over here in South Africa we’re in the heart of a third wave of Covid. Every day I receive news of more friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are very very sick. Facebook feels like a minefield of bad news and conspiracy theories. Our government is fast losing whatever credibility it once had and our president’s fortnightly speeches are just fodder for memes and existential despair. We wear masks and obey the 9 PM curfew, but other than that, everybody does whatever they feel like, myself included.
It’s winter and outside the rain is pouring down; even my dog refuses to leave the house. My sister, who lives in Kwazulu-Natal province, sends us hourly updates on the protests and violence over there. She’s locked inside her house. Someone she knows had to evacuate. I refresh the news every ten minutes, watching with rising horror as my beleaguered country burns down. On Instagram the positivity brigade is wearing me down, yet I scroll endlessly through uplifting posts in search of answers, in search of something to do: Another mantra, perhaps. An online tarot card reading. An inspirational quote.
I am not holding it together, but I am holding it.
I am holding it all and I am grieving really hard because this world is terrifyingly broken and movingly beautiful, and it is a crazy thing to be alive right now. It is a privilege and a curse. It’s everything.
I have no idea what’s going to happen next, not to the world nor to myself. It’s like I’m living in the eye of a storm and all I keep feeling, deep in my gut, is to be here fully. To resist the urge to DO SOMETHING, and be here instead. It’s excruciating.
At the end of 2019 I felt very strongly that I would have two more years at my current job and then I’d have to move on. Tick tock, those two years are coming to an end soon. I still plan to move on, but all my best-laid plans have fallen away in the face of internal and external crises. I thought I’d be writing much more, making beautiful zines, cranking out poem after poem, connecting with other writers and artists and even making money out of my writing by now. Instead, I have a floundering blog and a slowly-growing Instagram presence (about which I have mixed feelings). A piece I wrote a few months ago has been accepted for publishing in an anthology book, about which I’m very excited – and also, I can’t seem to find the inspiration to make its last requested edits. (I will, though – tomorrow.)
What am I willing to do without? What am I willing to let go of? Because more and more I am coming to know that I will have to surrender whatever is not necessary, whatever weighs me down, and whatever markings of success I’d envisioned achieving soon.
At first I thought I’d find somewhere cheap to live (probably east of here, because where I currently live is not affordable on a freelancer’s income). I thought I’d pack up my things, twist my brother’s arm into helping me move, and find a small place on the east coast where I can do freelance work, build my writing practice, play the ukulele a lot and make friends with the locals. Now, I think even that might be too solid and structured for my next move. I think, instead, that I might have to put my possessions into storage, and bring only my dog and my clothes with me. I might have to flounder about from place to place, volunteering and staying with friends. I’ll freelance if needs be, but I don’t want to spend too much time scrabbling to earn a living at jobs that take more energy than they give. I want to write. I want to start a podcast. I want to build meaningful connections. I want to learn about community living and regenerative agriculture and about the endless variety of cultures and ways of being in my own country, ways I know very little about.
I don’t want to quit my job only to find myself scrambling away at endless low-paying freelance tasks that allow no room for creativity.
I am asking myself: How little money can I get by on? What am I taking for granted that very soon I’ll have to give up? Personal space, organic vegetables, fancy dog food – can I do without that? My handful of close and beloved friends here – how do I leave them behind?
And, on the flip side: Why do I imagine that only hard things are worth doing? Why do I imagine that I’ll have to move to a remote town on the far side of nowhere to prove my commitment to making a change in my life? Is there another option? Have I been so steeped in a mentality of suffering that I cannot imagine an authentic future if it isn’t isolated and difficult?
I’m shit scared all the time, and every time I try to reassure myself by falling into frantic action my body forces me to a halt. The only things I seem to be able to do semi-consistently is to weep a lot and go for long walks. This prolonged inactivity goes against everything the world has taught me and against my natural inclination too, yet the only thing that feels right at this moment is to exist very slowly. Even as my self-imposed deadline looms closer and closer (a deadline I still intend to honour), the message I feel insistently in my heart is that right now I should do very little, and do that fully. I don’t get it. But it’s what I’m doing.
The world is not okay.
South Africa is not okay.
I am not okay.
That’s where I’m at right now. I am not holding it together, but I am holding it. I’m holding it all in my heart.
We’re coming up on Easter. And I’ve been wanting to write about religion (specifically Christianity) for a long time now, so in honour of the occasion, here we go.
I cannot quantify the harm nor the value that religion has contributed to my life. I know that my existence has been shaped by Christianity; and some days I feel itchy about this, allergic to all things religious – and then, on other days, I feel immense gratitude.
However, if I look at my country, and at the Afrikaans culture I come from, I feel that Christianity – Calvinism specifically – has done, and continues to do, a great deal of harm. Generations upon generations of my ancestors lived lives steeped in suffering, silence, and oppression (both giving and receiving). The punitive approach of Calvinism created an artificial divide between body and spirit, between earth and heaven, between man and woman – fertile breeding ground for the kinds of injustices that have blighted South Africa for centuries. I believe that religion is largely to blame for Apartheid – both in obvious and less obvious ways. I believe that it is religion that has allowed people to forget about their connection to other humans and to the earth herself, leading to rampant capitalism, to exhaustion of our natural resources, to climate change.
But of course, religion is a man-made thing. In a sense, blaming religion itself for the ills of the world is a cop-out, because it too is only a symptom of an ill society, just like capitalism, or any of the other malfunctioning institutions we have created. They are symptoms of greed, of fear, of dogmatic thinking, of the need to control, of disconnectedness. They tell us something about who we can easily become as humans: how easily we grab onto anything that resonates for us and try to make a monument out of it. How easily we step out of flow and try to hammer truths into immobility, forcing a moment of transcendence into stagnation.
This can happen to anyone, with anything: One might become just as dogmatic about ideals like compassion, or equality, or respect for nature. In fact, Christianity was built on beautiful ideals. But somewhere along the way it lost its joy and became an institute built on crippling self-righteousness and shame.
Yeah, I’m not a fan.
And I will write about that. I’ll write an entire series about that.
But I also need to acknowledge that in many ways religion has been good to me.
The word “religion” of course encompasses many types of faith, and these have affected people in a variety of ways. What I write here applies to my experience, and to the brand of Christianity I was raised in: fundamentalist, charismatic yet Calvinist-influenced Christianity (think fire-and-brimstone meets happy-clappy coupled with a good dose of shame and suppression). Other people’s experiences may, and do, differ widely.
My parents met as ‘rebel’ Christians: Both had broken away from their Calvinist Dutch-Reformed roots, had been ‘born again’, and been baptised as adults (something of a scandal in 1980s Afrikaans culture, enough to get them kicked out of the Dutch Reformed church). They were hungry for something that felt real, for relationship with God instead of rote singing of hymns, for community and communion instead of weekly lip-service.
By the time they had me, however, their versions of faith had already deviated from each other’s. In my childhood, my dad’s religion did not appeal to me at all, even though I was convinced by it and correspondingly scared of God. His religion was fervour bordering on frenzy, a morass of condemnation, self-congratulation, isolation, and rampant rage. We joined a new church; we left it within weeks, my dad foaming at the mouth. We couldn’t listen to pop music, or celebrate Christmas, or play with Barbies. We were always told that we were different, pure and right in a world full of heathens, atheists, and fake Christians.
I don’t remember my mom openly disagreeing with my dad about religion. I think most of the time she didn’t, at least not consciously so. But her faith was…alive. She found comfort in God. He wasn’t the jealous God my dad was fond of citing, but rather one who invited debate:
Like David argued with and railed against God in Psalms, my mom told me, so too I could go to God with my questions and even with my anger. (Which I did, many times, especially in my teenage years).
To my parents, God spoke (though it seems he said different things to each of them). He spoke to them in Bible verses, in moments of clarity, through other people, during worship. If nothing else, my parents’ religion seemed very involved: Theirs was not a God of distance but of daily interaction. Every small event was a miracle. Every struggle was a test. Every sadness an opportunity to grow closer to God.
