I caught myself doing that thing again the other day.
It’s a habit born of insecurity, in a time that should have been full of growth but instead turned me into a bit of a bonsai. Safely small, just in case. Pocket sized me.
I have trouble looking people in the eye, or more particularly I have trouble looking men in the eye. Despite a lot of my insecurities growing up, the male/female thing never really was an issue. I never really felt the need to act any differently around guys versus girls, I was just me. Unfortunately it appears that this isn’t as common as it should be, and it lead to a couple of awkward situations and unpleasant events.
The thing is, when I connect with someone over a common interest I tend to get quite passionate. I will become intense, I will get excitable, and I will also often become playful. That all sounds harmless enough, but it can be misinterpreted. The irony of this is that I am not particularly interested in getting male attention (or any attention for that matter…). I never have been, regardless of if I was in a relationship or not. In high school I heard rumours of me being a lesbian because I wasn’t into any guys at school… but seriously, if you’d endured the bullying I had and met any of the guys I went to school with you’d probably understand. Anyway, it wasn’t until after school that this issue came up.
When I was 20 my boyfriend and I broke up. We’d been together almost three years, it wasn’t a great relationship and left me with a lot of scars for a long time. Things were pretty intense for me that year and I slipped even further into a pretty deep depression. On top of the break up I was working part time, studying full time, trying to not be a burden on my parents, and living amongst their issues. I was so stressed that I even got my first grey hair after the break up! On top of my regular anxiety and depression, I began suffering disassociation, hearing voices, and other disturbing symptoms. It was really bad, so I decided, reluctantly, to go seek help. I went to a medical centre in the city that I’d been frequenting because it was bulk-billed (music to a student’s ears!).
This was only my second time ever broaching the mental illness side of things. The first time I was a teenager and my doctor told me we’d talk about it another time because I had such a bad fever that all he cared about was sending me back home to bed (ok fair enough, I’d somehow managed to walk to the doctor with a temperature of 39 degree celcius). Anyway, the point is I was still very new at opening up about this. He sent me outside to fill out the DASS questionnaire, which I later learned is meant to be done in the safety of the doctor’s office. I went back in and handed him the sheet, and I was quickly diagnosed with depression and anxiety. He gave me a referral to a psychologist, who was also bulk-billed, and I figured it was worth giving it a shot. I don’t recall any conversation around medication, though I do know at that point I was against it so I may have just declined. Like I said, I was a bit of a mess so I don’t really remember it all too clearly. I was out of my depth, feeling quite alone, but grateful for my sister waiting in the lobby. She’d had great success with her therapist so I figured what did I have to lose.
At first things with my therapist were great. He was really friendly, it was all bulk-billed so I was able to attend all my sessions without financial concern, and my confidence was building. About halfway through my experience things started to change ever so slightly. I kept dismissing it as him just being really kind and really friendly. You know, things you want your psychologist to be. Then it became glaringly obvious that things were taking a turn. It started with comments about how I should be going out partying with my friends, having fun, meeting guys. Yeah, my psychologist kept telling me I should meet men and “have fun”. He said I needed human touch. That I should be hugged more. He told me that I had intense eyes. He told me that he was surprised that I was still single. You know, even though I had just come out of what I now understand to be an abusive relationship.
In my last session with this so-called-professional the subject of Medicare came up. It was my 10th, and therefore last subsidised session. My stomach lurches as I write this, but it is the crux of the story and so I must. Surrounded by photos of his family this psychologist put his hand on my leg, looked me in the eye and suggested we could work something out in regard to future payment. He suggested I call him to meet up for coffee sometime. I assure you, it was hardly an innocent suggestion. My body filled with white hot fear and I mumbled my way out of that office, never looking back. For the longest time I kept it to myself. I was terrified because he had all of my details; my phone number, my address, he knew my habits and the areas I frequented. I was too scared to report it, and besides who would believe me?
Who would believe me? The song of women, men, and children all over the world. What if it was my fault? Did I do that thing, where I get carried away and my eye contact and passion is misconstrued? Perhaps it was my fault… I must have done that thing. To be safe, I avoided the area his office was located in for a very long time. I suffered physical symptoms whenever I went near for years following the event, so it was very apparent to me when I was finally over it because I could walk by and simply state “that’s the street where the creep’s office was”
Another byproduct of this event was how I communicated with people, particularly men. At first I didn’t really notice it as I didn’t have many close male relationships. They were always “friends of friends” for the most part, and at this point in my life I was studying fashion surrounded by women, and the majority of my colleagues at work were also women. I’d experienced a few issues with work due to cultural differences but those had been mostly taken care of. It was when I was in more intimate settings that I became withdrawn and cautious.
A few months after the incident I reconnected with an old friend; a guy who I had been quite close with and who I’d previously been able to talk to on a level like no one else. We’d fallen out of touch due to life and relationships, as often happens at that age. I’ll never forget that day we caught up along with a few other mutual friends. That thing I now did was glaringly obvious in this setting; I could not look him in the eye. I was sheepish and cautious and I would not dare to let him look me in the eye for fear of what might happen. In my heart I was so happy to reconnect, but I was also so scared that I would cause another bad thing to happen. Privately he pointed out that something was different, that I seemed almost shy to see him. I couldn’t tell you how I explained it away, but he always was quite sensitive to me so I imagine that he took whatever I told him and worked out that something must have happened. It took months of our rekindling friendship before I could look him in the eye, and this is someone with whom I already had a close groundwork with.
