This is a post that has been a long time coming. Seven years in fact. Well, roughly seven years and one week. As of about a week ago, give or take a couple of days, I have been "officially single" for seven years. Seven years and I haven't even brought a cake or downed a cider to mark it yet.
What's more, this is not the first seven year stretch of singledom I have achieved in my life. I managed to remain single from 18-25 as well. It's actually fair to say that I do singledom exceptionally well, because both stretches tended to include a period of growth and personal achievement; this stretch even more so than the last one. And I've added some kickarse travel in there for good measure. Yet there have also been a number of challenges. And that's why I am writing this post.
My mother often expresses to me nowadays that she worries I get lonely. She's not the only one; friends have also expressed this to me. So much about what society believes makes one a successful adult seems to revolve around being in a relationship. People truly do seem to believe that if you don't have a settled relationship, you are going to be unhappy, unfulfilled and you risk growing old alone with no one to take care of you. Yet my standard response when hit with this is that I never felt more alone than when I was in my last full time relationship. I felt completely isolated at times, and while this was a symptom of something much more concerning which I will cover in a bit, it has been a very rare occasion since I have felt even remotely like that in the past seven years. I know so many people, particularly women (though definitely some men too) who can relate to this sentiment.
It took me nearly seven years to write about what I had actually left back then. When I started this blog, while I had definitely rebuilt and my life was on a great path, I still was not at a place where I could write about that topic. I alluded to it though several times. First was when I wrote about an ectopic pregnancy in this post which eventually got turned into a book chapter in Mothers and Others. Quite soon after this, I wrote a post about body shame and weight loss in which I included this line as another hint: "I was re-imagining my life as a single person and learning how to focus on myself for the first time in years, this was an outlet for me and gaining some affirmation at that time propelled me forward in other ways". There are many more hints contained within the pages of this blog. Yet the reality is, it took me until this year; until I was dangerously close to feeling like nothing again despite so much rebuilding; until I was also writing and speaking a lot on violence against women; that I actually stated plainly, both in writing and speech, that I had left a DV scenario, and that it wasn't the first time I had done so.
As years go by, I may even discuss this more. But it took for me to feel like I was hitting a downward spiral again to write it, and the act of writing it meant that I didn't have to own it any more. There was release in naming it. It stopped consuming me. I admit also that for me, it felt contradictory to be speaking out about violence against women in a political sense when I wasn't in a personal sense. The personal is political, as feminists in earlier years stated so often. The fact that society continually expects women to not speak out, to hold it all together, to simply continue carrying on as if nothing happened is a huge part of the problem.
We are always expected to shoulder our trauma. Indeed, this was rammed home to me only on Saturday when bystanders of an Intimate Partner Violence incident in Rye seemed concerned about the male perpetrator's mental well-being. They did not express the same concern for the mental well-being of his ex-partner and her co-worker who had been held hostage for several hours. They weren't concerned that she might have left him with good reason, only that he had been damaged by the split. His trauma was real and his actions socially understandable, her trauma was invisible or unimportant. Her responsibility was towards him and his healing. Like I also said in my keynote address with regards to Samson and Delilah.
We can't keep doing this. Men do suffer in this society. Their rates of mental health issues, self-harm and suicide are testament to this. Which is why I feel it would be of great benefit to men if we were to actually stop expecting women to simply carry on and started looking at the harms we perpetuate in society by normalising this erasure. The trope of the "brooding male" gets fetishised in films endlessly, and always there's a woman who comes along to draw him out of his broodiness. Yet what in society has made him this way? What has she been through in her life of gendered disparity and why is this not important to the story? These are two halves of the same dilemma and one cannot be answered without the other being acknowledged.
But back to this "seven years" business. Have I actually craved a relationship in that time? To be honest, I have mainly avoided them willingly and perhaps I have built up more than a few walls over the years. My sense of self-preservation is undoubtedly strong. Only once did I feel those walls shifting slightly, but this was misplaced and clearly not valued or recognised. Though this was hard particularly added to the revisiting of trauma and the writing I was doing at the time, I did start to look at how I could swim rather than sink and I got there in the end.
Feeling like I'm worthless is never a place I want to be again. There's also nothing more confusing than achieving greater recognition and a growing profile while still grappling with these experiences of nothingness. As if imposter syndrome was not enough of an issue already!
Yet despite this apparently horrific singledom, I have had relationships of incredible worth. A huge part of my healing came from immense platonic love and trust demonstrated by wonderful people. Having trust shown in me, particularly after a long period of being treated with unfounded and illogical mistrust as a default, helped me redevelop trust for others. I have a fantastic and vibrant circle of friends - women and men. There have been many late nights, many long discussions, many ruminations and the like which I have valued so much. There had to be some rebuilding of friendships which suffered as unfortunately seems to be common during such isolating situations, but I am glad to have been given another chance. And no, not that it's anyone's business, but I have been no nun in that time either, and that in itself has been a healing experience. In short, if singledom is supposed to equate to loneliness, I am clearly going about it all wrong.
In addition, while I spend a lot of time by myself, it's a healthy solitude, not an enforced one by means of control. It's productive, it's downtime, it's travel, it's whatever the hell I make it. I have seen some incredibly healthy relationships at work in my time, so I am not denying that these exist. The fact though, that we continue to believe people, particularly women, are not complete unless they are in them is wrong. Why can't we value women on their own merit and not constantly in relation to what they mean to everyone else? The issue is not with women proudly walking alone in the world, it's with the world continually telling them that it is not their place to do so and their destiny is to care for others.
So who knows what the next seven years will bring? I couldn't have predicted the last seven, but I know it has been a hell of a journey and it has brought with it a comfort in my own skin that I certainly did not have before. And that in itself is worth a cake and a gigantic pint of cider, don't you think?