The combined push-pull of my parents’ Christianity worked very well on me, and I was a very religious child. Even though I am still unearthing the damaging ideas of God I then internalised, it wasn’t all negative. I was raised to believe that God could speak to me, and so he did. I was raised to believe that God cared about my life, and so I told him all about it. I developed the habit of thanking God for every beautiful thing I encountered, a practice which has carried me through many difficult times since. That feeling of having an intimate witness, a friend and protector who is always by my side – I sorely needed that as a child. In many ways, religion saved me.
One of the most beautiful things I gained from religion was the concept of grace. As a teenager I read Philip Yancey’s book ‘What’s so amazing about grace?’ and it changed my life. This concept of grace, of being welcomed into a life that places emphasis on abundance rather than performance, has remained with me ever since. Sure, there were some recesses of my mind that held (and perhaps still do) an idea of God as a punitive being, one who punishes pleasure and will tolerate no straying. But mainly, by the time I entered my pre-teens I had grown to love God on my own terms, as a figure who extends compassion to all.
Strangely, the more my dad forced his doomsday religion upon us, the more I doubled down on my own more compassionate brand of faith. It was like God and I would share a little knowing wink, a shared moment of “you and I know better, don’t we?” The very religion that was used to oppress me became my shelter.
I also really liked Jesus. He hung out with dodgy people and spoke movingly of inviting the drunkards and the homeless to a banquet fit for kings. He was patient with his disciples (mostly). He was kind to prostitutes. He condemned hypocrisy. He said “I have come that they may have life, and life in abundance.” (John 10:10)
To me the Bible was filled with poetry.
Even today, reading the first verses of the gospel of John inexplicably fills my eyes with tears: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The principles of Christianity that I cherished – grace, gratitude, faith, honesty, relationship, cultivating a spiritual practice – these I later discovered to be principles for life. I was able to take them with me into secular adulthood, but I doubt they would have formed such a foundational part of my life had I not already learned to live by them in my childhood.
And the last thing: growing up religious left me with a taste for the mysterious, for the inexplicable, for the divine. Try as I might, I have never been able to fully divorce myself from the concept of a higher power. When I’m driving in my car and the Stellenbosch mountains unfold before my eyes, and at that moment the perfect song starts playing on the radio, I signal a mental ‘thank you’ to god. And then I laugh, because I don’t even know what god is – but I’m okay with that. To me god is in the soul of trees, in the laughter of my friends, in the ache in my heart when I think about the collective pain of the world. To me god is in my garden. To me god is in my feet, in my palms, in my ability to see beauty. God rests in the intimately known, yet hovers also beyond what my mind can understand.
God no longer bears much resemblance to the religion I was raised in, yet I am grateful to religion for playing its part in teaching me this: everything is holy.
So someone sent me this question on Instagram, and I am so excited to respond to it here. I’ve been wanting to start some type of advice column for yeeeeears but I’ve always hesitated, because something about it felt really…arrogant, you know?
Yet here we are! I lay no claim to any credentials nor any superior knowledge whatsoever. What I do have, however, is a vast and colourful dating history, a heartfelt desire to heal and love well (which has translated into much research and therapy), and a network of weird, brave friends who will hopefully contribute their voices here as well.
If you’d like to send a question – I’d love to respond to it! Find my details in the contact section.
I have so many things going through my head right now with polyamory. We opened our marriage to polyamory just over a year now, and overall it’s been working great; I really resonate with the philosophy of it and the idea of loving who you want to love, not feeling like you’re trapped, or that you’re not allowed to love more than one person. But I’m having so much trouble connecting, just finding people who understand what polyamory means, and actually looking for connection – they always think that it’s something to do with sex, and multiple sexual partners.
I have a husband and a second partner, my boyfriend. And I get very protective over my boyfriend, but not with my husband having other partners. I just found some items of an ex-girlfriend at my boyfriend’s house, and I felt so uncomfortable. I thought he was maybe cheating on me, but he explained in detail why his ex’s belongings were still there, and I don’t think he was lying at all. But the rage I felt was something else. I thought I would never get jealous of any partners because I’m absolutely fine with my husband having partners, so I’m a bit shocked about my reaction. The amount of feelings and emotions that this person triggers in me, it’s absolutely insane – I never thought I was going to go through the things that I am going through right now, because I was in a very stable marriage: we’ve been together for nearly ten years, everything was very set…and now this person comes and he came completely out of nowhere, and we really connected…
And I would love to have somebody to talk to about this, because I don’t have many friends who understand the concept of polyamory.
Thank you so much for writing to me – I feel so honoured that you reached out. A lot of what you wrote really reminded me of my own experiences, and of others I know who are braving the world of non-monogamy too. I’m going to answer from my own life lessons and experiences, but I know that there are others out there who also have a lot to contribute, for instance people who were already married (which I have never been) and who then opened their relationship – so this is an invitation to everyone out there who resonates with the letter writer: please share your experiences in the comment section!
First of all: there’s nothing wrong with you.
If you’re judging your own feelings, or feeling ashamed of your reaction, please don’t. Your emotions are valid, they’re always valid, however illogical they might seem to you. We have ideas of fairness ingrained within us, for instance the idea that we shouldn’t feel jealous or threatened when our partners have other partners if we ourselves have multiple partners. But just because your heart agrees with the concept of polyamory doesn’t mean that you’re exempt from feeling insecure or triggered. So start by lovingly holding your own vulnerable heart close, and accepting every feeling as a valid part of you.
There are many reasons why you might feel triggered about your boyfriend potentially having other partners, yet not be anxious about your husband seeing other people: You and your husband have been married for a long time. You’ve built trust and safety with each other over time, you’ve settled into a rhythm, you most likely communicate quite well. You know he’s not just going to leave you when the next interesting person appears.
And also, quite simply, every relationship has its own dynamic. While we can definitely transfer the skills we’ve acquired from one relationship to another, there is a different kind of energy between any two people. Different wounds will be triggered, or lessons we thought we’d learned long ago might be tested in new ways.
This is a whole new human being you’re getting to know; and we are never fully prepared, however mature we thought we were, for the upheaval that a new relationship brings.
Because falling in love: that’s one of the most intense experiences we get to have on this earth (at least for most people). You’ve been married a long time and you’ve likely settled into what Page Turner calls “old relationship energy” with your husband, which is that wonderful feeling of being at home with somebody, of looking fondly at their quirks and habits and feeling known in return.
In comparison, what is often described as New Relationship Energy (NRE) – that initial feeling of intensity and longing: that’s a LOT. On a physical level, there are heightened levels of adrenaline, oxytocin, and dopamine coursing through your system, which make you crave being with this person all the time. On an emotional level, everything feels achingly poignant.
And so in my experience, however non-monogamous my heart and intentions might be, at the start of a new relationship my entire body wants to be monogamous with that person. I want them to be ALL MINE.
Imagining this person being with someone else can feel like actual death.
And let me repeat myself: It’s okay to feel like this. Discomfort is not necessarily a sign that something is terribly wrong, and intense emotions are part of life.
So these are some of the possible explanations for why you’re having these feelings. You could still be in the NRE phase with your new partner, you’re not yet securely attached, your dynamic is simply different than with your husband, and you may have forgotten how intense those initial feelings can get. It could also be that different insecurities are being triggered for you with your boyfriend, things you haven’t had to deal with or investigate for a long time.
Here’s what I would do (and have done) with these feelings: I would find myself a quiet spot (or go for a long walk, if that’s available) and take a few deep breaths. I’d put my hand on my heart and acknowledge my courage, because this is courageous work. I would extend love to myself, to my heart, to my body, to my insecurities and wounds and splendid wholeness. I would tell myself that everything I feel is valid. I would sit and breathe, and probably cry, and NOT try to find a solution immediately. And I would do this frequently, as often as these feelings come up, reminding myself again and again that I am safe with me.