It wasn’t just with him though. At this time I met a few new guys either through friends or social media, and it was always the same; I had difficulty looking at them in the eye and I was constantly convinced there was an agenda. This wasn’t out of ego, because as I said earlier I was never one of those people who wanted attention nor did I have the confidence to assume that I was desired. No, I feared drawing attention to myself, particularly male attention. I ended up in a relationship that summer, however ultimately my aloofness drew it to a close fairly quickly. I wasn’t too upset because I hadn’t even let him in on that deeper level yet. I was so guarded and so determined to not let myself be completely reliant on anyone due to the past relationship and the incident with the psychologist.
There was a third individual at this time, a friend of a friend. I’m not sure if the mutual friend was trying to pair us up or something, but we certainly developed a good friendship… as long as she was there. I was actually terrified of being left alone with him, and one day she orchestrated exactly that. The three of us were hanging out in a park just across from where she used to live. It was one of our old hangouts and we were going through a phase of revisiting all our old haunts. At some point she had to take off, and said she would be back, leaving us alone. Instantly my head dropped and my eyes averted contact. I did not want to mislead him. I was enjoying his company, sure, but I did not want to invite any intimacy in. I can’t actually remember if my friend did come back or not, but I do remember that while the friendship between the guy and I did flourish, I was so caught up in my fear that I became quite awkward. I was mostly only comfortable if it was the three of us. I knew that if she was there he couldn’t try anything. I didn’t know if he wanted to try anything, but a girl can never be too safe, right? Eventually I had enough confidence to spend time with him alone, but even so I was still cautious. I was scared and confused, but I desperately wanted friendship.
For a long time after that first incident I was only ever comfortable with men if I either already knew them, or had a mutual connection of another friend. I would slip between being defiantly confident, and terribly nervous that something bad was going to happen. I’d just straight up shut down if I thought something I didn’t want to happen was imminent. My previous relationship had told me that I had no control, and this incident had shown me that if I was open and vibrant people would take it the wrong way, so I dulled myself down. I shut myself off and only spent time with people I already knew. For years I struggled with looking people in the eye, because you see it was all my fault. I had been too bold, too bright, too friendly. My recovery was going too well. So rather than growing past the mental struggles that I had, I went backwards. I sunk deeper and deeper and became fearful of human connection… one of the most vital aspects of recovering from mental illness.
Let that sink in. A psychologist’s actions caused me to withdraw further from the world than when I went in to that office. Before I went in I was hearing voices. I was disconnected from my body. I was drinking like there was no tomorrow. I was secretive. I was isolated. So I went to therapy, and ended up even further wounded.
I’m not a man hater. I’ve had plenty of hurts inflicted by women too. But the thing is, the majority of my wounds have been inflicted by men. After that summer I was single for three years. I didn’t even date. Eventually I met my now husband, and he could tell pretty quickly that he needed to treat me delicately at first. I think he was as nervous as I was to be honest. And I did that thing with him; looking him in the eye took time, but he never drew attention to it. After a while I stopped doing it, but I was still nervous being alone with men. Frequently I had male bosses, and often I’d find colleagues who I really got along with. The thing is, it was always easy for me to get along with the people who I only spoke to over the phone. I had a knack for forming relationships with the people who others struggled with.
Fast forward quite a few years, and quite a bit of therapy later, and it started happening again. Attention was drawn to my friendliness. I was communicating more directly with people who I’d managed to avoid having to be one on one with previously, and I was nervous. I didn’t want to be in intimate meetings, but I found myself having to be and it scared me. My eyes began dropping down again. I didn’t know who I could trust, save a few. I caught myself slipping again. I realised I didn’t know if the relationships I’d formed were appropriate or not, so I figured as long as I did not communicate with them outside of work it was safe. Slowly, I began to find a balance again. I found ways of not allowing myself to be in situations that could confuse things. At my core I knew that there was nothing wrong with how I was engaging with people, but after so many circumstances I found it difficult to trust the other person, and the bystanders. Why is it so bad to share a joke with a guy? Is it because the bystander feels left out? Is that really all it comes down to?
At any rate, over the past three years I’ve managed to once again slowly wean myself out of this behaviour. That is, until recently. I caught myself having an intimate conversation, sharing something passionately to a group of people and dropping my eyes when it came to the men in the room. I could easily look the women in the eye, but not the men. There it was again; waiting patiently, that thing I do. Not because I don’t trust myself, but because I don’t trust what people will think and what people will do. Forever avoiding situations and circumstances that could cause people to gossip behind my back, or lead people to think differently about my intentions. I’m actually really tired of always thinking about “what will they think”. I’m forever considering others, and then I think of myself. At what point does one stop taking responsibility for everyone else’s actions, and realise that as long as what you do is right it is up to the others to also do what is right.
In some ways that thing I do causes me to live a half life. A protected, safe, barren of new friendships life. A fearful life. A life based on history, rather than presence and future. Although I have made so much progress, these little hang-ups cling to me like weights sewn into my clothes. I can’t just shake them off. I have to thoughtfully stop and unpick them. They won’t leave by will, only by action, and that kind of scares me. What if I remove all of these little weights and I float away? I could be easier to capture because I am lighter!
I think of the great-hearted 16 year old girl I once was, who was full of trust and vibrance, and I think of how I can get at least some of her essence back into my life. I can never be that girl again, because 14 years have passed and a world of circumstances have occurred, but I think if I can work at it I can get a bit of that care-free vibrance back. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll be less inclined to do that thing I do.