For years, the idea of my body stopped at just that: an idea. It was a distant, separate thing I had no control over, something for the whims of others or occasional somatic exercises in fun, a sentient thing which got me from A to B but in which I took no pride or pleasure.
Then the pandemic came, the invisible contagious disease that was terrifying and brutal and not discriminatory at all. Suddenly I, along with many others on the planet, was forced to reckon with my body, to come to terms with how I had used and misused it for decades.
Back in the pre-COVID times, I racked up one-night stands and dalliances with a feverish energy, wanting to notch up experience after experience, hungry for different types of men and windows into other worlds. I realised during lockdown, and the celibacy my teenage bedroom imposed upon me, that what I had been experiencing sexually wasn’t good sex or even an attempt to chase my own pleasure. It had been an escape from having to face myself.
Alone at night, surrounded by relics from my childhood, I was forced to reflect on my dating history and found that looking back, each date or night with someone had felt like an opportunity to perform, to be the person I wanted to be: cocky, self-assured, not depressed or anxious, only charming and silly and fun.
Inevitably, the performative aspect bled into the sex. It always felt like there was a block between my body and the other. Nights would end in me either being too drunk and fumbling to remember, or waiting for it to be over, feeling I had started something I wasn’t allowed to not finish.
Of course the sex stories had been fun to tell to my best friends in my flat the next morning, their eyes all moony and grins wide. “You are so wild!” they would say, and that part felt like the best part, in lieu of pleasure.
But during lockdown, the regret over years of not moving my body with autonomy, of hiding behind my big old brain, summoned me with a violence. I felt an urgency, I needed to do things now. Who knew when the next lockdown would be? Who knew when the next pandemic would strike? Who knew if I'd get too sick to be able to use my body again?
And so after trying a few months of UK lockdown, I arrived in Sweden, the land of blue-eyed boys and midnight sun. I was, as Anaïs Nin once wrote, “determined to have an experience when it comes my way”.
I had moved to Stockholm almost on a whim. Having dreamed about it for years, feeling a pull towards Ingmar Bergman, crystal clear lakes and a calm and quiet country where people didn’t wolf-whistle at you on the street, I had decided (once securing a job) that I needed to stop waiting for the perfect day to be who I wanted to be, which was someone whose body was more than something she just lugged around.
In the post-lockdown world in Sweden, along came the Danish man, who I had met, as one meets older Danish men in a neighbouring Scandinavian country, on Tinder. He taught me about BDSM and took me to sex parties. When I stopped performing for male approval, I barely cared (nor can I remember) what the Danish man said. But I remember it all felt good, role playing and not escaping from my body by being drunk, embracing awkward feelings, tuning into the pleasure, lost to my mind, adhering only to my body. I didn’t feel ashamed or anxious before, during or afterwards, and this newfound feeling was addictive. I felt a new awareness, one in which my body felt open to potential, not at the mercy of others. Its purpose was to make myself feel good, whether it was threesomes or swimming in Sweden's freezing cold lakes.
When I think of my past self, I feel a melancholic yearning for her, an urge to protect her. Speaking to friends, I found a commonality among many (not all!) of us: that we had been using sex as a way to feel desirable, as a fun and crazy anecdote, as anything except pleasure. Well, not anymore.
I wish I could go back to my younger self and encourage her to use her body more, to swim more, to feel grass and sand on unwashed skin and hair, to run and sweat and jump, not to care about wobbling during sex or being vocal, not to sleep with someone because you feel you have to. I would tell her to prize her pleasure above all.
The biggest romance of the post-lockdown summer didn’t come from a beautiful blonde man saving me from myself, or someone seductively coming to make up for months trapped in my teenage bedroom. It was in how I repaired the broken relationship between my body and myself and for that, I'll always be grateful.