Because the most important thing is to cultivate safety within yourself. When your heart can really trust that it will be seen and heard by you, then much of that intense panic can slowly dissipate. And then it becomes easier to feel safe around other people too. And when the fear comes up again – remind your heart again that she is safe.
And then you might think of actions to take. Perhaps the action will simply be to share with your partners how you’re feeling. Try to do this from a place of openness, without making them responsible for ‘fixing’ things; do it in the spirit of creating more intimacy, not imposing more rules.
But you might also ask your boyfriend to adjust his behaviour, if that feels right for you. For instance, you might ask him to ‘over-communicate’ for a while, telling you beforehand about situations you might find triggering. You might ask him to reassure you of his love more often. You might ask him to ease gently into non-monogamy. However, be prepared with any request you make for his answer to possibly be “no”. Be prepared to negotiate, and to have this conversation many times as the situation and your needs change.
You don’t have to always power through your discomfort.
You don’t have to grit your teeth and force yourself to be cool when you’re simply not feeling cool. Being polyamorous doesn’t mean you stop being scared and vulnerable, and you’re allowed to be those things. Over time you’ll learn the balance: when it’s time to push yourself past your comfort zone, and when it’s time to take a breath and say “ouch, can we hold back for a moment?” And you will achieve this balance by being very patient and compassionate with yourself.
Know that you are busy with the most beautiful and worthwhile work you will ever do: you’re grappling with what it means to be human, to love, to exist. The complexities, aches, and joys of human relationships – this is where the magic happens.
I am sending you all my support and empathy. You are not alone on this journey.
If I don’t speak my truth I feel as if I might die.
I desperately need people to like me.
I desperately need to act with integrity.
I desperately need people to approve of my every action.
I desperately need to feel free and unscrutinised.
I need to feel safe.
I am not safe.
I am never safe.
A week ago I woke up and was about halfway to the bathroom when my body announced to me: “I think I’m dying”.
Something sprang in my neck, followed by a sharp cramp that would not let up regardless of how still I held my head. I yelled, and then stopped yelling because that hurt more. I crawled back to bed and tried to find a position in which my neck would not cramp. No position worked for longer than a minute – within a few minutes I was crying from the pain, soundlessly and without moving my head.
Fortunately one of my neighbours is a body therapist. She twisted my neck back and forth, clicked it into place (I screamed quite a bit), and for the rest of the day I was able to move, cautiously. “It’s because you clenched, during the night,” she said. “Because of yesterday’s stress.”
“I know, I do that,” I responded, exasperated with myself. On the surface, I handle (short-term) stressful events well. But the day after, I invariably wake up with a cramp in my back, or a shoulder that feels dislocated, or a migraine.
For the rest of the day I wobbled around from couch to floor, occasionally spasming up and dissolving every time into panicked, tired tears. That was the strangest: the tears. Each time I felt a cramp I started crying involuntarily.
It felt as if my body were acting out, punishing me, screaming at me “danger, danger!”
I felt like a scared child, and the feeling was entirely kept within my body, because every time I’d tap into my heart, into my deeper inner voice, I’d experience a large, unruffled sense of calm there. Yet, despite the underlying assurance from my heart that all was well, my body was intent on warning me furiously against impending death.
The day before had been a difficult one on the farm where I live. We’re an assortments of households here, an ‘unintentional community’ if you will, at least tangentially invested in each other’s lives. One of my neighbours, whom I really like and am quite close to, went through a personal and medical crisis and I found myself somehow in the middle of it. There were phone calls to and from the landlord. There was involvement from other neighbours, and accusations flying back and forth, text messages and screen shots being sent, and in the middle of it all myself, googling what to do, trying to be as helpful as possible without being intrusive (at one stage I really thought my neighbour might die).
Everything turned out fine, turned out well even, but it took a few days. At the height of the crisis I found myself doing what I often do, what I’ve done since childhood: slipping into calm supportive mode. Totally chilled. Watching series with my neighbour while I surreptitiously checked her vital signs every 15 minutes. Trying to make it clear to everyone involved that I was not judging, not prying; being almost cringe-inducingly tactful. Feeling overwhelming compassion, but also the ever-present urge to be needed.
Was I doing this from a place of empathy, or because my identity lies in being useful? Who the fuck knows. Both, I guess.
The next day was the neck cramp day. My neck got better fast, but for the past week my body has been sending me all kinds of distress signals. Severe back pain. Slight nausea. Waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to fall back asleep. A near-constant headache. I keep reassuring my body: “You’re okay. The crisis is past,” but like a screaming infant, my body refuses to be calmed down before it is good and ready.
Someone I follow on Instagram posted the other day “If you listen to your body when it whispers, you will never have to hear it scream”, and I thought FUCK YOU.
She meant well. Listening to your body is generally a good thing. But if your body has been through trauma, then any hint of new danger will make it scream anew. Your body holds the fear of all the times something terrifying happened. My body tenses up when men move or speak aggressively. It clenches whenever someone I care about appears to be in danger, especially if I cannot help them. When my defences are particularly low, at night I have recurring intrusive thoughts of my loved ones’ gory deaths and wake up with a migraine. When I myself feel in danger – when my heart is broken, or my finances look bad – my back and shoulders become a plethora of knots, often so stiff that I can barely sit or stand.
My body screams regularly, without warning, without offering up a whisper first. To say that it is screaming because I did not listen to its whispers is to speak from a place of almost unimaginable privilege.
It’s not the message that trauma survivors need – or anybody else, for that matter. What we need to know is that it’s okay to sometimes feel as if we’re going to die – we’re not doing anything wrong.
We’re not failing in our self-care practices, or not being mindful enough, or bad-adulting, if life feels suddenly and inexplicably hard. (But also, it’s fine if we ARE neglecting self-care or not being mindful enough, because life is weird and there are no fixed rules for successful living.) We need to know that it’s okay that we feel deeply unsafe, and insecure, and torn between opposing needs like wanting to be liked by everyone and wanting to feel authentic.
That last one is my particular struggle.
In the wake of the farm-wide crisis, with whispers of possible evictions doing the rounds, several neighbours asked me what had happened and gave me their opinions. I found myself mediating: giving the absent person’s perspective, trying to advocate for them, without offending the ones that I was talking to. Trying to tell the truth without oversharing. Trying to be polite without picking sides. I tried to come out the entire drama looking lilywhite, yet it felt as if everybody was misquoting me, assuming I was “on their side”. I felt profoundly fake somehow.
At one point I even lied: A neighbour asked me point-blank whether I’d done something, and, panicking, I denied it. (The thing in question was a wobbly choice I’d made during this whole drama). That night I lay awake, nauseous. I tried to listen to my body, tried to regulate my breathing, but every time I’d tap into what my body was feeling, a rush of panic would threaten to overwhelm me. So in that moment I decided to override my body with my mind. I felt too unsafe within my body to let it be in control. It was trapped in a childlike cycle of panic, and it was time for my mature self to call the shots.
And so I reasoned things out: I was feeling panicked because I felt dishonest and inauthentic. But I was scared of being honest, because then people might not like me, and I have internalised the idea that my survival depends on being likeable.
So I was caught between two needs: I can’t exist if I am not honest. I can’t exist if I am not liked.
Well then, said my mind. The answer is simple: Choose honesty. Because honesty feels more intrinsically important, whilst I actually know that I will indeed survive if I am not liked by everyone. (In fact, when it finally happens, being disliked often feels like a relief.)
So the next day I contacted the neighbour in question and told her that I’d lied, that I had indeed made that wobbly choice she’d asked about. “I feel confused and torn between everybody,” I told her. “I want to be honest and I also don’t want to pick sides. And also, sometimes I make bad choices, and I didn’t want to look bad.”
“We like and accept you just the way you are,” she responded. “And I understand your inner conflict. I won’t ask you any further questions.”
