I watched a drama on TV and felt unwelcome body memories fire as an older man placed a necklace around the neck of a young girl. I remembered once hearing that it takes seven years for cells to replace themselves. That made me feel good. Is my body no longer tainted by your touch? If so why does my skin still crawl? Why do certain things make me shrink and curl up small inside my head? Why do I feel you still, if you’re no longer here? I want to shake you off, but the memory of you clings with grim determination.
Are we ever truly free?
Diary entry 2020
This week a man put his hand on my upper arm as he welcomed me to an event – and my body memories fired instantly. My brain was on immediate high alert – it shrieked at me, this internal alarm system, as it always does when a man steps into my space unexpectedly. Step back! was the warning I ignored. I leaned towards him because he cupped his hand around his ear, indicating he couldn’t hear what I was saying. I stepped closer, repeated my question and his hand moved to my back as he directed me to my seat. I don’t want to give the impression that this was traumatic but it was uncomfortable. I didn’t want to feel his hand on my body. I didn’t want him to feel my breath as I spoke close enough for him to hear. It was too familiar. Too intimate. It was also an everyday interaction, lasting no more than a few seconds but the memory lingers a few days later.
I’m not always averse to touch and something like this wouldn’t always bother me. I’m happy to give male friends a hug because I know and trust them. I’m also not accusing this man of anything untoward, I’m accusing myself. I am annoyed for not allowing myself permission to say: please could you not touch me? These are the words I wish I’d said, because on this occasion I was unsettled. Maybe this isn’t an uncommon scenario, maybe it’s a female thing rather than a survivor thing, women bound by social nicety; by the pressure to be polite; governed by the moment that passes too quickly; by our own rationalising – he doesn’t mean any harm.
Consent wasn’t a thing when I was growing up. As children, my generation were expected to kiss their Uncle John or Great Aunt Margaret, regardless of our instincts recoiling in horror. We put up with the whiskered leathery faces, the smelly breath kisses, the squeeze of the shoulder, because we were told to. The alternative was unthinkable. Don’t be so rude. He’s come all this way…do as you’re told. It was just the way things were.
As a teenager, I responded with a coy smile to cheer up love! floating down from an unnoticed observer – a builder on a roof. I giggled nervously when catcalled as I walked on the street, despite my heart pounding, adrenaline surging and my internal alarm system shrieking unsafe! Unsafe!
I wish I’d stepped back, but I didn’t. My body felt frozen. I smiled as I endured his touch because I am conditioned still, at the age of forty-five to not make a fuss, to not listen to my bodily instincts. I am primed to let a man cross the invisible boundary into my personal space – even when my brain is alight with warning and my instincts choked with smoke.
I’m disappointed in myself.