And this is what flooded through me, the moment I got her response: The remembrance that I am no longer a child in an unsafe world. I am an adult and I’ve got my back. Even when it feels terrifying, I can choose to act with integrity and the results will confirm that I made the right choice (even when I do piss someone off).
My survival does not depend anymore on my family liking me or on being super useful. And every time I choose to act from a place of authenticity, my body believes a little bit more that I am truly safe.
I might never be fully free from the panicked messages my body sends me whenever a situation reminds me of past traumas. But the wisdom in my heart grows more assertive. I know what to do when I am panicking: I honour my body, I am gentle with myself, but I do not give in to my most panicked demands. And I call upon my community, the community I have gradually built by choosing to be authentic again and again.
(I still have a headache but my body is no longer screaming at me, merely grumbling. Onwards!)
I am making a Thing! And I’m hoping over time this thing will become a zine. It will appear here. It will be different from a blog post in that you will be able to download it, and also, if I’m lucky, it might contain some drawings (which, if you’re lucky, will not be done by me).
It will be, I think, a zine that tells people’s stories, specifically about how they make sense – or don’t – of life.
So far I have collected interviews, and I have felt inspired and also disheartened by this ridiculous and gargantuan idea. We are well on track.
This body is mine. These shoulders, bony, summer-browned, beauty-spotted. This hair, bright purple, growing too long into the nape of my neck. This tattoo on my upper arm. This leg, bundle of confused nerves, scar tissue and odd-shaped bone – mine.
Taking ownership of it isn’t always easy. For me there is a lingering shame in being abnormal. It’s not a reasonable shame (what shame is?) but it’s there nonetheless: there’s a part of my body that I find ugly, and I am ashamed of that ugliness. And not (only) because society has enforced ridiculous beauty standards upon us, but also because it looks…dysfunctional. We find health and vigour and good adaptation beautiful – young glowing bodies, taut calf muscles, or flowers blooming exactly as they were meant to to attract pollinators.
Sure, our standards are constantly shifting, but some preferences remain the same, and we prefer for our fellow earthlings to look able-bodied.
I’m not describing how things should be. I’m telling you how they are, in my experience of things: We look away when we see something we find ugly, or dysfunctional. We are embarrassed on behalf of the owner of this ‘dysfunction’. We suspect they must feel very bad about it and so we try not to make a big deal out of it, we pretend we didn’t see, we try not to look again.
We don’t ask questions but we feel very relieved when they bring it up themselves because we have been dying of curiosity – were they in a car accident? Were they born that way? Could we, perhaps, get a peek into their inner world and glimpse their pain as they tell the story, giving us that frisson of sympathy and ‘thank god it’s not me’ we are always craving?
I was born with a club foot. My foot got bent straight through exhaustive physical therapy by my mom (thanks mom) and I learned to walk normally, if with a limp. At the age of 14, my leg was stretched by 5,5 cm with a machine that looks like a Russian torturing device (it was, incidentally, invented by a Russian and calling the procedure torture would not be an exaggeration).
The long-lasting effects are that my right leg is scarred and skinny from the knee down, my ankle is misshapen and totally immobile, my foot is five sizes smaller than the other one, during my last surgery the surgeon managed to cut off my big toe tendons so I can’t lift my toe anymore, my foot and ankle ache constantly and are always swollen (to varying degrees), and I have scoliosis.
That might sound worse than it is. I can do almost all the things more able-bodied people can do.
I don’t tick the “disabled” box in questionnaires and I hesitate to call myself that. Does it count as disabled when you can’t keep up with your friends on an uphill climb? Or if you fall over if you try to stand on one leg? Or when your ankle aches violently after an hour of dancing (my favourite activity), so much so that you know that standing will be hard tomorrow? Most of the time, I’m not in much pain. I can walk for kilometres on end so long as there aren’t any steep climbs. I manage my back issues with yoga and insoles. I know, I really know, that it could have been so, so much worse. This little taste of differentness has made me immensely grateful for all the things my body can do. I am kind to myself, and thankful for my body.
But I flinch when I look at my right foot. Because most of the time, to me it’s ugly. And I know it is to others too, because their faces tell me so.
Here’s an incomplete list of what people say to me about my leg:
“Oh! Well I’d never have noticed/you don’t notice it at all, don’t worry.” This feels like a patent lie. Complete strangers on the street have asked what happened to my leg – It’s noticeable. Also, that’s like telling a fat person “you’re not fat!”: you’re still agreeing with them that being fat is bad. Instead, when someone says they’re fat, we could say “well you know your body best, but I can tell you that you are also very beautiful/worthy/this does not detract from your value whatsoever”. In the same way, I’d like people to instead say to me: “O I noticed that, yes. It’s such an interesting part of who you are!” (And some do say this, to their credit; and every time it’s a relief. I feel incredibly awkward when people lie to me to ‘make me feel better’).
“Oh shame, what happened?” The main people to ask this are uber drivers, waiters, shop assistants, and complete strangers. I’m stumped for a reaction every time. There are cultural differences in South Africa that make this especially hard – whilst most white cultures value privacy quite highly, I have oftentimes seen that in some POC cultures, caring is sometimes expressed in ways that I find personally invasive. And so I ask myself every time: Was this question asked out of concern? Often the person who asked is somebody who knows me a little bit – a cashier at my local shop, the waiter who served me twice. In that case I respond vaguely but kindly: “oh it’s just an old injury”. Other times I view this as an educational opportunity and respond with something like “We don’t know each other at all, so that’s actually an inappropriate question”. Of course, nine times out of ten, when I say that the other person responds with an exaggerated “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you!” Great. They strut off thinking I’m over-sensitive, and I am left feeling frustrated because I don’t get to just live without fending off prying questions.
(Here’s a tip for you: If you see someone you don’t know well and they look injured – scars, crutches, a cast even – don’t approach them and ask what happened. Even if the injury looks recent. Let them bring it up, and if they don’t, it’s because they’re tired of talking about what’s wrong with them.)
(Here’s another tip: Don’t use a person’s body as a conversation starter. That counts especially for things they have no control over (weight, injuries, disabilities, facial features). If you must comment on appearance, make it a compliment, and make it about something they had control over. For instance, it’s okay to say “Oh your tattoo is so beautiful!” but it’s not okay to say “Oh, what made you get that tattoo?” Just because something is visible does not put it in the public sphere. Also, “I love your haircut!” feels much less invasive than “Wow you have beautiful eyes” (only say the latter if you’re getting drunk together or if you’re close friends).)
“Oh, I also have that! My one foot is almost a size smaller than the other, it makes shopping for shoes sooooo hard.” Alternatives to this one are when people launch into long tales about their rugby accident, their ingrown toenail, and the neck spasm they once had. Also, lists of their sister’s best friend’s injuries. I get this, I really do. We want to relate to people. And we want to tell our stories too. I know that this reaction is not malicious, but it is fucking exhausting because now the pressure is on me to be gracious (and it’s not fun to be gracious when a few decades of my pain are being erased for the sake of a “same!” story).
“Don’t worry, you’re still beautiful”. I kinda appreciate this one because in my heart of hearts I really want to be beautiful, but I don’t think it’s a great response. It puts too much emphasis on beauty, and it effectively says “in spite of this thing about you that’s not beautiful, you are still nice to look at.” In effect it is a back-handed compliment. (As a child, my dad once said to me that I could have been a beauty pageant winner were it not for my leg. Guess which part stuck with me.)
“Oh, I didn’t realise it was actually that serious.” (This usually after we go dancing/hiking/martial artsing. No, I really didn’t exaggerate.) Alternatives to this one are “You should see my physio, she’s amazing” and “But can’t they operate on your toe and fix it?” and “You know, at my church they do faith healings, you should come”.
“Oh, you shouldn’t care what people think.” Well, I do care, and you do too, because we’re humans and that’s how humans work. Also, thanks, but I’m actually fine: I don’t care an inordinate amount, I’m not crying myself to sleep, I feel mostly beautiful and always worthy. But I was sharing a tender part of myself and you just lectured me about it.
I’ve said these things too. I’ve tried to make people feel better, or make myself feel less awkward, or inserted my own experiences inappropriately into a conversation. We do this, and it’s okay – we’re not being malicious. But remember that the person you’re talking to has had a lifetime of experiences. They know what they look like, what they can and can’t do, what makes them feel confident and where they feel exposed. They get to feel all of those things. They know their reality. Behind every sentence explaining their body lies a wearying amount of similar encounters. Give them this gift: Allow them the luxury of a day spent not having to explain themselves and making you feel at ease. Believe them when they say what they can and can’t do.
What we could say instead:
“Thank you for sharing your story”.
“I really like this about you, it makes me realise how brave and unique you are.”
“I can imagine that must have been difficult, and I respect your journey.”
“It’s true you don’t conform to normal beauty standards, but personally I’m not interested in mainstream ideals of beauty.”
“You can tell me any time if your body is struggling to do something, and I will support you/wait with you/take a break with you.”
“How would you like to be supported right now?”
Being different is hard. We all know that, we’re all different. Not being able to rely on your body to do the things you’d like to do is hard. Not being mainstream beautiful in a world that values beauty above almost all else is hard. Being in physical pain is hard.
And it’s also really okay. It’s part of being human. This is my body. It’s mine. Sometimes I inhabit it with grace and other times with hesitance, but I always inhabit it with love. I love my story. Please allow me to tell it my way, at my own pace; and when I tell it, recognise the honour I have just bestowed on you.
The first time I kissed a girl I was 28. I was fresh out of a long-term relationship, on the dance floor at a bar with some friends, feeling frisky and a bit lost, when this girl walked in. She was glowing. I don’t know what struck me first – her cheekbones? Her caramel skin? That frilly dress and the strong calves beneath it, or the long arch of her neck curving gently into shoulders? I thought about all those things at length afterwards, but at that moment I only knew that I liked her, the way she started dancing immediately, the way she seemed to inhabit her body. I liked looking at her.
“Hi!” I said. She came over. We shouted names and then life stories at each other over the music. I couldn’t stop looking at her mouth. Within a few minutes I pulled her closer and kissed her; she kissed me back enthusiastically. For a moment the entire bar went silent and then every man in the house breathed a collective sigh of horniness. But I hadn’t kissed her for the male viewers. I wasn’t doing it to try something new, or to shock my friends, or because I was feeling lost and frisky.
I was doing it because she was radiant and I felt irresistibly drawn to her.
But it took me another two years, and several sexual encounters with women, to say out loud, or even think out loud, that I am queer. Even today I hesitate over the word, tripping over terms like “bisexual” and “pansexual” and sometimes “heteroflexible” before finally settling on queer.
I feel cautious, like a child trying out language; and often I still feel like a fraud. Do I get to have this word? Am I bi enough for that? What if this is just a phase? Do I like women JUST as much as I like men? And if I don’t, then would I actually be lying if I called myself queer? If my attraction to women feels different to my attraction to men, then is it even really attraction?
If someone else were to ask me these questions, my answer would be easy and immediate: You don’t need a word, but if you want a word then you get to have one. You can call yourself queer and that could mean anything on the not-straight spectrum. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. And you don’t have to be consistent, nor do you need to have it all figured out. Go be. Go experiment. Go love. Go be authentic. That’s all you need to do.
But when it’s personal, it’s harder. It took a string of crushes, and feeling hot and bothered by some beautiful youtubers (but seriously, check out Stevie Boebi‘s great content if you haven’t yet) to get me to the point of saying to myself: “Somehow I made it to my late twenties before I realised that I find women really hot, and somehow most of my life I assumed that I was straight, and that’s totally valid and fine, but also, I am definitely NOT STRAIGHT.”
If you’re there, if you’ve ever wondered about your sexuality and felt baffled by how easily other queer people seem to know theirs, or if you’re curious about why this took me so long – here are some of the reasons why I’ve been hesitating to claim the word queer (or bisexual, or pansexual, or LGBTQIA+):
Because most of my queer friends and acquaintances have had a really rough go of it. As children, they felt different or even ‘wrong’. They grew up feeling isolated. Their parents usually had a hard time accepting their identities. They’ve had to deal with internalised oppression, and shame, and confusion. Just to get to live their lives, they’ve had to do some really brave and lonely things, like turning their backs on their religion, or culture of origin, or even on their families, and coming out again and again when that hasn’t always felt safe.
I, on the other hand, have had the privilege of ‘being straight’ until such a time as I felt ready to expand my repertoire.
In spite of my general weirdness, I’ve always been socially acceptable (in this regard at least). Even my liking women sometimes comes across (especially to straight men) as hot more than anything else – threesome, anyone? I haven’t suffered because of my sexual orientation. I’ve suffered because of other things, though, and I know how it bugs me when people appropriate my hard-earned experiences and lingo for their own purposes (like using the word ‘trauma’ for anything vaguely difficult, or joking about addiction). Would I be doing the same, by coming out as queer?
Because I thought for a long time that the only way to be queer is to be really clearly queer. As in, you have to know your identity from a young age (or at least be really conflicted about it from a young age). It’s in the story about the boy who came out at 12, or the woman who grew up in a culture that didn’t even have a word for ‘gay’ but who realised she liked other women nonetheless.
It’s in the phrase “I always knew I was different” – People whose sexuality and sense of attraction to others is so loud, so real to them, that they couldn’t reason it away, even when being this way might be taboo.
For me, however: If I’d grown up in a culture or time that didn’t have a concept of queerness, I am entirely sure that I would have lived to a ripe old age simply thinking that I ‘profoundly admire’ women. I would have dated men all my life, been curious about women and done nothing about it, and would only rarely have registered that I am missing anything.
Because so many other things in my life are hard and isolating that in comparison, being queer feels like a relief. There are queer Youtubers, there are Pride events, I have queer friends, there is lingo for everything. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether I’m just claiming the word ‘queer’ to get the benefit of community. I realise this might sound ridiculous to people whose queerness has left them feeling really isolated – and I am not minimising their experiences in the least.
But being non-monogamous, having undergone some difficult medical procedures as a child and bearing the scars of that (I’ll write about that at some stage), coming from an abusive and almost sectarian childhood, wondering about my mental health – all of those things have been very lonely for me.
In comparison, the LGBTQIA+ world seems like a heaven of compassion and belonging to me. Most of the queer people I know are amazing: they’ve thought about stuff more than most people have, they’re self-aware, they’re open. I get to have enlightening and challenging conversations with them. Many of them have experienced religious bigotry too. Some of them are even non-monogamous! Could it perhaps be that I’m just calling myself queer because I want to fit into the group? And, like, do I get to be something if it’s not difficult?
Because attraction is weird, if you start dissecting it, and I am the queen of dissecting my feelings to death. Here are some of the questions I’ve asked myself: Am I attracted to women in the same way that I am attracted to men? Is this feeling I’m having attraction, or is it just that I like the attention/enjoy the energy exchange of flirting/like the person as a friend? What does attraction even feel like? Am I getting a adequate amount of butterflies to qualify this as sexual attraction?
If I am attracted to women, why has it taken me so long to become aware of it?
I have long been unequivocally romantically and sexually attracted to men. I could dissect my attraction to them to death, and the conclusion would still be: I am, and have always been, attracted to men, even when I rather wish I weren’t. I had my first (very intense) crush at four, on a boy in kindergarten. I felt definite sexual feelings for boys since entering puberty. In comparison to this clarion call of attraction, my feelings for women felt for a long time like a mix of curiosity, admiration, and an almost queasy sense of being weirded-out.
Being interested in women felt…foreign. Wrong. Almost incestuous, as if admiring a body so similar to mine might somehow make me immoral, since it would bring me dangerously close to actually liking my own body – which in the Calvinistic world I grew up felt like a shameful thing.
(I want to write more about that point, actually: The difference between coming to terms with having sex, and coming to terms with feeling pleasure, because those have been two completely different journeys for me. But that’s for another post).
This last point mainly comes down to compulsory heterosexuality (or comphet, for short). And I intend to write more about that soon, so for now, let’s just define it: It’s the assumption that everybody is straight until proven otherwise. It’s growing up thinking that you’re straight because you didn’t even know there was an alternative. It’s being fed the story of “boy meets girl” since before you could talk, not even in a prescriptive way (“you should be straight”) but rather in a way that assumes this to be the only viable option.
Did I have girl crushes as a child? I think I did, yes. There was a woman in my parents’ prayer group whom I admired very deeply (this was when I was about five), and everybody thought it was just the cutest thing. I thought she was the most beautiful person in the universe. I wanted hair exactly like hers. I always wanted to sit next to her . She once gave me a pair of sunglasses which I lost a few months later, and I still remember the abject heartbreak when I realised I’d lost her gift.
I even ended up being a flower girl at her wedding, and I remember that small feeling of being left out because she had this whole other life now, this whole romance, of which I couldn’t be part.
And then later there was a primary school teacher, and later there was Angelina Jolie, and then many many others. “Admiring women’s beauty”, I called it when I became an adult. “I can’t stop looking at her, she’s just SO beautiful”, I’d say, thinking nothing of it. My ex-boyfriend and I would make lists of our celebrity crushes and I’d fawn over his choices (Olivia Wilde…), and for the longest time I just thought I was a really cool girlfriend. Instead of, you know, really bi.
So yeah – I’m still uncomfortable with the word queer. I’ve never dated a woman and that makes me feel scared – what if I realise I’d been wrong and then I have to backtrack, or what if I hurt someone because of my lack of self-knowledge? And also, if something this huge has been slipping past me unnoticed, what else am I missing about myself? Again and again I catch myself wondering what the implications are for my life: if society could so easily make me think I’m straight, how deeply have some other ideas sunk in, into dark corners from which they run my life without my knowledge?
I was listening to a song today while driving – Brandi Carlile’s “I belong to you” and suddenly I felt a wave of grief coming over me. Here are some of the words:
“I know I could be spending a little too much time with you But time and too much don’t belong together like we do If I had all my yesterdays I’d give ’em to you too I belong to you now I belong to you”
And I thought to myself: I don’t think I’m ever going to have that. And I want that.
And also: I’ve had that. And I didn’t want it.
Both things are true.
A while ago, on a Relationship Anarchy facebook group I’m on, someone mentioned the strange grief that comes from surrendering the idea of “the One”. I feel this grief at times more insistently than others, but it’s always there in the background. The dream of being known and seen and cherished is very hard to extricate from the dream of being part of a couple, a tight and exclusive and cosy couple.
I want to be somebody’s favourite person.
I want to feel radiant and beautiful as that person looks at me with awe. I want to know somebody’s body better than anybody else knows it. I want to be weird with someone and know that my weirdness is being held with compassion. I want to be someone’s top priority.
But experience tells me that I cannot have these things without their shadow side. And for me that shadow side is neatly encapsulated by almost everything on the ‘Relationship Escalator’, which Aggie Sez defines as “The default set of societal customs for the proper conduct of intimate relationships.”(She also wrote a really good book about it). Basically, some of the aspects of the Relationship Escalator include monogamy, sharing a living space, merging lives, public recognition as a couple. The normal trajectory relationships usually follow.
And while choosing the relationship escalator is a totally valid choice, for me its shadow side outweighs its advantages.
This is what happens for me when I’m in a long-term monogamous relationship: I look at my partner with equal parts love and exasperation. I chafe under the knowledge that the places we don’t fit will never fit. I grieve for the dreams I’m giving up as I meld my life with theirs. I grieve for the dreams they’re giving up to be with me. I feel guilty when I flirt with other people, and a little resentful over the guilt. I miss having my own space.
I worry about the future – a lot. What if I want to resign, sell all my belongings, and move to an intentional community, and they don’t? What if the way he holds onto his little routines start bugging the living hell out of me, and I can’t leave, because we’ve become too entwined? Wait, is that already the case? How do I love this person without losing so many of the things that bring me joy?
There are ways around these issues without abandoning monogamy, or without abandoning the relationship escalator entirely. Lots of people do it. They spend more time doing fun activities with their girlfriends because their partners don’t enjoy those things. They get permission to flirt with strangers, as long as it doesn’t go any further. They date long-distance.
That’s all valid. But somehow that’s not enough for me.
I want the breathless joy of exploring the beauty of other people’s souls without fearing that I might have to pull the brakes soon.
I want to live by myself entirely (for now at least; I am aware that this might change). I want to make spontaneous weird decisions, go on long road trips and have flings with strangers. I want to flirt with my friends. I want to get to spend entire days alone. I want to bring all of myself into every encounter without worrying that my partner might feel abandoned. I want to not have to explain myself and my choices all the time. I want to not have sex with only one person for the rest of my life.
If that means abandoning the idea of “the One”, then so be it. Because even as I was writing down some of the things I want, I knew I don’t really want them. I don’t really want to know somebody’s body better than anybody else does – when I find someone really beautiful, I want others to see that too. The idea of sharing friskiness and curiosity with others excites me; it even excites me to imagine others falling in love with my partners, when I pause for a moment and let the knee-jerk jealousy evaporate. I don’t want to be somebody’s top priority – the idea makes me nervous; instead, I’d like to be valued. I don’t want to be part of a tight, exclusive couple – there wouldn’t be enough air to breathe.
As for being someone’s favourite person – I am lots of people’s favourite person, even if they have, paradoxically, other favourite people too. And I have lots of favourite people too, people who fill my heart with gratitude and awe and curiosity. I am cherished by my family, by more than a handful of friends. I am known. I am loved. I will never be alone, even as I wander this earth feeling sometimes startlingly alone.
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” – Kahlil Gibran
Content warning: This post contains descriptions of sexual harassment and assault.
I wrote this post about two months ago, but then decided against posting because the time felt somehow off. Now it feels right. I do want to mention that most of the events recounted here happened in my early to mid- twenties, thus quite a few years ago. While some anger and shame remains, much has changed since then. I have especially grown in my ability to voice my non-consent, to dare being impolite; I have also healed significantly from my broken heritage.
One night about a month ago, as I was about to fall asleep, a memory came to me so vivid that I spent the next hour listening to the blood rushing through my skull as I lay trying to moderate my breath. I was reliving telling a trusted friend, a male friend, a personal story that I was very ashamed about. The story I was telling went like this:
When I was 23 I moved to a new town and took a new job. I knew no one in this town save my colleagues and a few friends of the guy I was sort-of seeing at that stage, Alexander (we were in a long-distance non-committal thing, Alexander was on the other side of the world but some of his friends lived close by). At that stage my job was only part-time. I didn’t have transport so my explorations were limited.
The days were sometimes startlingly lonely.
A friend of Alexander invited me to supper. His name was Chris, I’d met him a few weeks before and had quite liked him. It was also the first time since moving to this town that anyone had invited me to their house.
I was picturing myself becoming fast friends with him and his friends, within a few weeks being invited to wine tastings and rock concerts and evenings of philosophising in tiny bars.
Chris, large, affable, rather macho, was a surprisingly good cook. He stir-fried chicken and veggies together and we ate while watching Top Gear. Conversation flowed easily. He did drop some comments that were critical towards Alexander, implying that I was being duped, which confused me because I thought they were very close. But I sort of ignored that because I needed Chris to be a loyal friend to Alexander – otherwise visiting him alone might start feeling strange.
Somewhere during the second episode of Top Gear Chris put his arm around me. “Don’t worry,” he said when I reacted in surprise, “this is the way I am with all my friends, I just like cuddling. I’m a very tactile person.”
Looking back, a part of me knew right then what was going to happen. But another part of me believed him. I believed him because I tell the truth (when it feels safe to do so) and I assume that other people do as well. I believed him because he seemed nice, and he was a close friend of someone I trusted. And I believed him because he spoke about his many other female friends, friends I assumed felt safe with him. Also, I couldn’t imagine he would make a move on a close friend’s lover.
Being touched by another human was nice. Sitting on a couch watching a TV show with someone’s arm draped heavily over my shoulders felt comforting. But by the time Chris moved his head and started kissing me, I wasn’t surprised. Somewhere over the previous ten minutes I’d figured out he was probably going to do that. So when he leaned in I did the maths and everything fell into place:
If I hadn’t wanted this to happen, I should have left long ago. I should have taken his arm off my shoulder. I should have been really clear about my need for a non-sexual friendship instead of just vaguely mentioning my unavailability. I hadn’t meant to flirt but I could understand how it might have looked that way. I could not plausibly plead innocence.
“I’m on my period, so we can’t have sex,” I lied when Chris’s intent quickly became clear.
“Go down on me, then,” he whispered. I did so without thinking twice.
Was I scared? Did I think he might use force if I said ‘no’?
No. My thoughts never went far enough to even entertain the possibility of physical danger. At no stage did I truly feel physically threatened. But I never even considered saying no, although I didn’t want to sleep with him, I didn’t want to give him a blowjob, and I hadn’t even wanted to kiss him. A quick blowjob just seemed by far the most expedient way of getting the evening to be over. That pattern had been formed much earlier, when I was sixteen and drunk at a party: If I make out with a boy, his horniness is my responsibility. If I don’t want to have sex, the least I can do is help him finish. This is what I learned early, and I learned it well.
Back to the story: afterwards, Chris drove me home and I sat for a long time in my flat with all the lights turned on, chain smoking and playing Solitaire on my computer. I didn’t want to try to sleep yet because I knew I wouldn’t be able to. I felt ashamed and very, very alone.
To understand what happened next you need to understand my thinking: I never considered the fact that I might not be in the wrong here. I’d felt uncomfortable and exposed when Chris made a move on me, but I assumed that I had miscommunicated somehow. I had failed to accurately convey the fact that I was not interested in having sex with him, and thus what had happened felt like the logical conclusion of my error. To fix it, I thought I simply had to communicate more clearly.
(Communicating clearly was in itself a source of anxiety, because I had so rarely done it in this context. Even now, when I suspect someone is interested in me and the desire isn’t mutual, I agonise about how to convey this as nicely as possible. Sometimes I avoid parties just because I’m afraid I’m going to have to say “no” to someone there. I replay every time I do reject someone over and over in my mind, agonising over what I did wrong for them to have misread my signals. I know that I’m an engaged conversationalist. I know that I am friendly. Am I flirting? Do I secretly crave the attention? Am I asking for this?)
Anyway – the next day I communicated clearly, or so I thought. I sent him a message saying “So last night was interesting but given my situation I really don’t want it to happen again, I hope you understand. Let’s just be friends?”
I know. I know. I should have just said “I’m not interested in you” instead of going with “given my situation”. And I shouldn’t have suggested we be friends. I should have blocked him and stayed the hell away. But I didn’t. I did the best I knew how, while remaining excruciatingly polite, because impoliteness was terrifying to me.
“It’s all good, I totally get it. It won’t happen again,” replied Chris. Ah, relief. Everything would be fine now. A week or so later Chris contacted me again, suggesting another meal. I didn’t want to go to his house again, because then I wouldn’t be able to leave at will (remember no car), so I suggested he come to my house.
* * *
At this point in the story, the friend I was telling it to, who was driving, let out an exasperated sigh and interrupted me: “But Sage, why did you invite him over after that? Surely you should have known better by then.”
I remember with crystal clarity how those words hit me in the stomach. He was confirming what I was thinking too, even as I was starting to own this story and come to terms with what had happened. He was blaming me and I suspected I deserved the blame. I felt hot waves of shame washing over me, even as the anger flooded through me, even as I felt almost paralysed in my need to make myself understood. You deserved it, whispered an inner voice. You were naïve and stupid. Surely you knew better. Don’t go around asking for someone – especially for a man – to be on your side with this story.
“Stop the car,” I said, voice choked. “I need to get out.” Wordlessly he stopped. I stalked off into a field, face hot with tears. Eventually I sat down and sobbed with my head between my knees, feeling profoundly inadequate, alone, and ashamed. How do you explain your choices, how do you explain what was done to you, what you ALLOWED to be done to you, to someone who doesn’t understand where you came from? Who doesn’t understand how deep it runs, this need to be acceptable, to please, to preserve the peace at any cost? Who doesn’t know how hard it is for me to exist without apologising?
And who, even if he does grasp this, would not be able to hold the complexity of that reality in tandem with the equally true story of my strength and courage?
Because I AM strong, and courageous, and I take up space daily even though it’s still so hard for me to do.
How do I tell this story without seeming either pathetic or criminally stupid?
I didn’t, that’s how. I got back in the car. He apologised. I shakily accepted his apology and we had a pleasant evening together. I didn’t tell him the rest of my story because he hadn’t earned the right to it. And I never forgot that moment; without knowing it I withdrew parts of myself right then because I realised that they weren’t safe. I wasn’t known.
And months later I lay awake in the middle of the night, sweating, weeping because I still wanted the chance to tell him my story. I DO want to be known. I want to be told “Fuck, I get it now, what happened is not your fault, and I’m so sorry I was an arsehole who couldn’t imagine a reality apart from mine”. I want to not have to explain and justify myself. I just want to be seen.
So I’ll tell you the rest of the story instead, unknown reader, even though I might not be safe with you either; and I’m telling this because it needs to be told. Because this happens to many women. Because this happened to me and it’s a complicated tale and I am still processing my regret and my shame around this, but I know this now: IT WASN’T MY FAULT.
* * *
The day came, Chris came over. I had only one chair and a tiny table so he had to sit on the end of my bed, which I had pushed up against the table, while I made sure to sit far away on the chair. We had curry and lots of wine. We spoke about music and got super excited exchanging favourite songs, waxing lyrical about the bands we’d loved as teenagers, Green Day and Depeche Mode and Radiohead. I was having fun, relaxing. Then suddenly Chris got up. “I just need to do something, I’ve been wanting to do this all evening,” he said. And he walked over and kissed me.
I kissed him back. My brain scrambled for a coping strategy and the best it could come up with was: kiss him back and then, after a while, withdraw and make a joke, say something that’ll defuse the situation. So I did. I was totally fake and I still struggle with that: I told him he’s a good kisser (which he admittedly is, so, you know, I wasn’t lying exactly).
And then I said “but this can’t happen again, you know we spoke about that”.
At this stage I was painting myself as withdrawing regretfully, which was inaccurate because in reality every cell in my body wanted to get away – but I WAS still saying NO. I was saying no, even though I could have said it better. But Chris was having none of that. He came in for a kiss again and I moved my head away, said no a bit more strongly this time. I leaned back in my chair, casting about for something to do, and lit a cigarette. That would clearly occupy my mouth. That would be a clear no.
Chris stood over me as I smoked. “Sit down,” I laughed confusedly. I moved my head away, blowing out smoke in the opposite direction. He kept standing. Then he loosened his pants.
“Look at what you did to me,” he said, pulling off his underwear as well. This was getting weird. I smoked frantically, looking away, moving my chair back a bit, laughing in embarrassment. I kept insisting he sit down. He kept standing with his crotch at my face, for the entire seven minutes it took me to smoke that cigarette. I was shaking with shock as I smoked. Finally he took my hand and put it on his penis.
At which point I gave up. I just…gave up. I couldn’t realistically be on my period again. I had no idea how to defuse this situation short of kicking him out of my house, which he might have refused to do anyway. No amount of politeness and joking could make this stop. So I had sex with him instead.
And he thought I loved it. I remember opening my mouth wide into my pillow as we fucked, screaming silently in an agony of rage and confusion, even as he groaned triumphantly above me. I was doing this. I was doing this to myself. It felt as if I was betraying myself in the most profound way imaginable and the anguish settled like nausea in my stomach.
It’s still there. The nausea is still there.
After that we only ever met up in public places, but stuff still happened. He’d drop me off at home and ask to come inside – once I even let him. (It would be weird by now to say no all of a sudden, I reasoned.) After that I managed to find lifts with other people. He’d send me dick pics. He’d try to make out in bars. Gradually I managed to evade him more and more until we never met unless there were many other people present, and after a while even that felt impossible to me. The discordance was too great, I was too disgusted with both him and myself. My fear of impoliteness was overcome by my terrified need to never ever again have to see his face.
When #metoo happened Chris contacted me by text. He was nice, bashful, a bit penitent. He wanted to know if he’d ever made me feel uncomfortable, if he’d maybe been a bit pushy back then. He said he hoped I knew he never meant to make me feel pressured.
I didn’t reply. I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to do him the favour of explaining how awful those events had been for me. I didn’t have the energy to sift through the shame and the fear that it might have been my fault and come up with a coherent and accurate response; I didn’t feel like explaining something to him when I knew he’d act very surprised and try to scramble for excuses. His message didn’t fell genuine. It felt like the message a person sends when they really want to think of themselves as a good guy.
Chris was no longer living in my town by then so I thought I’d safely left it all behind. Then two years ago he came to visit local friends. He kept phoning me. I kept not answering. Then we ran into each other at a bar. Somehow, while our mutual friends were buying drinks or going to the loo, we found ourselves alone together for two minutes.
He confronted me immediately, still wanting to know whether he’d made me uncomfortable back then. I didn’t want to answer. I didn’t have an answer ready and it was neither the time nor place to confront him with my version of events. So I got vague and said: “Well, you WERE rather pushy.” He looked shamefaced for a few minutes. I fought down the reflexive urge to make him feel better. He kind-of apologised.
Then he asked if he could come visit me. And he commented on how good I was looking nowadays. I fled the bar soon after.
A year ago I finally wrote him an email. I did it because I thought: he might really not know. By then I’d met scores of other women with tales about him, women he’d harassed and pressured, women who were warning each other about him. Maybe he really doesn’t know, I imagined. Maybe no one ever bothered to tell him this isn’t how you do things. And maybe, by telling him, I can stop him doing it to someone else.
And it also felt like a cop-out, avoiding him indefinitely without explaining why. It didn’t feel brave. It didn’t feel like I was owning my stuff. A part of me felt bad for him – lumbering around, thinking of himself as a well-intentioned if rather horny guy, freaking women out everywhere he went.
So I wrote a clear, long email, detailing how I felt about what had happened, detailing every time he had overridden my ‘no’. I wanted to sound lucid and believable so I stuck to the facts, pointing out my non-consent, giving the timeline of events, not dwelling on my feelings overly much – I didn’t want him to be able to point at my email and go “wow this chick is crazy”. At the end of my email I asked him to never contact me again.
He promptly did, of course. “Thanks for your honesty,” he wrote in a text. “I’ll reply as soon as I get the chance to think about this.”
Had he not read my request not to be contacted? I considered sending him another text reiterating that I didn’t want to talk. But then I didn’t, because I’d already said my piece, I didn’t feel like repeating myself. If he did speak to me again, I decided, I’d simply block him.
While I was writing this piece (which took me a month), Chris finally sent me that promised response. It came in the form of a voice note over Whatsapp, just over a week ago. I stared at that voice note for the longest time. Despite myself, I felt bad for him – most likely his message would be mostly nice. He’d say something like “I had no idea, I’m so sorry.” And then he’d add “You never told me you didn’t like it. I thought you wanted it too…” He’d manage to apologise while placing the blame squarely back on me. He’d be confused in a good-hearted way. He’d find excuses. He’d paint himself as more sinned-against than sinner.
And I would get it, because for a long time I too had thought this had been my fault. I’d thought I was in the wrong; it would be no surprise if he did too.
But I wasn’t in the wrong. He was. And I will not, finally, ease his guilt. I will not be polite. I will not make him feel better by incriminating myself and saying: “sure, I should have said no more clearly, sorry about that.” I will not tell him he’s actually a good guy.
I will not offer him cheap redemption.
So I deleted his voicenote without listening to it, and sent him a message explaining that I am not interested in a conversation, that I had said so already, and that he should learn the meaning of consent. Then I blocked him, and felt sorry for him for a while. I had to keep reminding myself that even in contacting me he was again overriding my “no”, and that I was fully justified in blocking him. You don’t get to apologise, you don’t even get to go through a process of sincere restoration, if your victim isn’t on board. You can’t force your apology on someone.
It’s hard for me, not being nice. It’s hard, when it’s so easy to make someone feel better about themselves. Not placating people, not apologising when I’m harsh, not softening the blow does not come easily. Because I was taught that my value lies in my ability to accommodate and please, even as my sin lies in being a source of temptation in the first place. The accusation goes something like this: “You have sinned and are shameful because you’re an object of desire. It’s your fault men want you. But since you made them desire you, you had better make up for your sinfulness by giving them what they want, whether that be sexual gratification, to be admired, or to be absolved. Be pleasant, be nice, be accommodating, and we might forget your shamefulness.”
In a sense I was groomed to be harassed, objectified, violated. My entire childhood and society at large prepared me to be an object for men’s consumption.
I still wonder: was what happened at my flat that day assault? Is it assault if you end up saying ‘yes’, kind-of? Am I allowed to claim that, when millions of women have been raped, abused, overridden in brutal and obvious ways? But then I imagine someone else telling me this story, and I imagine my response. It would be clear, it would be instantaneous: “Yes. This was assault. This is not okay. Your anger is so valid.” So that’s what I am telling myself.
Part of coming to terms with this story, for me, is also admitting its complexity. I don’t want to make Chris an uncomplicated villain. It feels powerful to be able to stand and say: he was groomed too. He was groomed to be a predator by a society that allows men to be less than what they can be. He was raised in a hypermasculine context, in a community which sent the messages “be a good man” while objectifying women at every turn. He was raised to believe that women’s “no” means “maybe”, and that “maybe” means “yes”. He was raised to view his own sexual desires as uncontrollable, and therefore excusable.
But it still doesn’t make what he did right, not by a long shot. And I am living with the damage he did, him and the men who came before and after him.
It started with my dad, who didn’t sexually abuse me but vilified women, considering them to be empty and unintelligent subordinates. My dad would force us to hold his hand in public. He’d force me to stand still while he’d pop a zit on my face when I was a teenager. He’d tell me I belonged to him, my body belonged to him until he found a suitable man to hand me over to.
And then there were the boys in high school, who thought I was hot but judged me for making out with them. The boys in bars who said “fuck you, slut” when I refused to give them my number after they’d bought me a drink. The men who called me a cock tease. The guy who told me he’d lost respect for me because I’d slept with him on the second date.
The friend who came over with DVDs and takeaways, and ended up relentlessly begging me to sleep with him until the early hours of the morning, arguing “but I find you irresistible!” as I hid in the bathroom. The other friend who came over for wine and chats and ended up pushing me into a corner, forcing a kiss on me until I bit his tongue. The man who sent me a voicenote detailing his sex dream about me, after I’d told him I wasn’t interested in a relationship.
There was another event, once, in my mid-twenties: a male friend came over for tea. We’d been involved before but things had petered out; now as we sat down, he moved in for a kiss. I drew back, said “no”, and then in the awkward silence that followed I added “I’m so sorry, I’m just not in that space”. And the friend looked at me with confusion on his face. “Why are you saying sorry?” he said. “You’re allowed to say no.”
I cried myself to sleep that night. No one had ever told me before that it’s okay to say no.